Since winning hearts in Muriel’s Wedding, Toni Collette has made a good living with some serious roles. But one of her two new flicks harks back to that camp musicality. She talks to Paul Dale about dressing as a drag queen. Additional material: Paul Fischer.
icole Kidman is scared of butterflies. But then again.
she was born in wussy Hawaii. She only moved to
Sydney with her parents later on. By contrast. Toni Collette is a screen goddess born of the ()cker sun. tutored in the art of stitching kangaroo hide together. car mechanics and. erm. big musical numbers.
‘I grew tip doing musicals from the age of 12 and I got into acting through singing and doing musicals. so this felt like going home.’ Collette is talking about one of the two films she has coming ottt over here in the next few weeks. Connie and Carla is a comedy musical that has been compared (mostly unfavourably. it has to be said) to everything from The/Ina and Louise to l’riseilla: Queen of tlte Desert. Co-starring and written by My Big Fat Greek Wedding star Nia Vardalos. the film concerns a couple of chanteuses who. due to a Chicago mob mix up. take refuge in LA where they pose in a nightclub as drag queens. Rather suspiciously. director Michael Lembeck (the man behind The Santa Clause) and Vardolas have fashioned a mongrel pastiche out of the dried out bones of Billy Wilder‘s Some Like It Hot. But hey. Collette seems happy to talk about a film that will doubtless disappear into obscurity. ‘lt was fun to do. We had to have an initial drag look which was not so great because it was our first attempt at trying to look like a guy pretending to be a woman. The make-up artists were very well informed and studied in that area so it wasn‘t something that we had to experiment with. You know what‘s funny'.’ After we had been drag queens for a while. when we came to do a scene as the regular Connie and Carla. I really found it difficult looking at my mouth — I wanted bigger lips. ‘
To understand Collette‘s draw to such material you really have to go back to the Sydney suburbs of the early 1970s. The first child born to a truck driver father and a cUstomer service rep mother in l972. she was a balloon headed. ganeg and unusually feral looking child whose precociousness was soon equalled by her singing ability. ‘l‘d sing for anyone.‘ she says. 'l used to be so nervous l’d kind of make them tum the light off so it would be in the dark. Everyone was always saying. “Sing. sing. sing." at any kind of family gathering. Everyone would always ask me to sing so for a while that was why I didn’t want to be the show pony any more but I guess I‘m finally jumping through hoops again.‘
By the time she was l4 she was already strutting the boards in the high school hippie drama tutor favourite (I'mlspell. At 16 she already knew what was to be her destiny.
so she left school and later enrolled in the National Institute of
Dramatic Art in Sydney. leaving to work in theatre after l8 months. By 1992 Collette had received her first award as Best Newcomer in a Play or Musical from Sydney‘s Critic Circle (for Michael (iow‘s celebrated musical Away). Within two years (‘ollette‘s name was to be linked forever to a fat young girl from l’orpoise Spit called Muriel Heslop. It was to be a blessing and a curse: ‘lt‘s so funny because after I did Muriel 's Wei/(ling I think I was so adamant about making people understand that l was a serious actress because everyone was saying. “Come on. give us that Muriel grin". I found it so freakin‘ frustrating that I did move into a very serious area for a while.’ Since then Collette has taken the gristle with the
carpaccio with tasty smaller parts in Emma. The Sixth Sense. Changing Lanes. The Hours and About a Boy. She has also given unbelievably powerful performances in the rarely seen (in the UK) Australian dramas The Boys and Lillian 's Story. She also has a curious ability to bet on some absolute donkeys in order to pay her Bondi Beach mortgage (The Pal/bearer. Shaft. Dirty Deeds. The James Gang). Connie and Carla is the most recent. but Aussie independent Japanese Story is undoubtedly the more interesting of her two new flicks. Arriving very late to British screens (having been made in 2002 and released in north America and Australasia in 2003). Japanese Ston is a sweet natured but ultimately tragic cross- cultural love story that tells the tale of Sandy. at single. emotionally closed off geologist who falls in love with a Japanese business man. Tachibana ((iotaro Tsunashima). while on a marketing trip into the Australian desert. This meditative
drama from the celebrated directing and writing team of
oddball feminists Sue Brooks and Alison Tilson (The Drover 's Wife. An Ordinary Woman. Road to Nhill) is something of a small triumph. But Collette almost didn‘t make the film at all. ‘The director broke her foot and everything was being pushed back. so it was about to mess with my schedule.‘ Having been unable to commit. Collette recalls that later. ‘I was doing press in New York and I had my agent send me the script again. and there was just something in it. I actually find it really difficult to talk about what it is that made me want to do it. because the connection that I had was quite compelling and so intense for me. You know Sandy is emotionally numb and an angry person who doesn't really want to live in the world. and tries to gain as rntrch control as possible. I think the story is about her unravelling and about the ice melting. and about her warming tip and starting to feel again.‘ Collette gives the impression that she likes working in her homeland but. being a vegetarian yoga stretchin‘ Tibetan hill walker. it is not difficult to work out that she actually enjoys the balance between the outback‘s vastness and the interior decrepitude of her character's emotions.
Round faced and cat eyed. Collette can easily switch between eccentricin and feline dignity but one can't help feeling that her most interesting work is ahead of her. and more likely than not it will take place in the frequently surprising further reaches of new Australian cinema: ‘1 would work in ()7. all the time if] could. but I can‘t. I‘d get bored and so would audiences. But when you look at the state of the American film industry. and then a film like Japanese Story comes out which is honest. funny and so sad. you have to appreciate it. Most filrnrnaking in America is all about making money. It‘s not about art. and telling good stories. but about rehashing a story that made a lot of money and making more money. I‘ve spoken to a lot of Americans who appreciated Japanese Story. because it deals with the truth as well as with quiet changes and contemplation. You know. there‘s always a sense of pretence. especially in America. I don’t feel bad about saying that I find it to be a very odd country.‘
Japanese Story is on selected release from Fri 4 Jun. Connie and Carla is on selected release from Fri 1 1 Jun.
27 May-10 Juno 200-1 THE LIST 13