Toni Collette is grinning again after a decade of haunted, hunted and downright dowdy characters. She tells Marion Hume why getting older makes her feel beautiful and why she’s eager for an “open-ended life”.
“I make a great drag queen!” Toni Collette protests when asked if it was a stretch to portray a girl playing a boy playing a girl in the upcoming Connie And Carla. It’s true. Collette looks terrific in three sets of false eyelashes and a big wig. And who knew her voice was so good – besides the lucky few who caught her on Broadway in 2000’s The Wild Party or who remember her in Godspell at Blacktown Girls High?
In the all-singing, all-dancing movie, Collette plays Carla to Nia “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” Vardalos’s Connie – a pair of small-town girls with big dreams and a double act that takes them to the top only when they pretend they are not really girls at all. While Vardalos, a far less complex actor than her co-star, never moves beyond looking like a girl in too much greasepaint, Collette embraces her inner drag queen so entirely that you start looking for stubble.
Connie And Carla (which opens on August 5) is expected to do OK in Australia, although it didn’t fly in the US, which Collette describes as “the land of the free but with issues”. For local audiences more comfortable with camp, the best news is the return of the winning, wonky smile we haven’t seen much of since Muriel Heslop lip-synched to ABBA while wobbling in a shiny white catsuit. A decade on, the svelte star gets to shimmy in a red sequinned gown while belting out a medley of show tunes.
But in the decade since Muriel from Porpoise Spit made an international star of a 21-year-old from Sydney’s western suburbs, there have been precious few on-screen laughs for Toni Collette. Even when she was cast opposite Hugh Grant in About A Boy, she was a muesli-eating hippie who was thinking of killing herself. As for her first big romantic lead, in last year’s Japanese Story, she spent a chunk of screen time trying to drag her lover’s corpse into the back of a four-wheel drive.
Preparing to meet the actor by sitting down to a Toni-video-fest takes some time, given that she’s made 27 films. In them, she is utterly convincingly at being dowdy, druggy, depressed, haunted, hunted, deluded, bereaved, washed up and pushed down. In performances that have won her four AFI awards and an Academy Award nomination – for her portrayal of a down-at-heel divorcee with a spooky son in The Sixth Sense – she reveals an astonishing lack of vanity, the capacity to portray a fractured heart with the smallest of gestures and the ability to project enormous depths of emotional hurt. What she doesn’t get to do very often is have a ball.
Today, she’s all smiles, though our chat is jemmied between two photo sessions. There are rumours the 31-year-old actor is edgy during interviews and likes posing for fashion pictures even less but today, she’s relaxed, open and radiant. Almost everyone who has interviewed Toni Collette comments that she’s much prettier in person than on screen – and she is. But the perception that she somehow is Muriel Heslop – that the actress and the character she approached with such commitment are one and the same – still lingers. “It’s only recently starting to lift,” she says. “It’s stuck around for a good 10 years.”
Now, things have come full circle. Today Collette, who forks through a chicken and salad lunch, is at the tail end of a rigorous diet. To play Muriel, she famously gained 18 kilograms in seven weeks and also exacerbated an eating disorder, which she won’t detail and which she insists pre-dated Muriel’s Wedding. She’s bored of talking about that. “It was a long time ago.” But the evidence of how confident she is feeling in herself and her work is that she recently put on, and lost, masses of weight once more – 20 kilograms this time – to play Rose, the uptight lawyer sister to Cameron Diaz’s party-going dazzler in In Her Shoes, which will be out next year.
Already dubbed “In Her Underwear” after an on-set pants thief targeted Diaz’s smalls, the movie adaptation of the best-selling novel by Jennifer Weiner is generating a strong buzz. “The experience was fantastic. It’s one of the better roles I’ve been given in a long time,” Collette says now, calling director Curtis Hanson, who made LA Confidential and Eminem’s 8 Mile, “a genius”. But when he first told her the amount of weight he wanted her to gain, she was tempted to tell him where to go.
“My relationship with food is fine now. I wouldn’t screw myself up again,” she insists, having survived the process without triggering old demons. “I got to eat Krispy Kremes [doughnuts] and chocolate shakes and burgers with fries and everything that is bad for you and then I had to lose the weight during the movie because that’s what happens to my character, so it was very disciplined and very regimented.”
Her weight-loss diet consisted of four small no-carb meals a day – the first at 7am, the last at 4pm – and she doesn’t seem to mind talking about it because things have changed in Movie Land since Muriel’s Wedding. Nowadays, so many actresses shift shape that there should be a separate Oscar for packing on the kilos, whereas the first time Collette did it, she was alone. “I wish I’d talked about this shit long ago,” she laughs. “I’d have a few more trophies on my shelf!”
Those she does have are stored in a rubber tub. “Mum and Dad had them all on the piano in their living room in the house I grew up in but they’re moving soon, which is great for them and weirdly, sadly nostalgic for me.” Mum is Judy Collett, who worked for a courier firm, while her dad, Bob, was a truck driver. Toni added back the extra “e” in Collette, which her grandfather had removed, because she decided, at age 14, that it sounded better as a stage name. Then she chose to leave school at 16 because she didn’t believe it was helping her career.
By 17, she was enrolled at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). Fellow student Susan Prior, who describes Collette as “a very spiritual person with both an old soul and an open nature”, concedes that there was a time when her friend’s international career seemed too much for the friendship. “I thought I should release her. But she got angry and said, ‘I need my good friends much more now and I would be pissed off if you retracted yourself’ and that was beautiful. Since then it’s been sister-like – we’ve been very relaxed about each other.”
In any case, Prior, now an actor and writer, says it was always clear that Collette would be the breakout star. While still at NIDA, Collette appeared in Spotswood with Anthony Hopkins and Russell Crowe. She dropped out of NIDA because Neil Armfield offered her the part of Sonya in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya with the Sydney Theatre Company. “I think we’re still all stunned,” Collette says now when asked where this drive and ambition came from. “My dad sings in the shower and my brother plays bass guitar. We’re not a quiet family, put it that way. But that’s about it.”
Collette now has three houses – four if you count the stone gatehouse in Ireland that she bought in a moment of “pure romanticism” and is now trying to sell. Today, her homes are a newly purchased $5 million Spanish-style mansion in Sydney’s Bellevue Hill, a beach pad in Tamarama (which at press time she was preparing to put on the market) and the rural retreat two hours south of the city, where, in January last year, she wed drummer Dave Galafassi in a Buddhist ceremony that lasted an entire weekend. “It was such a high,” Collette says, still beaming at the memory, “not just for the bride and groom; everyone was high on love.”
Actors usually become more guarded about their private lives the more often they are asked about them but here’s Collette, leaning forward, hugging her glass of peppermint tea with both hands and grinning from ear to ear. “When something so wonderful happens to you, you want to share it,” she says, describing the husband she met at a barbecue in 2002 as “a very balanced, patient, beautiful, beautiful young man and very unusual in that he just takes everything in his stride.”
The next day, Toni and Dave are taking off around Australia. She’s told her agent to hold back on sending any scripts and Galafassi, 26, has recently parted company with the Sydney indie band Gelbison. (He’s hoping to produce and do his own projects, says Collette.) “This is the first chunk of time where there’s an open-ended life to be had and we’re putting the swags in the back of the car and we’re just going on a bit of a road trip, getting back to it all.”
What Collette won’t be packing is any angst about what her next job will be. After Connie And Carla, she’ll be seen in The Last Shot, a crime-comedy with Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick and Calista Flockhart, due out at the end of the year, followed by In Her Shoes. Then nothing. And she doesn’t care. “I have a rich backlog,” she says, “because it’s not about standing next to a guy and looking good.”
Not being a traditional beauty has become her advantage. “I kind of like it that no one really knows what I look like,” she says. “I like that
I have more of a neutral base and people aren’t so judgmental when they’re thinking of me for a part [because] there’s no one definite image of what I am.” Hollywood, and the circus that surrounds it, places heavy demands on women on screen and off but Collette says she feels fine. “The older I’m getting, the more relaxed I feel about being on the planet and I think that makes you beautiful, when you’re at ease with your life. There’s an energy people pick up on. I’m coming into a time when I can play prettier characters and perhaps bring some depth to them.”
Those who have traded on their looks had better look out then. Collette’s career looks likely to ramp up yet another notch. She’ll be 32 in November (and that’s a real 32) and just by giving out her date of birth – November 1, 1972 – she sets herself apart from many actresses who linger longer between birthdays than the rest of us. Plus, she’s already played older. She was 27 when her portrayal of a mother struggling with the emotional and physical stress of her son’s paranormal powers attracted the attention of the Hollywood Academy. As for being nominated for an Oscar for The Sixth Sense: “It’s a fun night out and it really doesn’t hurt your career.”
Nicole Kidman won an Academy Award for her role in The Hours whereas Toni Collette was only on the set for a few days but still managed to almost steal the show. She’s in just one scene as Kitty, the 50s housewife desperately trying not to be crushed by her childlessness, yet she managed to be memorable while bookended by Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore. “I’m so glad I did that movie,” says Collette,
who squeezed it in before making About A Boy, for which she was nominated for a British BAFTA. “It was such a well-written scene and so succinct and such a pure thing and it got so much attention.
I love the film, I love it so much.”
But the truth about an acting career is that sometimes you love the films no one else does. Collette lists Velvet Goldmine, in which she got to wear fab glam-rock gear, among her all-time favourites but it’s doubtful many moviegoers would agree. Still, her strike rate is high. She’s only had one real turkey, which she took because “I needed a job. It was that simple.” She admits now she thought Diana & Me – in which she portrays Diana Spencer of Wollongong who travels to England, joins forces with a paparazzo and even drives the car as they pursue their prey – would never be released. “There are things I’ve done which I honestly wish I hadn’t done,” she says, “but this is my job and I needed the cash.”
Just before she and Dave head off for their road trip, she sends an email via her publicist. She’s been thinking more about Hollywood’s obsession with beauty. “I want my work to be the important thing,” she writes. “Our culture is obsessed with a ridiculous notion of perfect beauty and if I subscribe to that, not only will it turn me into a dickhead but it will create a life … of living in a bubble.”
“She’s stayed normal,” insists her old friend Susan Prior. “We spend huge tracts of time just yabbering on or going to a bookshop or the markets or whatever and she’s open and trusting.” A lot of things have changed for Collette, says Prior, “but she still goes with her gut and she deserves to be treated well. And why wouldn’t she be?
She’s the ant’s pants.”