House of Horror
It is Toni Collette as you have never seen her before. In the intense horror film Hereditary, the 45-yearold Aussie actor plays a terrified woman plunged into emotional agony that shakes her to her core. The manic extent of Collette’s performance is unlike anything in her more than 70 film roles to date.
Hereditary’s rookie director Ari Aster says he regularly “pinched” himself on set as the award-winning thespian produced an acting masterclass in her first fullblown horror role. “I know Toni had to go to some really dark places for this film,’’ Aster says. “I know it was gruelling for her. She told me she had never done anything quite as difficult as this.’’ Collette plays mother-of-two Annie Graham, whose family starts to fall apart following the death of her mother Ellen, the matriarch of the family.
As Annie, a doll-maker, begins to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about her ancestry, her family experiences a series of bizarre occurrences and seems to be the subject of a sinister fate. Audiences are kept on edge with Collette’s gripping performance, wondering whether Annie’s increasingly erratic behaviour is the result of deep grief, possession by evil spirits or mental illness. “One of the most memorable moments was the dinner table scene when Toni is screaming and is emotionally in agony,’’ he says. “You would have Toni doing these things on set that you have never seen her do in any other movie. Then you think, nobody could have done it better.”
The American writerdirector’s film — which is reminiscent in some scenes of cult classics such as The Exorcist — was one of the hits at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “The way I’ve been pitching the film is that it’s a family tragedy which curdles into a nightmare,’’ he says. As Aster knew he would nee need a strong cast to pull off the required dramatic gravitas. Collette is joined by Ann Dowd ( The Handmaid’s Tale), who plays her new friend Joan, while veteran actor Gabriel Byrne ( The Usual Suspects) features as her husband Steve. Her children Charlie and Peter are played by Milly Shapiro, who won a Tony Award for her lead role in Broadway musical Matilda, and Alex Wolff ( Jumanji). “You want people to be invested in the characters and story, so performances needed to be right,’’ Aster says. “With Alex, he was totally method. He was basically in character for two months. With Toni, she is an incredibly disciplined actor. She would dive into character and when I said ‘cut’, she was back to being Toni.”
Aster originally sent the script for Hereditary to Collette, who then agreed to meet for a Hollywood lunch. “I told her that I felt I hadn’t seen her chew apart the scenery in that way before (like Hereditary) so this was a new opportunity for her. “The script was one which really made extreme demands on the actors. I knew I needed an actor who has real chops. It’s hard to secure someone who would really want to do something that demanding. It requires a certain lack of vanity to kind of throw yourself off the deep end.” Collette was the first actor to sign on, which ensured the project went ahead. She is no stranger to playing the matriarch of dysfunctional families: starting with her Oscarnominated performance as the mother of a young boy who sees ghosts in M. Night Shyamalan’s psychological horror The Sixth Sense; she heads up one of cinema’s most eclectic families in Little Miss Sunshine; and in her Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning role she plays a mother with multiple personalities in the TV series United States of Tara.
Aster has been a fan of Collette since her breakout role as ABBA-loving ugly duckling Muriel Heslop in Muriel’s Wedding back in 1994. “Toni is someone I’ve been watching since I was a kid,’’ he says.