I Am Toni, Hear Me Roar
Her latest project is set to scare audiences senseless, but for Toni Collette there’s little to fear as she stares down homesickness, outdated attitudes and the push-pull of motherhood.
We sit down with the indomitable Ms Collette.
Toni Collette’s camping swag is growing dusty in storage, alongside more everyday paraphernalia from her former life in Australia, where she and husband Dave Galafassi once lived in a house by the beach in Sydney. “I haven’t used it in a long time,” Collette tells STM, with 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 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, she admits feeling homesick.
“We’ve been based in LA for almost 31/2 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 working-class western Sydney suburb of Blacktown, while Galafassi grew up in Port Macquarie on the mid-north coast of NSW. But coming “home” is unlikely to happen any time soon. Hereditary, which is being touted as The Exorcist for a new generation, 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. 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 around 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.”
Collette has for years earned acclaim for an on-screen 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,” she says. “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. Mum Judith worked in customer service and her father, Bob, was a truck driver.
“I think they found it strange and exciting,” Collette says of her chosen vocation. “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 performances. “In my work, I try to make it as honest as possible, because I think there is enough faff in the world,” she says. Now, as a mother, geography has played a role in the upbringing of her children, daughter Sage, 10, and son Arlo, 7. She accepts an itinerant lifestyle is part and parcel of her chosen career, but 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,” she says. “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 range of mothers in conflict, including a suicidal single parent in About a Boy, her Oscar-nominated performance as a woman on the verge of a breakdown in The Sixth Sense, Jasper Jones’s desperate ’60s housewife, and, of course, United States of Tara’s sensationally splintered title character. When STM observes that, even now, postnatal depression and maternal filicide — both explored in Hereditary — are taboo subjects, Collette isn’t afraid to tell it like it is.
“That’s f–king ridiculous,” she says, pointing out that social squeamishness surrounding maternal ambivalence is 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, STM suggests the cultural shift represented by the #MeToo movement is still in its early stages. 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, becoming something quite powerful and something to behold, I was busy in Manchester with my head down and bum up,” she says. “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 female actors forming production companies. Vocab Films has already optioned a couple of books and Collette is working on a 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 — meeting her kids as they come out of school.
Hereditary is in cinemas from Thursday, June 7.