Toni Collette is a bit of a slow-burn actress for women of a certain generation. She certainly became a household name with The Sixth Sense, and then a critical darling with her turn in the runaway hit Little Miss Sunshine, but it was her initial starring role in Muriel's Wedding that has garnered her a cult-like following. Muriel's Wedding is one of those movies that, when two people who have both seen it find each other at a dinner party, both freak out because they love it so much. It's an honest, darkly funny look at marriage — and how all women feel, to a certain extent, they are from Porpoise Spit.
Like her character, Muriel, Collette has only gotten better with age. She's wickedly funny and unafraid to approach roles that aren't beautiful or "attractive" in a "traditional" sense. Her newest movie, The Way, Way Back, has her character Pam in an often unseen role: the good parent with a pretty jerky boyfriend, played by the definitely un-jerky Steve Carrell. While Pam seems to have a dearth of self-respect, Collette seems chock-full of it, offering us some seriously feminist advice. Oh, and if you want to be her fan for life, check out what she did after the interview.
Are you aware of the cult status Muriel’s Wedding has garnered after all these years?
“I don’t think I am entirely aware of it. I can tell it still resonates on a certain level because people quote lines to me, and continue to want to talk about it. It’s incredible, really. It’s been 20 years since I made it. For it to have such a long-lasting effect is amazing, amazing! Working in film and being an actor is kind of a self-serving thing — I absolutely love it, but you also want people to see your work and be a part of the story, to take it in, and like it. To have it spanning decades is quite something.”
It’s become something like Heathers. It’s become this crucial movie young women have to see.
“I think The Way, Way Back is similar in theme.”
In your newest film, The Way, Way Back, you’re playing a woman who’s dating a guy who kind of sucks. It’s an interesting twist for you. Is there any possible way to “jerk guard” yourself?
“Well, the truth is dawning on Pam. She knows he’s a dick, and she’s refusing to own up to it. I think it’s more about listening to your gut. She’s listening, but she’s ignoring. It’s a matter of actually having some self-respect, and listening to that truthful affirmance in your heart. That’s all you can do, really — in anything in life.”
Can you talk about your more embarrassing mom traits? Is there anything you do that makes your kids cringe? Did your mom do anything to you that was horribly embarrassing?
“I always found it mortifying to talk about boys I was attracted to. I did not want to discuss that with anyone in my family. If my mom brought up anyone in particular, I would just recoil. She was just trying to extend herself. I regret that I didn’t take advantage of that actually. It’s so mortifying when you’re a teenager; it’s so embarrassing, you feel so vulnerable. What do I do? They’re five and two; so, they’re still kind of in love with me, they think I’m a goddess. I have yet to fall off that bridge.”
You’ve built a career playing roles that are a bit lost, and at odds with their appearance. Can you talk a bit about what place you think beauty has in our society? Do you think our obsession with appearance is a bad thing?
“Absolutely. I think it’s insane. I believe in nurturing the inner world. I believe the more important thing is your mind and your heart. Those two things are the most ignored parts of our beings. I think there’s a huge imbalance in where the focus is placed in today’s society, absolutely. The people who are most attractive to me are those who feel most comfortable in their skin — there’s a sense of self-acceptance. Some of the characters I’ve played have not felt comfortable in themselves, and so there’s a physical counterpart to that. That’s what happens in life, you know? We do things to protect ourselves, to deny ourselves, or to present something we’re not, or to hide something we are. In terms of building a character, it’s really exciting to take into consideration how the character feels about everything — including themselves. Which is hard for anyone to really see themselves anyway. That’s why you look for really good material because if it’s that well written, and there’s such complexity, it’s exciting to have somebody who’s almost human-like to help bring to life.”
Do you think it’s important for us to see examples of women who are awkward on the screen?
“Just feeling real in any way, whether it’s awkward or not, because like it or not, art is a reflection of us, and how we chose to live, and that is fantastic. Now, the media has other agendas: It’s not about reflecting humanity, it’s about dictatorship and being dogmatic in telling people how to dress, how to look, what to say, what to do with your life, how to spend your time, everything.”
There’s a moment in cinema, especially in comedy right now, where we’re beginning to get an alternate portrayal of women who are funny but beautiful, but also real and human.
“This is kind of a response, but bear with me. I’ve recently realized that I really am a feminist. For years people would say to me, ‘You are! You are! You really are!’ And I’d say, ‘No, I’m not. I’m a humanist. I think it’s sexist to say I’m a feminist.’ Now, I see a great imbalance not only in my industry, but also in the world at large. I want to change it. I agree with you. It needs to be varied and real.”
When we spoke to Collette, it was the day that SCOTUS overturned Proposition 8 and DOMA, plus the day that Wendy Davis successfully pulled off her filibuster. We chatted with her about it, asking her for her thoughts. About Davis: "Good girl! How amazing! That is amazing. And especially so with the Prop 8 situation in California."
We asked her if there was same-sex marriage in her home of Australia, and Collette, on six hours of sleep, didn't want to give us the wrong information, but she knew the conversation was still raging and that she'd get back to us. We thought, sure, award-winning actress Toni Collette will have the time to follow up with lil' old us. But lo and behold, the next day, we got an email from her confirming that same-sex marriage was legal in New Zealand but not in Australia. How amazing is she?
Photo: Rex USA