Toni Collette: A Rose by Any Other Name
Toni Collette lights up a room. Even after a two-hour photo shoot, she is vibrant and glowing, her shining blue eyes complemented by a stunning green and blue splattered party dress. A true chameleon, Collette has tackled a diverse array of roles throughout her remarkable career, creating a distinctly new persona with each character, thus keeping her own persona somewhat of a mystery.
Born November 1, 1972, in Sydney, Australia, the eldest of three children, Collette has established a thriving career for herself in both Australia and the United States. Over the last 15 years, she has appeared in close to 30 films. She was merely 16 when she dropped out of high school to pursue acting and barely 18 when she snagged her first film role in Spotswood with Anthony Hopkins and Russell Crowe. Collette enrolled at Australia’s prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), but she never graduated. She was too busy working. Her second feature film, Muriel’s Wedding, was a surprise breakout hit that took the 21-year-old from obscurity to celebrity, with her lovably self-loathing and marriageobsessed Muriel making an indelible impression on audiences around the world. Collette’s subsequent role choices, however, prevented the young actress from being typecast.
Passionate and thoughtful, the now 32- year-old Collette is refreshingly unaffected, as she explains in her warm Australian lilt: “I hate the idea of being categorized, of people just assuming they know what you are. After Muriel’s Wedding I was sent scripts that basically would be repeat performances of that character. I made the conscious decision at that time to hold out- even though I didn’t know what I was holding out for, and I had no real faith that I would keep working. As an actor, you are incredibly insecure. It’s only in the last couple of years that I have felt like this is not going to go away. But I wanted to make sure that I kept exploring and playing different characters.”
And explore she has. Playing an array of colorful characters, Collette’s proved her range: from Harriet, the sympathetically obsequious companion of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma, in the film adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel, to Mandy Slade, the glittering ex-wife of ’70s glam rock star Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine. An Academy Award nomination for her role as Lynn Sear, the bewildered mother of Haley Joel Osment’s haunted young Cole in The Sixth Sense and a Tony nomination for her role as Queenie in the Broadway production of “The Wild Party,” represent critical recognition of her diverse talent. Collette’s recent roles include Fiona, the suicidal hippie, in About a Boy; the childless, prattling Kitty Barlowe in The Hours. This month we can see her as Rose, the repressed, lovelorn sister of party girl Maggie (Cameron Diaz) in Curtis Hanson’s In Her Shoes.
Based on the best-selling novel by Jennifer Weiner, In Her Shoes tells the story of Rose and Maggie, sisters who seem to have only one thing in common: their shoe size. Rose is a successful lawyer, steadily climbing the corporate ladder; uptight and rather compulsive (especially with her designer shoe collection), she is a woman struggling to relax her boundaries and find love. But Rose is saddled with Maggie, her perky, irresponsible, hard-partying sister. When Maggie commits a major indiscretion, it is the final straw; Rose kicks her out. The two sisters part ways, enabling each to blossom before their inevitable reuniting. From the director of L.A. Confidential and 8 Mile, In Her Shoes tackles the complexities of relationships, in particular the impenetrable bond between siblings.
An established actress with a budding career as a singer and producer, Toni Collette still refuses to be categorized. Douglas McGrath, who directed her in Emma, described her beautifully, saying, “There is a shot at the beginning of Blue Velvet of this bright, crystal-blue sky and a piercing white fence and these luminous red roses. That’s what Toni is like. She’s like that red rose. She stands out in almost everything she does.” Venice recently caught up with this rose among thorns to find out what it’s like to be in her shoes.
Venice: What was the attraction to In Her Shoes, in particular to your character, Rose?
Toni Collette: I think the very fact that all of the characters actually go through so much transformation. To make a change in general is a very difficult thing to do, and it’s something that they wouldn’t necessarily choose to do, but they’re forced into a separation. For Rose, we essentially watch her blossom. Her whole life she has been catering to everybody else, and she finally realizes that she needs to take time to take care of herself and her own life. It was a beautifully written script about a reality that I’m familiar with rather than alienated by.
What do you mean?
I think a lot of films have nothing to do with how human beings live. I personally think that every kind of art is really a reflection of us, in our many facets. I think a lot of films make people feel small because they’re not really represented or they can’t emotionally engage with them. And these characters are so real, and the story is so very emotional, but it’s told in a subtle way. I think it’s very special and beautiful.
What can you tell us about Curtis Hanson?
He’s the best director I’ve ever worked with. In fact, if I had to choose one director to work with for the rest of my life, it would be Curtis Hanson. He is an incredible listener, and it felt like a very inclusive, shared journey. There was no hierarchy. I think that the more you put into anything in life, the bigger the reward is, and I just feel like, as that story had depth, the experience had depth as well. Curtis is incredibly perceptive, knowledgeable, and aware of how human beings interact and live; he’s incredibly wise, but he still maintains a kind of youthful wonder that a lot of people lose as they get older. He’s like 61 years old. Towards the end of the film we had a party on the beach in Florida and everyone’s dancing and Curtis is just standing at the edge of the shore staring out at the ocean and at the sky; I just wonder what goes on in his head sometimes. [laughs]
And how would you describe working with Cameron Diaz and Shirley MacLaine?
Fantastic. I could have been really intimidated by both of them, but they are both incredibly grounded and down to earth. Shirley is strong, smart, forthright, and opinionated- a huge inspiration for a young woman. Her work is so honest. And Cameron, we just clicked. I don’t think you could have forced the sisterly bond between Maggie and Rose. Cameron has such a huge, open heart. And she’s a lot of fun. She finds it easy to make light of any situation.
Could you relate to the relationship between Rose and Maggie? Do you have siblings?
I have two brothers, but I don’t think it’s gender specific. I think that they are not just female issues, but they are human issues. Everyone comes from a family. Most people have siblings, and those relationships are the most intense and joyous and confronting relationships you’ll ever have. Maggie and Rose have known each other their whole lives; they know each other inside-out and that’s why they can push each other’s buttons and drive each other insane. Can’t live with you, can’t live without you sort of thing. Your relationship with your family members shape who you are; they help you figure out how you are going to navigate your way through the world. You are completely influenced by them. And I think that because Rose and Maggie lost their mother when they were eight and six years old, respectively, they developed a huge codependency, which at the beginning of the film is kind of at the end of its tether. It’s gotten to a really unhealthy point. And 42 venice october 2005 Rose has taken on the parental role, so she has never had her own life really. Imagine being someone else’s mom from the age of eight.
You left high school at 16 to pursue your acting career. Evidently you were passionate about acting.
I was in a musical at school when I was 14, and I think that up until that point I hadn’t really found a way of really expressing myself; it was like a relief and a release at the same time. A teacher at school encouraged me to audition for a musical with the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP), a state acting school for youths. I ended up getting the lead in the bicentennial production. I just knew what I wanted to do. Once you discover what you want to do, everything else goes away. [laughs] Retrospectively, I can’t believe I made that decision. But in the same way I wouldn’t be the same person or have had the same education, which has pretty much been hands on.
Well, it seems like it worked out very well for you.
I’m not complaining. [laughs]
You’ve proven yourself to be a very versatile actor. Is there anything in particular that draws you to your roles?
There’s no one thing I’m looking for. It’s usually just a gut reaction. A very clear gut reaction, like, “Yes, I must do this,” or “No, I will never do that.” There’s no in-between; it’s very black and white. Not that it has to be something immediately- it just has to have some kind of truth to it, for me.
What is your favorite role or film?
I’ve got a few. I think they’re just the ones that I’ve had the most fun on and came away from with friends, which is pretty rare. But Muriel’s Wedding, The Sixth Sense, Velvet Goldmine, and this one.
Do you feel that you are like your characters, or are they very different from who you are?
Maybe a bit of both. I think that the characters wouldn’t end up being who they are if they weren’t interpreted by me; they’d be completely different through someone else’s eyes. So I think they have to be a part of me. But having said that, it’s only a part. It’s not like I’m ever playing myself because that would be boring; I live as myself. Acting is an opportunity to be someone else.
Is that what appeals to you about acting?
I don’t know anymore. I think initially it was finding a way to release emotions that didn’t have an outlet. But my relationship with acting changed, and now it’s not so necessary. Now I choose it because I enjoy it. Instead of its choosing me. [laughs]
Tell us about your upcoming films Like Minds, Little Miss Sunshine, and The Night Listener.
Like Minds is an Australian film. Eddie Redmayne, who I think is such a brilliant young English actor, and Tom Sturridge play these boys at a private school who share a dorm room. They can’t stand each other, but they somehow penetrate each other and form this kind of gestalt relationship that brings out the absolute psychopath in each other. [laughs] Some murders are committed, and I play a forensic psychologist who is called in to try to figure out who did what. Then I shot The Night Listener in New York, which is based on an Armistead Maupin book. Robin Williams plays the lead, a radio show host. Little Miss Sunshine was shot here in L.A. with Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, and a couple of kids that you wouldn’t really know. It was such a beautiful group of people. It is funny and moving. It’s about this family who go on a road trip together and kind of fall in love with each other again after living in their own worlds.
Little Miss Sunshine also involves a beauty pageant, correct?
Yeah, the road trip is to get her there. She’s this overweight little fish out of water. Once they get there, at the end, in that kind of world you realize how different she is and how we all want to protect her from being completely exposed. It’s not really about beauty pageants. A theme in my films, I think, is recognizing inner beauty rather than just an external aesthetic. And I think Little Miss Sunshine is about that as well.
Speaking of appearances, is it true that you had to put on 40 pounds for Muriel’s Wedding and that you recently put on 30 pounds for In Her Shoes? How has this weight gain and loss affected you?
When I did Muriel’s Wedding I was 20, so it was easy. I promised I would never do it again because I don’t think it’s entirely healthy, but for this role and for this story I pretty much would have done anything. For Curtis Hanson, I would do anything. And I think it’s really important because it represents and physicalizes the way Rose feels about herself and how that changes. She starts out heavier and then loses a bit of weight. I think it represents the burden that she carries. It’s important that at the beginning of the film you see how different the two sisters are. Initially we think they are polar opposites, but the more you get to know them, you realize that they are on the same journey and they both have the same insecurities; they just present themselves in different ways. These are not uncommon themes for films, but many of your films seem to involve the search for or dissolution of love and marriage: Emma, Muriel’s Wedding, Dinner with Friends, even In Her Shoes. Is this a subject that speaks to you personally, or more of a coincidence? I don’t know. I think it’s less about relationships and more about the loss of love. We’re always letting go, we’re always changing, and, ultimately, we’re going to die. I’m a Scorpio, so I think about that a lot. Maybe that’s another thing that attracts me to certain roles. I do think it’s less about one-on-one relationships, but I do have a great, not fear anymore – I’m trying to allow myself to fall in love with the mystery of life, rather than wanting to know everything. And death is the ultimate mystery. Just having to let go, it’s hard. I think In Her Shoes is definitely about letting go in many different ways. Because when people love, they want to latch, and I think the healthiest type of love is when you can let go.
You recently married an Australian musician, Dave Galafassi. Do you plan to work on any projects together?
I actually recorded an album in January that’s coming out next year. So he’s part of my band. [laughs] He’s my drummer. It was great because my band all have their day jobs as well, and it was just a new experience for all of us, which was really exciting, and something that I had control over instead of being moved around like a… I won’t go into it. [laughs]
How would you describe your music?
It’s slightly pop-y. It’s kind of alternative rock/pop/melodic. There are a few ballads in there. I find it hard to describe music. It’s not like I’m ever playing myself because that would be boring; I live as myself. Acting is an opportunity to be someone else. october 2005 venice 43 The album is called Beautiful Awkward Pictures. There are eleven songs that I wrote on it, and we’re called Toni Collette and the Finish.
Did you plan to pursue a music career before meeting your husband? You do often sing in your films.
Even if it’s meant to be bad. [laughs] The oldest song on the album was written in 1995.
Do you play an instrument?
No. I’d like to. I’d like to play the banjo. I think it has a sense of humor, that instrument. When I’m writing, I try to fiddle around on a keyboard, but I really don’t play anything. I write the melody, structure, and lyrics of the song, and then, I guess in a directorial manner, explain the feeling that I want and give as much information to my band as possible. And then once I start working with them it gets really exciting because obviously they all have ideas as well.
From crooning “Killing Me Softly” in About a Boy to belting ABBA songs in Muriel’s Wedding- not to mention your Tony-nominated role in the Broadway musical, “The Wild Party”- singing seems to be an integral part of your career.
I did a lot of musicals when I was younger, I do love singing. I discovered that I could sing when I was a teenager, but I kind of got sick of singing other people’s songs, as great as they may be.
Are you now going to pursue both acting and singing?
Yes, I think there’s room in life for that.
You have a production company, Figurehead Films, in Australia. Are you currently working on any projects that you want to produce?
Yes, we’ve got two. An adaptation of an Australian novel called Isabel the Navigator about a girl’s life, starting when she’s like three years old. It’s about not becoming your parents and navigating through pain and pressure and staying buoyant in your life; it’s about learning how to wade through the sea of life. The other script that is on its way is Razor. It’s about a period of Sydney’s history in the late teens and early 1920s when these two women, these rival gang leaders, ruled Sydney. The film is called Razor because at that time guns were not allowed and they actually carried razors, for shaving, and they would just slice each other on the street. It’s really fascinating and full of colorful characters, and I just really like it because it’s women in typically male roles.