Toni Collette: "Every scene was like being punched"
Twenty years after her breakout role in Muriel’s Wedding, the Australian actor explains why it was hard to let go of her latest turn as an alcoholic mother – and why she remains a nomad at heart
Usually when you’re shooting a movie you start with an easy, ease-in scene,” says Toni Collette. “Maybe you’ll walk from your car to a store. But there was no such scene in this movie. Every scene was like being punched.” A full 20 years after her breakout role in Muriel’s Wedding, the Australian actor has earned the right to take things easy. But instead of spreading herself thin in studio movies, Collette is still happily taking risks in the independent world, as she does in Glassland, the second film by a little-known Irishman named Gerard Barrett, whom she describes later, in a very emphatic text, as “the real deal”.
Though really a showcase for rising star Jack Reynor, who plays John, a Dublin taxi driver forced, for fiscal reasons, into dodgy dealings, the film’s standout scenes belong to Collette as his alcoholic mother, Jean. In one indelible moment, a paralytic Jean explodes incoherently in the kitchen, as John captures her dribbly, drunken, almost feral performance on his smartphone. “I think we did two takes,” says Collette, surprisingly breezily. “That was it. Electric.”
The attraction, she insists, was the script. “My agent sent it to me, and it blew me away,” she says. “Then I spoke to Gerard on Skype. We had some frozen, frustrating moments, as you do with technology, but I really got a sense of a very grounded, perceptive, wise person. He wrote it, he understood what’s going on in the story. It’s so much more than a kitchen-sink drama. It’s a love story, and it has poetry.
“It rang very, very true. Ultimately, no matter what kind of story it is, if there’s a kernel of truth in it that resonates with me, I’m very eager to jump in. I just knew I had to do it. I’m never really a fence-sitter. I’m either on or off.”
As is often the case, there was “a bit of a wait” before shooting began in January last year. “I’d been living with the idea of it for a while and I was quite nervous about it too,” Collette says, “because it was pretty emotionally raw. I was only on it five days but it had the emotional intensity of a three-month shoot. It knocked me for six. But it was very profound and satisfying. I focused a bit on the accent, because I didn’t want to misrepresent anyone, or embarrass myself, or fuck up the film. But it soon became real. I think that’s Gerard’s style. You feel like you’re observing life rather than watching a movie.”
Collette is surprised by the idea that a low-budget film in Ireland might be out of the ordinary for an Australian who often works in Hollywood. “As an actor, that’s not strange at all. I basically live out of a suitcase. I’m a nomad at heart. They could have shot it on the moon, it doesn’t matter that it was Dublin.
“It’s a universal story. But I’ve spent a lot of time in Ireland. I had a house in County Wicklow in my 20s and I had a lot of friends there. Y’know, Australia is a long way away, and I used to work a lot – well, I still work a lot – in the northern hemisphere, and instead of flying home, I’d go and stay with a very good friend in Dublin. So it’s a very familiar stomping ground.”
Aside from the acting pyrotechnics, Glassland is a visceral reminder of what keeps Collette in the public eye. There are mainstream movies on her CV – The Sixth Sense, Changing Lanes and, perhaps most bizarrely, the remake of Shaft – but it’s the eclectic range of indies that stand out. What keeps her going? “I think acting arrests me, it keeps me awake,” she says. “The way people live their lives, the whole psychological labyrinth, is what turns me on, so the job itself feeds me,” she says. “I still find it exciting. I’ve done it since I was a teenager and I’m 42 now and I’m not bored – and I would be bored if I played the same kind of character. The great luxury of being any kind of artist is that you explore and challenge yourself. You can paint different pictures. You don’t have to draw a cloud every day.”
Did she see the Oscars – notably Patricia Arquette’s speech, in which she made an impassioned plea for equal opportunities? “I saw some of it and I loved it. That was a great moment and … why not? The whole world was watching her, and it was a very honest statement. I think there is a great imbalance, not only in my industry but in all industries, and it’s got to change.”
Collette takes umbrage, however, at the suggestion that equal opportunities should also extend to parts being offered, and that Jean is the latest in a long line of mothers she has played, from About a Boy, to Little Miss Sunshine and The Way Way Back. “I’ve said this before,” she says, “but it makes me crazy when people say, ‘Oh, you’ve played so many mothers’ – as though it’s all the same character. All people are different. All women are different. A lot of women haven’t had children but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re individuals and have some kind of individuality and spark about them. I mean, this particular woman [in Glassland] – it’s certainly a case of arrested development. She’s emotionally thwarted and can’t move beyond it. And instead of facing her pain, she decides to try to numb it out, and it becomes a habit that’s killing her.”
Is it hard to walk away from a character like Jean? Do they stay with her?
“Yes and no. In the past I would have said, ‘No, I leave work at work. Maybe there’s some residual hangover that takes a minute to wash off.’ But I’m finding it harder to let go. I just have to make more of an effort to do it. At the end of Glassland I went for one last shot of whiskey with Jack. We hopped in a car, went to a bar, had one little drink, said, ‘man, thank you so much – it was unexpected and amazing,’ and then I was taken to the airport. I didn’t even finish the whiskey, Jack did, but I got on the plane and they must have thought I was a junkie. I was shivering and covering myself up. I spent the flight from Dublin to London throwing up in the bathroom, and I honestly think it was an emotional response to the movie. I’m a very healthy, fit person, and I hadn’t done anything outlandish. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I have no other explanation.”
Does she drink socially? “I go through phases. I’m not drinking at the moment, but I have been known to put it away.” She laughs. “It depends what’s going on! Lately I’m just enjoying the clarity.”
Collette is currently in New Zealand, working on a horror comedy called Krampus about a supernatural folkloric alpine goat-man who, like an inverse Santa, punishes people for being bad at Christmas time. It is, she says, “bonkers”. Part of a game plan, perhaps, to keep mixing things up?
“I’ve never had a game plan. It’s just if something comes along and it feels right in the moment. Krampus had a certain originality about it, so I jumped on board. The one thing I want to do – and I am doing – is starting my own production company, for me to produce and direct in the future. Have a bit more say and control – become the storyteller more than just the character. I want to choose the story, plant the seed and watch it grow. I just want to have a bit more involvement. And tell stories that I want to tell, which are more female-driven.”
Is that a theoretical wish to direct or a real ambition? “Oh, I definitely want to direct. I have young children. My job is already big enough, and I imagine it will be even more so as a director, and I don’t want to miss out on them growing up. I’m going to wait until they’re a bit older before I leap into that seat.”