Toni Collette: It's about a family that's grieving... it's honest and horrific
Toni Collette is hoping to terrify audiences with her new horror movie Hereditary. She tells Laura Harding why she believes it’s so cathartic to be scared.
It’s been almost two decades since Toni Collette starred in The Sixth Sense. The Australian actress (45) was nominated for an Oscar for her turn as the mother of a young boy who sees dead people.
Now she is returning to the supernatural genre for her new film Hereditary, about a family battling malevolent forces that are trying to colonise their bloodline. It has already been hailed as one of the scariest films in years.
But taking on such intense, not to mention terrifying, subject matter was never part of the plan.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to do anything heavy or emotional. I just want to do comedies, I want to keep it light’,” Collette says.
“Then I was sent this script and I was like, ‘I’m going to have to do this’ because it was just so brilliantly written.
“I’m assuming I had the experience that you get as an audience member when you’re watching.
“It feels fresh, original, raw and very surprising, and I think as an actor and as an audience member that’s what you want – you want to be woken up and have something exciting.”
Collette plays artist Annie Graham, whose mother’s death prompts her family to unravel secrets about their ancestry.
The result blends horror, dread and a deeply unnerving fear of the unknown.
“I just loved it,” the Muriel’s Wedding star says, “and then when I met Ari Aster, who wrote and directed Hereditary, he was just very clearly in control of what he was doing.
“He had such a vivid, strong, clear vision, and I felt very much like I could trust him.
“I had to be very vulnerable as an actor, and he was just so dedicated and aware of every single nuance in the movie and just completely married to the story.
“When you have a director like that, it makes you feel that you can try anything.”
Some audiences have reacted so strongly to the film that there has even been crying and screaming in screenings, but all that is good news for Collette.
“It just means they’re drawn into the story. With so many films, you are able to sit back and not be a part of it,” she says
“The point of storytelling is to be able to be absorbed by it, and I guess that’s happening successfully, so that’s a great thing.
“But there are moments of levity in the film, and they come about naturally.
“I don’t know whether Ari intended them, because we all played it completely straight, but maybe it was written in there.
“With the nervous anxiety of watching the movie, there are moments that rise to the surface where there’s nervous chuckles, which is lovely to be a part of.”
The reaction has been so positive that it has become that rare thing – a horror film generating Oscar buzz.
“It’s really flattering,” Collette says. “I’m just excited that people are excited about a movie and want to see it.
“As an actor, the experience for me is making it, and making the movie was perversely satisfying, as well as difficult and exhausting, so it’s really lovely and gratifying that people are interested in it at all, let alone have that level of excitement about it.”
It has already been a good year for thrillers and chillers, with A Quiet Place, directed by John Krasinski and starring his wife Emily Blunt, pulling in $300m at the global box office, with good reviews to boot.
There was also Steven Soderbergh’s unsettling Unsane, starring The Crown’s Claire Foy, and Ghost Stories, starring Martin Freeman and Paul Whitehouse.
If the world is a scary and uncertain place, why are audiences still flocking to see terrifying tales?
“Maybe because it’s worse than reality?” Collette suggests.”But I think this isn’t a straight genre film. I think it’s a combination of things, and I think that’s probably something people are attracted to in this one. It’s very much about a family that’s grieving and there’s a real honesty to it, as well as it being horrific.”
That family is in fact inspired by Aster’s own, who endured a string of trials over a gruelling three-year period.
“Things had gotten so relentlessly awful that the feeling prevailed that we basically must be cursed,” he says.
“I’m always writing from a personal place, but I also love genre, and I’d never want to baldly dramatise any of the suffering that I or my family had gone through.
“By taking the idea of a family being cursed and then literalising that, I was able to put a lot of those feelings through a horror movie filter, where the canvas demands a high level of catharsis.
“If you’re making a film about life being unfair, the horror genre is a very unique playground for that.
“It’s this sort of perverse space where life’s injustices are celebrated and even gloried in.
“This is a movie about inheritance – the notion of having no choice who your family is or what’s in your blood. It’s about the horror of being born into a situation over which you have no control. There’s nothing more upsetting to me than the idea of being absolutely powerless.”
Hereditary is released in UK cinemas on June 15