The Interview: Toni Collette
The award-winning actress is one of Hollywood’s most respected stars – but don’t assume you know her, says Natalie Evans-Harding.
Toni Collette is pre-occupied. Grinning, head down, she’s scrawling a letter on the table between us. It’s a “Remember me?” note to her green-card spouse, David Van Arkle, no less. Or rather, fellow Australian actor Daniel Lapaine, who starred opposite her as the South African pro-swimmer in beloved ’90s comedy Muriel’s Wedding. Through a bit of detective work (studying The EDIT’s call sheet the night before the shoot and peeking at photos dotted around today), Collette has deduced that, by incredible coincidence, we are shooting in Lapaine’s London home.
The chances of this are not only a million to one, but also a kind of bizarre happenstance. Because, 20 years after its release, it no longer feels relevant to bring up Muriel’s Wedding when speaking to 41-year-old Collette, and yet the cult movie that is haunting us at today’s shoot is still the reason she is regularly stopped in the street.
Since that breakout role, Collette has become a Hollywood stalwart, offered the best roles, working with the best directors, and all without shouting about it. In fact, she is such a character actor that it is easy to forget just how many of your favorite movies she has been in. Looking over her filmography is a fun game – ‘Oh, yes!…’ you’ll nod, as you process the number of critically lauded box-office hits she has starred in since playing Muriel, from Little Miss Sunshine, to About A Boy, to The Sixth Sense.
“Good,” Collette says, grinning, when I posit this. “It should be about the story, not me. I’m not there to play myself; I’m there to tell somebody else’s story. I try to be honest and holistic in creating that person, so if you’re not thinking about me when you’re watching the movie, that’s ideal. I like that I can still catch public transport. It’s a big compliment.”
This isn’t just a viewer’s observation. Nowadays, Collette is simply offered big roles, as opposed to going through the rigmarole of auditions, such is the industry’s trust of what she brings to the table. This was the case with Steven Spielberg, for instance, who called her up and offered her the starring role in his television series, United States of Tara, about a housewife with dissociative identity disorder. “That was one of the best jobs of my life. I just got the call and that was it,” Collette says (the part won her an Emmy and Golden Globe). “[But] I don’t like people to just assume I’m right for a role, or think that they have some innate knowledge of what I’m going to do. So once in a while I’ll force an audition. I like to get in the room and show them.”
This marvelous sense of refusing to be labeled comes up frequently when you talk to Collette about her projects, life, and career. Aside from acting, she’s currently optioning several books, in order to produce them as movies herself (“I was sent a pie chart of the percentage of female directors versus male, and it was just embarrassing. Instead of complaining, I’m trying to support female directors, to do something about it. Actually contribute somehow”); she’s the front-woman of Toni Collette & The Finish (they released an album 10 years ago; her husband, Dave Galafassi, plays drums); and despite having two young children, daughter Sage, six, and son Arlo, three, she has so far refused to choose one country, or even one continent, to call home.
“There is part of me that will always have one toe in Australia,” she says of her birthplace, “but I’m a bit more of a global gal; I love traveling. I was just in New York for 13 months, the longest I’ve ever been anywhere, and I was so anxious to get out by the end. Without getting too deep, I do believe in oneness. I don’t feel like there’s a segregated world.”
Collette is currently filming with Drew Barrymore in London, and is determined to shed pounds from her already petite frame in order to manifest into the role of Barrymore’s terminally ill best friend for next year’s Miss You Already. She’s shaving her head, too, in the same pursuit, not long after our interview. Again. For the fifth time. Brave, I suggest.
“Not really,” she shrugs. “Shaving your head is like a cleanse for me, you know? That’s what it feels like. A fresh start. I did it for my friend once, because her fashion line was inspired by the hill tribes of Nepal; she plied me with champagne. I did it in a Peter Greenaway movie. I did it after meeting my husband. I did it for the first time in Mexico, on my 25th birthday. It comes from not wanting to feel boxed in, because people assume they know who I am. We’re constantly evolving, [so] it’s a big ‘F**k you, you actually don’t know who I am, because I don’t know who I am’. Everyone learns as they go along, and I don’t want to be hemmed in.”
As we get onto the subject of fashion – which Collette adores and describes flicking through magazines as “completely inspirational” – she admits to having a “real-life uniform”, made up of a wardrobe, or rather suitcases, of jeans. “The stretch is really good on Citizens of Humanity. I’m buying a pair of Victoria Beckham Denim jeans from the shoot today, actually. They were so flattering. And I’m so happy for her,” she says. Who? “Victoria Beckham! She’s obviously very talented, because from what I’ve seen her work is beautiful. She’s really gone on from the Spice Girls and created such a wonderful career for herself. It’s a great thing to be able to do that.”
And there it is. Victoria Beckham, pop star turned fashion designer, embodies that re-making, re-birth, that shedding of old skin that Collette admires so much. The truth is that Collette doesn’t really like talking about herself, in case it pigeon-holes her. When selecting roles, it comes from pure gut instinct. “I’ve only ever followed my heart. I try not to let my head get in the way too much.” The only common dominator is “that there is a truth about [the characters]. That they are flawed. Beautifully flawed, because we all are”.
The shoot wraps and as the crew packs up, Collette seems more obviously comfortable, chatting to the makeup artist about her holistic upbringing. I look down and notice the end of her letter to Lapaine on the kitchen counter. “Love from Toni”, it finishes, and then the hastily scribbled, “(Collette!)”. It conjures thoughts of all those famous types, the ones with much fewer accolades in their careers than Collette, who go by just one name. An assuming act, smacking of self-worth, one that you could imagine her smirking at. And yet, despite her refusal to be defined, Collette really doesn’t need to add the parentheses. Hector and the Search for Happiness is out now.