Talking with Toni Collette

By Adam Blair

Toni Collette has the misfortune - or is that good fortune? - to almost completely change her persona from film to film. Probably her best-known role, as the concerned mother in The Sixth Sense, was vastly different from another mother role, as a crunchy-granola suicidal fruitcake in About a Boy, which was itself a big jump from her brief but intense part as a 50s-era housewife who got to lock lips with Julianne Moore in The Hours. Now she takes center stage in the fable-like, emotion-heavy drama Japanese Story, which was actually shot in the wilds of Western Australia's Pilbara desert. Grin Without a Cat's Adam Blair was part of a group that got to quiz Collette on her career, her choices, and the correct pronunciation of Aussie (think Oz).

Q: So why this film, Japanese Story?

COLLETTE: I just thought it was so beautiful. I read it and immediately felt compelled and drawn into this simple little story, where you really get to know the people. I think it's quite unusual, and as subtle as it is, I think it has a certain amount of power just because of its emotional intensity.

Q: Have you been interested in Japanese culture, or did it make you intrigued about it and look into it?

COLLETTE: I'm interested in most cultures, I think it's what makes the world go around, the differences and the similarities. I really want to go to Japan now, I've been invited three times before, and I've always been busy working or whatever and haven't had a chance. But yeah, now I actually have a friend in Tokyo who can show us around.

Q: When you get home to Australia after working or doing press tours, do you get re-energized by being back home? Australia seems so separate from the rest of the world in certain ways.

COLLETTE: I love that about it, it is somewhere to escape to. Most of my 20s I was working on movies back to back, mostly in America and Europe. Since living at home for the last three or so years, I just find it really works for me. When I'm away I miss the sky, it's a very different place, a very positive place - I feel very aligned with it, and I just click there, it works. I would rather not leave, actually.

Q: Had you been to the part of Australia where the film was shot? Were you familiar with it?

COLLETTE: No, the Pilbara is in Western Australia, it's huge and beautiful. I guess that was one of the reasons for wanting to be a part of telling this story, because it was shot in the most exquisite vast expanse of nothing, it was absolutely beautiful.

Q: You starred in a huge blockbuster, where your face was everywhere, everyone knows who you are from The Sixth Sense. Now you have a small movie - do you feel a frustration about how many people are going to see it?

COLLETTE: Well, you just have to do it for yourself in a way. Obviously it's made for audiences, but you can never determine, even if it ends up being a film that a lot of people see and it makes a lot of money and does really well - you can't determine that when you're shooting any movie. So I think the only thing I can rely on is my heart, and I just have to choose projects that I believe in. That way I sleep at night and all is well.

Q: Do you think there are parts of your life that are similar to the character's? She goes on quite an emotional journey, from being closed off to being much more open. Did you draw on elements of your life in charting that journey?

COLLETTE: I guess with every film, there are elements of every character that I recognize and magnify that already exist within me, but there are other elements that you have to imagine. You have to be compassionate - if it's a well-written script it's there. Like I said when I read it, I just got it immediately, I started feeling what that character was going through, seeing images really clearly, and it just builds and builds and builds, and it's almost like there's nothing separating you. When it's something so clear, it's not something you have to fabricate, it just flows.

The most interesting part is that she changes so thoroughly, and in such an unexpected way. You're right, she starts as somebody very closed and numb, basically not really existing within the world. This whole experience and exchange with this Japanese man wakes her up, and even though she starts to feel pain, it's actually going to be a much richer life for her because of the experience.

Q: Of the projects that you've done, which ones would you say had the most surprising or unexpected effect on you, or they said something about what you wanted to say.

COLLETTE: I'd have to say Muriel's Wedding - it touched a lot of people, but it also totally changed my life. It gave me a very unexpected career - I'd forgotten people were actually going to watch it, I was so carried away with telling the story.

And Velvet Goldmine was pretty fantastic. The Sixth Sense was something I really believed in - I kind of avoided reading it at first, I thought it was going to be an action movie because I knew Bruce [Willis] was attached to it, and I was pleasantly surprised. And I knew it was special. You know - I think if I'm attracted to a script when I'm reading it, it will always have the same impact, whether I'm making it or watching it 10 years down the track, it's just something that really resonates.

So The Sixth Sense, and probably Japanese Story - I've just been in L.A. doing some press, and I went to do some Q&A's at the end of a couple of the screenings. I trotted in there about 10 or 15 minutes towards the end of the film and I just started crying, it's terrible. If it speaks to me, it'll always be so.

Q: Of the many people you've worked with, who has had an impact on you, or you learned something from them or there was a rapport?

COLLETTE: I've done so many movies now I can't even remember. I've still got friends from my very first film, which was called Spotswood. One of my best friends, it was his first film as well - his name is Daniel Wyllie, he's an Australian actor. He also played my brother in Muriel's Wedding, Perry the embarrassment. I loved working with Stephen Daldry in The Hours, even though it was brief. I loved working with Roger Michell on Changing Lanes, he was a great director. Gosh, you name the films, it's early morning for me.

Q: How about About a Boy?

COLLETTE: The Weitz brothers are absolutely fantastic, and Hugh [Grant] is a total sweetheart. I think people misconstrue him, he's one of the hardest-working actors I've ever known, and he's so unbelievably gifted and witty beyond belief. It's amazing, I don't know what goes on inside his head. Also little Nicholas [Hoult] who played my son. It's so weird, I didn't realize how fond I'd grown of him. We finished shooting, I went home, moved into my new house, had a big holiday and had to go back to London for the premiere. We're all doing press in different rooms in a hotel, and he walked into the room and I started crying! I sound like a weep - maybe I was jet-lagged then as well. He was very sweet.

Q: Can we talk about the nude scene? Do you find it difficult to do these scenes, or are you relaxed?

COLLETTE: I don't have a problem with nudity, at all, as long as it's part of the story, and I think the sex scene is a very integral part of it, because it's when these two people who are very closed finally open and allow some kind of intimacy in their lives. It was just a part of telling the story, it didn't feel terrible. It can be very nerve-wracking sometimes.

Q: What are you looking for from a director in terms of helping you get to your character - what kinds of things are you looking for - specific directions about theme, or just thoughts about the character?

COLLETTE: It's not even something you can force or fabricate, it's just a sense of trust. It just has to be there. Once you are shooting, I like a director to know when to leave me alone. But when they are going to direct me, they need to be specific, because there's no point coming in and generalizing and screwing up a feeling, because I think mostly acting has to do with feeling. If you come in and burst the bubble, so to speak, it's bad.

Q: What was the rehearsal or discovery process like with Gotaro?

COLLETTE: Gotaro Tsunashima - we called him Go, because it's much easier. I think his friends in Tokyo also call him Go, so it isn't too bad. We had a two-week rehearsal period, but I really think it was just about us familiarizing ourselves with each other. For 98% of the time it was just the two of us out there. In terms of preparing for the work, I'm really glad he did it - I can't imagine anyone else being so open and so generous. There was a lot we couldn't prepare for, because it is so highly emotional, you kind of don't want to mess with it too much, and just let it happen. He was great, he was very available, and would do anything to help make it as great and as real as possible.

Q: Does he speak English relatively well?

COLLETTE: Yeah, it's like any second language, you speak it more fluently when you're surrounded by it, so during the shoot he got better and better. I saw him a couple of weeks ago actually and he'd fallen back a bit. He's picked up a few Australianisms - like hornbag - [meaning] like a sexy frisky person. His English is very good when he's drunk.

Q: On the casting of the movie, you were involved first. Did you have any input into the casting of the film?

COLLETTE: I was going to go over to Japan, and it fell through for some reason - it may have had something to do with 9/11, I didn't want to get on a plane. But there were about half a dozen guys on tape and I looked at them all, but he was the one I gravitated towards. There was another man they were looking at and were quite serious about who was much older, which I think would have given it another, I think too obvious angle - because Sandy's father died and I think that's part of why she closed down. I think it would have been too pat to have this father figure that she ends up having a relationship with who ends up healing her wounds. It's kind of more believable to have someone my age. There was something about Go - his audition was almost a metaphor for the movie - he was so subtle but very powerful, and that's how I see the story.

Q: It was the first time you met him working with him on this, were there parallels with that - your relationship as actors to what happens in the movie, two strangers meeting each other?

COLLETTE: I guess we really bonded over the making of the movie. It was hard, and we were isolated out in the desert, and looking at each other every day. "Here we are again, look how dirty we are."

Q: In a way you really were out in the desert.

COLLETTE: In every way we were really out in the desert. But no, we're living in reality and that's a fictitious world, so it's not like blurring the edges. I guess there are parallels - experiencing that terrain and the topography and the heat and the isolation.

Q: Did you have any close calls of getting lost in the desert or stranded?

COLLETTE: No, there's safety in numbers. But I think it was the director and the writer, maybe even the producer all got bogged one day. But I was the one who had done the 4-wheel drive training, so I think it took them a while to get out. I guess it can be intimidating, because it just goes on and on, the silence is kind of bewildering. But I love being in nature.

Q: Australia does have sort of an intimidating quality. Do you think most people misunderstand it, or have a mythological impression of Australia?

COLLETTE: I don't think Paul Hogan did much for Australia. I know when the Olympics were on, or it was announced that Sydney was going to be hosting the Olympics, there were calls from people in America saying 'Do you have fresh milk there?' We're all sharing the same planet, it's not too far away. But we all stick to the edges, everyone is living on in the perimeter - I mean there's a lot going on in there, but there are much smaller communities. I think it's kind of great that it's not such a built-up country. I mean the cities are valid, working places, but it's just so empty on the inside, and I think that that can freak people out, but I think that that's what's special about it. There are not many places that are untouched in the world. I think it's special because of that.

Q: So what are you working on now?

COLLETTE: I'm working on not working. I'm going to Morocco tomorrow, I'm so excited. This is my last working day of the year, and my husband and I are going just for a week to visit some friends there. Then we'll be home for Christmas on the beach - very different to your Christmas.

Q: So all the other Australians and you all know each other, it's a small community - all the other actors, you all have one bar?

COLLETTE: Not quite. I never see them, maybe at awards ceremonies, you say 'hi.' I don't tend to hang out with the Aussie Posse. By the way, it's not pronounced 'Aussie', it's 'Auzzie', FYI.

Q: Do you see yourself making more movies here, or more movies there, or having your own production company?

COLLETTE: I have a production company called Figurehead Films - we have two films which are in various states of, well, different drafts. I just like to work on good stuff, so I don't really care where it's happening.

Click here to read a review of Japanese Story.

Photo courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films








"I guess with every film, there are elements of every character that I recognize and magnify that already exist within me, but there are other elements that you have to imagine.
You have to be compassionate - if it's a well-written script it's there."
-Toni Collette





















"We really bonded over the making of the movie. It was hard, and we were isolated out in the desert, and looking at each other every day. 'Here we are again, look how dirty we are.'"
-Toni Collette

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