Sizing up the Getty’s treasures with Toni Collette by Ariel Swartley.
Toni Collette has just gotten her first glimpse of the Getty Museum’s garden and already has itchy feet. “I’ve got to walk on that grass,” the Australian actress says, admiring a swath of lawn as tight napped as a wall-to-wall. “This is the thing that blows my mind over here,” she continues, her accent making every vowel a twangy diphthong. “Plants – and people – re so manicured.” Collette’s own blond bangs, on the other hand, are stylishly overgrown. Having just arrived from her home in Sydney – where August is a winter month – she is eager for a day in the sun. Indeed, she’s dressed for a hipster’s garden party in a full skirt and a fitted denim jacket and looks askance at the fog creeping in from the west. “Do you think it’s going to rain?” she wonders. Ten years of working visits to L.A. – the most recent a four-month sojourn in Greta Garbo’s old house in the Hollywood Hills while filming In Her Shoes opposite Cameron Diaz – and she still doesn’t understand our climate. Collette’s almost fragile prettiness comes as a surprise against the obdurate features and – to be blunt – sheer bulk of so many of her movie characters. Muriel Heslop, the stout, determined fantasist of Muriets Wedding (1994), Fiona, the adamantly earnest hippie mom of About a Boy (2002), and Sandy Edwards, the mannish workaholic of Japanese Story (2004), all have a softer side, which Collette makes us see in spite of the defiant eyes and thrust-out chin. In films she acts vulnerable rather than looks it; in person it’s more the opposite – waiflike blondness offset by a whooping laugh. We start down the ramp toward the grass, but she stops to ad-mire the Getty’s signature Italian stone. She’s in L.A., she explains, to loop dialogue for In Her Shoes, in which she and Diaz play sisters at each other’s throats. (Guess who plays the fat one?)
Then Collette and her husband of a year and a half, musician Dave Galafassi, will travel on to Italy. “I’m having a holiday,” she squeals, almost giddy at the thought. She eyes the travertine more closely: “That’s either a fossil or somebody’s chewing gum.” Now—the lawn. Collette, a confirmed beach dweller, kicks off her flip-flops and strides across the green. She finally has a glamorous role—as a movie actress—in the soon-to-be-released The Last Shot. But Emily French’s dreams of stardom are due to be dashed when she learns that the film Matthew Broderick’s character thinks he is directing is actually an FBI-financed sting operation targeting mobsters in Rhode Island. She prefers characters “with some salt to them” – roles she has been more suc-cessful finding at home than abroad. She has been speaking out publicly against the recent Australia United States Free Trade Agreement, which will forcibly limit, she says, the number of locally produced pro-grams allowed to be shown on Australian TV as well as replace one form of foreign domination (British), now finally shaken off, with another (ours). “I think there’s a danger of losing the Australian voice,” she says. “I don’t know if I can really describe it, because I actu-ally see it in images.” She hesitates, searching for words. “It’s just got to do with heat and the beach and the bush and…and freckles.” Maybe it’s the talk of cultural imperi-alism, but it suddenly seems the right mo-ment to go study some European masters.
Our first stop, 17th-century French and German furniture, appears overly ornate. “The most interesting thing to me right now is that wallpaper,” Collette admits. Emerald green and flocked, it’s like a tamed bit of jungle smuggled into the drawing room. Soon a consequence of our chosen route appears. Having just come from textures – petal, blade, leaf – we were free to explore, it’s hard to keep our hands off all this velvet and veneer. “Go on,” Collette says, pointing to a luscious bit of tapestry “I demand that you touch it.” She’s dangerous company. We decamp to the second floor, where paintings offer less temptation. “I love looking at family portraits,” the actress declared earlier, but these dark Dutch interiors are daunting. Only one painting draws her: Head of a Woman by Michael Sweerts. Although that face was painted 350 years ago, its mix of pride and poverty is strikingly contemporary. “Look,” Collette points out, “her eyes are watering.” On a landing outside the gallery, the ac-tress melts into a convenient armchair. “I’m hypermobile,” she says and demonstrates, holding out a hand so limp it seems never to have housed a bone. Such elasticity is clearly an important part of her acting skill. So, too, is the noticeable effort it takes to rouse her floppy muscles and drive them into place. Right, we think, watching Muriel challenge her dad or Fiona confront Hugh Grant—that’s what deter-mination looks like. Muriel was a breakthrough role, but it also established her willingness to play plump. (In Her Shoes required her to put on nearly 3o pounds.) That rapid weight gain and loss is beginning to take a toll on her liver. She just completed a month-long detox, although, she explains happily, it was tailored to her lifestyle: Her naturopath allowed her three glasses of wine a week. The goal, now that she’s 31, is “living with moderation” – and no more fat parts. Outside, the fog has swallowed the summer afternoon. From the landing window the museum’s plaza looks as in-substantial as a dream. Collette’s hus-band is somewhere out there, though, and she sets off to find hint “I’ll just follow my nose,” she says jauntily. The same tactic has worked well in her career.