Toni Collette Compares Hereditary to In Her Shoes
Many critics are calling Hereditary the year’s most frightening horror film, and Toni Collette‘s sensational, mighty lead performance has been widely praised as one of the best ever in the genre, worthy of comparison to Jack Nicholson in The Shining and Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby.
In the merciless psychological thriller by first time writer/director Ari Aster, Collette plays Annie Graham, an artist whose family has suffered an unspeakable loss. Grief drives the Grahams apart, and Annie slowly discovers a terrifying truth about their inevitable fates.
Parade spoke with Collette about meditation, the grieving process and the surprising thematic similarities between Hereditary and In Her Shoes.
This movie is absolutely terrifying, and your performance is dynamite.
I feel pretty lucky… You’re really only as good as the material you’re given to work with.
What convinced you to commit to this very unique film by a first-time writer/director?
Because it’s so very original and unusual. Even on the page, Ari had a strong, bold and original voice. And he was even more impressive to work with on a day-to-day basis on set. He was meticulously prepared, and everything you see on screen was so thoroughly considered and intentional. Apart from all of this incredible detail he was so passionate and married to what he was doing. I feel he’s a true auteur and will be around for a long time. And on top of it all he’s just extremely kind.
He’s made a relentlessly, punishingly dark movie–and in person, he’s a sunny, smart, and very pleasant guy.
[laughs] I love it! He’s a great communicator. He’s so articulate and considerate.
Annie goes to some extremely dark places herself in the film. Just as an audience member, this movie is hard to shake. Was it hard for you as an actor to let all that go?
Oddly enough, as much as I appreciated the opportunity to do it, I kind of resisted it. I knew how full-on it was, and how intense it was going to be, and so I didn’t allow myself to ponder it too much. The writing is so good that it was immediately comprehensible what I needed to do and how far I had to go. I didn’t ruminate too much; I kind of pushed it all away. When you push things away, they somehow become bigger; the focus you put on something to push it away enlarges it. When it was time to let it rip, it all kind of flowed out. I didn’t really have to get myself into a headspace; once we started the film, it was kind of all-consuming. It was just kind of a matter of jumping in and getting out.
Can we compare Hereditary with another one of your great films: In Her Shoes? Both movies are about families dealing with tragedy and grief. In Her Shoes is a powerful story of a family working together to find grace. Hereditary is about a family that isn’t coping. Do you make the connection, too?
I do. And even beyond those two films, I think I am interested in the really deep, scary stuff that unites us as human beings. Something that is unavoidable, and that we all experience. Any story that sheds light on that and somehow unites people when they watch it I am eager to be a part of.
Working with [late In Her Shoes director] Curtis Hanson was one of the best experiences of my career. He and Ari were similarly so immersed in the world they were creating. That kind of passion and dedication is infectious. One thing that is very similar with them–Curtis was so meticulous, and so is Ari! They know exactly what they want. It’s so frustrating to work with a director who has no idea or clarity of vision. These guys can’t help but live within the vision. Everything they think and do and say and every person they involve is specific to that vision. It’s so exciting to work with someone like that. It makes you feel brave and safe.
Grief is one of the most difficult things a person can go through. Do you believe there are any keys to the grieving process?
I’m no expert, but I have grieved, but I would say a couple things: one is that there are no rules, and you need to do whatever you need to do. Secondly, don’t stop the feelings. The feelings are so intense that it can be overwhelming, and you tend to want numb it and stop it. The sooner you allow it to flow, accept it and absorb it, the less hold it will have on you and the sooner it will pass. That immediate pain is just hideous.
The loss and the memory, fondness and sadness will linger for all time, though to a lesser extent. If you try to stop feelings, it builds a dam, and eventually it will flood you. As painful as it is, I think that’s the healthiest way to approach it.
How do you cope when things get tough?
I find great solace in the real knowledge that I have built from time to time when I’ve found the space to meditate. There really is a connection between all of us. Not just a connection between us as human beings, but to nature itself. Once you see yourself as part of a whole, of the cyclical nature of life, it’s somehow comforting. I think having kids [Collette has one daughter and one son] really drove home that notion that we’re really all part of nature.
We have this temporary experience of existing in the physical world– and we can be zombies to it sometimes. It’s difficult to stay awake, and some of that is by design; it could drive you made to think about it all the time. When you really have a profound understanding of how connected we all are, you can’t help but have empathy for every other being, and it makes you a kinder person.
You won an Emmy for The United States of Tara, and you’ve played so many memorable roles where mental health is a factor. Is mental health a subject that’s really close to your heart?
I think that people who feel less in control of what’s happening in their mind–as an actor, to play that is way more interesting. There’s more room for complexity when it’s not black or white. And, nobody is black-and-white. Labels that we put on mental health are literally just that– labels. They’re just names for something they’re trying to understand. It can give you an inkling of what might be going on with someone, but the mind is so complex and there are so many variations. I like to celebrate that and make room for it rather than be nervous about it.
A mind like that is so fascinating, and so intelligent within itself to build a system in order to protect one’s self. It’s a survival skill, ultimately.
One of the things I loved about Hereditary is that it is ultimately about an awakening. When there’s such a revelatory moment in one’s life, you kind of associate it with a progressive, optimistic, life-changing light aspect. I like that Annie becomes more and more maniacal as she gets closer to the truth– and what’s really ambiguous is: is she finding the truth, or losing her mind? There’s a certain fragility to her.
While we’re on the subject of horror movies… what scares you the most in real life?
Oh, death [laughs]. The scariest movies entertain the idea of the unknown; the ultimate unknown is what happens beyond this existence. It is petrifying. I can understand why people choose certain fates, because it can be overwhelming to think about what lies ahead. I’m trying to fall in love with the mystery of it, because it would be a much more harmonious time here.
I do find it frustrating, and also it does scare me. It’s a natural thing, but as I get older it makes me appreciate life even more.
From A24, Hereditary opens June 8.