Interview with Toni Collette
Toni Collette is an accomplished Academy Award and Tony Award nominated actress, born and raised in Australia, who genuinely appreciates her success and the variety of amazing roles she’s landed since she began acting in the early 1990s. She continues to make an indelible impression on Hollywood and has made it clear she doesn’t like repeating herself. She gained instant recognition for her portrayal of the hopeless but inspirational Muriel Heslop in P.J. Hogan’s 1994 dark comedy, “Muriel’s Wedding,” for which she won an Australian Academy Award, her first of four. She has gone on to become one of the most respected actresses of her generation, starring in a wide variety of roles that reveal her amazing ability to transform into the characters she plays.
Collette was most recently seen in the critically acclaimed 20th Century Fox film “In Her Shoes” with Cameron Diaz and Shirley MacLaine, directed by Curtis Hanson and based on the best-selling novel by Jennifer Weiner. She just completed the independent film “Dead Girl” with Giovanni Ribisi and the thriller “Like Minds” directed by Gregory J. Read, and she is currently shooting “Tsunami” for HBO Films in Thailand. In 2004 Collette starred in the comedies “Connie & Carla” opposite Nia Vardalos and “The Last Shot” with Matthew Broderick and Alec Baldwin. In 2003 she received some of the best reviews of her career for “Japanese Story,” for which she garnered extraordinary critical acclaim and her fourth Australian Academy Award. Her other recent films include “About A Boy,” the hit box office adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel, the critically acclaimed “The Hours,” opposite Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore, and the remake of “Shaft” opposite Samuel L. Jackson. Collette also earned an Academy Award nomination for her mesmerizing performance as the fiercely protective mother of a boy with paranormal powers in M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller “The Sixth Sense.”
Collette’s latest roles continue to reflect her penchant for exploring as diverse a range of characters as possible. Most recently, she played the besieged housewife Sheryl in the offbeat family road comedy and Sundance Film Festival hit “Little Miss Sunshine” with Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin and Paul Dano, and the enigmatic Donna Logand in the suspense-filled mystery “The Night Listener” also starring Robin Williams, Sandra Oh, Bobby Cannavale, and Rory Culkin. The two roles could not be farther apart.
Movies Online recently sat down with Toni Collette to talk about her work in “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Night Listener.” On what was definitely a very hot summer day in L.A., Ms. Collette looked cool and relaxed, sporting a stylish, low-cut sundress, layered blonde hair, and a dark tan she later explained had been recently acquired while shooting in Thailand. Ms. Collette was friendly, frank and open in sharing her thoughts about her latest projects:
Q. Is your character, Sheryl, a little bit of a desperate housewife?
TC: A desperate housewife? No, I think that’s a very limited term. I think all the characters in this movie are really beautiful and complex and real. And I think Sheryl is the glue that holds this family together, and she would die for any member of her family, and she encourages them to be who they are, instead of like her husband kind of putting pressure on everyone to be a winner and to be something that is unattainable which is similar to what society does to us. (laughter)
Q. Would you like to elaborate on that? You don’t have any kids. I know you’ve got a new dog. That’s about it at the moment.
TC: That’s about it?
Q. A dog and a husband and some great movies.
TC: And a whole life. (laughter)
Q. So do you follow the nine steps at all? (laughter)
TC: God, if it were only that simple. (laughter)
Q. How would you describe the family? How do you view them? As dysfunctional? Unhealthy? Happy? Normal?
TC: I think all of the above. I think life is complicated, and people just want to categorize everything and, you know, put labels on everything. But I think life is too obtuse for that, and I think this film somehow actually suggests that in kind of a real way. They go through many different moments and they’re constantly changing, and the journey that they go on is physically and metaphorically full of so many kind of leaps and changes and about turns and epiphanies and I think it’s really healthy to understand that it’s OK for it to be so chaotic.
Q. Can you describe where Sheryl’s coming from? Because there are references to her divorce, but not really much else. So where’s she approaching this family and what’s she fighting for?
TC: This is her second marriage and Duane is her child from that first marriage. Well, she’s fighting for them all to be happy, I guess. It’s that simple. And it’s funny, the more she tries to kind of control and nurture that idea, the less it really happens but once they get in the car and actually encounter the chaos and start to accept and see each other more clearly, it kind of happens naturally.
Q. Is she a bit of an enabler? Because she’s very tolerant of this, you know, of the vow of silence and the nine-step program. Did you see her that way at all?
TC: I just see her as being really selfless and incredibly supportive and patient and she’s pretty much at the end of her tether when it comes to Richard’s nine-step tangent. She strikes me as the type of person who has given up a lot. She seems like she’s full of potential and really hasn’t realized that because she’s given so much of herself to others.
Q. You said you believe an actor should be able to play everything. You were referring to Steve (Carell) in your movie, but that seems to be almost your credo because when we look at what you’ve done, it’s so diverse. Can you talk a little about that? I mean we’re talking about “Sunshine” and we’re talking about “Night Listener” and they couldn’t be further apart. Hugely diverse.
TC: I’m really thankful to have those opportunities. And they’re both so great and so different. If I wanted to do the same thing over and over, I’d probably do a sitcom, but I think the luxury and the beauty of being an actor is that you get to explore all of these different roles. I can’t imagine it being any other way, although I know it does exist. (laughter)
Q. You’ve done so many American accents. Is it second nature now or do you wish you could just do one with your regular speaking voice?
TC:. I just did a film with my regular speaking voice actually. (laughter) It’s an HBO/BBC co-production, a two-part mini-series called “Tsunami” about the aftermath of the waves hitting. It’s set in Thailand, and I play an Australian woman who’s been living in Thailand for 11 years. I actually speak Thai in that movie which was a great challenge. It was really great. That’s why I have a tan. I never usually go brown. (laughter)
Q. Where was that shot?
TC: Mostly in Phuket, a little bit in Khao Lak which was the most kind of hard hit area in Thailand. There was a bit of shooting in Bangkok but that didn’t involve me. So I play this Christian missionary who runs an education program for the local kids in Thailand.
Q. It’s not a documentary film, right?
Q. You said you wore Robin Williams’ contact lenses for “The Night Listener.” Can you tell us how that came about?
Q. Didn’t you say that?
TC: You’ve been playing Chinese Whispers with somebody. (laughter)
Q. Yes, I have. (laughter) Chinese Whispers? Good.
TC: I have my own contact lenses.
Q. I must have missed that.
TC: For part of the movie I wear contact lenses.
Q. And you know it is kind of a scary movie and this is a funny movie. Do you say ‘I want to do a scary movie. I’m going to do a funny movie. I’m going to do a tsunami movie.’ No?
TC: No. I don’t think “Little Miss Sunshine” is just a funny movie. I try to work on scripts that are kind of more complex than that and are more layered and represent reality. But I don’t have any plan…I’ve never had any plan of ‘I’ll do this and I’ll do that.’ I just really …. I just…And it’s almost like I choose me. It’s something that bypasses my brain and goes to some other place that has this reaction and compels me to be a part of something, and there’s never really any rhyme or reason other than I love this and I want to do it.
Q. Can you talk about the scenes where you’re pushing the van? (laughter)
TC: Really? Is it that funny?
Q. It’s so funny. It’s just so golden. I don’t think it’d be funny to do but…
TC: Well, there was a group of us doing it so it wasn’t that hard. It wasn’t like I was doing it myself.
Q. Even though it starts off awkward, but then by the end, you guys have got it down. It looked like your normal routine.
TC: I guess it is like the repeated gag within the story, but it obviously could have been dangerous so it was all very well rehearsed, and we had a safety person there, and I really liked watching how everyone, you know, in their different characters approaches it. Like Greg… Greg is not even running, he’s driving. What a cop out! (laughter) But the way Steve ran, and little Abby, and Duane trying to retain his cool quality. I think specifically at the end but when they do do that, you really get to see them in just like a moment of freedom, you know. They’re kind of … When it converges at the end…all they’ve been wanting to do is connect, and at the end, they’re all connecting but they’re also feeling really comfortable and really free within themselves, and when you see them jumping into the van for the last time, it’s like they’re isolated. You can see them as who they are or something. It was quite beautiful.
Q. How was working with Paul and then Abby? You know, Paul obviously not being able to talk while he’s there on screen. (laughter)
TC: He’s a very quiet guy. Once he started talking, you couldn’t shut him up. (laughter) Well, they’re both incredibly talented and lovely people, and I think the entire cast was … we all felt so lucky to be working on something like this. We all got along really well and had great respect for each other and appreciated each other’s work. Abby…I forgot she was a kid actually ‘cause we were just all in it together. I mean obviously I do know that she’s a kid because she’s half my size (laughter), but she’s incredibly professional and so good at what she does. And I just think when it comes to acting, it’s not something you can learn and to look at someone like her who just does it, you kind of realize that it’s just an innate thing and you either kind of have it or you don’t. And Paul is such a smart … I was concerned because he’s actually 21 and I’m 33 and I’m like how can you possibly play my f***ing child? (laughter) But luckily he looked really young on screen, and we hung out quite a bit actually. We both really love music and we went to a couple concerts together and just got on really well. He’s just a very sweet, smart, young man. Yeah. It was really special. I think the story is special … but the group… Like in the wrong hands, it could have become something else, but I think John and Val collated a group of people together who got it in the same way that they did.
Q. Without giving too much away, your “Night Listener” lady is…obviously she’s sick, mentally disturbed. Why don’t you tell me what she is?
TC: I think that she is someone who’s had a really hard life, and you know we all want love and not all of us are lucky enough to get it, and I think she’s probably been abused in the past. She’s someone who needs attention and needs love and she’ll go to any length to really get it. And I think she’s actually really, really intelligent. But she uses her smarts in a really destructive, manipulative, frightening way.
Q. What was the biggest challenge of playing that role?
TC: I had the flu and I had come from the summer in Australia into winter upstate in New York. There was a lot of shooting at night. (laughter)
Q. I mean preparing for the role and the complexity of the character. What was the most challenging aspect of it?
TC: It’s the same as any role. It’s just the challenge is to make it seem real. I guess within that character there are certain things that she … In a way, she’s like an actor herself, and so I guess it was interesting to be able to play with different levels of what’s real and what’s not and what … It’s just that she’s a very complex, layered person and at times, because she is so manipulative, it was kind of fun to play around with whether something should come across as being real or whether it should show that she’s actually performing in a way…do you know what I mean?
Q. Did you have any contact or do any research on the actual woman that inspired this whole situation?
TC: I had no contact. But I had Armistead and I had Terry who’d both had a lot of contact and their lives were completely changed, I guess, by dealing with this actual person. So I had the source basically for a lot of information about her, interactions with her, and how they were affected by it, and I think it’s interesting to hear that because then you realize what her intentions really are. She was really good at making people. She could read people and figure out how to address them and, you know, she’s really perceptive.
Q. You have no master strategy, you said, but here you have three very different roles, you know, the HBO movie and the two we’re talking about. I noticed you were doing a movie with Vanessa Redgrave, and I think in previous interviews you said that you would shoot a lot of films and then you’d go back to Australia to kind of veg out a bit. I mean you’ve got a few more movies coming out, can you tell us a little bit about those? I got the name of four movies, and it’s not always true on the internet.
TC: I do continue to do that because in my twenties I worked so much, and I think I just prefer to have a really stable, normal life and then go and work and do a few movies a few years instead of trying to do twenty. (laughter)
Q. But with the luxury of your success, you’re able to do that?
TC: Yeah, and the luxury of finally getting over the paranoia of being an actor and thinking you’re never going to work again and not being able to say no.
Q. When did you get over that?
TC: I don’t know specifically, but it was a few years ago. I suddenly realized that this career that I’ve somehow managed to get is not going away, and I think it’s important because when you work, you use all of yourself. It’s important to rejuvenate.
Q. You pulled my leg when I said you have a life and a husband which you’ve talked about before. But that’s an important element, isn’t it? Getting away to Australia, spending normal time.
TC: Well, it’s not getting away. It’s getting home. It’s getting back to …
Q. Is that important?
TC: I appreciate home more now as well because when I’m away, I know in my mind that I am going to return there, you know.
Q. Does that all help you reach the stability of [going from] ‘I may never work again.’ [to] ‘Now I’m working tremendously. I’ve got a great life in Australia.’
TC: I don’t know if anyone ever gets to that point of just, you know, thinking, ‘I’ve made it to some plateau of whatever …’ Life’s a journey, man. (laughter) And it just keeps happening. And you know, new things come up and you’re constantly growing and learning different things, and there’s no kind of stand still of ‘this is it.’
Q. Back to “Little Miss Sunshine,” I thought you nailed your character. I feel like I’ve seen that woman, like I know that woman. She was such a great Mom. Is there anyone that you based your character off of or that you know who is similar?
TC: No. Really, Michael Arndt’s script was so amazing. And it was just so clear. And I know I’ve said it before, but I’m lazy. I just do things that I relate to and I know that I’m going to be able to do it.
Q. Is it hard to find material like this? Or is it just hard to get this stuff made? Is it out there?
TC: Well, you know, probably both because everyone wants to emulate something else that’s already been successful and doesn’t give something brilliant like this its own shot. And maybe this will help other filmmakers. Who knows. It’s rare, but in a way it’s good that it’s rare because otherwise if every film was like this…
Q. It makes it special?
TC: Yeah, it does make it special.
Q. One more quick “Night Listener” question. Because of your character’s sort of performer quality, did you relate to that? Were you able to somehow find even in her sickness some way to relate and have you ever used your skills to trick anybody? (laughter)
TC: Yeah, I have. (laughter)
Q. Start with that one. (laughter)
TC: Well, mostly when I was younger … I now realize that I probably… Yes, I have. (laughter)
Q. It sounds good.
TC: Well, this is one story which is already really well known and it’s embarrassing because I didn’t actually talk about it with a journalist. A director that I had told about this situation revealed it to somebody and then it’s everywhere. But I pretended to have an appendicitis when I was younger and it went a little too far and it was taken out. (laughter) And when we were doing “The Night Listener,” I sometimes wondered whether Patrick, the director, knew about that story and that’s why he wanted me to play it. (laughter) But it’s to a whole new degree obviously with that character.
Q. How old were you when you had your appendicitis removed?
TC: Eleven. I was eleven. Yeah. A little attention seeking weirdo. (laughter) I don’t know… On that note, I’m going to leave. (laughter)
Q. Thank you very much for your time this afternoon.