Why Toni is worth her weight in gold
Toni Collette comes in all sizes: dumpy for Muriel’s Wedding, skinny for Velvet Goldmine. For her latest, she gained 27lb. But she has bigger plans in mind, she tells Christopher Goodwin
There is something I have to ask Toni Collette right off the bat: “What is the deal with women and shoes?” It provokes the first of many raucous laughs from the easy-going 33-year-old Australian actress.
Collette’s latest film, In Her Shoes, based on the bestselling novel by Jennifer Weiner, may ostensibly be a bittersweet comedy about the relationship between two very different sisters, played by Collette and Cameron Diaz. Collette is Rose, the ugly duckling, an overweight, workaholic lawyer who seems to have abandoned any hope of a relationship. Diaz plays her beautiful, unemployable, reckless younger sister, Maggie, whose low self-esteem is only briefly mitigated by her serial sexual conquests. All that the two sisters seem to have in common is their love of shoes and their shoe size.
Yet the film, directed by Curtis Hanson, is also the most unembarrassed exploration of the inexplicable (to a man) fetishism that women have for shoes since Sex and the City went off the air. The first scene features Maggie’s pretty feet in an expensive pair of black patent-leather pumps with 4in heels. Somewhere, way above the shoes, at the top of her endless legs, Maggie is seducing another brief conquest in a restaurant loo. The shoes, of course, are not hers: she has “borrowed” them from Rose’s shoe-cupboard shrine. It is not long before shoes come to evoke the increasingly fractured relationship between the co-dependent sisters.
“I don’t quite understand it myself,” Collette admits. “I have a lot of shoes, yet I live in my trainers, mostly, so I don’t know what the possession means. But it is exciting to go into my wardrobe and look at them. I understand the thrill, sadly. They are the perfect accessory. And Rose’s feet will never put on weight, so it is something she can have a constant love affair with, really.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I met Collette, even physically. From her breakthrough role as the overweight, Abba-loving Muriel Heslop in 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding and a string of pitch-perfect performances – as the lovesick Harriet Smith, in Emma; as rock wife Mandy Slade in Velvet Goldmine; and as a traumatised mother in The Sixth Sense, which won her an Oscar nomination as best supporting actress – to the suicidal muesli mum in About a Boy and the tragic Kitty Barlowe in The Hours, Collette seems to subsume herself within her characters more than any leading modern actress. She has built a remarkable career on roles that are often decidedly unglamorous, yet always eye-catching and compellingly real.
To play Rose, she agreed to put on a substantial amount of weight, which she has now lost. She looks svelte and more innately glamorous, sitting in a Beverly Hills hotel room, than she ever seems to on film.
“Was I reluctant to do it?” she asks, as I start to formulate what must be an obvious question. “Yup. I just didn’t want to do that again, but I did it because I love this film and I love the story and I love Rose as a character. And her low self-esteem and lack of interest in herself are expressed in the way she looks. That look and the way she feels change during the movie, so it was incredibly pertinent to her journey.
“Curtis Hanson asked me to put on 45lb, which is what I put on for Muriel’s Wedding, and I said, ‘Man, that was 10 years ago. I don’t think I can do it now.’ But I just went for it. I found out just before Christmas, which was the perfect time to indulge. It ended up being 27lb, which is still a lot. It takes a long time for your body to get back to normal, and it’s not something I’m eager to do again.”
Then I ask what also turns out to be a rather obvious question: “How do you put on weight?” “Don’t exercise and eat all the wrong things,” Collette fires back. “That’s it. And when you want to lose it, you exercise, and you eat better. It’s so clear and simple – and hard work.”
One of the reasons Collette wasn’t keen to fatten herself up again was that her yo-yoing weight had previously put a serious toll on her physical and mental health. She also had to deal with the break-up of her relationship with her Velvet Goldmine co-star, Jonathan Rhys Meyers. She became bulimic and started suffering severe panic attacks, which sometimes left her feeling she was going to die. She had also bought a flat in Brixton, London. “I just hated it,” she says. “I had many fantastic, ecstatic, formative years in London, with many great friends, and I love it and miss it. But I can’t stand the weather. It kills me. And living in that flat … it was wintry, it was cold, the people upstairs were burgled while they were at home, which is my biggest nightmare. I remember walking out of my flat one day and this guy was being beaten with a pole.
That was the breaking point. I thought, I can’t live here.
“I slowed right down and went home to Australia, built a nest, then my husband walked through the door. I think if I hadn’t slowed down, I wouldn’t have let him into my life. Since that time, things have slowly morphed into a life I can appreciate more.”
Her husband is Dave Galafassi, once the drummer with the Australian band Gelbison. Married in January 2003, they have a house in Sydney, not too far from her family, and a farm a couple of hours south of Sydney, on the coast. They also have a recording studio there, and Collette surprisingly discloses that the project dearest to her heart is not a new film, but a rock album she has recorded with her band (which includes her husband), called Toni Collette and the Finish. She and the band will be touring internationally to support the album, Beautiful Awkward Pictures, when it is released early next year.
“I know you hear about actors wanting to be rock stars, and it sounds like a nightmare,” she says, “but I’ve been singing since I was little. It’s been a long time coming, and I don’t apologise.” She has written all of the 11 songs on the album. “With acting, you’re always part of someone else’s dream, someone else’s game,” she adds. “This is all mine. I have complete control, so it’s much more personal because of that, and much more satisfying. It’s just another way of expressing myself.”
Not that she is going to stop acting. Collette says that the way she keeps it interesting for herself is by taking on parts that are somehow different from what she has done. “At first, I kept being sent roles about overweight girls getting married. I made a conscious decision then that I didn’t want to do the same thing, and I have avoided being pigeonholed. I think I’m pretty lucky in that respect.” And so are we.