Toni Collette: People don’t f*ck with me’
The Power star on female rage, the representation of women on screen, and what she thinks of fans calling her ‘mother’ on social media.
Toni Collette is running late. She’s in London doing press for her upcoming TV show The Power (more on that later) and her schedule has been relentless. The pot of green tea, diligently ordered ahead of her arrival, is going cold on the table in front of me. In a large suite in the Soho Hotel, a small entourage is gathering. There’s a publicist inconspicuously perched on the bathroom floor, an agent tapping on her phone in the corner, and some others dotted around the room whose roles I’m unclear on. I wonder, perhaps, if Toni will be weary and find yet another interview a little too irksome. I needn’t have worried. Moments later, Toni arrives: “A pleasure to meet you,” she says warmly, in the distinctive Australian accent we so rarely hear from the Sydney native on-screen. I ask how she’s finding London. “I did 87 interviews yesterday! I am a shell of a woman!” she laughs, sloping into the armchair next to me. For someone who’s been so back-to-back, Toni is exuberant, particularly when talking about The Power, her brand new Amazon Prime Video series adapted from Naomi Alderman’s best-selling 2016 novel of the same time. “I shot the entire season in five weeks and spent a lot of time on set singing ‘I’ve got the power!’,” Toni laughs. “I’m sure I drove the crew insane. I have so much fun at work.”
The nine-part series is set in a world where girls develop the power to omit electricity, which can be passed from woman to woman, eventually developing a society in which women are the dominant sex and the patriarchy is finally subverted. Toni plays Margot Cleary-Lopez, the mayor of Seattle and mother to three children, who is determined to bring the truth about the power to the public and protect the women who hold it. The show may be science fiction, but its themes of gender power dynamics, women’s bodily autonomy and female anger and anguish, feel all too real – particularly given the seemingly endless news cycle of male violence against women, and the overturning of Roe v Wade in the US. “It’s a metaphor for the inherent power we all have,” Toni says thoughtfully. “It’s just that, historically and traditionally, boys and men have been encouraged to develop that power and nurture it. Girls and women haven’t.”
Here, Toni shares her thoughts on the on-screen representation of women, fans calling her ‘mother’ on social media, and why, at 50, she feels like her life is only just beginning…
There’s a huge amount in the show which reflects the struggles women are facing today. Why do you think it is so important to see those things that women are going through right now reflected on the screen?
It’s very empowering for women – especially young women – to see other young women coming into their own, having agency, being able to protect themselves and feeling safe. This show is an opportunity to entertain the idea of true equality and real inclusivity. But it’s done in a non-dogmatic, non-didactic way. It’s not preachy; it’s a very grounded version of sci-fi. But that one step of removal allows people to gently think about things and not feel like they’re being forced to, which I think is pretty smart. Because the show addresses some very big issues and ideas. One thing I love is how the men in the show represent the idea that just because a woman is empowered, doesn’t mean it’s going to detract from their power. There seems to be this idea that if one person gains power, the other person is going to lose power. But actually, we’re all one man.
There’s a really poignant moment in the show when your daughter Jos [played by Auli’I Cravalho] is describing the freedom the power has given her as a young woman – she can jog alone in the dark with both headphones in, she doesn’t have to carry her keys between her fingers – and it really stuck with me –
Me too! Because we sadly do have to fucking think about that. We always have had to do that. I walk everywhere, all the time, I love it. It’s my favorite thing. It clears my head. I feel good in my body. I get to see the world up close and notice things that you don’t see when you’re moving faster. I would love to be able to go walking at 2am if I’m jet-lagged and can’t sleep, or if I’m up really early and want to go out before the light. But you have to really think twice as a woman.
Female anger and vengeance is a big part of the show, and that’s something we don’t see represented on our screens very often, let alone talk about in real life. What resonated with you about that?
Oh my god, I’ve had rage. We’re born into a patriarchal society, we all adhere to the rules and don’t even think about them, because why would you? You just accept things until you start to wake up and question things. But your emotions are like signposts and if you suppress them, you’re only going to make yourself sick. You can’t deny your emotions, they’re talking to you. I think your body is somehow smarter than your mind. And sadly, there is much to rage against.
What about the work you’ve done in the horror genre? I feel like that’s a part of the industry which is starting to welcome more displays of female rage, rather than just male aggression all the time.
I would say Hereditary is definitely a horror film. I would never watch a film like that. I can’t live with those images. I’ve watched Hereditary once or twice but it’s very different when you’re in it. I would never watch someone else’s horror film. I just cannot live with that. I think what you feed your mind is in you, and I don’t want to feed myself that. But I think when I made Hereditary, it was a particular rage, and it was an opportunity for me to express all of those things as well. It was a woman who had been lied to, manipulated and used her whole life. Her own life was not her own. And that’s a theme that’s very much part of The Power as well; women coming into their own and actually having some kind of sovereignty and agency. It probably is part of realising that, ‘Hey, yeah, stories about women are actually equally as exciting – maybe a bit more interesting, actually, than what we’ve been fed our entire lives’.
It’s great to see how the portrayal of women on screen is changing. How has the film industry changed for women in recent years?
I think people are very aware of what they can’t do, that certain behaviours are not acceptable! But different types of stories and opportunities have definitely opened up for women in the industry. We’re not just standing next to the guy for decoration, to look pretty, as an appendage of some kind, or as someone that needs saving. Thank God that’s over. That will never happen again. It’s been incredible really. There are some older films – don’t ask me which – that I watch with my kids, and I’m like, ‘Jesus Christ, that would not be made now.’ And it’s very recent. These changes are recent.
What about attitudes to older middle-aged women and ageing in the film industry? How has that changed?
I don’t even feel middle aged. I feel like I’m just starting my life. I feel so in awe of the experience of living. Maybe we’re not so focused on youth culture anymore. I think people become more interesting the more they know themselves and the more experience they have. I think I appreciate life in a different way now, because I really know and accept myself. And I think I came to myself late in life, to be honest. But I have very much arrived. The richer the relationship you have internally with yourself, is only going to enhance how you engage with the rest of life. It just enriches everything. I wish people weren’t so scared of going inside themselves. It’s not really encouraged socially. There’s a lot of, ‘be this’, ‘do that’, ‘achieve this’, ‘earn that’, ‘wear this’. But I think we all have to take the time to just be quiet with ourselves. Because you live with yourself. You spend all your time with yourself. You have the answers for your own life. We all do.
How do you like to spend quiet time with yourself?
I love to meditate. I used to be like, ‘ugh, I should meditate’, but now I look forward to it. It’s a chance to merge with everything. It’s like interfacing with the most beautiful, pure aspect of life. I also walk, I bike ride, I cuddle my kids, I spend time in nature. Sleep. Sleep is so important.
What about sexism in the workplace – that’s something your character experiences regularly from her male counterparts as a female politician in The Power – is it something you’ve experienced?
I think people don’t fuck with me. I mean, look, I have. Everyone’s had an experience here or there. But ultimately, I think I take care of myself pretty well, and people just wouldn’t go there. I feel lucky in that way. I was recently watching The United States of Tara [a 2009 comedy series in which Colette plays a suburban mother who switches between multiple identities, including a loud, foul-mouthed man named Buck] with my 11-year-old son, and he couldn’t believe that I was playing a guy. And he kept repeating, ‘My name is Buck and I will fuck you sideways’! And I was like, ‘that’s a part that lives in me!’
You must be a good role model for them, especially for a young boy to see that no one dares fuck with his mum!
We love and admire each other. Both my kids are incredible people.
You must miss them.
I really am missing them at the moment, like really missing them. It’s hurting my body.
Speaking of people who love and admire you, did you know that you’ve got a bit of a cult fan base on social media following your explosive ‘I am your mother’ speech in Hereditary? People call you ‘mother’, which also in internet speak means ‘be my mum/ adopt me’. Did you know about those fans?
I did not know that! People call me ‘mother’?! I love that. I love them. I did find out recently that there are drag queens that perform that whole speech, and I didn’t know that either, which is fantastic. One of my good mates, the costume designer Sandy Powell, recently sent me a photo of a young PA she was working with, and he had my face on a pair of his trousers. So I am aware of it a little bit! The universal ‘mother’, that’s hilarious.
They’re also pretty hyped for your new film coming out this year, Mafia Mamma [in cinemas 14th April]. Can you tell me a bit about that?
It’s the first film that I’ve actually actively been a producer on. It’s a story of this downtrodden woman who people ignore, and she gets a phone call out of the blue to tell her that her grandfather’s died. She’s the only living member of family and is told she needs to take over the family business – except he was the head of the mafia. So, that’s very empowering as well! But that was the most fun job of my lifetime. It’s just pure, pure joy.
Last question, if you could go back in time and tell your younger self – maybe that 22-year-old just starting out in Muriel’s Wedding – one thing, what would it be?
Just enjoy it all. It’s funny how you just feel so unsure of yourself at that age, and I was getting so many opportunities and experiences, and I think if I had felt a little more self-assured and comfortable with myself, and just focused on the joy, it would have been… more fun. It was fun anyway, trust me, I had a lot fun! But – and I sound like Ferris Bueller here – life moves pretty fast. You’ve really got to savour it.
Episodes 1-3 of The Power starring Toni Collette will be available on Amazon Prime Video from 31st March, with remaining episodes releasing weekly.