Toni Collette can even make having a cold work for her.
The 33-year-old Australian actress – known as something of a chameleon, hopscotching from role to role with a laid-back professionalism – is talking about her role as Donna, a blind Wisconsin woman whose disturbing obsession with a radio host (Robin Williams) turns homicidal, in the thriller “The Night Listener,” opening Friday.
And though she’s not the sort of serious actress who peppers every other sentence with words like “craft,” “motivation” or talk of “researching a role,” Collette nonetheless laughs when she says part of her portrayal of the deranged Donna may have come from something completely out of her control.
“I had just arrived on the set [in New York] in the winter here – coming from the peak of summer in Australia – and I was completely sick,” she says with a smile. “I was on antibiotics. I was jet-lagged [initially], and then we were shooting a lot of stuff at night. It’s clear that I’m sick in parts of the film! I thought my voice would be fixed after shooting, but they left it. Maybe it makes the character more creepy and freaky.”
She admits to having a take-everything-as-it-comes approach to her personal and professional life, which seems to have paid off.
“I’ve never had any kind of plan, never had any expectations,” says Collette. “I take different jobs for different reasons. I don’t have the luxury of being a movie star.”
Perhaps not a movie star, but she’s certainly considered one of the top character actresses working today. The Sydney native first got attention as half of a pair (with Rachel Griffiths) of quirky ABBA-loving pals in the Australian charmer “Muriel’s Wedding” (1994), before playing Haley Joel Osment’s spooked-out mom in “The Sixth Sense” (1999), a suicidally depressed woman in “About a Boy” (2002), a repressed ’50s housewife in “The Hours” (2002) and Cameron Diaz’s sad-sack singleton sister in last year’s “In Her Shoes.”
In addition to “Night Listener,” she’s also currently co-starring in “Little Miss Sunshine” as the comically frazzled mother of a would-be 7-year-old beauty contestant.
Collette’s lack of guile – or, more fairly, her ability to go with the flow – also brought her to a marriage three years ago to Australian rock musician Dave Galafassi. Though some of her characters may have strategized and plotted to wind up at the altar, Colette met Galafassi after moving back to Sydney from the U.S. and buying a home for herself.
The daughter of a truck driver and a customer service rep, she enrolled in Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art at 16 and spent most of her 20s shuttling between the U.S. and the United Kingdom. She and Galafassi were introduced through mutual friends.
“What I found, coming to America, is that women are always dating, always looking for someone, whereas in Australia, I don’t think I ever had a proper date,” she says. “You hang out with people there. If things evolve, they evolve. It’s just a much more natural progression of things.”
As for kids in her future, Collette is thoughtful but mum. She says she and her husband, who live in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, have their hands full with Gertie, their beloved young beagle, and their side project – an alternative rock band, which will release a CD in Australia in October.
Colette says “it’s weird” to be dabbling in music. “I’m not nervous about it … I’ve actually been singing my whole life, although when I was younger I had this belting voice, which is part of the reason I was cast in ‘Muriel’s Wedding.’ With this, we wanted to do something melodic and lush and atmospheric.”