Toni Collette On ‘The Realistic Joneses’ and Why She Shaved Her Head
In Will Eno’s Broadway play, “The Realistic Joneses,” opening April 6 at the Lyceum Theater, Toni Collette plays Jennifer Jones, a woman whose laconic husband (Tracy Letts) has a rare terminal illness. When her new neighbors, also called the Joneses (played by Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei) show up, the four characters start interacting in all sorts of weird ways. Mr. Hall’s character can’t seem to stop talking – he says all the things most people tend to keep to themselves; Ms. Tomei’s is an emotional mess; and Ms. Collette’s Jennifer has the difficult task of keeping it together when everyone around her starts to lose it.
Ms. Collette, who became a worldwide star 20 years ago as the adorable star of ‘Muriel’s Wedding,’ has gone on to play everything from a schizophrenic mom in “United States of Tara” and an unhappily married yuppie in last year’s “Enough Said” to the mother of a child pageant star in “Little Miss Sunshine.” Her next film, “Lucky Them,” which will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, is a romantic comedy about a rock journalist in search of the one that got away (played by Johnny Depp). The Journal spoke to her about her wide-ranging career, Johnny Depp’s talent and Tracy Letts’s giggle. Below is an edited transcript.
Will Eno seems to have a very intense brain. Is he a very intense person?
He’s very shy and gentle, and he kind of traverses between an abstract valley and a very articulate, pointed area when he speaks. He and his play somehow harness all the feelings we fail to articulate. I love his brain. His mind and his spirit and his essence are lifted out of his body and placed on that stage. I look forward to saying his words every night.
The characters are so bizarrely drawn.
The Michael C. Hall character, he has no filter. I see that character as someone who is trying to do two things. He’s trying to face something but he’s also on the run. He’s protecting his wife [Marisa Tomei] who can’t handle much emotionally, and he’s been [given some horrible news]. Tracy Letts’s character is dealing [with similar problems] in a very different way. One is imploding and one is exploding.
And what’s the deal with your character, Jennifer?
I think she’s a slow, steady, empathic force who’s able to communicate pretty well with people and kind of tells it like it is. Will’s always saying “Jennifer’s got bigger fish to fry.” Initially during rehearsal, I’d be watching the other actors, and I was like, “Jesus, this is not fair!” They’re all so whiz bang and idiosyncratic and have all these incredible lines that seem so circuitous and hysterical and as I said I’m kind of this slow, steady train. I have a couple of funny lines, but she’s kind of the grounded one.
Did you understand the play right away? It’s kind of cerebral.
Yes, but that’s the wonderful thing about it, it grows and grows. I’ll be doing a quick change back stage and I’ll hear a character say something and – that’s what I mean about his writing being ambiguous – because it seems kind of mundane and simple but if you think beyond it, suddenly it’s resounding and has this kind of shadow meaning. And then it will bounce back to the way you originally heard it. It’s so layered in that way and I love that.
He has such a specific way of using language. Do you guys find yourselves speaking like your characters after the play?
Yes. We all find ourselves speaking in a Will Eno play off stage. Because now it’s familiar and it’s also fun to do. I said something the other day and Tracy and Michael were laughing hysterically. Tracy asked me if there was a specific role or play I’d like to do, and I said, “No, I always get asked that, and no, there isn’t. I can’t think of one thing. I should make a list.”
I don’t get it.
Exactly! I’m saying I have nothing in mind but yet I should make a list. I want to make a list of nothing.
Oh! [Embarrassed laughter.] I get it. I feel like he sees double meanings in everything. In every word.
Because there are.
But how exhausting to always think that way.
But maybe he’s not exhausted by it.
Tracy Letts always strikes me as so serious, and here he’s in a comedy. Is he very serious?
I have never known someone to laugh more. He has the most infectious giggle. A quiet understated giggle, but I hear it all day. I find him so warm, and there’s something withheld about him, even the way he speaks. He’s very measured. But he’s very accurate. He’s got a lot of good zingers.
With a lot of actors I meet, I feel, rightly or wrongly, that I already know what their personality will be like because they play themselves on screen. I had no idea what kind of person you would be. I’ve never seen you play the same character twice.
That is an awesome compliment. That’s not what I set to do, but I want to try to create new characters. I would get bored otherwise. And I think it’s the great luxury of being in this position. When I first came to America, I had a manager in L.A., and I was being offered a few things and they were all very much in the same vein of “Muriel’s Wedding.” And there was something in me that knew not to go there. I just knew not to. It’s very easy for people in this industry to be categorized or boxed in. It hasn’t happened to me.
Because you haven’t let it.
I just have a gut reaction to the material, and it doesn’t matter to me which medium it is as long as it’s f – – great. It just has to get me. I just have to feel it. And it’s strange. I’ll be reading something for the first time, and I can sense it, and feel it, and hear it. And if that’s happening, I know I should do it. It happens automatically.
You always play down your looks and you have no problem gaining weight for roles, either. It’s sort of suprising to realize you’re so hot.
[Laughs.] Not every character I play will look like me and I don’t always look like this, either. I want to create a character that feels real and has a certain element of truth. And not everyone looks like an actor. People are very varied in their appearance, and their appearance is usually an extension of how they feel internally. So depending on the story, I’ve done several things to help create the physical side of the character as well as bring about some emotional truth and presence.
You apparently were such a convincing actress as a child that you convinced your parents, and a surgeon, that you needed an appendicitis. And you got one.
I told Tracy and Michael this the other day and Tracy said, ‘Oh, that’s such an actor thing to do.” But I wasn’t acting. At that point I was just a kid mucking around and my mum told me that when she was 11 she had her appendix taken out, and she told me how it felt, and her experience of it. And when I turned 11, I remembered it, and said “Oh I’ll give this a crack.” And I ended up in surgery. And it’s so embarrassing. Its 30 years ago, and I don’t entirely understand it. I was a kid, but yes, it did happen.
Why are you embarrassed?
It’s so extreme and ridiculous.
So you didn’t need appendicitis at all?
Did you want to skip school?
No. I liked school and I was good at it. I enjoyed it.
That’s pretty amazing.
Weird is another word for it.
Will you tell your kids about this?
No! No, I will not!
Tell me why you wanted to do “Lucky Them.”
I love the script. I loved the story, about this woman treading water, unable to move on in life because she’d been so hurt by the loss of this man that she’d loved. I think that’s quite common. We build walls and close-up. And once you feel a little bit of pain, then its hard in life to try to remain open.
Especially if the man you lost is Johnny Depp.
Ha! True. But I now realize why Johnny Depp is Johnny Depp. He was so present and open and grounded. It’s hard when you have a small part in a movie to walk on set and make it real. His scene was shot in just one day and he was so sweet and so good. Really connected, you know?
Do you find the conventions of romantic comedies a little silly?
I loved the script. For me it’s more about a woman getting to know herself and dealing with her demons and moving through them. And the platonic relationship that results. I like films that surprise me, stories that are unique and unusual in some way, and have some element of originality and truth. I guess if you’re calling “Lucky Them” a rom-com, it is a formulaic nightmare. But sometimes they can be fun if they’re well made. But it’s not really an area I dabble in often.
Why this one?
Because it was more. More. Full stop. Period, as you say. It had depth it, it had a sense of reality, and growth, and wasn’t about a woman ending up with a guy. It was a woman ending up with herself. Also she wasn’t the typical romantic comedy female lead. She was a mess. In a good way. A gritty way.
You shaved your head five times in your twenties. Why?
I had great time in my twenties. Your twenties are extreme. I was working a lot, I was bouncing around the planet, I was living out of a suitcase, I was playing different characters, meeting different people. And just also growing and learning. And just very basically, shaving your head feels good. I did it once for a friend’s fashion show in London, and I did it in a Peter Greenaway film. The first time I did it, I turned 25 in Mexico and I walked past the barber shop and that was that. And I did it like three days after meeting my husband just to see if he could handle it.
Your ego is so not wrapped up in appearances.
I tend not to focus so much on the exterior of humans. I’ve naturally always been that way and for a long time I think that really grated against this industry. If you become successful, people expect you to turn up looking a certain way and that didn’t gel for a while. I use to find it quite frustrating.
And then what happened?
I stopped caring.
Are you Buddhist?
No, but I think Buddhism is the loveliest of all organized religions. It’s the kindest. It’s the most inclusive.
Yes, absolutely, but that’s got nothing to do with Buddhism.
How did you start?
I tried it in my late teens, early 20s, but I was kind of s – – at it, so I did a little more flinging myself around. But i got into it seriously when I went to India. I did a retreat in 1999.
What does it do for you?
If it’s good, you get to that point of relaxation. But it’s really about accepting. You accept whatever comes up, and if you don’t fight it, and don’t get involved in a dialogue with it, it dissipates so then you’re able to be a little more present, which allows the relaxation.
Which character that you’ve played is most like you?
My pat answer first is if an actor plays a character, there will always be a part of them in that character. But “Lucky Them” – that’s very close. There’s something there that’s very familiar. Not in the messy ways, but there’s something there.
Who are your favorite playwrights?
I love Chekhov. He knows what he’s doing. He just knew life. And it’s timeless. And it’s relevant. I remember seeing “The Seagull” at The Royal Court and afterward I had to get into the cubicle in the loo and be like, “Oh my God.” It was so real. He got it. And I’m loving Will and Tracy right now. But I don’t have a list. Maybe I should make one.