Toni Collette: The Chamaeleon
The talented star of ‘Night Listener’ and ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ likes to keep film audiences guessing
Toni Collette may have come a long way since the 1994 film Muriel’s Wedding first afforded her valuable name recognition in Hollywood, but to the actress herself any ground she’s covered over the past 12 years feels largely disconnected from her own experience.
I don’t feel like I’ve arrived at some point, I don’t feel like I’m some success, said the 33-year-old Australian actress.
I don’t work in a way that I fully understand what I’m doing. I’m still living my life and continuing. It doesn’t feel the way others may see it.
When others see Toni Collette, they may still reference the overweight newlywed Muriel Heslop of Porpoise Spit, Australia, or they may remember her as Haley Joel Osment’s mother in 1999’s The Sixth Sense, still Collette’s highest-profile film.
But more likely, they may have trouble singling out the actress for any one performance. That’s pretty much by design.
When ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ first came out I received a plethora of scripts that were kind of in the same vein, and even though I didn’t really know what was going to ensue I kind of thought I should really try and play different kinds of characters, said Collette during a recent interview in a Midtown Manhattan hotel room.
If I wanted to play a certain type of character I’d sign up and do a sitcom, but I’d be bored out of my mind, she said.
I guess the one common element with scripts that I choose to be a part of telling the story of is just an element of truth, something that hits me in the heart or in the gut. It’s not really an analytical decision. It goes somewhere else.
Collette can currently be seen in two films that couldn’t be more different from each other, apart from the fact that they’re both independent features and have both arrived in theaters within a week of each other.
I have never really experienced that before, I think I’m just exhausted, said the actress about her whirlwind tour of double-duty publicity.
In The Night Listener, based on a story by Armistead Maupin, Collette plays the mother of a terminally boy who develops a long-distance relationship with a radio talk show host, played by Robin Williams. But all is not as it appears in the creepy, little thriller.
I just see her as someone who’s quite sad and goes to really severe lengths to manipulate how others will react to her, and that’s how she satisfies her existence. She receives this faux sense of love and connection, said Collette.
The common element in life is that everyone wants to be loved, everyone wants to connect, and this is the length she will go to to achieve it. I just found it scarily amazing.
Collette also appears now in the acclaimed Little Miss Sunshine, a decidedly edgy road comedy in which she plays the mother and occasional voice of reason in the hyper-dysfunctional Hoover clan, a family that dreams of better days.
When asked if the Hoovers are a family of losers or winners, Collette replied, I think they’re a family.
It’s odd, people like to — and it does happen here more than in Australia — they just like to take any kind of originality away from anything and make themselves more comfortable and know it’s like this or it’s like that. They like to categorize and put things in brackets or boxes. It is what it is! said the actress.
AN AMERICAN FAMILY
About Little Miss Sunshine, Collette said, You’re not just watching a movie family, you’re watching a real family with real issues. It’s not just one note, it’s between this gleeful elation and really deep moments. And that’s what life is like.
The Hoovers are an American family, which required Collette to adopt an American accent for her part, but that’s hardly anything new for the actress, nor something she finds particularly challenging.
It’s actually very easy for me, which I’m thankful for. I’ve been blessed with the accent gene, she said.
Collette is just one of many Australian actors to make it big in American movies in recent years, from Nicole Kidman to Russell Crowe to Heath Ledger. They call me the Godmother, joked the actress in reference to the co-called Australian mafia.
Collette doesn’t see this wave of Australian actors cresting on our shores as any kind of threat to the American way of life. In fact, the Sydney native is more concerned with keeping her native land relatively free from Hollywood’s influence. She has a new Australian film coming out called Like Minds, and is about to start work on a kids’ film Down Under, Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueberger.
I think it’s really important for Australian kids to see and hear themselves on screen, for them to have a sense of themselves and retain a sense of who they are, because there are so many homogenized American films just washing through our culture, said Collette.
Presently, however, the actress seems more excited about a project that has nothing to do with acting at all. She has a new record coming out.
I have a band called Toni Collette and the Finish. My husband and I started a company, and we’re doing it independently, because the rest of my life is ruled by people telling me where to go and what to do and when to go to the toilet, and I just want to do something for the pure love of it and have it unstained, she said.
Collette calls her music, some of which she wrote when she was 22, some when she was 12, melodic, atmospheric, eclectic. She wisely claims to have no expectations.
And I’m really liking being in that position, she said.
Although with acting it’s a very varied experience — I get to travel and work with different people — you do get used to anything after a while. This comes from the same place, but it’s a different release.