United States of Toni
Award-winning star Toni Collette is currently gracing tv screens, playing her most challenging character yet. She talks to InStyle about her other roles as wife and mother, and the umbilical pull of Australian life.
Toni Collette nestles into the corner of a luxurious couch, on a chilly evening in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. From her vantage point she looks out at the stunning views of the harbour. Collette has just had an exhausting but fabulous day playing dress-ups, wearing Lanvin and Marc Jacobs at InStyle’s exclusive shoot. Given her busy lifestyle, it would be understandable if she quietly slipped away, back to her home and family. Instead, she settles down and flashes her famous broad grin – it’s clear that she’s keen to chat about her starring roles, not only as an actress, but as a wife and mother. Collette is the kind of person who puts everyone at ease. Perhaps it’s that smile, or her cheerful laugh regularly punctuating the conversation; she is relaxed, friendly and warm. Tonight, despite the chill and a wave of tiredness, she is excited to be talking about her new series, United States of Tara (on ABC), which she describes as her “first ongoing television relationship”. Collette has made the occasional TV appearance, but not a series, this is a first. It’s an exciting challenge for Collette, one of Australia’s most successful film actresses. With her performances often being critically acclaimed, Collette has been nominated for a plethora of awards during her 17 years in the film industry, including an Academy Award, two BAFTAs, two Golden Globes and eight AFT awards, five of which she has won. Adding to this impressive line-up, she has also been nominated for an Emmy for Tara, proving this “ongoing relationship” with the small screen could be as enticing as her big-screen forays. “The script was sent to me out of the blue,” she explains. “I wasn’t looking to work in TV at all, but when I read it I felt I had to do it. I’d never come across anything like it.”
Given her long list of credits, its hard to believe she hadn’t seen a script of that kind, but then again, this is no ordinary series. Collette plays Tara, wife to Max, mother to Kate and Marshall, living a normal suburban life – except for one thing: she has dissociative identity disorder. The condition, formerly known as multiple personality disorder, means often Tara is not Tara at all. She has a series of “alters”, including an obnoxious teenager and a beer-swilling bloke. More “alters” appear as the series develops. “They are like a “jigsaw puzzle,” explains Collette. “They all represent something within Tara.” They also make for some very amusing situations, and while the series is strictly a black comedy there is a genuine sense of pathos and humanity. “I think that’s what gives it reality. It’s incredibly funny but still profound,” muses Collette. “If it was one or the other [comedy or drama], then I wouldn’t relate to it. I need that, or to feel in some way challenged [by it]. Not one to be complacent, Collette is aware that this “deep end” was only possible because of Galafassi. “Thank God I have a supportive husband,” she says with relief “It’s not like a normal job where you go to work and get home at a reasonable hour, and continue like that, day in and day out,” she explains. “There are two- or three-month blocks wheit it’s all systems go. It’s a bit more extreme in that way: Despite the not-so-not mal work schedule, Collette is effusive about the role. “I love it. The story is really unique and I have the luxury of great material. There’s a huge amount of variation. [For me] it always comes down to the story. There are some people who play a version of themselves all the time. There is a real art to it,”: she says diplomatically, “but it just doesn’t interest me at all. I would get so bored.”
It’s clear that Collette is dedicated to bringing varied and difficult diameters to the screen. Ultimately, she’s committed to her craft. Her well-documented weight gains for roles in Muriel’s Wedding and In Her Shoes also attest to that commitment, but it’s no secret that Collette struggled with self-esteem as a result. Several years ago she admitted to suffering bulimia after filming Muriel’s. Collette chooses her words on the body-image debate carefully: “The media is very powerful. We are all affected, consciously or subconsciously, by images that surround us: She points out that “people would feel much better about themselves if they were accepted by society for who they are.” Perhaps this is why she shuns a “movie star” lifestyle, especially given she’s never subscribed to or sought out, that label. The couple lives a “low-key’ existence”. Based in Sydney most of the year, Collette spends as much as time as she can with her family, stays out of the paparazzi glare and is ultimately a very private person. She doesn’t read reviews of her work and is genuinely surprised by public perception of her. In the past, she’s been tagged as spiritual and on asionally even labelled a hippie. When asked about these descriptions, she laughs incredulously: “Really?” Perhaps it has to do with the Buddhist chanting at her 2003 wedding… Again, she laughs, “It’s so funny. It’s not that it [the chanting] did mean a lot to me, but a lot of people get married in churches and don’t give a shit about religion,” she points out, adding, “It’s funny how people make assumptions about who you are I do try to live as cleanly as possible, especially, in respecting nature. So many people live on the earth and not with it. I think that we are part of nature. But I don’t think this is an extreme thing to think. You mention one thing and suddenly, you’re some mad, lefty greenie!” she laughs. As a relatively new parent, Collette has gained more respect for her own parents, Bob, a truck driver, and Judy, who worked in customer service for a courier firm. “You realise what they might have gone through,” she says.
Collette believes her own upbringing in suburban Blacklown gave her a “grounded quality” she is very thankful for. Is it something that she will try to replicate for her daughter “She’s going to have her own experiences and her own life,” Collette says wisely. “I wouldn’t want to force anything good or bad on her.” The only thing Collette “forces” is her schedule, simply so she can enjoy time wit Ii her family. “I try to keep things isolated, and work all at once over a couple of days,” she explains. “Then, there are days I don’t have to work at all; I get a lot more of those now!” she chuckles. “We’re pretty relaxed: we have breakfast together, walk the dogs [beagles Gertie and Myrtle], go grocery shopping.” It’s a surprisingly normal life, and Collette says, “The older I get, the more I enjoy cosying up at home.” When asked about her ideal weekend, she has simple pleasures in mind: “Family. Friends. Food. Swimming. Music.” For an actress attracting such international acclann, she is remarkably steady. “It’s important to have balance,” she says. “I love work, but family and friends will always come first. That’s the wonderful thing about this job. It allows me a certain freedom and flexibility I can still work and spend time at home with my family. I feel very lucky.” As for her next projects, Collette has signed up for seven seasons of Tara. “I cannot stress how much I love this job!” she exclaims. A new album is also on the horizon. “It won’t have the exact same sound. [as her 2006 debut album Beautitid Awkward Pictures].
The last album was pretty raw-sounding, this one will be a little more produced.” She hints at an Australian film she is considering, but it’s clear she doesn’t look too far ahead. “I’ve never been one to fantasise about a role,” she admits. “The right thing comes alongat the right time.” Nonetheless, she confesses to an ambition to do theatre again. “I wouldn’t mind doing that [theatre] in Sydney so I can sleep in my own bed!” she laughs. The city is, after all, her home. “I feel like I make sense here. I appreciate Sydney. Its one of the most beautiful cities in the world,” she says, gesturing to the lights on the harbour. “People here have a great frankness, they have a relaxed demeanour, a sense of irony,” she notes. It’s almost as if Collette to is describing herself. “This is where I belong,” she says. And with that she returns to her family and the life she so adores.