Crazy for You!
Will the real Toni Collette please stand up? The unpredictable beauty, who just snagged a Golden Globe for playing a multiple-personality-mom in United States of Tara, likes to keep us guessing. By David Hochman
Waiting to meet Toni Collette for the first time is a bit unnerving. You don’t know which Collette you’re going to get. The actress first gained attention 15 years ago as a frumpy Aussie misfit who loved the band Abba in the campy cult hit Muriel’s Wedding. Mainstream audiences discovered her a few years later when she played a spooked Philadelphia mother whose kid sees dead people in The Sixth Sense, a performance that brought Collate an Oscar nomination. She was a depressive Brit in About a Boy, a practical pageant mom in Little Miss Sunshine, and now, as if to really mess with us, she’s a suburban American housewife with four competing personalities – one prim, one skanky, one butch and one animal-like—in Showtime’s dramatic comedy UnitedStatesofTara, which begins its second season this month. As Tara, Collette seamlessly shape-shifts from one personality to the next, a juggling act that has mesmerized audiences, carncd ha an Emmy in 2009, and just landed ha a best actress Golden Globe in January. Offscreen. Collette is equally hard to pin down. Shc doesn’t do much press, isn’t in a Famous relationship (her husband, Dave Galafassi, is a drummer) and—when she’s not filming—lives a quiet life in her native Sydney with Galafassi and their two-year-old daughter, Sage. As Collette’s Tara co-star John Corbett (Sex and the City) puts it, ‘With Toni, it’s not a ticker-tape parade like it is with some of these actors. She doesn’t make a bunch of noise coming to set. Shc blows you away with her ferocity and talent, and—pupil—she’s gone? Then there’s the perception that Collette is something of a plain Jane. So much has been made about her quirky, unconventional looks since playing an ugly duckling in Murid’s Wedding, you half-expect her to resemble one of those blue humanoids from Avatar. Which is why its startling when Collette, 37, finally breezes into a Hollywood hotel restaurant looking radiant, relaxed, and—let’s just say it—surprisingly damn attractive. The facial features she sometimes exaggerates to daffy effect onscreen are softer in person. and she’s blessed with flawless skin, an enviabk physique and an easy smik that hints at a level of happiness unknown to most of her characters.
“Maybe it’s that I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how I’m seen,” Collette says when told she’s a bit mysterious. “I learned a long time ago that you’re better off focusing on your own thing than playing to expectations. If I had followed expectations, rd probably be working in a haberdasherystore right now: Over green tea. the actress—born Toni Collett (she added the “c” as a teen)—recollects how she grew up in the working-class Sydney suburb of Blacktown. Her father drove a truck and her mother answered phones for a courier service. Most of her family still lives within 10 minutes of where she was raised, including her two younger brothers. who work as deliverymen. The Hollywood life was “as distant from the reality of my childhood as two worlds could possibly be,” Collette says, noting that her earliest performance memory was dressing up as Olivia Newton-John and dancing around the house. “But I always felt supported and loved in whatever I was doing. even when I was makinglifedecisions that probably lookedcompktely delusional at the time: Delusional, as in putting a thriving film career on hold to play a woman with multiple personalities on cableTV? “I’ve been asked over the years to do television but it never felt right. When Tara came up, my agent rang me and said, ‘I know you’re not even interested.’ But I read the script and the character leapt into my life. I thought, ‘How amazing would it be to get inside the head of a woman this tortured?’ Collette’s response came as a relief to Tans creator, Diablo Cody (fit no). “I was so nervous that our show could descend into sketch comedy if we cast the wrong actor. It’s such a balancing act to keep things funny but also address the havoc caused by Tam’s disorder,” Cody says.
“When Toni expressed interest, I realized, ‘This is it. The show’s going to work.'” In many ways, United States of Tara is the best showcase yet for Collette’s protean talents. As a suburban mom with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID.), Tara Gregson alternates between being a thong-baring, sex-crazed teenager named T; a pie-baking 1950s housewife named Alice; and a beer-chugging redneck dude who goes by Buck. That’s when she’s not pecing on people in pure id mode as the alter known as Gimme. Its a versatile role that fit Collette like a glove, or perhaps a boot, from the start. As Corbett recalls, “We were in early rehearsals and Toni was trying to figure out how to walk like Buck. She turns to meand says, ‘Can I borrow your boots?’ I wearsize 13 shoes, but she didn’t care. Toni clomped around in my size 13s half the day to actually become Buck: “I’m fascinated by the mind’s ability to branch off like Tam’s does,” Collette explains. To prepare for the part, she watched hours of footage of actual D.T.D. patients. The condition, she adds, speaks volumes about our Twitter-addled times. “We’re all a bit splintered these days. How often are we present? With all the technology everyone’s obsessed with, were just never where we are anymore. We’ll look back on these days and say, ‘God, they were an unfocused bunch.'” As Collette finishes her thought, a mother and daughter, dressed in matching Juicy Couture sweats, make a pass of our table… their third. She smiles graciously at them as if to say, “I know that you know: “For a long time, I was uncomfortable with the attention, but now I’m grateful for it,” Collate says as they disappear again. “When I was younger, I didn’t trust success but that’s because I wasn’t comfortable with myself. Now I just think, ‘My God, I can’t believe this is all happening.”
Collette made it happen, of course. She quit school at age 16 to study musical theater at Australia’s prestigious National Institute for Dramatic Art, but then left school again after landing a kw paying gigs. Her first real break was a film role at age 20 in 1992’s Australian comedySpotswood. opposite Anthony Hopkins and a then-unknown Russell Crowe. It was Collette’s first taste of the fabulous lift. “They put mc up in an apartment. I was going out to restaurants for the first time. I was getting drunk and staying up all night. My parents were undoubtedly shissing themselves: Two years later, Muriel’s Wedding would change her life again. She begged director P.J. Hogan for the part of the tormented loner whose giddy facade—and outbursts into songs like “Waterloo”—masked a lifetime of misery. Collette famously told Hogan “I am Muriel,” and was given the role only after agreeing to put on 40 pounds in seven weeks. remember thinking I’d die from chocolate milkshakes.”) Critics and Abba-loving fans were smitten. “I came to New York shortly after it was released and this group of flamboyant, beautiful men came up and started squealing at me. I knew at that moment that everything would be different: International recognition was not without its side effects. Collette battled an eating disorder in her 20s, though now sea it as “the fear of a girl who had no clue how to deal with the frantic pace of her life” Shc got a handle on things by meditating and realizing that “the best way to deal with change is to realize you can’t do anything to stop it? A steady supply of film work brought a sense of security, though her biggest successes came with big surprises.
Collette agreed to make The Sixth Sense, for instance, without realizing it was scary. “I read it and thought it was this beautiful. spiritual talc, which it was,” she says. “But I made the mistake of goingtodailiesand watching thesanewhcre Mischa Barton is under the bed and grabs Haley Joel Osment. I thought. ‘Jesus! This is terrifying!'” Little Miss Sunshine was supposed to be a “little” $8 million indie but ended up grossing $100 million worldwide (and earning Collette a Golden Globe nom in 2007). But the lasting memory, she says, is how foul it smelled inside that yellow VW bus. “There was no air conditioning„ the windows had w be up and it was summer. It was like a sociology experiment, but I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard? Colkttespends almost all her timeoffwith her husbandanddaughter. “We’re one of those families,” she laughs. “As much as I love being in production, there’s nothing that gives me as much pleasure as standing still with my family.” She and Galafassi met at a Sydney music gig. “I got there late, but I noticed how sweet he was. Most drummers are very aggressive. They just sir there and bang the beat. Dave was much more soulful and intentional? They were married in 2003 and Galafassi is now the drummer in the on-again, off-again band called Toni Collette and the Finish. Collette is the vocalist. know? she sighs. ‘We need to do a second album: Although they rent a house in the Hollywood Hills when Tara is in production, she and Galafassi are committed to Australia. ‘1 know L.A. has the beaches and fabulous restaurants, but there’s more of a shoulders-up atmosphere here than there is in Sydney. I like a laid-back vibe. I appreciate that Australians are forthright. Plus, I would never want my daughter growing up without experiencing Australian summers? Domestic bliss may keep her rooted at home, but her style sense is definitely all over the map. “I’ve become more fashion-conscious in recent years, and I enjoy dressing up and trying on different designers? Collette tends to gravitate toward the Belgians—Ann Demeulemeester and Martin Margiela arc two favorites—though she admits she has “embarrassing closets MI” of Marc Jacobs and vintage YSL, too.
But even on the fashion front, Collette defies easy categorization. Asked what she’s wearing today, she says with mock-supermodel indifference, “My skirt? It’s from a Sydney department store that’s no longer in business. The rank top? Left over from breast-feeding because it has a flap that lets you take your tit out in public? As Collette gets up to go, the mother-daughter Juicy twins appear again out of nowhere, this time finally approaching her to ask for a photo. They giggle and say how much they adored Little Miss Sunshine as a waiter obligingly clicks awkward iPhone pictures. Collette is charming and self-effacing – “We were just discussing my sense of style, if you can believe it,” she says – and everyone laughs. la’s definitely a star moment for Collette, one that’s as far from her working-class roots as two worlds could be. And then – poof – she’s gone.