Toni Collette on Pieces of Her and Intergenerational Trauma
By her own admission, Toni Collette is “a very expressive actor.” It’s part of what makes her so fun to watch: As a haunted mother in 2018’s Hereditary, her grief and rage take over her face; as a woman with dissociative identity disorder in Showtime’s 2009 series United States of Tara, Collette completely transforms into each of Tara’s wildly different alternate personalities. So it’s all the more striking to watch Netflix’s Pieces of Her and find Collette completely unreadable.
But this doesn’t make her performance any less compelling. In the new series, the Emmy winner stars as Laura Oliver, a small-town speech pathologist and mother to 30-year-old Andy (Bella Heathcote). When Andy’s birthday celebration is interrupted by a gunman, Laura calmly kills the shooter before he can reload his weapon—setting into motion a chain reaction of events that results in Andy running for her life in a stolen van. Realizing that her mother is not who she has always claimed to be, Andy tries to gather clues about Laura’s past life and piece them together before it’s too late. And in flashbacks to the past, we watch as Jane (Jessica Barden), a young woman wrapped up in an underground radical organization, makes the choices that lead her to begin a new life as Laura Oliver.
As Laura, Collette is impassive, opaque, even cold. She barely reacts, even when undergoing chemotherapy or getting stabbed through the palm. (All of this, of course, makes the rare glimpse of emotion from Laura all the more impactful.) In person, though—or at least over Zoom—Collette-as-herself is a completely different person, warm and approachable and eager to talk shop. When I ask what drew her to the project, her face lights up. “I was just super excited to work with these women [producer Bruna Papandrea, showrunner Charlotte Stoudt, and director Minkie Spiro] and tell this story about someone who seems to be living a bit of a double life,” Collette says of what drew her to Pieces of Her. “More than anything, I loved that it was about generational trauma and trying to understand how to break those things that we inherit.”
Generational trauma and the importance of female-focused storytelling are two threads that repeatedly resurface in our conversation. Whether addressing those or other topics, Collette’s responses reflect the same care and diligence that reverberate throughout her role as Laura. Simply put: She’s the GOAT, and with Pieces of Her, she’s turned in the performance to match.
Working with an all-female creative team is a rarity in the industry. What was that like?
I mean, this is a particularly female story, and I think inevitably, if you have women working on it, they’re going to have their own experiences to be able to draw on and to be able to imbue any intricate moment with a sense of reality. That’s just a fact: It’s a story about women, and women are going to bring the ultimate authenticity and truth to it. I spent most of my time with Minkie on set, and I just love her. I think she’s the most incredible, incredible director, but also the most incredible human, and I think that we’re going to be friends forever. She made it so special—I just feel very safe with her. There was a lot of intense work, and as an actor you can feel very vulnerable and exposed at times, but I never felt weird. I always felt like we were connected at the hip, and I was completely protected by her and guided by her. It’s it’s such a complicated story and the trajectory is all over the shop, so it was great to have someone be able to pinpoint exactly where I’d be emotionally at any moment. She kept reminding me, “I love it most when I don’t know what you’re thinking.” That really, really helped me—just reminded me of what I needed to do a lot of the time.
Laura is definitely very secretive. While you were preparing for the role, what did you do to learn about Laura’s past?
I think by the time we started we had most of the scripts. We certainly had meetings and discussed exactly what Laura/Jane’s trajectory was, and we all had a timeline that was painted out for us so that we could never get muddy or lost in terms of where we’re at and what we’ve experienced. Also, there are two people playing me. I’ve never had to do that before, I don’t think—share a character with another actor—but Jess [Barden] did the most incredible job with all of that earlier stuff in our character’s life.
My focus initially was a scene where [Laura is] reacquainted with the piano, which was such a huge part of her prior life, and I had to play half of a very difficult Bach piece. I am not a pianist, I hadn’t really had a lesson since I was a kid, and I literally had only two weeks to learn this piece. And so, my first two weeks, all I did was eat, sleep, and breathe this particular piece. I worked with a piano teacher not far from my house and probably drove my family and the neighbors absolutely bonkers playing this piece over and over again. [Laughs] I tried to keep the volume down on the organ. I didn’t [practice] it on a piano, which was amazing, because when we came to the actual scene and I was on the piano, the feeling of that instrument was absolutely beautiful. That actually helped in terms of the amazement of actually being with this incredible instrument again, because it was just like butter—the feeling of it, the sound of it, like nothing else. It was the most incredible experience. I mean, piano represents so much to my character, so it’s not just about touching a piano again: The memories are flooding back of this whole life that she’s pushed away for decades.
pieces of her toni collette as laura oliver in episode 101 of pieces of her cr courtesy of netflix © 2022
You also mentioned the generational trauma aspect of the show. I think there’s a parallel there to Hereditary, which also deals with fraught motherhood.
When I think about it, I have always been attracted to these ideas of what we inherit and what it is to be part of a family—your blood family, but also the family you create for your own mental health or your own survival. Even [my breakout film] Muriel’s Wedding is about a woman breaking this cyclical generational traumatic experience that’s been existing in her family. I am intrigued by these ideas because I think we inherit not just stuff from our parents but people we’ve never known. You know, our ancestors’ blood is in us, and most are not aware of who they are. I think it takes a really brave person to really face themselves and figure all that stuff out, and finding out what your truth is can be a painful journey for some people, and ultimately a liberating one. Hereditary, for [my character, Annie Graham], it wasn’t liberating. She made an amazing discovery, and usually when you go through that hard work there’s a sense of freedom or liberation or emancipation, and it only got worse for her, and that’s what made that story horrific for me. That’s where the true horror, I think, lies in that story.
Both of these characters Hereditary and Pieces of Her are trying to protect their kids, in a way, and both of them appear to be terrible, terrible mothers at certain points because they are just trying to help the ones they love survive. In Pieces of Her, Laura withholds so much and can appear so cold and so mean towards Andy, and obviously by the time you come to the end of the story you understand why and what she was doing. But it’s also really interesting to me that this woman who tried to avoid being controlled then creates a totally controlled atmosphere for her daughter and repeats the pattern, even though she’s doing it with a different intention. She actually still doesn’t achieve it. And hopefully the person who will break the cycle is Andy, because she’s actually had to slap her mother out of it. This event with the shooter that happens at the beginning of the story is almost a gift for their family because it sparks the questioning of who [Andy’s] mother really is, and that’s what will allow them to live in some kind of truth rather than hiding.
Yeah, and like you said about Laura repeating patterns from her own past –
Everybody does! That’s what it is to be alive. That’s what it is to be human! And that’s what the work is, you know?
Laura and Andy’s relationship also reflects the way that control can work as a pendulum, rather than a switch that’s either on or off: if the pendulum swings too far away from the starting point, it’s still going to be out of balance. Laura is very controlling, but instead of controlling what she does, she’s trying to control what Andy doesn’t do, because so much of her energy is put into pushing Andy away.
Exactly, that’s what I’m saying. She repeats it in a different way, with a different intention, but she ends up in the same place. But there’s hope to the story because it’s uncovering the problem, you know? It’s actually smashing it apart. And it’s not something they would choose, but it’s happening. I think sometimes the worst things that can happen to us bring about the most beautiful change. “No mud, no lotus,” that kind of vibe. There’s a lump of coal before you get the diamond. For a lot of people, trying to just extricate and decipher what we’ve inherited and what’s actually ours and who we are without all that we come into the world with is very difficult. You are very affected by your family whether you like it or not, and my character is someone who really didn’t like it and has just tried to escape her entire life, and it just hasn’t worked. It worked to a certain extent, and now this is the moment where it has to change. You can’t continue to live that way in any kind of good conscience. It’s just not healthy.
Watching the flashback storyline, the thing that came to mind for me was the sunk cost fallacy—the idea that you’ve sunken so much effort or time or money into something that you feel like you have to stay, rather than getting out before you’ve invested even more. And I think that’s something Laura struggles with, both in terms of leaving her family –
And then the group. Interestingly, she’s trying to escape her family, but she goes to another man who actually treats her in the same way as her father. Even though it’s different, because that’s a sexual relationship, that sense of intense connection and a kind of control over her is repeated – she’s actually gone from one source to another. And, actually, that’s what a lot of people do: They think they’re choosing something else, and actually they’re choosing the same deep themes and the same patterns. It takes a lot to see it and break it and know what’s good for you. So, yes, she gets involved with [the leader of this group], and it’s this uprising, fighting against everything that her father represents, and then it goes too far. God, it’s complicated, isn’t it? This is the first day of doing press, so it’s very weird to talk about it. When I’m working, talking about things can burst bubbles, it can dispel things, so I don’t like to talk about it too much. I did talk with Minkie a bit, but there’s a reserve you just leave for things to eventuate on their own, and so talking about it, I may seem very inarticulate, and I’m sorry.
No, it’s great! It’s also interesting to see, because it’s your job to internalize all this and now you’re trying to externalize it.
Yeah, it’s like a year of therapy. [Laughs]
Sort of like going to couples therapy with the character?
Yeah, that’s funny! [Laughs] That’s actually really true.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.