When ac­tor Toni Col­lette went on an on-air search for her an­ces­tors, she dis­cov­ered far more than she ini­tially bar­gained for

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Play Magazine - - TV PLAY - TIF­FANY DUNK

Grow­ing up, Toni Col­lette had al­ways been dimly aware of her par­ents’ trou­bled fam­ily his­to­ries. Col­lette’s mother, Judy, had spent years in care af­ter her mother died and her fa­ther then aban­doned the fam­ily.

Mean­while, the ac­tor’s fa­ther, Bob, was un­sure if the man he called Dad was ac­tu­ally his fa­ther.

As such, Col­lette, now 42, had only ever known one of her grand­par­ents – her pa­ter­nal grand­mother, Norma. But in the years prior to her death, Norma kept silent about Bob’s murky back­ground.

So it’s no sur­prise that when Who Do You Think You Are? came knock­ing, Col­lette jumped at the chance to take part.

“I wanted to do it for my­self but I also re­ally wanted to do it for my kids (Sage Florence, 7, and Arlo Robert, 4) and my folks,” she says.

“I had no reser­va­tions what­so­ever.”

But de­spite that, she was taken aback by the ef­fect of what she dis­cov­ered would have on her fam­ily.

As a child, Col­lette says she knew the bones of her mother’s back­story. Her ma­ter­nal grand­mother, Ivy, died hours af­ter child­birth when Judy was only six years old.

Hor­rif­i­cally, Ivy col­lapsed on the new­born baby and suf­fo­cated her to death.

Rather than keep his re­main­ing four kids, Col­lette’s grand­fa­ther, Joseph, chose to put them all into care.

Trag­i­cally, the sib­lings were sent to live in sep­a­rate homes.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, Col­lette didn’t have much sym­pa­thy for her grandad prior to the show. But that was about to change.

Trav­el­ling to Bathurst, where her mum was born, she was about to learn more, not just about the man that Joseph was, but the time he lived in.

It was an emo­tional process that brought tears, sur­pris­ing rev­e­la­tions and also em­pa­thy.

“It hu­man­ised my ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther,” she says.

“We’d all made as­sump­tions about the kind of guy he was. We were wrong.”

What Col­lette dis­cov­ered was that Joseph had given up his kids, be­liev­ing he had no other choice. In the years that fol­lowed, he con­tin­ued on a steep down­ward spi­ral, drift­ing into a life of crime, al­co­holism, drugs and home­less­ness.

“So much of (the dis­cov­ery) was sad,” Col­lette says. “But it’s al­ways bet­ter to know the truth of what hap­pened than not. And much of it is rather ex­cit­ing – I felt like a de­tec­tive un­cov­er­ing great and per­sonal truths about my grand­par­ents.”

For Col­lette’s mother, it was a hugely emo­tional dis­cov­ery.

“The en­tire process deep­ened an al­ready close re­la­tion­ship with my par­ents,” Col­lette says. “It was quite cathar­tic and lib­er­at­ing for us.”

Af­ter trac­ing her ma­ter­nal line, Col­lette moved on to un­rav­el­ling the mys­tery of her fa­ther’s pa­ter­nity.

Af­ter sub­mit­ting to a DNA test, Bob learned what he’d long sus­pected – his mother Norma’s ex-hus­band, Harold, was not his bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther. But then who was? Col­lette dis­cov­ered that dur­ing World War II, Norma had ended her mar­riage af­ter be­gin­ning an af­fair with an Amer­i­can ser­vice­man whose name she never re­vealed.

Dur­ing her in­ves­ti­ga­tions, into his iden­tity, Col­lette says she came to know her grand­mother in a new and re­veal­ing light.

“I was very close (to Norma),” Col­lette says.

“Com­ing to un­der­stand her as a woman with needs and de­sires rather than a su­per­hero has been mas­sive for me.”

Col­lette says she looks for­ward to one day show­ing her chil­dren the TV search.

Pic­ture: SBS

Ac­tor Toni Col­lette stars in the 2015 sea­son of

Who Do You Think You Are?

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