Toni's down but not out
She has talent in spades but it's
her likeability that makes Toni Collette most stand out. As her latest movie, ALong Way Down, is released, the Australian actress tells Keeley Bolger about parenthood, stage fright and why she's pleased she didn't jack it all in
H AVING previously starred in an adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel About A Boy, it didn't take much to persuade Toni Collette to come on board for her latest film, A Long Way Down. The film is adapted from Hornby's novel of the same name and sees the 41-year-old Australian play sweet-natured mother Maureen, who has a severely disabled son and forms unlikely friendships with three strangers (played by Pierce Brosnan, Aaron Paul and Imogen Poots). Like her, they are contemplating ending their lives. "I thought the story was so beautiful and real and funny, and so heartbreaking. I loved all the characters," Collette, known for her breakthrough role in Muriel's Wedding (1994), explains. "Maureen's given up everything to have her son and I guess, out of all of them, her idea of leaving life is the most altruistic one, because she's not sad or depressed, she just wants her son to be taken care of properly and doesn't think she's doing a good job. "She has this unexpected journey with these people who completely change her life for the better."
Despite the sad subject matter, Collette and her co-stars kept the atmosphere light on set, passing the time by "drinking tea, eating chocolate and making each other laugh".
It's this grounded approach, coupled with her warm nature, that has made her a hit with film fans and colleagues alike.
Poots, for instance, still often chats with Collette and her musician husband Dave Galafassi on the phone, and has described her as "a role model, in terms of her attitude" and "a great mother".
Poots describes her as "a really rare and unique woman".
Like the characters she has played, from marriage-obsessed Muriel to busy mum Sheryl in Little Miss Sunshine, Collette is honest about her own anxieties.
Going back on stage this spring - for the first time in 14 years - in a Broadway production of The Realistic Joneses, is something the mum-of-two finds "nerve-racking".
And despite her years of acting experience, which began when she enrolled in Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art at 16, she still feels jittery about aspects of work. "I get nervous on the first day of a film, just because it's a new bunch of people and it's the first time you're really trying out a character," says the star, who grew up near Sydney with her parents - Bob, a truck driver, and Judy, a customer service rep - and two younger brothers.
Nerves aside, Collette seems cool-headed and practical in her approach to life, insisting that balancing parenthood, work and her personal life is just about putting "one foot in front of the other". "How does anyone [balance work with parenting]? It's just life - you get on with it and it's all important to me," she says.
She lives in New York and although she clearly enjoys her work, she admits that she previously fell out of love with film. "There was a time where I was like, 'Uggh!' and I wrestled with [acting] a bit," says Collette. "But now it's so much fun. It keeps me interested, open and awake, and makes me someone who continues to learn. "You can't be an actor and be shut down. You've got to be open. You've got to be in touch with your emotions and yourself. I appreciate that aspect of it."
And the reaction to Muriel's Wedding is one that's stayed with her. "When Muriel's Wedding was made, I was so in love with the process that I didn't even contemplate the fact there would be an audience," she explains. "So when I was at Cannes, it was quite overwhelming to stand there in front of a few thousand people, receiving their response. "To be honest, that's still what I take away from it. It's the process and the experience of making it, and the people you work with and your character. Every film is very different because it's different energy, different people."
Fans still ask about ABBA-obsessed Muriel. "People do still talk about Muriel's Wedding, but that's good," says Collette, who's also tarring in Channel 4 drama Hostages. "That's what you want. I mean, how long ago was it that the film was made, 20 years? If they're still talking about it, we've done our jobs well."
Away from her day job, Collette likes to sing in her band Toni Collette & The Finish with her husband (he's on drums) but laughs when asked why there aren't any more albums in the pipeline. "There are only so many hours in the day," she says.
It's the time she spends with her daughter Sage, six, and two-year-old son, Arlo, that she treasures most.
Spare time to herself is a rarity, though - not that she's complaining. "I love working. I'm really lucky that I still get employed!" says Collette. "I don't know what I'd do if I didn't act."
* A Long Way Down is released in cinemas on Friday March 21.