Toni Collette and Bella Heathcote on Pieces of Her and Their Mother-Daughter Dynamic
Based on the book by Karin Slaughter, the Netflix original series Pieces of Her follows what happens after a random violent event threatens to uncover secrets that Laura (Toni Collette) has been hiding from her now 30-year-old daughter Andy (Bella Heathcote). While Andy’s entire life is turned upside and everything she thought about who her mother is, is forever changed, she starts to piece together the truth about her family and the darkness that’s always surrounded them. During this interview with Collider, co-stars Collette (who’s also a producer on the series) and Heathcote talked about why they wanted to be a part of telling this story, how Heathcote gave up another job for a chance to play this character, how upsetting it was to shoot the violent event that sets the story in motion, why it can sometimes be more effective to not fully express all the emotions a character is going through, and how learning the truth could change this mother-daughter dynamic.
Collider: I really enjoyed this, particularly the relationship between your characters. Toni, you’re also a producer on this. How involved were you with the project? How early on were you involved? Were you aware of everything going on in this story?
TONI COLLETTE: A couple of scripts had been written and presented to me, when I was invited to be a part of it. I wanted to work with Bruna Papandrea, the main producer, for quite some time. I think she was excited to bring this to me, and I was just as excited to receive it. I loved it immediately. I thought the writing was great, I went on to just adore working with Minkie Spiro, our director. I think she brought so much to it and just made it so visually poetic and grounded for something that’s so heightened. It’s hard to imagine some of these circumstances. They just seemed so far away from my life and quite heightened, but it was always very grounded. Ultimately, it’s a story about finding one’s truth and facing it. It’s about finding a personal freedom, after being repressed for so long. I get off on those things, actually. The more psychologically circuitous, the better. I think stories about generational trauma are really interesting. Even more interesting are ones about those who are brave enough to try to break those cycles.
Bella, how did you come to this? How much were you told about the journey your character goes on and what was it like to learn about those reveals?
BELLA HEATHCOTE: I came about it just through auditioning for pilot season. I remember being asked to test for something and turning it down, even though it was still early in the audition stage for Pieces of Her. I remember saying to my agents, “I’d rather give up a job that I know is certain, just for a shot at this one,” because it was so good. It was just the best pilot script I’d read that year, by a country mile. I read the book before I read the other scripts because I just wanted to know what happened. In terms of actually getting the chance to explore the work and those reveals, they’re relentless, when she’s on that journey. Every moment, there’s some massive reveal, some massive betrayal, or some massive truth that she unfolds. Ultimately, the truth sets everyone free. There’s catharsis in that.
This is such an interesting story because you have this scene, in the first episode, with this shocking shooting, but that’s really only the beginning for everything that we learn about these characters. What was it like to shoot that whole confrontation sequence? How long did you spend shooting all of that?
COLLETTE: I think it was three days, all in all. I think everyone was a little nervous because there’s real sensitivity around something like that and you don’t wanna mess it up. There had to be absolute authenticity to it, and it was heavy. Also, it is the catalyst for basically the rest of the story to take off. It’s the moment the audience has to get on board with these women and be willing to go on this journey with them. So, no pressure there. Something like that is just so upsetting, but sadly, it does occur in America, and in other places around the world, from time to time. It’s hard to fathom how you would actually behave in a situation like that, so we just needed to make it really honest. The whole story is about protecting her daughter, but it goes from one kind of protection to something even bigger.
Bella, your character is learning things about her mother in this horrible, shocking situation, that she never could have imagined. What were the biggest challenges for you, in shooting all of that, and having this authentic, terrifying moment, but also all of these character reveals going on in that moment?
HEATHCOTE: One of the fundamental purposes in the series is for this woman to protect her daughter and for the daughter to uncover the truth, and those things are completely in opposition, a lot of the time. It was accessible, in that I could easily imagine how devastating and how much of a portrayal it would feel, if the person that was closest to me in my life, turned out to be a complete facade. I felt like I had an in there. But in terms of the day-to-day difficulties, some of it was just being in a scene with a blank TV screen. There’s something about going through IDs. I think we shot that five different times in five different locations, for five different reasons, just trying to find the truth and the revelation in that, each time. Prop acting, when I wasn’t lucky enough to be in a scene with Toni, were the trickiest moments.
Toni, your character in this seems much more contained with her emotions because she’s had so many years to live with this and to hide the truth of it all. What is it like to play that? Did you ever just want to have an emotional outburst with any of it?
COLLETTE: Well, it does happen, eventually. Yes, the character that I play is very withheld. She’s living a fabricated life, and there are so many lies that she needs to keep afloat. Apart from that, when this shooting happens, it just sets a crack in this whole wall of hers. Even though she’s so contained, once that happens, there’s a bit of panic and she’s trying not to let her daughter see it. She’s still trying to protect her, but this is the moment where she’s exposed and everything that she has created is basically gonna fall apart. Part of my character’s storyline is that she had had breast cancer, and there was a woman who was having treatment at the same time as her, who used to drive her bananas. And when that woman gets really ill and was in hospice and very close to death, my character goes to see her. Because she knows this woman will take it to the grave, she lays everything out. I think that’s the only moment where she talks about her life in a very, very honest way. It was a very intense scene. I felt so excited to work with that actress, Geneviève Lemon, because I’ve been watching her for a long time. There was a relief to it. It was like a wall that broke. It’s exhausting, repressing things and holding things in. I can’t help it, when I act, I feel things, so having to feel it and hold it in was even more exhausting than having the chance to be explosive about it. Um, which is a weird thing to discover.
Bella, what was it like for you to be on the opposite end of that, where your character is much more emotional because of everything she’s learning. And then, as she becomes more and more paranoid about who or what to believe, the emotions get that much more heightened. Was that just mentally and physically exhausting?
HEATHCOTE: Yeah, both ends of the spectrum are exhausting. I was correctly told by Minkie to hold the emotions back, particularly once I don’t trust anyone, because I might be able to have those emotions when I’m safe by myself. I certainly don’t feel safe enough to share them with anyone else because I don’t know who I can trust. It was this constant guard up around everyone, and particularly having a guard up around someone, where I never used to need that guard. It was all very exhausting.
COLLETTE: There’s something to not fully expressing it, so that the audience gets to find it as well. If we are always emoting, it’s almost a bit jarring for the audience. But if we are on the verge of feeling something very real, that allows the audience to actually take that and feel it themselves. The purpose of storytelling is exactly that, for audiences to feel.
As the viewer, we learn things about this mother and wonder how she could keep her daughter in the dark, but then you find out why she did it and you feel for her.
COLLETTE: I watched it twice. I watched it once with my kids and once with my parents, and both times, everyone was going, “What? What’s happening? Tell me! Tell me!” And I was like, “Just watch it.” The anticipation is palpable. You can’t stop wanting to know what is gonna happen.
As these things are brought out in the open, how do you think it recontextualizes this relationship and changes who they are?
COLLETTE: I think it’s a real opportunity to have something way more connected. You can’t have a relationship based on lies, even if the intention behind it is good.
HEATHCOTE: If we talk about the facade that Laura has to keep up throughout her whole adult life, running with that analogy, that building has been blown up and now they can actually build from the ground up again, as equals and with honesty. This idea that you can keep secrets from one another, but still remain connected is a complete fallacy.
COLLETTE: It’s impossible. I find it really interesting that my character’s purpose in all of this is trying to create a safe existence for her daughter and to break the cycle of trauma that she experienced with her dad, who was very domineering, demanding, controlling and manipulative. But if you look at it, Laura’s doing the exact same thing. She thinks the intention is different, and maybe it is, but she’s actually doing the same thing. That’s what happens. Patterns get repeated until somebody breaks them. Laura is controlling Andy’s world. She is lying to her daughter. She is manipulating her. She’s doing all the things that she hated and rebelled against, as a young woman. I think half the battle in families is identifying a problem and smashing it. In a way, this horrible event is actually a gift for them to grow.
After that moment they have on the beach together, at the end, do you think they’ll move forward from a place of forgiveness, or is it more resignation of finally knowing the truth?
HEATHCOTE: I think it’s more an acceptance of the other person. I feel like it’s a real sign of maturity when you can accept the people that you love, unconditionally. That doesn’t mean that you accept unacceptable behavior, but I just really feel like it’s a meeting of two equals for the first time, perhaps in the whole series. I’m so desperate to find out what happens next between them.
Pieces of Her is available to stream at Netflix.