Toni, queen of the desert

Actress Toni Collette talks about her "intense" desert-romance flick "Japanese Story" -- and why she likes weddings almost as much as Muriel Helsop.


Amy Reiter
January 14, 2004 2:00AM (UTC)

Toni Collette is not the sort of actress to let herself be typecast. Since bursting onto the screen as ABBA-loving, matrimonially inclined Muriel Helsop in the 1994 surprise hit "Muriel's Wedding," she's played everything from the loving mom of a strange child ("The Sixth Sense") to the strange mom of a loving child ("About a Boy") to a woman whose life is destroyed by childlessness ("The Hours.")

In "Japanese Story," for which she recently received an Australian Film Institute award (but which is just opening in North America), Collette plays Sandy Edwards, an aggressive Australian geologist whose life is permanently altered by a trip into the desert with a Japanese businessman, played by Gotaro Tsunashima.

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On a recent winter afternoon in New York, Collette met up with Salon to chat about the difficulty of shooting a movie in the desert, the surprising joylessness of packing on the pounds for a role, the time she got her appendix taken out for no reason at all, and why she loves weddings almost as much as Muriel does.

I understand that "Japanese Story" just cleaned up at the Australian Film Institute awards and that you won the AFI for best actress for your work in the film. It's your fourth AFI award, right?

It was such a strange night. I had hay fever at the time. I don't take drugs of any kind for anything, not even aspirin, and I took a Zyrtec, which is to clear your sinuses and stuff. I felt like I was on some weird acid trip. I had to get up and talk in front of people and I couldn't think, let alone speak. It was so scary.

But to tell you the truth, this film was really hard for me to make. And it's hard when it comes to awards in any art form, because how can you say that one performance is better than another? They're all so different. But I was standing there thinking, this is actually quite gratifying, because it was so bloody hard that it's really nice that people are not only supporting the film but appreciating what we've all done.

What made it so difficult for you?

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It was a combination of being so isolated, which in a way was good and bad. The desert is so inspirational and gorgeous as well as being arid and hot beyond belief -- and that was winter! At the same time, it was a comfort because as an actor you are so inside your head most of the time and being able to look out over this vast expanse and have everything fall into place and just prioritize itself and give you a sense of relief is clearly great.

It was also the emotional content of the film, because it was on such a constantly changing turbulent scale. But that was also the reason that I wanted to do the film. The stuff that was most difficult for me was the best part of it as well.

What was it about the emotional stuff that appealed to you?

When I read any script I can tell whether I'm going to do it or not. I start feeling things as the character's going through whatever they're going through and having clear images, and I get it. And if I don't, I set it aside, no matter how good it is, and let somebody else do it because it's clearly not for me. But with this it was such an immediate response; it just resonated. I have certain fears that are addressed in the film, and that interested me. I mean, for any actor, let alone a female actor, to find a part that really runs the gamut and experiences so much change throughout the course of the story is really exciting.

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[Sandy] starts out as someone who's so aggressive -- and I wanted to make it clear that she wasn't inherently aggressive, but it was just this defense mechanism because she clearly had already experienced some kind of pain, and now she was in shut-down mode. She was closed and numb and threw everything into her work because that way she could avoid real life. The whole exchange with Hiromitsu in the desert is about her opening up, and he ultimately becomes a catalyst for having to face everything that she has had stored and not wanted to address for so long. I think that in life there are certain issues that are bubbling there, no matter how much you repress them. And life is just going to keep presenting ways of getting your attention so that you have to deal with them before you can actually move on and be free of whatever's burdening you.

What were the fears that you felt you shared with Sandy?

Well, I can't really tell you because it gives away the film.

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That raises an interesting question. Why is it so vitally important to keep the movie's plot twist a secret?

It's so unexpected. When I was reading the script I was like, What? It's not even halfway through the film and this person has had such a huge impact on the lead character. How can it eventuate this way? And it's really just unusual in terms of storytelling. In terms of formulaic filmmaking, it's really not adhering to anything that's ever gone before, you know? It's its own thing.

So you feel that -- beyond the surprise of it -- it marks an advance, a departure in filmmaking?

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I think, yeah. It's not like boy meets girl equals happiness. It's boy meets girl and things go askew, and in this case the girl is left with having to face the rest of her life as a changed person. You know, this one little interlude, this exchange which is so unexpected, is actually changing her life forever, and it's not that kind of complacent ending of the Hollywood films where you meet the love of your life and live happily ever after. It's feeling even more uncomfortable, in fact feeling a lot of pain, and yet knowing that you're going to have a richer life because of it.

What is it that draws the two main characters of "Japanese Story," Sandy and Hiromitsu, together?

Ultimately, the thing that bonds them is the fact that they have a life-threatening experience together. I liken it to those couples you hear about when one of them dies and, say, the woman is left and she ends up getting together with the guy's brother and marrying him and having kids. Or I know another couple who went whitewater rafting and they almost died and then they ended up together. I think when you share something so intense with someone it can bring you together in a way that's unexplainable to anyone looking in from the outside.

I think they're more similar than they realize. I know there are all these cultural questions that are posed, but he's very similar to her, though, in that he's somewhat closed. He's reserved. In the Japanese tradition he's an obvious candidate in that he doesn't give away much; they're very ordered and just reserved. So they both have this veneer of protection and once they get out into the desert and they share this experience, it's like all of that is peeled away and you just get these two people. I think the film is really admiring the similarities that they have rather than the differences. And when they realize that and share this big bog in the desert -- you know, it's intense. It's what really brings them together.

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It sounds like this was sort of a personal journey for you, making the film.

I'm not like a method actor -- I just try to be compassionate and make a character real within a story -- but I think that, with whatever character you're playing, there's going to be an element of absorption. Somehow, you're going through what they're going through, because you're analyzing, you're thinking about things, you're kicking around inside their world. It's somehow going to be infused. And this was a pretty turbulent world and an intense journey for her, so it's like pushing to get uphill for me. But at the same time it really was very satisfying.

Is there a difference between making films in Australia and making films in the U.S.?

I think films are pretty much the same, that filmmaking's pretty much the same the world over. I think the difference and what makes each experience an individual experience -- or memorable or something you want to run away from -- is purely personalities on the set. It's the people that you're working with that create the atmosphere.

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The only other thing is that in Australia there is no studio system. There's no huge amount of money pouring in. It's all individuals making independent films and being passionate about telling certain stories. And here you can end up with 12 writers on something and, you know, a director who has eight producers breathing down their neck. You have to answer to a lot more people, and I think it can get a little bit messy because of that.

I've never had a game plan of what I want to do and who I want to work with or the types of characters to play. I've just got to believe in the role and believe in the story. Because, ultimately, you don't really have much control as an actor. You're there and you're giving it your best, but then they take it away and cut it together and you're not there to oversee it. Then they turn it into something else, you know? So you really have to track who you're working with and you've really got to let go of it. Ultimately you've really got to believe in what you're working with, because you've got to live with yourself. You've got to be able to sleep at night.

It sounds a little frustrating. Have you ever looked at one of your films and thought, well, that wasn't the film I thought I was making at all?

I've had pretty good luck. There have been a couple of dodgy experiences that I would like to delete from my C.V., but I think for the most part I've been really fortunate, worked with some great people -- and some not-so-great people. But with my parts being so varied I've avoided being categorized or pigeonholed and I've avoided playing handbags, your average "stand next to" person.

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Are you offered those "handbag" roles? Or do people generally come to you with richer stuff?

Well, when "Muriel's Wedding" came out, I was getting scripts about basically Muriel, rehashed, over and over, same character, similar kind of emotional vein. I was determined, at that point, not to repeat myself, so I think that I have avoided the clichés.

But, unfortunately, good scripts are few and far between and most of the films that get made are youth-oriented. And, you know, teenagers are interesting and it's a time of a lot of change, but I think there are people of all different ages and all different cultural backgrounds who hold my interest much more.

With "Muriel's Wedding" you found success at a very young age and very suddenly. When did you know you were destined to become an actress?

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I've always performed, I guess. I started doing dance classes when I was really young and then I would put on shows on the back verandah of our neighbors' house and invite everyone from the neighborhood and make them pay 20 cents and clichéd stuff like that. Then when I was in high school I did my first musical. I was always a singer and then I got into acting through musicals and eventually it just became the acting part without the singing.

That high school show was "Godspell"?

Yes, and then I did some shows outside of school at a youth theater group, and by the time I was 16, I knew that I wanted to just go for it, so I left school. It's something I can't quite believe now in retrospect, but I think at that age naiveté helped. I wasn't really aware of all of the pitfalls. It makes you fearless.

Was leaving school a hard decision?

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No. It was so clear, so "This is it." My parents were like, uh-huh. They tried to talk me out of it for a long time and then just let me go. I was very determined. They've been so supportive. It must have been hard for them because I was basically giving away my education, but in a way, I've been educated through making films. You know, you learn through all the different locations and the emotional lives of all the different characters you play -- and also the countries that I've had the good fortune to work in or do press in.

I mean, initially, it was hard. When "Muriel's Wedding" came out, I think I traveled around the world for about a year doing press and for the majority of it I was alone. I don't know where the hell the director was. Rachel [Griffiths] joined in at some point. But it was me, it was just me out there selling it, and I'd end up in the hotel room by myself, at 21, wanting to explore but being too scared. No one to go out with. It was strange, but you know, you grow up and you get used to what you're doing and it's not so scary anymore. It's in a healthy context now, and I'm also much more settled. I have a home and I have a husband. Life feels safer in a way, you know?

I know you have a very spiritual, holistic approach to life. When did that develop for you?

I guess once I left home and started living my own life. I just think that Western medicine doesn't really treat the core problems; it just eradicates the surface problem. It doesn't really deal with why it's presenting itself or where it initiated. And in terms of my spiritual outlook, well, I think we're all inherently spiritual. I think it's the most important part of who we are. It makes us who we are. I'm not religious, but I think there's a lot to learn from all religions. I guess the religion I respect the most and understand most clearly is Buddhism.

You had a Zen wedding, didn't you?

It was sort of a hodgepodge of a whole heap of alternative things, but we did have some Tibetan Buddhist monks doing their chanting. It was very special. It's so funny, because I always say to my husband, "I want to do it again."

How Muriel of you!

But it was so beautiful. It was outside and we were on our own property, surrounded by trees. It had been raining and the sky cleared up and literally there were these golden rays of light cutting through the trees and lighting us up. And we had these beautiful monks and it just created the most amazing atmosphere. It was very special. I mean, all weddings are, but really it was just such a love-filled day. It's the most potent feeling. Everyone was so uplifted. It was just so positive and so full of purity.

I think there are too few celebrations in the Western world. We don't have rituals. We don't have any great sense of celebrating time passing and certain achievements. We just put our heads down and get on with work. And I think it's really healthy and such a good idea to make a point of celebrating things that we appreciate.

I have to ask you about getting your perfectly healthy appendix removed when you were a kid.

Ugh. I wish I'd never talked about it. I think it's really weird myself. I don't understand why I did it and in retrospect I think, wow, what a weird little child. My mother had told me that when she was 11 she'd had her appendix out and that it was really strange because when the doctor pressed into your stomach, you couldn't feel it -- it's when he released that you felt a lot of pain. So I thought, well ... I did wake up that morning with a slight pain. It certainly wasn't appendicitis, but yeah, I went to the doctor, the specialist, when he pressed in, it didn't hurt, pulled out -- "Ahh!"

I was rushed to the hospital and cut open that day and they took it out. I think the doctor was slightly miffed and came in saying, "Yes, they were slightly infected." But the best part of it for me -- I mean, I was good at school. It wasn't about getting out of school. I enjoyed school -- but I do remember this honeymoon period after getting my appendix out where I got to lie on the couch and watch "The Sound of Music" over and over and over again on our first, very new VCR. So it was a good time.

The other memory is my two brothers coming in to visit me in the hospital bed and one of them was eating burger rings, do you remember those? It's just like these round chips and they taste like a savory burger.

They sound horrible.

Yeah, I used to love them, but I smelled it and I was, like, get 'em out of here, and I almost vomited. That's as clear as it gets. But as far as rationalizing or making that whole ordeal valid, I can't do it. I just don't know what I was doing. Dunno.

You gained 40 pounds in seven weeks for "Muriel's Wedding." When Renée Zellweger was getting all that love for the few pounds she put on for "Bridget Jones's Diary," did you feel like, "Hello, I did it and I did it more"? And do you think gaining weight for a part is a brave thing for an actress to do?

When I did "Muriel's Wedding," I didn't call myself an actor. I wanted to act and I couldn't believe that I got it, although when I got it -- it was the same with "Japanese Story," in fact probably more intense -- it was like a religious experience, it was like, I have to do this. They can't cast anyone else. I have to do it. Putting on the weight was just part of Muriel. I didn't think twice about it, you know.

Now, thinking about it, I think how fortunate I was, because the older you get, the harder it is to remain healthy. I was young enough to be able to put it on and then just take it off again, although it probably did mess with my metabolism for a while. I don't know whether I could do it again now. It was pretty extreme. But I certainly don't regret it. It was hard. I mean, it was very enjoyable at first and then having to maintain the weight was a chore, constantly eating, eating, eating.

It sounds dreamy to me.

But if you're forced to do it. I mean, yeah, the first month, you know, kicking back. As soon as I found out I had the role. I called one of my best friends [Daniel Wyllie] -- we both did our first film together, called "Spotswood," and he was also cast as Perry, my brother in "Muriel's Wedding" -- and he came and picked me up. We went to Chinatown and we feasted up and it was great fun, but then I was literally working every day and it was affecting my energy and I was coming home from work and not having dinner. I would just collapse I would be so tired and then I'd get up and get through the day just eating, eating, eating.

Getting back to "Japanese Story" for one last question. Today's Sydney Morning Herald said it was a great mystery: "Why did Toni Collette put on the Japanese businessman's trousers before getting into bed with him? Do Japanese men require this dress code of Western women with whom they are having sex? Or was it simply a way to conceal pubic hair and get past Japan's censorship code?" Why did you put on the pants in the big love scene in "Japanese Story"?

I think that it was metaphoric in a couple of ways. It's the moment when these two people are finally opening up, not only to each other but to somebody in general, because they're quite closed. So it's like her stepping into his skin in a way. I also think that, because he's Japanese and it's such a traditional culture, he's used to women being subservient and she's so loud and forthright and seemingly aggressive and robust that for her to wear the pants is like literally she's wearing the pants. The other thing I thought of, which wasn't so apparent at the time, is that because it is the first time she's opening up to someone it's just a way of still having something hidden. It's scary to be so intimate.


Amy Reiter

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