Interview with Toni Collette...
"Toni is an amazing actress who plays the strongest character in the film. You identify with her," says co-director, Valerie Faris. "She is smart and capable and makes good choices. She supports everybody in the family for who they are. Toni really understands this character. She has a big heart and she is a very open person and in the film, that comes across."
Collette, 33, is a versatile Australian actress who has a unique ability to immerse herself, chameleon like in every character she plays. She first shot to stardom in MURIEL'S WEDDING, when she was just 21 and her diverse role include THE SIXTH SENSE â€“ which resulted in an Oscar nomination, THE HOURS, DINNER WITH FRIENDS, ABOUT A BOY, EMMA and CHANGING LANES. Last year she starred with Cameron Diaz and Shirley MacLaine in the highly praised film, IN HER SHOES. Her other new film is THE NIGHT LISTENER.
Collette is married to musician David Galafassi and the couple lives in Sydney. A gifted musician herself, she has an album coming out later this year.
How would you describe the humor in this film?
I love this kind of humor, it comes from somewhere real and sometimes, somewhere quite dark and that is often the funniest for me. I found myself laughing and crying at the same time while I was reading the script. We had the most amazing script to work with, so it was not a matter of trying to construct anything. It was all there on the page and it was so clear and quite obvious to me, I liked the tone of the film and it was just a matter of making it real and honoring the genius of the writer, Michael Arndt.
How do you go about choosing a project, like this one?
I think it is instinct. When I take a role, it bypasses the brain and the decision comes from another part of me, that is compelled to be a part of a particular project. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE was brilliantly written and I think the tone of it is so beautiful, the way it oscillates between being hysterically funny and then quite poignant and moving. It seemed very real and original too. This is a time of plagiarism and rehashing bad movies over and over again to make new movies. So it was such a breath of fresh air for a film like this to find its voice and make its way to the screen. And hopefully it will help other filmmakers and directors, because it will show people that it is worth allowing an independent voice to come shining on through.
How did you get involved with the film in the first place?
It was sent to me out of the blue. My agent really loved it. I was shooting THE NIGHT LISTENER at the time, my other new movie, which has a completely different tone and I just inhaled the script of this film, it was so easy to read and digest and I loved every moment of it. The very next day I spoke with Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris, the directors and I got to LA to see them as soon as I could. I think in anyone else's hands the film could have ended up as a nightmare version of this movie, as a trite road trip film, but when I met Jon and Val, it was very clear that we were on the same page in terms of how we saw it. They have been living with this film for years, hoping to make it and they knew everything shot to shot, but they also wanted to collaborate with the actors, so I had a great feeling from the start.
What kind of mother is Sheryl, your character?
Sheryl is a really selfless person and she has given up everything for these kids, she would die for them and encourages them to be the best that they can be. She really encourages individuality â€“ unlike their father who puts a lot of pressure on them and has unreasonably high expectations. He has unrealistic ideals for them. She is a very accepting person I think.
How did you relate to the kids Dwayne and Olive?
Just as I would with any kids, because we are all different human beings and we were all part of that family. There was a respect and admiration for each other. Abigail Breslin and Paul Dano are very talented, so it was natural.
A lot of the film is spend in a van. Did it get uncomfortable?
It was fine, but sometimes uncomfortable, because we had barely any air conditioning. We were able to open the windows for some scenes. Most of the time they had to be closed though. But anywhere between 'action' and 'cut' you would find that we were all just focused on what we were doing anyway in terms of the film. And in between takes we could open the windows and look at the beautiful countryside. We all appreciated the script so much, that we were just happy to be there, even though the elements were overwhelming sometimes."
What do you think this story tells us about family and about winners and losers, which is one of the themes?
I guess it says that the notion of being a winner is hot air and that it is ok to embrace the chaos that is you, that is each one of us. And it shows us that perfection and that kind of achievement are unrealistic. The film is not about family values, but the value of family and all these people are yearning to connect with each other. This unexpected journey that they take, where they are all unexpectedly physically forced into a hot tin can, changes everything for all of them. They are able to see each other clearly and literally fall in love with each other again. They had all been yearning for that before the trip to California and they had been spinning in their own universes, unable to relate to each other.
What does your character do in the context of the family on this trip?
My character is always trying to make sure that everyone is happy. It happens naturally on the trip. I think that when you feel like you are accepted and part of a community, no matter how big or small it is, you feel better. Their small family unit becomes liberating. These people appear to be funny, but have been feeling lonely and sad and small, and frustrated in their own separate worlds. As the film progresses, they start to unite and begin embracing the reality of their lives.
You are so convincing in all your roles. Where does your talent come from?
Is it learned or natural ability do you think?
I don't think you can learn how to act. I think you just know how to do it. So with Abigail, for instance, who was eight years old when we made this film, she just has an innate ability.
How did it start for you?
My dad says I just came out singing and dancing and performing. I have always been a bit of an extroverted performer. As a child I was always singing and dancing and just being generally loud. Then when I was a teenager, I just felt like when I found acting that was 'it' and it all happened quite naturally. I guess it was a dream for me â€“ I was lucky that my dream was realized quite quickly.
Was there a defining moment when you realized you had made it?
No, if you think you have got to a point like that, when you believe you have made it, it is time to pack it up. Life is an ongoing lesson and a journey that doesn't really end so I wouldn't ever want to end up at some plateau and think that I've arrived somewhere, it's continuous. But I remember when MURIEL'S WEDDING first came out in Australia, I was in New York and people stopped me on the street there and that was kind of odd, to think that on the other side of the planet, people were actually aware of who I was. But people are mostly quite respectful and say nice things when they recognize me, so the fame is not a bad thing. I do what I do because I enjoy it. It is all about the work for me, I don't really adhere to or perpetuate the other stuff that goes along with the job. I have a very normal quiet life. I live in Australia and I don't turn up to opening of 'a paper bag'. If people like my work and that leads to more work, then that is really all I can ask for.
Do you enjoy fame though?
I have always viewed myself as an actor, not a movie star and I prefer it that way. As an actor, you can play different characters and not be recognized all the time. It is hard for big movie stars to do that. It works in my favor. I actually know I've got parts that other bigger, more famous actors wanted. I think in some cases the fame has become a hindrance because the actors who are big stars, can't lose themselves, they're too identifiable.
What was it like when you started getting your first film jobs?
It was really exciting. I started doing musicals at school. And then I went to a youth theater group where I did some more musicals and dramatic plays. I did my first film when I was 17 and it just felt like an extension of that fun â€“ except all of a sudden I was able to buy things, because they were paying me for doing it.
What has been the biggest challenge so far?
Jetlag, which I am suffering from today. (Laughs) Seriously, what I find challenging is reading a story and making it come to life, that's why I do this job. It's exciting when you get it right and I guess I've been doing it for a really long time now, so sometimes I feel I could do it standing on my head and I don't mean that in egotistical way. It is just that we all have to create new challenges for ourselves.
Can you talk about your upcoming films?
I play a forensic psychologist in an Australian film called LIKE MINDS. She is trying to figure out which psychotic teenage boy killed some people. The star is a young English guy called Eddie Redmayne and I have a small part. It is a pretty dark thriller. THE NIGHT LISTENER is coming out and I just shot a BBC/HBO co production called TSUNAMI. it's about the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami and the effect of the waves hitting in Thailand. I play a Christian missionary who has been living there for eleven years and runs an education program for young kids in the local fishing villages. The woman who wrote it did speak to a lot of the survivors. So the film looks at what they lost and how they are coping and it is inspired by the stories of the people she spoke to. It really humanizes the tragedy, because a story like this fades when it is out of the headlines, but the people there are still going through such great, unexpected loss. You realize how small we are when nature does something like that. It is not a big disaster movie; it is about how humans deal with something like that. I loved Thailand, it is such a beautiful place, and the people are so gracious and generous.
Earlier this year I did a film called DEAD GIRL, which consists of five vignettes about different groups of people related to a girl who has died. And I am about to a film called EVENING with Claire Danes and Vanessa Redgrave and an untitled film with Alan Ball which is about the objectification of women and how images are thrown at us day in and day out and it becomes difficult to live an authentic life. It is about a thirteen year old girl, it is quite an intense story and I play an astute and progressive pregnant neighbor, to whom the 13 year old comes to for support.
You often play mothers, do you want children yourself?
Yes I do in another year or so. I don't know what kind of mother I will be, it is a big responsibility and I'm really scared because I don't want to mess this child up. I know that I will try to instill good values and do my best to encourage my children to be themselves. And I know that when I do get pregnant I want to take time off and be really present because those early years are so important.
Are you happiest at home in Sydney?
I am pretty happy in most places. The fact that I now have a permanent home, allows me to enjoy wherever I am because I know I am going to return there.
You are busy!
I am. Also in Australia I have a record coming out soon â€“ I am glad I had six months off at the end of last year because this year is just very busy.
Do you enjoy acting and music equally?
Yes, they are different but come from the same place, I love them both.
Would you ever move behind the camera in the future?
I definitely want to direct and I think it's just a matter of time. At some point I think I would rather oversee a film and have more control, I'd rather be the one putting the whole jigsaw puzzle together.
Do you spend much time in America?
Probably about six months of the year in total, in small chunks of time. I have e beautiful little dog; a beagle at home in Sydney and it kills me when I have to go away. When I was in Thailand for two months then returned, I couldn't tell whether she remembered me or not. But she is such a friendly dog it doesn't matter, she is so playful.
What are your extravagances?
My house. It is special and we love it. It's home, it should be special and fantastic because it is home. I am not a big shopper. In Thailand I got a bit of palm tree fever and had to go out for a day and get giddy with spending. But it is not really a priority for me. My guilty pleasure is red wine.
By Elaine Lipworth
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