Hot Seat: Toni Collette
The Aussie scene stealer takes her comedy black.
By Stephen Garrett
Part of a wave of Australian actors who broke into Hollywood during the ’90s, Toni Collette made her mark not as a marquee name, but as an intense character actor who moves seamlessly between comedy and drama. Whether playing the chunky title role in 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding (for which she gained 40 pounds) or getting an Oscar nomination for portraying the worried mother of a psychic boy in 1999’s The Sixth Sense, Collette has amassed a rich catalog of screen personalities over the past dozen years. And in an industry rife with well-sculpted, one-note celebrities, the unconventional-looking 33-year-old is a valuable commodity. Some of her recent roles, including the suicidal single mom whose son befriends Hugh Grant in 2002’s About a Boy and the frumpy older sister of Cameron Diaz in 2005’s In Her Shoes, have also seen her holding her own against major star power. Her latest, the black comedy Little Miss Sunshine, casts her as the matriarch of a wildly dysfunctional family on a road trip. Calling from her home in Sydney, Collette made time for a chat about Hollywood’s lust for young starlets and how great it feels to shave your head.
Little Miss Sunshine is such a funny film, but its dark moments are pretty bleak. How do you balance comedy and tragedy?
By the time I finished reading the script for Little Miss Sunshine, I was laughing and crying at the same time. It just felt so true. They weren’t a movie family-they felt like a real family. And in that, it’s very funny and very poignant. Even if you are doing something overtly funny, you can’t do it in broad strokes. Some of the funniest moments are just horrible. The laughter is richer when you have the opportunity to get as dark as you can. It’s like anything in life-you can’t appreciate the good until you’ve seen the bad.
Is it hard to maintain an active Hollywood career while living full-time in Australia?
I really love Sydney – my friends and family are all here. And I’m happy it’s so far away from everything. Lord knows I have frequent-flier miles, though. Earlier on in my career, I did live in other cities. I lived in London, and I even tried Ireland. But it didn’t feel right. I much prefer being put up in apartments and hotels anyway.
Do you find it difficult to compete in image-conscious Hollywood?
No, because my career has never been based on how I look-and I don’t think that will start now at the ripe age of 33. I can’t really complain. I’ve had such a rich, varied array of characters. Besides, stories about 15-year-olds aren’t really interesting. Older people have had so many more experiences.
And yet magazines obsess over the weights of all the young starlets.
Be who you are! [Laughs] Pop culture is thriving with so much bullshit that you’ll go out of your head trying to please everybody else. But it doesn’t surprise me when these images surround us all day, every day. And what they represent is just so shallow.
You’ve gained and lost considerable weight for some of your roles. How do you decide what’s best physically for the character?
It tends to all happen naturally. I don’t sit back and say,How will I do this? From the moment I read something, if I feel attached to it, the physical side of it is never a contrived effort. And if I love a role enough, it’s not a big deal.
You even shaved your head for 8 1/2 Women.
I’ve done it five times, actually. That was the only one for a film-the other times were just a lark.
It feels great! It’s totally low maintenance. The first time, I was drunk on tequila in Mexico. The second time was for a friend of mine who was having a fashion show in London and she asked me to do it. I also shaved my head a few days after meeting my husband-I think that was just to test the relationship. The others I can’t remember. And the thing I’ve discovered is that I have a great-shaped head. I’d never have known that!
Has it impacted your movie career at all?
I just wore a wig in The Sixth Sense. But I missed out on doing Rushmore-one of my favorite films. Terrible! That’s my one regret.
You seem completely without vanity.
Look, I have my moments-everybody does. But when it comes to work, it’s not about me. It’s about making that story and that character truthful-no matter what the character looks like. And I’d rather have it that way.
Little Miss Sunshine opens July 26.