You’re terrifying, Toni
TONI Collette’s camping swag is growing dusty in storage — alongside more everyday paraphernalia from her former life in Sydney, where she and husband Dave Galafassi once lived in a house by the beach.
“I haven’t used it in a long time,” Collette tells Stellar, a rueful note in her voice. “It’s important to get out into nature. I find it really calming.” The countryside around Los Angeles, where she is now based, is “rather arid — all the hikes are a little bit dusty. But we are in the middle of a desert.”
The professional ecosystem in Collette’s adopted city, on the other hand, is proving to be exceptionally fertile. The 45-year-old actor has recently returned to the US — where her latest film Hereditary is generating significant early Oscar buzz — from six months in Manchester, where she filmed the BBC/Netflix co-production Wanderlust.
And last year she set up a production company, Vocab Films, to generate more of the meaty roles that challenge her, and eventually facilitate a move into directing. Nearly 25 years since Collette broke through in Muriel’s Wedding, it’s tempting to wonder what that awkward girl from Porpoise Spit would think if she could see all that Collette has accomplished since.
Yet despite all the success, and as she sits in her parked car waiting to pick up her children from school, the actor admits to Stellar she is feeling homesick. “We’ve been based in LA for almost three and a half years,” she says — the family sold their Bronte house in late 2014 for $5.75 million. “It’s a geographical choice, and to be honest, I long for home.”
Collette was born in the western Sydney suburb of Blacktown, while Galafassi grew up in Port Macquarie on the mid-north coast of NSW. “Home is home, and you can’t change that feeling. It’s in your gut,” she says. “I have got friends all around the world — I am very lucky in that way. But my family is in Australia. Most of my tribe is there and I want to return.”
That is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Hereditary, which is being touted as a new generation’s The Exorcist, opens next month. One critic described Ari Aster’s directorial debut, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, as “the most insane horror movie in years”. Another called it “pants-wettingly scary”. And some of the most effusive early praise focused on Collette herself; one reviewer described her “shattering portrayal of a woman besieged by an heirloom-like evil” as “one of the superlative performances of 2018”.
Collette says she rarely reads her own press. But this time round, it has been almost impossible to escape. “Everyone who worked on [Hereditary] has been so excited they just keep emailing stuff, so it’s been very much shoved under my nose,” she laughs. “There seems to be a definite energy around this one. People are very interested in it.”
For years Collette has earned acclaim for an onscreen presence that is “natural”, “warm” and “relatable”. Dan Wyllie, a friend and co-star who appeared with her in Muriel’s Wedding and again more recently in Jasper Jones, attributes these qualities to her working-class roots.
She has a different theory. “I don’t think it’s a geographical thing. I think it very much has to do with my family and the grounded, loving, warm environment I was brought up in.” Collette’s parents were not involved in the entertainment business. Her mother Judith worked in customer service. Her father Bob was a truck driver. Of their daughter’s chosen vocation, she says, “I think they found it strange and exciting. And I think they are quite proud. They’ve supported me in ways they knew how and they have done their absolute best, and I am so appreciative of them because it is a curly one. I’m just very grateful for my upbringing because I do feel very sturdy and very grounded.”
As an actor, Collette says she aims for transparency in her performance. “In my work, I try to make it as honest as possible, because I think there is enough faff in the world.”
Now, as a mother herself, geography has played a role in the upbringing of her own children: daughter Sage, 10, and son Arlo, seven. The actor accepts a peripatetic lifestyle is part and parcel of her chosen career. But, she says, “I guess it is a bit more obvious when you are not alone.” Hereditary was shot in Utah. Madame, the film she made before it with Harvey Keitel, was shot in Paris. And her upcoming film Birthmarked, with Matthew Goode, was filmed in Montreal.
“Obviously my family is the most important thing, but my work really informs me as a person as well. I find it immensely satisfying. I have been doing it since I was a teenager and I just love it. So I have to do it. I just have to make sure it’s worth leaving the house, really.”
Despite the nomadic lifestyle, she and Galafassi are self-described “hands on” parents. “We’ve had nannies from time to time, but we had kids because we wanted children and we want to be with them,” she says. “And I have to tell you, I hate every moment I am away from them. But I also think it’s really good for them to see me enjoying my job and knowing that you can also do that.”
The logistics of balancing her career and her family are “maddening” at times. “But it’s worth it in the end because, as I say, both areas of my life are really, really important to me,” she says. “And to some extent I’ve been lucky, because as an actor, families are very much welcomed. That’s not always the case [in other professions]. I remember when I was doing United States Of Tara, they stopped [filming] whenever I needed to go and breastfeed Sage. Where else would that happen?”
Fictional motherhood, in all its complexity, has loomed large over her artistic choices, too: she’s played an unusually wide and rich range of mothers-in-conflict, from a suicidal single parent in About A Boy to her Oscar-nominated performance as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown in The Sixth Sense, Jasper Jones’s desperate ’60s housewife, and, of course, United States Of Tara’s sensationally splintered title character. When Stellar observes that, even now, postnatal depression and maternal filicide, both of which get explored in Hereditary, are taboo subjects, Collette isn’t afraid to tell it like it is.
“That’s f*cking ridiculous,” she replies. Collette expands, pointing out that she considers social squeamishness surrounding maternal ambivalence to be “an archaic idea. Look at the time we are living in. That’s such an old, boring statement. It has nothing to do with 2018. There are so many conversations about women and how complex we are and how different we are. It seems like such a literally dumb idea to think that that’s the way it is, specifically in the last year. I mean, you would have to have had your head in the sand!”
In the face of such a forceful response, Stellar suggests the cultural shift represented by the #MeToo movement is still in its nascency. At this, Collette softens. “There is a way to go, but by god we have made strides since the ’50s and that’s not a very long time. So many things have changed. Over the last couple of years, it’s almost fast-tracked. And by necessity, absolutely.”
Still, Collette has not yet gone on the public record about the #MeToo campaign. Until now. “I guess while the whole campaign was erupting and becoming something quite powerful and something to behold, I was busy in Manchester with my head down and bum up. To be honest, I don’t really have any particular experiences to declare. But I am absolutely behind it. I am absolutely behind fairness and equity in the workplace. I am so moved and proud of the women who have come forward as they have been sitting on some pain for a really long time, and it takes a lot of guts to be able to do that.”
For Collette, the fight for equality — and interesting roles — is partly about taking matters into her own hands: she has joined the swelling ranks of actors who have formed their own production companies. Vocab Films has already optioned a couple of books and Collette is currently working on an original screenplay. “I’ve written ever since I was a young girl,” she says. “I’ve got a really great producing partner [Jen Turner] and things are happening. But it just all takes time. I mean, I am very busy with my day job…”
And with that, the actor/writer/producer moves onto her next commitment: greeting her kids as they exit school.
Hereditary is in cinemas from Thursday, June 7.