A-List: Toni Collette
She takes on multiple personalities in United States of Tara, but to her many gay fans Toni Collette will always be Muriel.
She smooched Julianne Moore in The Hours, supported her suicidal gay brother in Little Miss Sunshine, and pretended to be a drag queen in Connie and Carla. Now Toni Collette finds herself prowling “titty bars” as a suburban housewife with dissociative identity disorder (and a teenage gay son) in United States of Tara, a Showtime original series created by Steven Spielberg with episodes written by Juno scribe Diablo Cody. But regardless of the role, the 36-year-old Oscar-nominated Aussie knows that gays will always adore her — and she knows that ABBA has a lot to do with it.
In United States of Tara, Tara suffers from a condition formerly known as multiple personality disorder. Do any of her personalities have lesbian tendencies?
“T,” the provocative 16-year-old girl, could probably go both ways. We haven’t seen it onscreen thus far, but she’s definitely the most overtly sexual of all of the alters.
Have you ever explored that side of your own personality?
Um, I don’t think this interview is about that. But thank you for asking, though!
Fair enough, but another one of Tara’s alters, “Buck,” must’ve helped you get in touch with your butch side. Because he’s a male personality in a female body, does anyone dismiss “Buck” as a big dyke?
Most people around Tara understand what she’s going through, and those who don’t understand learn very quickly or find it very confusing. All of her alters exist as extreme versions of feelings that are repressed within Tara, and “Buck” is considered the “angry protector.” It’s not that Tara’s pretending to be a guy or dressing up as a guy. When she’s “Buck,” “Buck” believes that he’s “Buck,” so there’s no question that he is a guy; therefore, people that know Tara treat him as a guy. He likes to go to titty bars and he flirts with girls. He’s also homophobic, actually. Tara and her husband have a gay son, and “Buck” has a chip on his shoulder about that.
“Buck” aside, how does Tara’s son’s homosexuality affect the family dynamic?
It’s no different from having a straight son. They just accept him for who he is, and they accept his crushes. Love is love no matter where it stems from or who it’s given to. He’s a cherished, beautiful member of the family. I love that character so much. He’s absolutely divine. Keir Gilchrist, who plays him, is such a brilliant young actor.
How might you react if your own daughter, Sage Florence, turned out to be gay?
I wouldn’t care, as long as she’s happy. Look, life is short, so why limit it? I accept people and their decisions no matter what they are. In fact, I think that’s the biggest problem in the world: People want others to align themselves with their beliefs. If people were more accepting of differences, it would be a much more peaceful planet.
Your daughter recently had her first birthday. How has motherhood changed you this past year?
It’s the most profound experience of my life, so I don’t even know whether I can articulate that for you. Now that I am a mother, I don’t think anything I could say could actually really explain how it feels. Until you become a parent, there’s no real understanding.
Tara writer Diablo Cody also knows her way around a titty bar. Did you hit the town with her?
Diablo knows a lot of things. We hung out a little bit, but we were shooting a half hour [of final scenes] every five days, so there wasn’t much time for socializing. But she’s a fantastic writer with an original voice. I’m so excited to work with such great material, because it’s very rare.
The subject of mental illness is a sensitive one. Because you’re approaching dissociative identity disorder with a fairly light tone, are you concerned about offending that community?
That was something I questioned before signing on to be a part of this show. It is a comedy, but it’s also incredibly deep and moving. It questions the reality of DID and how it affects both Tara and her family. It’s very much respectful of that illness and never makes fun of it. More than anything, I think it will shed some light on the DID community.
You haven’t appeared on a New York stage since 2001, when you got a Tony nomination for playing Queenie in Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe’s The Wild Party. Did your reportedly negative experience with costar Mandy Patinkin turn you off Broadway forever?
I’d love to return and do something that’s maybe a little more…agreeable. [Laughs] If I can just set the record straight, working on a new musical with those writers was a complete eye-opener and really satisfying, but there were just…certain cast members who let down the morale and unity of the other actors, which was a bit of a downer. That was very diplomatic of me, wasn’t it?
You played a lesbian baton-twirler in the 1994 Australian short film This Marching Girl Thing. What was your earliest exposure to gay people?
I danced when I was younger, and two of my best male friends from school — I’m still very close to them — were quite camp, and I kind of wondered. By the time we were 15, it was quite clear that they were gay.
And when did you first realize that the gays adored you?
I know I should say, “Do they? Oh, no, it can’t be true,” but I know it’s an absolute fact. [Laughs] It was right after Muriel’s Wedding, which is a film that spoke to a lot of people. The combination of ABBA music and my playing someone who feels like an outsider but then finds her groove was probably a small flag to the gay community.
I’ll bet you had many gay people come up to you on the street and say, “You’re terrible, Muriel.”
Still! It still happens. For a while it drove me insane, but then I realized that to be involved with a film that had that kind of long-lasting effect is really a wonderful thing. That particular job gave me a career that I was not expecting, so it changed my life in very many ways.
So if you ever need an ego boost, you should just pop into a gay bar in your hometown of Sydney.
[Laughs] Thank you! That’s a good tip. I haven’t since becoming a parent, but I’ve been to many gay clubs in my time. In fact, when we were shooting Connie and Carla, we went to a local bar where they did drag shows, and that night they dedicated the entire drag show to me and Australia, which was a complete honor and joy. I have to say, hanging out with the drag queens on set was my favorite part of working on that movie. They have an innate acerbic wit and sense of irony that doesn’t exist elsewhere. Being from Australia, which is a very dry place, I met my match with those guy-gals.
What advice would you give a drag queen who wanted to impersonate you?
Oh, God, I probably wouldn’t give any. I’d just sit back and laugh my head off.