Toni Collette: I still have ridiculous fears
Marianne MacDonald talks to actress Toni Collette about mortality, motherhood and playing a character with multiple personalities.
The Australian actress Toni Collette specialises in playing sad sacks who come out on top. From her breakout role as a singleton desperate to get married in Muriel’s Wedding to her turn as a suicidal single mum in About A Boy, a brash geologist in Japanese Story and a chain/smoking frazzled wife in Little Miss Sunshine, she has specialised in pinpointing painful truths with comic precision. After finding overnight fame at the age of 2 i as the hapless Muriel, Collette spent a decade roaming the globe making movies back to back – she had homes in LA, London and Dublin. It was an isolated, difficult period dogged by bulimia and eight months of panic attacks after she broke up with boyfriend Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Today she is in a totally different place. She now lives in the Sydney suburb of Bondi with her husband of six years, Dave Galafassi, a drummer in the band Gelbison, and their two/ year/old daughter Sage. Tibetan monks chanted at their wedding and she surfs, meditates and has even recorded an album. ‘I married the most beautiful human being on the planet,’ she says. ‘I used to have to fill every moment. Now I love staying at home and doing nothing all day’ In another sign ofher new rootedness, she has just committed to a seven/year stint on the US TV series United States Of Tara, created by Diablo Cody, the woman behind hit films Juno and Jennifer’s Body. In it she plays a Kansas mother and housewife, married to John Corbett (Aidan in Sex And The City) and suffering from dissociative identity disorder. Tara ricochets between normality and three alternative personalities: T, a sluttish, smart/mouthed 15-year-old; Alice, a bustling, repressed housewife; and Buck, a beer-drinking homophobic Vietnam veteran. In real life, Collette is straightforward, thought/ fill and open about having done a lot of work on herself, therapeutically speaking. She laughs easily and listens carefully. When we talk, it is gam and she has already been up for hours with Sage. She says there is no way in the world she would like to be younger again.
Tell me about United States Of Tara. I don’t recall seeing anything like it before on TV.
I agree – that’s what drew me to it. Do you know how exciting it is as an actor to work on something that feels original? I was so eager to be involved. I read the script for the pilot and decided, on the strength of it, to commit for a potential seven years.
What drew you to it, exactly?
I think the decision made by Diablo Cody, who created the show, was really clever. it isn’t entirely about this woman and her mental illness – it’s about a family. I loved that none of it was sensationalised, too – that Tara’s condition is just accepted.
Almost one in four people is mentally ill, but it’s a situation that’s rarely shown on a primetime TV.
It’s never shown anywhere. God, human beings are so varied and you can put labels on everything. I’m sure we’d all be classified with something given half a day with the wrong doctor.
I read an interview from a few years back in which you said you liked playing characters who learn to accept the ugliest or scariest parts of themselves.
Yeah, because we all have them. I think a lot of people tend to ignore that and go out and get drunk on the weekend instead. [Laughs.] I often end up playing characters who are learning to feel comfortable with themselves.
And have you learned to be comfortable with yourself?
Oh, my thirties are much more stable. In my twenties, I was bouncing around – I think that’s what they’re for. I spent a lot of time in hotel rooms, living out of suitcases, away from the people I knew and loved the most and who felt the same way about me, and it was a bit extreme. And wonderful. Now I’m in my thirties, everything just feels much more settled. We all think we’re such individuals when we’re going through these things, but you come to realise that these patterns are shared and everyone goes through the same exploration at certain ages.
You’ve said you got lost at one point. Have you found your way since then?
I guess for a while I threw it all out there and eventually, thank God, it landed. [Laughs.] Coming to terms with the fact that everyone I know and I myself will die – the only certain thing in life – was hard. I was very angry at the world for a while and felt very betrayed. I just felt like it was some kind of cruel joke. And now I don’t. I’m so thankful for that. I really don’t know what the turning point was. Probably time itself. And, of course, I became much more hopeful when I had my child, because there I was focused on this new life and I wasn’t concentrating so much on death.
Why were you concentrating on death?
Um… I don’t know! I suppose I was questioning what life was all about and I didn’t like not having the answers. And, I mean, faith is lovely, but it’s ultimately just making a decision to believe in something. And that’s not enough for me – except when it comes to work. When I have that feeling about a job, it draws me in and it’s almost like I have no choice. That’s definitely what happened with United States Of Tara.
It sounds like you operate on a very intuitive level.
People ask me, ‘How do you do this?’ and ‘How do you do that?’ But intuitively is the only way I can do what I do. I look at some other actors and I can see that they’re good, technically speaking, but when I watch them, I don’t relate. I don’t believe them. I want it to feel like there’s nothing between them and the story.
That’s how I feel when I watch you act.
So, when you were first attracted to the man who became your husband, were you working on gut instinct?
Yes, totally. I just had this calm feeling. People talk about falling in love as being like craziness. But, to me, that’s not love – it’s infatuation. When I met Dave, it felt so right, and there was none of that. It was a different kind of headiness. I felt kind of stoned for a couple of months, actually.
But with previous boyfriends, had you had more of a rush?
Yes, more of a rush – and less solidity.
Are acting and marriage a bit like therapy for you?
Yes. I believe in transformation. I think change and transformation is all there is in life and certainly it dribbles into the emotional quarter. [Laughs.] My work makes me feel awake and alive because I’m always learning and thinking about things from different angles and other people’s perspectives. And I guess c a marriage is similar in that you’re intimately involved with someone else who has a lot of similarities, but also a lot of different beliefs and opinions, and you have to want to exist together. So there’s a lot of peeking around corners and trying to see something from someone else’s point of view – and that can be a stretch for a stubborn person. Having said that, my husband is incredibly, urn – well, he’s just amazing. I really don’t think he’s your typical bloke, actually.
Because he talks. And he’s a real gentleman. And he cares in a way that he can express. Oh, God – I’ve suddenly realised I’m spilling my guts about my husband in an interview! [Laughs.]
And has motherhood been remarkable?
Totally mind blowing. Both the pregnancy – the idea of someone living and growing within you and the feeling that you can communicate with them even at that stage – and the birth itself is just the best. You can’t explain it – it’s something you have to experience. And the most overwhelming thing immediately after? I didn’t realise I had the ability to love that much. There’s such a depth of feeling that it absorbs you, and it’s the biggest thing ever, the biggest, most beautiful thing ever. And then there’s the day-to-day wonderfulness of watching your child grow and that just makes you smack your forehead in disbelief.
How do you look back on your own childhood?
Fondly – though I’m obviously starting to get old in that I can’t remember a lot of things clearly any more. And I suspect I’ve romanticised it to the hilt.
Your father fought in Vietnam – that must have been very significant.
Yes, it was a huge deal. I can’t believe he went through it.
Was it something you were aware of as a child?
I guess I became aware of it at a certain point. It’s something that my dad finds difficult to talk about even now and that in itself is quite potent. Man, I really feel for anyone having to be part of something like that.
And the veterans didn’t get any governmental help afterwards, whereas today they’d get a lot more support.
I don’t know if there is more support, you know. I have a good friend whose boyfriend fought in Iraq and I don’t think there is. I think it should be statutory. How can you go through such an extreme experience and be left to just get on with it? It’s so intense.
What do you want for your daughter?
Oh, Christ, I don’t know. Um… to know how to love. To allow herself to be loved. To listen. To try not to have fear. But, you know, Sage lives up to her name because she’s taught me so much. She’s very funny, very bright, wilful, determined, happy and really generous. And she makes me laugh. We’re with her all the time because we choose to be. Although, having said that, we recently found a wonderful person who can babysit once in a while – what a revelation! – so we’re rediscovering the odd restaurant.
You mentioned mentioned that you hoped Sage would not have fears. Is fear a big problem for you?
Oh, God, yes – I still have ridiculous fears.
Really? I can’t believe that.
Things like having to stand up and talk n front of people. Like at the Emmys recently – I was absolutely shitting myself. To death. [Laughs.]
What is it with you and death?
I think about it a lot – you know, what’s going to happen. I guess it’s the fact that I won’t exist and I won’t be around people that I love. I suppose my worst fear is that I don’t know what happens afterwards – it’s the ultimate unknown.
So, it’s the uncertainty that scares you?
Yeah. I think the nearer I get – and I am getting closer to it, I accept that – it doesn’t make me freak out so much any more. But I think the sooner I fully accept it, the sooner I will fully immerse myself in life. I think all this probably has a lot to do with my grandmother, who died when I was 12.1 was completely ill-equipped to deal with it, and the loss came back years later like a sledgehammer to the back of my head. She was a very lovely presence, totally amazing.
Has being married made you less fearful?
Yes, but it’s timing, too. I’m 37 now, not 12. I’ve changed a lot and grown a lot over the past few years and I think a degree of acceptance comes with that. At some point, you realise you’ve got to stop swimming upstream or putting the brakes on.
I’m going to lower the tone of the conversation a little now. In United States Of Tara, you’re married to Max, played by John Corbett, who was Aidan in Sex And The City…
Who is a very cute actor.
Is there a question in there somewhere or are you just declaring your love? [Laughs out loud.]
So, is he like Aidan in real life?
He has elements of that. I love John. He is one of the funniest people I’ve met in my life. He makes me laugh on a daily basis, and his enthusiasm and complexity never cease to make me smile. I have the best job in the world. I really love it. I’m so appreciative.
It’s almost the weekend, so one last question: what are you up to?
My husband has a gig tonight and I’m going to go to that and catch up with a whole heap of friends. And tomorrow I’ll have a dip in the ocean.