How Toni Collette Turned A "Mortifying" Moment Into Art In Pieces Of Her
Marie Claire caught up with the multi-hyphenate about her new thriller series.
Haunting, precise, delicate, pivotal. Words to describe one particular scene in Netflix’s new thriller series, Pieces Of Her in which Laura Oliver (played by Toni Collette) sits down at a piano and plays a complicated Bach composition. The scene itself is flawless. It’s heightened, the character’s arc is coming to a head, and Collette’s undisputed talent shines through. But there was more to it than that. You see, before signing onto the series, Collette hadn’t actually touched a piano since she was 10 years old. “I was panic-stricken at having learn that Bach piece,” Collette tells marie claire Australia in an exclusive interview. “Preparing for the actual playing of the piece was very intimidating,” she continued, “I just practiced it 24/7—I was hearing it in my sleep, it took over. It had to because otherwise I just wouldn’t have done it, it would have been mortifying, I literally had no choice.”
In the series, which was adapted from the best selling novel by Karin Slaughter, Collette’s character Laura is a seemingly average, small-town mother to Andy. But when the pair are caught up in a deadly mass shooting at a diner together, Laura violently ends the perpetrators life with an ease that causes Andy to question everything she ever knew about her mum. As the story unfolds, Andy is faced with pieces of Laura’s dark past as she puts together relics of a woman she no longer recognises. And as it happens, Laura was a celebrated pianist before she turned her life around, a “child prodigy” if you will, Collette tells us—hence, one emotionally charged piano scene in the final episode. “What became apparent when we filmed [the piano scene] was that it wasn’t just about playing the piece, it was about what the piano represented—it represented so much of her history, it was very emotional and difficult to do, but it was also satisfying.” Of course, Collette is no stranger to music—she’s a singer, songwriter and front-person to her very own band, Toni Collette & The Finish, in which her husband Dave Galafassi is a drummer for. No doubt her love for music spurred her along during the piano scene, but there’s something to be said for the casual 39-year gap between the actor’s ivory tickles (Collette is now 49 years old).
Pieces Of Her was originally going to be filmed in the US back in 2020, but Covid-19 had other ideas. Instead, the cast gathered in Sydney in 2021 where much of the series ended up being filmed. The Muriel’s Wedding star, who left her hometown of Sydney and travelled the world for her various Oscar-buzzed roles, described the feeling of working back home as “dreamy”. But there was another element that made the experience all the more close to home. Playing Collette’s on-screen daughter, Andy, is Bella Heathcote—a Melbourne-born actor who started out on Neighbours, and later scored major Hollywood roles in Fifty Shades Darker and Dark Shadows. “I’d been in Victoria for most of [the Covid] lockdown,” Heathcote told us in the same interview. “But going back to Sydney it was like footloose, fancy free—we were in this sweet non-Covid period, it felt like a six-month Covid reprieve,” she explains.
But that aside, the best part of the experience was undoubtedly acting alongside a screen-legend like Collette, Heathcote affirmed. “All of the content between us was difficult [to film],” Heathcote explained of the intense scenes between mother and daughter, Laura and Andy. “There was either some huge trauma happening or a betrayal or yet another lie. But any scene that I didn’t have Toni was challenging to do… because I didn’t have Toni to act opposite of and to rise to the occasion for.” The value behind those scenes featuring both Collette and Heathcote cannot be overstated. In fact, the Oscar nominee made the 34-year-old see acting in a completely different light. “The seeming ease with which [Collette] could come in and out of a scene between takes—I kind of had this misconception that I need to stay in [character],” she explained. “But there is an endless foundation of creative energy in terms of the takes between actors—you don’t have to pull any punches when you’re off-camera. Trust that it will be there in every take.”
Collette chimes in at this point by taking note of Heathcote’s growth herself. “You were so nervous at the beginning,” Collette tells her. “You have to be so vulnerable as an actor and you’re standing in front of a lot of people, much of the time, being very emotional… watching Bella ease into it and find her way, it was just a beautiful thing to behold and it made me love her more and more. It was very easy to care for her as my daughter on-screen.”
You can stream Pieces Of Her on Netflix Australia from March 4.