The outrageous role that had Toni Collette "screaming with laughter"
When Toni Collette read British filmmaker Dean Craig’s script for The Estate, she began to giggle. The giggling lasted for months, throughout filming and as far as our interview to discuss the result: a 96-minute film about two impoverished sisters scheming to grab their dying aunt’s inheritance. It has shades of Arsenic and Old Lace, and even Murder by Death. It is not a whodunit, but rather an everyone-wants-to-do-it in which Kathleen Turner plays Aunt Hilda, a heinously nasty woman dying of cancer whose relationships are so toxic that as her family gather around her bedside they are all desperate to do away with her. “Reading the script for the first time looks like you giggling in a chair when everyone else is focused on something else, and [then] kind of screaming with laughter,” Collette says. “It’s a relief to read something funny, especially because we read it during lockdown. It was just like, oh, what a relief. It made me laugh so hard. It’s really, truly very funny.”
For Faris, who had come off a long run on the TV sitcom Mom, it was an opportunity to work with Collette. “Like all projects, there’s always a wobbly feeling right before you start shooting,” Faris says. “In the months prior, you are worried that something’s going to go wrong because that does happen, that the project is going to fall apart, but I felt desperate to work with her, to get to adore her on and off-screen.” On the set of the film, which was shot in New Orleans between February and March 2022, the two actresses immediately struck a rapport. “It was easy immediately; it wasn’t a long shoot, and we didn’t have time to warm up,” Collette says. “These sisters are very, very different, and they love each other more than life itself,” Collette adds. “And there’s a lot on the line, and I love that the comedy is within quite a serious context, that they have no money, and they don’t know how they’re going to survive. “So the hilarity comes from the absolute desperation, but I love that there is a serious nature [to the story]; otherwise you wouldn’t laugh as much,” Collette adds. “The extremes are there for a reason, and they are funnier because it is very … well, it’s quite dire.”
The Estate sits on a knife’s edge between old-fashioned farce and absurdist comedy. Aunt Hilda (Turner) is ghastly, but her affections are feted by her niece Beatrice (Rosemarie DeWitt) and nephew Richard (David Duchovny). Less likely to win a slice of the inheritance are nieces Macey (Collette) and Savannah (Faris), who have sprung from the poorer branch of the family. Once all the contenders are in the house, however, an all-bets-are-off grab for the cash ensues. Faris says the narrative is held together by one factor: its sincerity. “I think that sincerity is the most important element, that you have to believe that your character has a goal and sincerely believes that they need to achieve it,” Faris says. Collette agrees. “They love each other, and how great is it that it’s a love story between sisters? They’d do anything for each other,” she says. “But those other two [Beatrice and Richard], they were outrageous. And it was so much fun to play [against] them and with them.”
On a comedy set such as this, Collette says, there was not a lot of straight-face keeping. “We made each other laugh all the time,” she says. “You find yourself laughing at the material, but that’s what I, personally, wanted. I wanted to feel the joy, and I wanted to bring the joy. I think that’s all I want to do now. That’s all I want. I also remember thinking how fun it was seeing other people enjoy themselves.” Faris, who had worked on the Scary Movie franchise, had trained herself to suppress spontaneous laughter because the prop-driven scenes on those particular films were technically complex and laughter always risked ruining the shot. “I am disciplined when it comes to laughter,” Faris says. “But this movie felt different. It really felt professional because everyone is so excellent, and it felt liberating because everyone’s so excellent.” With a small cast – just six actors driving most of the scenes – and the self-contained space of Aunt Hilda’s mansion, which is the setting for most of the story, there were times when The Estate felt like a stage play adapted for the screen.
“It was an incredible old mansion,” Collette says. “In and of itself, that was literally awesome, but we had rooms assigned to each of us, and we all ended up hanging out together in one room basically in between takes and setups. I can see what you’re saying, how it could feel like a play.” Adds Faris: “It did remind me of my theatre days just in terms of acting with so many brilliant people, and then that sort of playful yet professional attitude and the generosity of the other actors, especially Toni. It was amazing to shoot in that house. It was wild.” But most striking about The Estate is the authenticity of the world and its inhabitants. It does not happen on every film or television limited series, but when The Estate ends, there is a nagging thought at the back of the viewer’s mind: is this really the end? Will I not see these characters again? It does beg the question: might there be a sequel? Or a television series spin-off?
“I love that. I would love to reunite,” says Faris. “For me, it was the perfect job at the perfect time. Truly, I was kind of thinking, I don’t know what I’m going to do with my career. I was coming off the long run of the show. And it felt really wonderful that it inspired me again and the quality of the actors that I got.” Collette concurs. “I would do anything to work with these actors again. It really was an amazing group of actors, for sure.”
The Estate is on Amazon Prime.