Toni Collette on Hereditary: At first I thought this isn’t a horror film, and then, and then, and then…
Toni Collette may well be a singular talent. She may well be an actor who for many years has been no stranger to the awards podium. She may well be among the most versatile shapeshifters of her generation, moving from comedy to drama and back again. But, for now, Toni Collette is one of many. An astonishing gaggle of established movie professionals wanted to get involved with the feature-length debut from Ari Aster (known for his controversial shorts Munchausen and The Strange Thing About the Johnsons). A lot of them did get involved. But Collette, the star of horror sensation Hereditary, is first among those equals. Collette first came to prominence in the Australian romantic comedy Muriel’s Wedding in 1994. She had been thinking about getting back to her roots. “You know what?” she’d just said to her agent, “I don’t want to do anything emotionally heavy any more. I just want to do some comedies.”
And then Aster’s script turned up on Collette’s doormat. A horror film. “When I started reading it I was, like: “What is he talking about? This is not a horror film. It felt like a classic family drama, very natural, emotionally raw and honest, and then… and then… and then… I loved that it was so surprising.” Collette’s character, Annie Graham, is probably the most sensitive, complex and powerful personality she has ever played. And, crikey, she doesn’t half seize her opportunity.
Slowly, layers are added to the foundation of motherhood, a sensitive portrayal of the everyday joys and worries of being a wife and a mother of two – which Collette herself is – until by the end Annie is something else entirely. “Every actor wants the chance to go for it,” she says, “This part was that chance for me.” During the film, all human life is there, on the 45-year-old’s ever-mobile face. Collette has never lacked for film roles, and has been in some stormers, from Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine to Stephen Daldry’s The Hours. She had a Golden Globe-winning role in hit Showtime series The United States of Tara, and there’s a Netflix six-parter, Wanderlust, coming up, written by the British playwright Nick Payne.
Like pretty much every other female actor in the world, Collette is delighted by Time’s Up. “I’m now a middle-aged woman and… it feels like many more roles are opening up for women. That’s my personal experience. “It’s not just this industry, it’s society at large. There’s been this ridiculous sense of inequality. Anyway, it’s about time. It’s such a necessary change and it really is occurring. You can feel it.” In Hereditary, Annie is a woman who has half-escaped from a troubled background and an unpredictable, domineering mother. She has an attentive husband in Steve (Gabriel Byrne), two children, Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), and a burgeoning career: she is an artist who creates domestic scenes in miniature, and is working from her home studio on a career-crowning exhibition. Despite the seeming functionality of the scenario, she also has a pervasive feeling that there’s something wrong. The film opens with Annie speaking at her mother’s funeral. Her eulogy is shot through with relief and disgust, but none of the other mourners questions the odd tone. Annie’s hope is that with her mother gone, she and her family can get on with their lives. But while Annie seems to have got away from her mother, her own children still feel the influence of Gran, especially Annie’s learning-disabled daughter, Charlie.
Annie wants to be close to her children, make them feel safe, and scrupulously avoid repeating the relationship she had with her own mother. But it doesn’t seem to work. Her children feel it too. This shows in their troubles at school, in Charlie’s dissociated isolation and Peter’s listless drift through the school corridors. “I read a book, Difficult Mothers, after making the film, and I really wish I’d read it while we were making it,” says Collette. “It’s so insightful about how everyone is affected by that relationship more than any other, and how it moulds you and dictates who you are in life in general. And certainly how you relate to others as well as yourself. It’s a slow awakening, and a subtle one. Annie’s character is very rich – for any film, let alone a horror film, more so even than, say, The Babadook, with which Hereditary bears some comparison.
It would be wrong to say that the film starts slowly. It doesn’t. But it starts naturalistically, a family in crisis depicted as odd, at times even macabre. In this respect, it reminds me of last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, which references the same Euripidean tragedies. As in Lanthimos’s film, or Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, horror creeps in. Before you know it, suddenly and shockingly, the film has picked up a dizzying pace, so fast and disorienting that at times, momentarily, you don’t know what you’re seeing or why. It has already been compared to many other classic films – horrors from The Exorcist to The Shining and family dramas such as The Ice Storm and In the Bedroom. People fall over themselves to praise it: it is a film with more than its fair share of whole-room-gasp moments. And some mildly hysterical, nervous laughs.
Yet, however wild the film gets, there is always a sense of control. “I love that aspect of it,” says Collette. “There’s a dream sequence where Annie says things to Peter that are unbelievably shocking, things that would be so wrong for a mother to say. “But I think those moments give the audience a chance to see that there’s a part of Annie that knows what’s going on – that’s her subconscious speaking. In her waking life she doesn’t get it, but when she’s sleepwalking, there really is some self-knowledge there. “But I suppose it’s too horrible, it’s so horrible, no wonder she repressed it. Who would be able to take that? Nobody. It’s too much.”
The psychological truth at the heart of the film, its 30-year-old director says, is based on his own experiences, although he won’t say what they are. Collette certainly seems to trust him and his material, though. “Ari is the most meticulous director I’ve ever worked with. As an actor, when you’re working with material this intense, you can feel vulnerable if you don’t feel supported. But he was just as dedicated and married to this story as I was. “I can’t even tell you… the emails I received, like, reams. There was so much backstory and so much detail. There is so much ambiguity in there, but the way everything was knitted together was so exciting.” Collette’s enthusiasm for this young director, his film and the role that he created is there on the screen, for every moment that Annie is on it. For Collette, there’s no doubt, the nightmare of Hereditary was a dream job.
‘Hereditary’ (15) is released on Friday 15 June