“IT MAKES ME PROUD”

THANKS TO MURIEL’S WED­DING, SHE IS ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST IN-DE­MAND AC­TORS. BUT WITH LIT­TLE IN­TER­EST IN THE RED-CAR­PET TRAP­PINGS OF FAME, TONI COLLETTE IS NOT YOUR AV­ER­AGE HOL­LY­WOOD STAR

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Words by JOR­DAN BAKER

With more than 70 roles un­der her belt, Toni Collette has well and truly con­quered Hol­ly­wood. And, as she tells Stel­lar, she owes it all to Muriel.

It is a feat, in this day and age, to be an in­ter­na­tional star with­out be­com­ing pub­lic prop­erty in the process. Usu­ally it’s a pack­age deal, part of the con­tract of Hol­ly­wood suc­cess; in ex­change for money, work, and the fame that will guar­an­tee more work, an ac­tor must sur­ren­der their pri­vacy. But some­how, Toni Collette has man­aged to ne­go­ti­ate her­self a bet­ter deal.

Af­ter more than 70 roles on film and TV around the world, you still won’t see pa­parazzi pic­tures of Collette, 44, in un­flat­ter­ing ly­cra, or rush­ing through an air­port with a strained ex­pres­sion. She can ex­er­cise and fly stress-free. Collette puts it down to a small-tar­get strat­egy. “I make my­self ap­pear to be very bor­ing,” she says with a laugh.

As a re­sult, she is a blank can­vas on which peo­ple can project their own favourite Collette char­ac­ter. Sib­lings tell her how much they loved In Her Shoes, a study on sis­terly love with Cameron Diaz. In the US, African-amer­i­cans stop her to talk about Shaft, the cop drama with Sa­muel L. Jack­son. Mu­sic lovers still want to talk about Vel­vet Gold­mine, a glam-rock film with Chris­tian Bale.

But in her home­land, Collette will for­ever be syn­ony­mous with Muriel, an Abba-lov­ing dag from Por­poise Spit. Even though that was al­most 23 years ago, she is happy to still be stopped on the street and told, “You’re ter­ri­ble, Muriel.”

“I am so thank­ful, [that film] has given me so much, and con­tin­ues to give me so much,” she tells Stel­lar. “Those doors would never be open­ing now were it not for Muriel’s Wed­ding.”

COLLETTE HAS BEEN based in LA for the past two years, even though she’d rather be in Aus­tralia, or even in Lon­don for that mat­ter. But for an ac­tor and a mu­si­cian – her hus­band Dave Galafassi is a drum­mer – LA is the cen­tre of the uni­verse. “I feel like this is a tem­po­rary thing,” she says. “We’d love to come back to Aus­tralia, it’s just too far to do it.”

They seize any op­por­tu­nity to come home, and in late 2015, there was one too good to pass up. Jasper Jones,

a com­ing-of-age movie set in the 1960s, was film­ing in Pem­ber­ton, a small tim­ber town on the south coast of Western Aus­tralia. In it, Collette plays the un­happy mother of the young pro­tag­o­nist, and her old friend Dan Wyl­lie, her one-time brother from Muriel’s Wed­ding, plays her hus­band (“I guess it’s only nat­u­ral that a brother and sis­ter from Por­poise Spit would marry,” Wyl­lie jokes).

When showbiz rolled into their tiny town, the peo­ple of Pem­ber­ton were be­side them­selves with ex­cite­ment. They played ex­tras. They of­fered up their vin­tage cars. The lo­cal coun­cil even kicked in $45,000 to the film’s bud­get. “There was a buzz in the town all the time,” Man­jimup shire pres­i­dent, Wade De­campo, tells Stel­lar. “There was a hype around hav­ing some­one like Toni and the rest of the crew in town.”

There was one tiny el­e­ment of dis­ap­point­ment, though. “[Ac­tor] Hugo Weav­ing was very good, he’d come in for cof­fee,” says De­campo. “The gen­eral feel­ing around town was that Toni was a bit stand­off­ish.”

If there is a down-side to fly­ing un­der the pa­parazzi radar, it’s the per­cep­tion, as echoed by some Pem­ber­ton lo­cals, that Collette is a lit­tle aloof. She does not ap­pear to be one of those celebri­ties who see their role as a peo­ple-pleaser; she doesn’t tell vi­gnettes about her pri­vate life in in­ter­views, she doesn’t fre­quent red car­pets when it’s not re­quired. She’s true to her­self and her fam­ily first, and the rest of the world sec­ond.

She is also a hands-on work­ing mum with lit­tle time for much beyond fam­ily and an in­tense work sched­ule. She took her brood (Sage, nine and Arlo, five) to the five-week shoot in Pem­ber­ton, to show them the an­cient forests around the town; her mum and dad came too, and when she wasn’t work­ing, she was spend­ing time with them. “Be­ing in that part of the world, I wanted my kids to ex­pe­ri­ence it – it’s thou­sands of years old, it’s so spe­cial,” she says. “Just hav­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing in a place like that for sev­eral weeks, it’s a great gift.”

Collette’s chil­dren are her pri­or­ity. “I am in love with them, and will do any­thing for them,” she says. “I want to be with them as much as I can.” She has the same work-life bal­ance strug­gles as any work­ing mum. “Hav­ing kids is a huge shift and I also get so much out of my work, so try­ing to bal­ance it is tough. I think for ev­ery­one, ul­ti­mately, it’s a strug­gle to bal­ance life. There are so many hats that a woman wears, you just have to know when to take one off and when to firmly put an­other one on.”

Wyl­lie has noth­ing but ad­mi­ra­tion for the way Collette has man­aged her fame. “I think she re­alises that an ac­tor’s ca­chet and value is about keep­ing that self maybe a bit pri­vate,” he tells Stel­lar. “She doesn’t go out for pub­lic­ity un­less she’s pro­mot­ing a film. I think that’s ad­mirable. She wants to keep her pri­vate self for her fam­ily and friends, also for her ca­reer as well, so she can keep go­ing and keep do­ing dif­fer­ent things. If you do lots of pub­lic­ity and com­mer­cial stuff, you lose a bit of the mys­tery, and that’s what she has in spades.”

COLLETTE CAME FROM hum­ble be­gin­nings. She is from work­ing-class Black­town in Syd­ney, the daugh­ter of a sec­re­tary and a truckie. She dropped out of school to pur­sue an act­ing ca­reer at age 16 af­ter she was of­fered a schol­ar­ship from the Aus­tralian The­atre for Young Peo­ple. That’s where she first met Wyl­lie.

“We used to have cry­ing com­pe­ti­tions to see if we could turn on a dime from laugh­ing into ab­ject hor­ror, and tears at the flick of a switch,” he says. “That’s what we thought act­ing was at the time. It’s served Toni pretty well.”

Her first tele­vi­sion gig was on A Coun­try Prac­tice; she played a preg­nant teen. Her sec­ond role was in Spotswood, the 1992 film in which she shared the screen with An­thony Hop­kins, Ben Men­del­sohn and Wyl­lie. Then came the life-chang­ing Muriel’s Wed­ding.

For Collette, noth­ing was the same af­ter that. “It was so much fun to make, and so you know the ac­tual mak­ing of the film, I loved it so much, I didn’t re­ally con­tem­plate what would hap­pen af­ter­wards,” she says. “I was un­pre­pared for what it did, but not just in terms of ca­reer. It was a very deep life change; it was huge, and un­ex­pected. I stupidly didn’t an­tic­i­pate any­thing like that, I was just hav­ing fun on set.”

Yes, peo­ple still do stop her and say, “You’re ter­ri­ble, Muriel.” She doesn’t mind (al­though there was a pe­riod soon af­ter the film where that catch phrase was fly­ing a bit too thick and fast). “It’s pretty in­cred­i­ble that a film has stayed with peo­ple on such a deep level,” she says. “It re­ally is a favourite for so many peo­ple. It makes me proud to be part of a film that peo­ple re­tain in their psy­che. “[Muriel] was so re­pressed, and came from such a re­pres­sive fam­ily, and she

“Muriel’s Wed­ding was fun to make, but I didn’t con­tem­plate what would hap­pen next”

came out on top. It was a story of an un­der­dog find­ing a taste of au­ton­omy. Ev­ery­one wants to feel free, ev­ery­one wants to be au­then­tic. She did it, she got out, she was the most un­likely of hero­ines, and she changed her life.”

Collette, too, was an un­likely hero­ine. She wasn’t a typ­i­cal Hol­ly­wood lead­ing lady, like Cate Blanchett or Ni­cole Kid­man, with their Vogue cov­ers, per­fume ads and haute cou­ture. She has played a se­ries of ragged char­ac­ters, rang­ing from a de­pres­sive in About A Boy to a drug ad­dict in Cosi and a woman with mul­ti­ple per­son­al­ity dis­or­der in United States Of Tara. Over the course of her var­ied, pro­lific ca­reer, she has starred along­side so many Hol­ly­wood lu­mi­nar­ies that she could be the new Six De­grees of Kevin Ba­con.

Collette very nearly had an­other Muriel-style break­through role, one that would have taken her to an­other level of star­dom. But she turned down the op­por­tu­nity to play Brid­get Jones be­cause she was busy with a play. “In a way I am glad it didn’t hap­pen; it would be very sim­i­lar [to Muriel],” she says. “It was too ob­vi­ous, to be hon­est.”

That’s one of the rea­sons Wyl­lie de­scribes Collette as an ac­tor’s ac­tor. “She’s one of the greats, re­ally,” he says. “It’s mon­u­men­tal, the things she’s taken on, the amount of chal­leng­ing stuff – stuff that’s not nec­es­sar­ily go­ing to be com­mer­cial; ex­per­i­men­tal stuff. She wants to keep chal­leng­ing her­self, that’s her pri­mary con­cern. She is look­ing for truth, she wants truth. That’s what she’s known for as an ac­tress, it’s that hon­esty.”

Wyl­lie says fame hasn’t changed Collette. She is still strik­ingly sim­i­lar to the young woman he met 25-odd years ago. “She’s a for­mi­da­ble per­son­al­ity; she’s highly opin­ion­ated and in­sight­ful and hu­mane, yet witty and funny and bois­ter­ous as well. She’s just a pow­er­house re­ally, she’s pow­er­ful and con­nected. Truth and hu­man­ity are what she looks for in things and peo­ple.”

When asked what Collette is like to have a beer with, he laughs. “She wouldn’t drink a beer, first thing’s first,” he says. “She’d have a kind of French cham­pagne. The girl from Black­town would have a French cham­pagne.”

Com­pared with other Aussies in the US, Collette is not a par­tic­u­larly vis­i­ble flag-wa­ver. She’s not do­ing Tourism Aus­tralia ads, like Chris Hemsworth, or tak­ing Syd­ney The­atre Com­pany pro­duc­tions to New York like Blanchett. When asked if she con­sid­ers her­self a mem­ber of the Gum­leaf Mafia, she replies, “I've never even heard that term, so I guess that an­swers your ques­tion.”

But she does con­sider her­self deeply Aus­tralian. “I plan to get back to Syd­ney,” she says. “My kids are re­ally happy [in LA], this is the long­est they have been any­where. But they are also very aware that Aus­tralia is home.” Jasper Jones is in cin­e­mas on March 2.

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ROLE CALL (from left) Toni Collette in Muriel’s Wed­ding; star­ring in The Sixth Sense; with Ni­cholas Hoult (left) and Hugh Grant in About A Boy; 2002’s The Hours.

LIFE IN FILM (from left) Collette with Cameron Diaz in 2005’s In Her Shoes; win­ning a Golden Globe in 2010 for United States Of Tara; in the ac­claimed Lit­tle Miss Sun­shine; with Dan Wyl­lie (left) and Levi Miller in Jasper Jones.

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