With a run of film role and a debut album set for release, golden gitl Toni Collette is on a high. Here, she reveals how meditation changed her, why her tattoo is so important and the secret to working with your husband, by Juliet Riede.
Toni Collette’s toothy, exuberant smile is the first thing you notice when she walks into the room. Then comes her throaty, slightly nervous laugh. It’s a windy, wintry day in Sydney; but the Academy Award-nominated, four times AFI winner is bathed in sunshine. Collette has just flown in from Thailand, the location for a TV movie she’s starring in about the 2004 tsunami; and ironically on this occasion the weather was “gorgeous”, says the actress. Tanned, wearing jeans, with lush, blonde hair and a dash of make-up, 33-year-old Collette is in her best shape ever. She’s happily in love with musician husband Dave Galafassi, has half-a-dozen film projects, a debut album and Australian tour on the go, and a new puppy. “Her name is Genie. She’s a beagle and a mad bitch and really makes me laugh,” Collette chuckles.
The album, out on October 7, has enabled Collette to work for the first time with her husband of three-and-a-half years, and is the culmination of more than a decade of composing on her part. “The oldest song on the record I wrote xi years ago,” she explains. “Songs come to me no matter where I am, mostly when I’m driving and mostly when I’m alone. I write in my head, with my voice, and one song I’ve written on guitar. I tin-ker on the keyboards, but I don’t play. I learned when I was a kid and was an idiot for giving up.” Despite the odd row and having to swallow lots of construc-tive criticism, Collette says it felt natural working with Galafassi. “If I hadn’t been with him, I probably wouldn’t have made the record yet. Making music for him is a reality; it made it real for me. It’s petrifying when I’ve first written a song to utter it to anybody, but I bounce everything off him; he’s my touchstone.” The album is a surprising collection of quietly poppy songs, with not a hint of the camp show tunes you might expect from the star of Muriel’s Wedding and Connie and Carla. “I started out singing in musicals and I can’t imagine anything worse than recording an album of show tunes,” says Collette. It’s called Beautiful Awkward Pictures (Hoola Hoop, $24.95), a name in-spired by Sydney art-gallery owner Ray Hughes. “I was in his gallery in Surry Hills and he was showing me these beautiful, small French paintings and in his rough-as-guts way, he said, took, these are such beautiful awkward pictures.’ One had this old guy with his cigarette [ash] falling all down his shirt … and the phrase stuck with me. We’re all just flailing, trying to get on with things without really knowing what we’re doing—and it’s really beautiful and it’s really, really awkward.” Awkwardness is a trait of many of her on-screen characters, from Muriel to manically depressive mum Fiona Brewer in About a Boy and In Her Shoes’s plain sister Rose. But it’s hard to believe this powerhouse of creative energy ever had awkward moments herself. Certainly, making music has been a very or-ganic process, thanks to a little help from her friends. “It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for so long, but I guess the circum-stances have just never been right. This time it fell into place.”
Collette’s backing band, the Finish, are a talented mix of some of the couple’s best mates, including Galafassi on drums and Glenn Richards from Augie March on guitar and banjo. “That particular group of people came together at the last minute, but it’s been an amazing experience. We’re really look-ing forward to touring.” (The band will play in Sydney and Mel-bourne in November and finish at Homebake on December 2.) Meanwhile, Collette is doing some touring of her own, working on publicity for Little Miss Sunshine (out on October x2), a quirky US road movie co-starring Greg Kinnear and Alan Arkin. At the Sundance Film Festival early this year, the piece proved a runaway hit with critics, audiences and film distributor Fox Searchlight, which paid a record sum for the rights. A poignant film, Little Miss Sunshine has you simultane-ously laughing and sobbing over an oddball family battling against the clock to reach southern California from New Mex-ico in a beat-up VW van, so the babe of the brood—seven-year-old bespectacled Olive—can enter a beauty pageant. Collette plays the mum, whose struggle to keep the peace strikes a clanging chord with anyone familiar with family angst. “I ab-solutely loved this dysfunctional family who are just learning to get along,” she says. Producer David Friendly was thrilled with the piece, calling Collette “a world-class actress with a remark-able ability to bring something special to everything she does” Collette also proves yet again how well she works with chil-dren, and confesses she was in awe of her nine-year-old co-star, Abigail Breslin. “She’s incredibly smart, recep-tive and professional for her age,” Collette says. “It was only at the end when we were shooting the pageant, and she was playing clapping games with the other kids, that I thought, `Oh my God, she’s a child!’ ”
Collette knows how it feels to be a kid hooked on performing. “I was acting at that age, just not on camera,” she says, breaking into laughter. “My dad said I came out of the womb … tadaaa!” Collette trumpets, raising her arms to an imaginary audience. As a precocious 16-year-old, Collate left high school despite top grades, and at 17 won a place at NIDA. “My family were surprised, sure, but when I discovered acting and sing-ing, it just flooded me and I thought, `This is it. Why waste time? I’m going to go for it.’ ” Her parents—truck driver Bob Collett (the actress added the extra “e” in her early teens to make a better stage name) and Judy, who worked for a courier company—along with two younger brothers (neither of whom fol-lowed her into show business), are “still blown away by it all”, she says. Their incredulity is set to continue when they see Collette in her run of projects over the next 12 months, which includes co-star-ring with Robin Williams in a film adaptation of The Night Listener, based on Armistead Maupin’s eerie novel. “Robin Williams is wonderful—what you’d expect, which is hys-terical. And he’s not putting it on; it’s who he is!” she says. “But he does stop it when he’s working. He’s absolutely focused and has such an intensity. I found him very impressive.” Before The Night Listener, TV viewers will see Collette in The Aftermath, a co-production between HBO and BBC, about the tragic effects of the tsunami on Thailand. “I play a Christian missionary who runs an education program for kids. She’s a ballsy, upfront person who gets things done when there’s a lot of bureaucratic crap to move through.” Collette starts to cry when she talks about Thailand: “Slowly they are getting it back together and I say that on a materialistic level. I don’t know how they are dealing with it emotionally. I wonder if they even know because they just want everything to go back to normal and people to come to their country. It is still absolute paradise, a beautiful place. When I was leaving, one woman ran out of the hotel, hugging me and crying, `Please come back.’ I will remember it for the rest of my life.”
The actress has come a long way since “terrible Muriel” launched her onto the world screen in 1994, although it hasn’t all been easy. She had to pass on Bridget Jones because she was starring on Broadway and then when Renee Zellweger hit box-office gold with the performance, also lost the chance to flex her vocal chords opposite Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago. “Harvey Weinstein demanded that Renee do it even though the writer and producer had said to me, `We’re writing this for you … please don’t take any other jobs,’ ” Collette recalls. “But things happen when they’re meant to and I don’t feel bad about that at all because I literally came home, met Dave, and my whole world opened up and became this enhanced, beautiful thing.” They married in a quiet ceremony on the NSW coast in 1003. Tibetan monks chanted as they walked up the aisle, “The ceremony was quite an alternative mixture and the monks were a vital part, but I’m not Buddhist,” she says. “There is always something in any organised re-ligion that doesn’t quite get me across the line.” What does enhance Collette’s life is medita-tion. “I meditate every day for an hour. It helps me to relax, be positive, sleep better and feel better. If the whole world meditated it would be such a different planet,” she says. It’s easy to imagine the actress in her medi-tative reverie, what must come less naturally is coping with Hollywood. “It can be mad,” she admits.
“Sydney is absolutely my home, it’s better for my head—I just make the most sense here.” Collette also finds Hollywood’s obsession with cosmetic surgery “outrageous, ridiculous, unfathomable, absurd …” and admits her only brush with the needle is her tattoo, a work of symbolic art at the base of her spine. “It’s a Celtic merman and represents a going-with-the-flow attitude to life, an oceanic existence and acceptance of change.” And with that Collette dashes off to get ready for a flight to Los Angeles. She’s right: the tattoo is the perfect talisman for her constantly shifting life.