Toni's Taboo Time
Toni Collette’s controversial new role in Wanderlust.
It’s not necessarily the kind of claim to fame you boast about to your parents, or a career highlight you save up to tell the grandkids. But Wanderlust star Toni Collette is proud, if a little bemused by it just the same — after being credited recently as “the first woman to orgasm on the BBC”, the British TV institution which co-produced her latest psychological drama. She laughs now about the dubious title, telling Today: “I want to clarify, I don’t know if that’s actually true or not, but I loved that being thrown at me.”
The 45-year-old, Sydney-born actor plays Joy Richards, opposite Luther star Steven Mackintosh — a married couple struggling with a waning sex life, who take an unusually proactive approach to their midlife crises and adopt an open-marriage policy. With frequent sex scenes, nudity and masturbation, it was a role even the bravest actor must have approached with trepidation. “Abso-freaking-lutely!” Collette cries, channelling Mr Big in Sex And The City. “Some of the initial sex scenes were a little scary, but honestly, I became quite used to it.” Even so, she agrees the six-part Netflix series might make for some awkward binge-watching with your partner. “Although Wanderlust takes a healthy look at sex and relationships, some people find it really confronting watching it with their partners because it’s so honest and so raw. And it’s very much about things that people think and feel very deeply but don’t often talk about because it’s too confronting,” she says. “But once you open that can of worms, you really can’t put it away.”
Leaning forward, she continues: “I think sex is a little bit uncomfortable for people to watch because they are unsure of things.” Giggling, she adds: “I am totally talking out of my a… right now, but (at least) the subject is interesting. To me, sex is as normal as breathing and it should be viewed in that way. But both nudity and sex freak people out.” In her personal life, the Oscar nominee has been married to musician Dave Galafassi for 15 years; raising their children — daughter, Sage, 10, and son, Arlo, 7 — in Los Angeles. While her domestic situation is worlds away from her character’s choices, Collette is blase about the show’s focus on open marriages.
“Well, each to their own,” she shrugs, “but look, there’s been such a fuss made about the sex in the show. It’s certainly a big part of the story, but it’s the entry level to the story because it becomes so much deeper and so much more moving and psychologically complex and intricate.” What caused the downward spiral in the Richards’ marriage was a cycling accident Joy suffered and its residual effects; manifested by her taking stock of her life. “She has this near-death experience and realises how finite life is, how temporary this gift of life is, so she starts to reassess her life and re-prioritise, and I think that’s what the story is about. We are all so asleep in our lives and sometimes it takes something to wake you up, (make you) start living the life you want.”
Collette enjoyed walking in Joy’s shoes: “There’s not much that I don’t like about her, even the way she is incredibly flawed and a little bit selfish in what she is trying to do, but I found the whole story just so beautiful and so honest.” Given the problems that arise between Joy and her husband Alan after they take their unconventional step towards reinvigorating their relationship, could Wanderlust be taken as a cautionary tale for complacent marrieds considering going down a similar route? “I don’t know if it’s a cautionary tale, but I think it’s a really inspirational story about some really brave people trying to save their marriage and who step outside societal norms and expectations,” she says. “That takes guts . . . but ultimately, the overarching idea of the story to me is people who are waking up to their very existence and figuring out how they want to live.”
Joy is a therapist, with Collette admitting she is a fan of the science, seeing it as an essential mental health support. “Yeah, absolutely,” she nods. “I think it’s too easy to go through life without self-knowledge. And ultimately, if you understand yourself, then you will be able to understand the world in a deeper way.” She also likes to immerse herself in physical and spiritual activities. “I exercise — I like to be in nature and the more I am in nature, the better I feel in my body. But I think meditation is really powerful, and pranayama (the practice of controlled breathing) is really quite transformative and blissful.” The intensity of the role might account for rumours from the set that Collette could be “a diva” at times.
A report in UK newspaper, The Sun quoted a production source, saying: “When the cameras roll, she’s a pro. But once they stopped, she was unpredictable — OK some days, moody the next. You expect a level of drama with lead characters and Hollywood types, but she was just a whole new level” — allegations Collette would not address. On a happier note and with Christmas fast approaching, she is gearing up for her annual pilgrimage back to Sydney to visit with her family. “The first thing I do when we get there is see my parents and then swim in the ocean. That’s pretty much it; if I can do those two things, I am sorted,” she smiles. “Going home is really about being with our tribe and enjoying Sydney . . . that feeling of home is a feeling you can’t fabricate.”
Wanderlust streams from Friday on Netflix.