The girl stays in the picture
Toni Collette certainly has drive – not content with a successful film career, the actress has released an album and is now taking to the road, writes Clare Press.
I am nor one to preen and primp,” Toni Collette is saying in conclusion to a speech about the easy-care merits of swapping her honey-blonde plumage for a brunette dye job. She underwent this metamorphosis three months ago in order to play a stripper in the children’s film Hey Hey, It’s Esther Blueburger (more on that particular contradiction in terms later). Since then the actress has been trotting up red carpets from the Golden Globes to the BAFTAs looking old-Hollywood gorgeous with a smile as big as the Ritz. She seems to be having a great deal of fun for someone whose tow-headedness is so recently deceased. “I am having fun!” she laughs, as a manicurist does the preening for her, painting her nails that high-octane shade of vermilion that only brunettes can carry off. “In this day and age you don’t ger many opportunities to really dress up, so the awards circuit is a blast:’ In truth, such occasions are coming thick and fast for Collette who, thanks to a string of successful movies and her recent reinvention as a musician, is on a career high. For everyone involved in last year’s celebrated independent film Little Miss Sunshine, it’s a case of another day, another nomination. It has been so good to us; the story had a strong heart and it was a really lovely experience to make,” says Collette.The off-beat comedy, the first feature from husband-and-wife directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, made the best picture nominee list at the Oscars, the Independent Spirit Awards and the BAFTAs, and was up for best musical or comedy at the Golden Globes.
Indeed, it notched up four categories at the Oscars, including best screenplay — not bad for a movie made for eight-million bucks (about what it costs to hire a single superstar on a blockbuster). Sunshine’s Alan Arkin and child revelation Abigail Breslin got the awards nod repeatedly (Arkin won the Academy’s best supporting actor prize), while Collette’s subtle performance as Sheryl Hoover, the wacky family’s matriarch, scored her a best actress in a musical or comedy nomination at the Globes. She may not have won the statue but she certainly won in the fashion stakes. The Toni Collette who arrived at The Beverly Hilton in LA in a floor-length black silk jersey gown with a plunging neckline by designer Lloyd Klein looked nothing like the junk-trunked Hoover housewife that got her there. With her shining new cap of ebony hair she exuded Dietrichean poise. And she trumped even this at the BAFTAs a month later. “That was a spectacular dress,” she concedes. “Fully beaded and made by Max Azria, it was a periwinkle colour, which in itself is a lovely word.” London was Baltic and Colette hadn’t thought to bring a suitable coat. Luckily, she has friends in high places. “I called Sandy Powell, the amazing costume designer. We worked on Velvet Goldmine together and we’re great friends.” The inimitably stylish Powell is a handy person to have on call —a woman with two golden statues of her own, Oscars for creating the costumes for The Aviator and Shakespeare in Love. “Sandy came over with a handful of things,” continues Collate, including the faux-fur trimmed, oyster-coloured velvet coat with voluminous sleeves that the actress slung on for the London event. “It had great big sleeves but tiny wrists. My little diamond-encrusted wrists! 1 wore sonic diamond bracelets and these beautiful diamond and periwinkle chandelier earrings from Chopard: And here she is again today, kicking up her heels in finery.
The guest wing of the Rose Bay villa that’s been colonised for the Vogue shoot is laden with offerings from all the major fashion houses. Racks groan with silver lace from Burberry, a modern twist on hound’s-tooth from Chanel, a baby-blue Louis Vuitton corset, and sparkling bags, shoes and jewels from Lanvin, Prada and Fendi. Collette picks out a Ralph Lauren sheath of bias-cut black silk topped with fluttery little capela sleeves. “This dress is amazing — I’d love to wear it to an event,” she coos, before disappearing into the dressing room to cry it on. When she emerges, Dietrich is back and all that’s needed to top off her glantazon persona is a perfect pillar-box pour. While she pulls it all off with surprising elan, looking every inch the studio-system beauty, this is not quite the Toni Collate we know and love.
Antonia Collette was born in 1972 in the working-class outer-western-Sydney suburb of Blacktown, the first of the three children (she has two younger brothers) of Judy and Bob Collette. Bob was a truck driver, so no theatrical pretensions there; no, it was Judy who inspired her daughter’s dramatic side, albeit inadvertently. When the 11-year-old Toni recalled her mother telling her about her own experience with appendicitis as a child, she faked a similar ailment to cutschool. Her performance was so convincing that she was rushed to the hospital, where she had the organ removed. -Acting — or indeed any kind of creative pursuit— is not something you can hone,” she tells me during a discussion about the many child actors she has filmed with as an adult (nor least Flaky Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense and Kasha Castle-Hughes in Esther Blueburger)..q think in something you’re born with it’s about instincts, and as a kid I suppose I had that? A fem. )cars after her emergency-room fiasco, College sang in a school production of the musical Godspell and fell thoroughly under the spell of the hoards. At 16 she managed to convince her parents to allow her to quit school to pursue an acting career. In 1991 she enrolled in NIDA, where she managed to complete half of a three-year course before landing a role in the 1992 film Spotswood with Anthony Hopkins. That was Mark Joffe’s Australian comedy, for which he somehow managed to persuade Hopkins, a Commander of the British Empire and thespian force to be reckoned with, who had won an Oscar earlier that year, to play an efficiency expert brought in to run an Australian moccasin factory. Watch it on DVD today and you’ll notice the baby-faced Collette, even though her disgruntled tomboyish factory worker is hardly the star of the piece.
“The wonderful late casting director Alison Barrett brought her along and it was obvious from that first screen test that she had something, a vulnerability but more importantly believability,” says Joffe, who cast Collette in his 1996 film Cosi (she played a drug addict incarcerated in a loony bin and cast in an amateur performance of a Mozart opera. Incidentally, it was the last time she dyed her hair as dark as it is now). The film-was much loved and cemented College’s superstar status on home turf, but it was a little film released two years before that really did it for Toni. Thar, of course, was Muriel s Wedding (red hair), and for many of us Collette will be forever Muriel. Whatever she’s done since — try chameleonic turns as a British glam-rock wife in Velvet Goldmine (blonde), a New York waitress-turned-witness in Shaft, the mother of a spooked kid in The Sixth Sense (chestnut), an eccentric 1950s housewife in The Houn (curls) — and however blinding the celeb wattage of her co-stars (Hopkins, Cameron Diaz, Samuel L. Jackson, Hugh Grant, Gwyneth Paltrow — you get the picture), Collette has been dogged by the twin Toni-isms that we insist define her. These being that: a) she is the personification of the Aussie battler cliché, a girl with her feet so firmly planted on terra firma that should she risk even the suggestion of a moment’s vanity, her heavily accented inner voice will yell, “Get over yourself, Tone!” and slap her smartly on the arse; and b) that frump, kook, mum, best friend and doughnut fan are within her range, but not trophy wife, lover, vamp, vixen or power-tripper. Nothing, of course, is ever this cut and dried. “I’m as complicated as the next person,” she says, in response to point A.
“Of course, I try to remain centred, and normal, but no-one is perfect? That she has not eschewed life in Australia probably helps and that she keeps in touch with many of her old friends — our make-up artist today, Noni Smith, is a case in point. Collette and Smith have known each other for ages, and it was Smith who flew around the globe with her and Diaz on the press junket for the 2005 film In Her Shoes (mousy brown). I ask Collette about point B, mentioning a story in USA Weekend magazine circa In Her Shoes, which opened by suggesting that Collette was the poster girl for “the overwrought and the overweight”. “I don’t think that’s true,” she counters, with equal pans grin and grimace. In the film, a thoughtful character piece despite its chick-lit promos (a Sydney screening was enhanced by piles of peep-toe Stilettos set up on plinths), Diaz did the hot blonde thing, while Collette stacked on a reported 13 kilograms to play her more sensible older sister. Was it not an itsy bit galling to play dowdy to Din’s glamourpuss? “No!” she says with an exasperated eye roll. “That’s not the point. You relish it, particularly with films like that. My character had it all going for her. She was much more developed than her sister, who was perfect in society’s eyes, on the surface, but was a mess on the inside. My character blossomed from within. Her name was Rose — she already had that beauty inside her and the audience got to see her blossom over time.