Toni Collette tells Giles Hardie about having fun at 40, how she avoided typecasting after Muriel, and why she prizes playing so many raw, complex ‘women with kids’.
For many in Australia, Toni Collette is, and always will be, Muriel Heslop. It’s a role that has stuck with the prominent Australian actor as much for its own durability as for her capacity to elude stereotyping since. Playing a ”terrible” girl from Porpoise Spit shot Collette to international acclaim, laying the foundations for the array of extraordinary characters she has delivered on screen and stage since. Collette is the first to admit the ”profoundly life-changing experience” of Muriel’s Wedding (1994) gave her an ”unexpected career”. That 20-year career has led her to win or gain nominations for awards from Oscars to Tonys, Emmys and BAFTAs, plus a hatful of AFI awards. She has criss-crossed the globe as her star continued to rise. She has mostly shunned the celebrity life – though she admits she likes getting last-minute tables at exclusive restaurants – but still appeared in a high-profile bank ad last year, reading poetry. The recent media attention about court action taken against her regarding a soured Paddington real estate deal irked her but she’s also used the media in the past to push political messages or her music career.
In short, Collette is an enigma. The same can be said of her onscreen persona. The greatest theme to her roles might well be their lack of a theme. ”I’ve never been boxed in,” she says. ”After Muriel’s Wedding, I first went to America and I was sent all these scripts about fat girls overcoming hurdles. Something in me knew not to go down that road, even if it was a good script. I just never want to repeat myself. I also don’t want to be bored in life. The great luxury of being an actor is you get to be different people, and I would hate to be repetitive.” Her latest film, The Way Way Back, is no exception. The coming-of-age film is about a boy, Duncan, with a crippling lack of self-confidence and a divorcee mother (Collette) in a bad relationship, and who finds solace in a job at Water Wizz water park.
Collette loves that her character, Pam, is a hopeless parent, and she played the role less sympathetically to give her more depth. ”I think she’s got an idea of what she wants to create in a family but she’s chosen the wrong guy. I love that she’s completely flawed, really. I think the audience will find her really frustrating.” Collette loves to see her co-stars stretching as well. Steve Carell plays her boyfriend, Trent, ”a horrible, manipulative, mean person”. Despite her role as his victim, Collette sees it as ”a great thing” for Carell to play a bastard. ”I think he was oscillating between loving it and finding it difficult,” she says with delight, ”because he’s a really nice guy.” For Collette, repetition is the only real character evil. And although she claims to ”find it hard to do things comparatively”, she is swift to articulate the difference between any two of her characters, such as the disparate mental illnesses she portrayed in Mental and United States of Tara. There is more besides the common thread and Collette will show you the weave to prove it.
Or so it would seem. If Muriel’s Wedding launched Collette’s career, it was her Oscar-nominated performance in The Sixth Sense that landed her on Hollywood’s A-list, and it was also the first time she had played a mother in a big movie. Since then, many of her vastly discrepant roles – and arguably her most successful ones – have had one thing in common: they have all been mums. Yet that isn’t how we label her. No matter how many times Collette plays a mother onscreen, or off (she has a daughter, Sage, and a son, Arlo), Collette is not seen as a mother. As The Huffington Post said recently, she has ”made a name for herself portraying raw, awkward, complex female characters”. The reason is simple: Collette doesn’t play mothers; that is, certainly not the traditional Hollywood or television mother.
”I would go insane if that was what my life was,” Collette says. ”I hate it when the mother is just the mother in movies. I grew up watching some movies in the ’80s [with] these two-dimensional women who bring in the shopping bags.” It is a stereotype she sees as ”really divisive and boring and misrepresentative”. Instead, Collette plays ”women who have kids”. ”Mothers are so awesome,” she says. ”They do so much. They wear so many hats and have very passionate relationships with their kids, and with life, and I think it’s a real balance having your own existence and then being this responsible, kind of loving person in someone else’s life or several other people’s lives. ”I know I’ve played a lot of them and I’m glad they’ve all been different,” says Collette, who seems genuinely thrilled to discuss this common thread to her characters. She works hard once she’s taken a role to ensure that – if applicable – the word ”mother” defines her relationship in the film, not her character. ”I try to breathe some life and reality into them and make them different.”
Not that she chooses her roles dependent on parental status. Her script selection is still based on ”gut instinct”, as it was when she turned down the post-Muriel fat-girl roles. It works. Collette continues to outwit the oft-articulated Hollywood dearth of roles for women beyond their 20s and has a list of roles in varying stages of production longer than many others’ careers. Seemingly unwilling to see herself as exceptional, Collette disputes the lack of female roles. ”I don’t feel that any more. Is that still happening? It feels archaic.” When reminded that this year an actor sued the internet site IMDb for ruining her career by publishing her real age, Collette laughs. ”But it’s honest. That’s so funny,” she says. ”I’m proud of my years, man. I’m doing some exciting things and kind of feel very lucky and fortunate, so that’s crazy talk.”
Proudly 40, then, Collette is an actor incredibly well regarded by her peers. She is known for completely inhabiting characters, physically and mentally, yet she still loves to have fun. On The Way Way Back, she enjoyed being the big kid with the other big-name actors – Carell, Alison Janney, Sam Rockwell – while the young actors were the focus, revelling in a set with two directors who created ”a relaxed, easygoing vibe”. When she realised that Liam James, playing son Duncan, and Rockwell had many scenes around and on the waterslides at Water Wizz, while Collette’s Pam never has a ride, there was one solution for an actor who puts as much work into relaxing on set as working: ”I did it about 30 times after they closed one day.” Collette is now playing in New York, based there for Jerry Bruckheimer’s Hostages, her first significant role in a free-to-air American television series. ”I play a surgeon who has been chosen to operate on the president of the United States of America, and the night before this well-publicised surgery she and her family are taken hostage and they try to convince her to do all the wrong things to the president.”
Observing that the role is of another mother is no concern. Collette cringes only at the suggestion she might be playing an all-action surgeon. It is a Bruckheimer show, after all, but, while the show will unfold in a real-time style similar to the series 24, Collette promises to deliver another unique character. A long list of future roles awaits, and Australia has its share – ”I love working at home,” she says. And what about theatre? Collette’s first roles were a school production of Godspell and the lead in a Bicentennial musical. A few Sydney Theatre Company and Belvoir roles later, she was nominated for a Tony Award in 2000 for her performance in The Wild Party on Broadway. ”I’m definitely open to it,” she says of treading the boards again. ”[It’s] just a matter of the right thing, and scheduling, because, man, if you’ve got to do it night after night, you want to love it and find it endlessly interesting.” So if anyone reading is planning a production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, you know who to call.
Playing the matriarch
Already the winner of a gaggle of gongs, Toni Collette would be a worthy nominee for one more award: world’s greatest screen mother/character with kid(s).
She stayed calm when her son saw dead people (everywhere) in The Sixth Sense (1999).
Her overly sheltered son saved her life in About a Boy (2002), before getting musical with Hugh Grant.
She balanced the needs of two sons, one with autism, in The Black Balloon (2008).
She drove a daughter across the US to enter a beauty pageant in Little Miss Sunshine (2006) – and joined in.
She was supportive of a vampire-hunting son in the remake of Fright Night (2011).
She united a family coping with a mother with dissociative personality disorder in United States of Tara (from 2009).
Now, in The Way Way Back, she’s a divorcee looking to a son stifled by a lack of self-confidence for direction.