August 9th 2006
Independent Filmmakers Alliance Newsletter
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In this article, we talk with Indie favourite and Academy-Award nominated actress Toni Collette and the evolution of her film roles.

Toni Collette: Now You See Her, Now You Don't
By Lisa Johnson

Above: Toni Collette (left) in Little Miss Sunshine. Photo credit: Eric Lee.

The first time you probably noticed Toni Collette would have been about a dozen years ago, playing the maniacally marriage minded title character in Muriel’s Wedding. You’ll next see her playing an even more intense character with a mania of an entirely different nature in the eerie drama The Night Listener. Or perhaps you’ll next see her as a hapless, middle-class mom in Little Miss Sunshine – both films will be in theaters simultaneously. But Collette’s uncanny ability to disappear inside her characters so that the actress herself becomes invisible, is both uncanny and uncommon in someone of her stature.

Unless you’ve been watching her closely, you might not even remember that she was nominated for an Academy Award in The Sixth Sense. She has also garnered praise and awards nominations in a string of memorable hits since then, including Shaft, About a Boy, The Hours, Connie and Carla, and last year’s In Her Shoes. Collette simply morphs into her roles.

There are some much-lauded actresses out there whose own personas overshadow the characters they play. You can never get past the fact that you’re watching a Julia Roberts movie, for example, or one with Leonardo DiCaprio, Julianne Moore, or even the great Meryl Streep. And while Collette has shared the screen with some of them, she hasn’t become to proud to still take parts in the beloved Australian indies that launched her career. She’s currently working on several, including Like Minds for Director Gregory J. Read and Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueburger, with Keisha Castle-Hughs.

She sandwiches these smaller projects in between bigger ones, such as The Dead Girl, with Marcia Gay Harden, James Franco, Giovani Ribisi and Brittney Murphy; as well as Evening, with Vanessa Redgrave, Claire Danes and Hugh Dancy, both slated for release over the next year or two.

But currently, if you’re an observant avid filmgoer, you can catch Collette twice in the same day, in two independent films that are almost polar opposites.

“I think it’s just a coincidence that these films are being released at the same time,” Collette explains. “I’m not that busy – I had six months off at the end of last year. But I’m very lucky. The films are very different, and the characters are like night and day. The Night Listener is very dark, and then Little Miss Sunshine is filled with this kind of beautiful light quality.”

Collette couldn’t resist that light quality. “The script was sent to me about five months before we started shooting, and I was completely absorbed in it and fell completely in love with it,” she says. “I just felt it was so original -- the tone oscillates between being really hysterically funny, and then just being so moving and poignant. It feels like it’s incredibly relevant -- that you’re watching a real family, it’s not just some movie family – there’s some real stuff going on.”

Quite the opposite of The Night Listener, in which there is some surreal stuff going on. “The story itself is so intense and confrontational and spooky,” she elaborates, shaking her head and rolling her eyes. “That particular character is so complicated and so frightening. I find it quite sad that obviously she’s had a tough upbringing, and not a lot of love, and she’ll pretty much go out of her way to get attention or love or some kind of connection with somebody. She’s quite smart, but I think she uses her intelligence in a negative, manipulative, destructive, frightening way. She is brilliant to be able to negotiate what she does.”

It’s obvious that Collette tries to crawl inside her character’s head and lose herself there. One of the reasons that the native-born Aussie is able to do this is that she has mastered regional American accents. Says Collette: “I find it really easy to adapt an American accent. I think it’s because I watched a lot of American television when I was younger. A lot of what the world watches now is American, and has a familiar kind of twang that we’re all used to. That probably helps, because it’s not unfamiliar.”

Collette is becoming more and more familiar to worldwide audiences, and as she does, will her ability to disappear inside her characters diminish? Only time will tell.

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