Toni Collette, Lovely When Necessary but Vulnerable Always
Beauty is a funny thing in Hollywood. And it has played an odd role in the life of Toni Collette, an actress who at 33 has created a catalog of characters memorable for the emotions they evoke rather than for how they appear.
With wide-set blue eyes, blond hair and even features, Ms. Collette often embraces characters who are pathetic, insecure or otherwise unattractive. Yet she invests each of them with an appealing vulnerability. Most famously, in the 1994 hit “Muriel’s Wedding,” she donned a shiny white pantsuit – after putting on 40 pounds – to belt out Abba’s “Waterloo.” In “About a Boy” in 2002 she chopped off her hair and was found in her own bile after a suicide attempt but survived to redeem herself. This summer she will appear in a comedy, “Little Miss Sunshine” (to be released on July 28), and a thriller, “The Night Listener” (Aug. 4), neither of which involved much time in the hair-and-makeup tent.
“I’m not depending on my looks, it’s a known feature of mine now,” she explained recently while sitting at a table at the Chateau Marmont here. She had shoved her strawberry blond hair under a brown tweed cap and had a pot of chamomile tea before her, untouched. Her pale skin had not a spot of makeup, since she had forgotten her cosmetics bag in Sydney, Australia, where she lives, and she was feeling under the weather.
“I find it strange that actors are on the covers of magazines,” Ms. Collette said. “When I watch a movie, someone’s beauty isn’t what engages me, it’s what’s going on internally. And I imagine it’s what the audience thinks, too.”
And yet Ms. Collette is quite lovely on-screen if she wants to be. When, having gained 27 pounds, she played Cameron Diaz’s brainy, supposedly unsexy sister in last year’s “In Her Shoes,” the critic Stephanie Zacharek scoffed. “The character of Rose is an unabashedly lousy fit for an intuitive, dazzling actress like Collette,” she wrote on the Salon Web site. “In several scenes Collette is forced to wear her hair scraped back in a severely unflattering do. Yet as hard as the movie tries to make Collette look plain, it can’t diminish how stunningly distinctive her features are, or how beautiful her skin is.”
But the actress’s own choices betray a certain sense of self. Ms. Collette is the first one to say so. “The way a character looks reflects what’s on the inside,” she said. “I can make myself look really bad, and I can make myself look kind of gorgeous. It’s not about me, it’s about the character.”
Which leads to a question: does Toni Collette consider herself not-beautiful? “Honestly, yes,” she responded. In a way, it’s a problem. “I wouldn’t play glamour for glamour,” she allowed, feeling more comfortable – if she must go there – sending it up as a vampy Hollywood starlet in “The Last Shot” or as a glam-rocker wife who ends up a disheveled mess in “Velvet Goldmine.”
Too often, she said, she seems to gravitate to roles involving women who suffer from a lack of self-esteem. “I know,” she continued, as if making up her mind on the spot, “I can’t do it anymore. I’ve got to stop doing it. If I keep perpetuating that image of myself – that of a downtrodden person – that’s the only roles I’ll get. And I’m getting tired of playing those roles.” She added: “I don’t want to perpetuate certain ideas of me and the feelings that brings up in me.”
But her body of work has earned her widespread respect within Hollywood, where she is considered among the most talented of her generation. “I’ve never seen her be bad,” said Valerie Faris, who with her husband, Jonathan Dayton, directed “Little Miss Sunshine,” an ensemble comedy in which Ms. Collette plays a mom. “Sometimes she’s been in films that I’ve liked, some more than others, but she is always interesting. She has a depth on-screen. Her face is so open and readable.”
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” she plays Sheryl, the careworn mother of a quirky family that goes on the road to a children’s beauty pageant. As in so many of her other roles, Ms. Collette takes what might be a fairly uninteresting part – the normal linchpin in a family of misfits – and makes her funny and believable. In numerous scenes she aims her rage at her overachieving husband (Greg Kinnear), or her exasperation at her suicidal brother (Steve Carell), without saying anything at all.
Mr. Kinnear, who also played Ms. Collette’s husband in the HBO drama “Dinner With Friends,” recalled watching her emote with a frozen treat. “There’s this great moment where we’re talking about what to do with Grandpa, and she throws down some Popsicle sticks and is sucking on a Popsicle,” he said. “She’s chewing, it’s cold, she’s attacking this thing. She’s screaming with a Popsicle, without a sound coming out. She is so gifted at that; she’s emitting all this dialogue all the time without saying anything.”
In many ways, her personal arc has reflected her acting journey. Ms. Collette’s father drove a truck, her mother was a customer service representative in the suburbs of Sydney. “To a certain extent I come from a family that does find it difficult to communicate,” she said. Performing was a release.
At 16 she left school and enrolled in Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Arts, leaving the program after a year and a half to take a debut role in “Spotswood,” which starred Anthony Hopkins as an efficiency expert in a moccasin factory. She went straight on to local television and theater roles before landing the part of Muriel in the acclaimed film directed by P. J. Hogan, in which she played a sad, overweight Australian girl in search of a groom.
The role propelled her career forward and won her a best actress award from the Australian Film Institute.
But after “Muriel” she was offered nothing but sad-sack roles. “And I said no,” she said. “It was risky at the time because I didn’t yet know if I would have a career.” Instead. she took a smattering of small parts in independent-style movies like “Cosi” and “Emma” and “The Pallbearer.”
And parts of Muriel lived in her. She struggled for many years with bulimia and its attendant insecurities. At 24 she suddenly found herself in the hospital after a severe panic attack apparently brought on by the eating disorder. “I thought I was dying,” she said. She stopped purging instantly and, she insists, immediately changed her outlook on life. “It was an essential wake-up call,” she said. “I can’t believe I went through that. I feel like it’s a totally different life.”
But it wasn’t necessarily smooth sailing after that. She began a relationship with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, the intense Irish actor who played her husband, the glam-rocker Brian Slade, in the 1998 film “Velvet Goldmine.” Later, in an online biography on www.tiscali.co.uk, she described the yearlong relationship as hedonistic, drunken and “probably dangerous.”
Traveling constantly for work, lacking a partner and a place to call home, Ms. Collette won an Oscar nomination for her role in “The Sixth Sense” as Haley Joel Osment’s desperate mother, but nonetheless found herself miserable toward the end of the 1990’s. And it was reflected in the work. She turned 28 during the production of “Dinner With Friends,” in which she played a woman fiercely tearing her marriage to shreds. It was a bad time.
“My head was splitting open – what was I doing with my life? – I was always away from home, I felt displaced,” she said. She recalled going to dinner with P. J. Hogan and pouring her heart out. ” ‘This makes perfect sense,’ ” she recalled Mr. Hogan saying. ” ‘You feel like you’re living a life you don’t want to live anymore.’ ”
She was. Immediately afterward she bought a house in Sydney, got a dog, took time off. In 2003 she met and married Dave Galafassi, then a drummer with the Australian rock band Gelbison. She now claims to be centered, stable, content. Ready to start a family.
In the meantime, the work beckons. She’s currently shooting an indie film, “The Dead Girl,” in which she plays a woman caring for her invalid mother, who finds a corpse. Then she’s headed to Thailand for an HBO series about the 2004 tsunami called “The Aftermath.” She plays a Christian missionary.
Once again, she won’t be the star. “I’m 33, I’ve got time on my side,” she said with a maturity that seems earned. What’s changed in her? “A sense of responsibility for my life,” she said. “Growing up. Looking things in the eye rather than running away from them.”
Two days later, she sent an e-mail message with a follow-up response. “I’ve thought about it,” she wrote. “And the answer is very simple. I don’t feel lost anymore.”