Can you believe it’s been 20 years since Muriel’s Wedding? Toni Collette’s role as the frumpy heroine from Porpoise Spit set her on the road to international stardom and a host of awards, in an altogether bumper year for Australian movies.
Nowadays, a movie like Muriel’s Wedding might struggle to be financed, and we haven’t seen as much of Collette on screen as she had intended. Her penchant for meaty drama has led to her taking leading roles in smaller movies that hardly release here.
She’s currently on screen here in A Long Way Down (her second film based on a Nick Hornby movie, after About A Boy), which is screening as part of the British Film Festival.
Her biggest triumph in recent years has been the multi-award-winning US cable series, United States of Tara, in which Collette embodied each of her character’s seven personalities, switching effortlessly from one to the other.
Muriel's at 20
How do you look back on Muriel's Wedding as a starting point? Do people still ask about that?
TC: People love that movie. They still want to talk about it. For people to still be talking about it 20 years later it's crazy in the best possible way. It completely changed my life. I wasn’t expecting it at all. I just really loved making the movie and that's still my focus when it comes to making movies –the experience and process of doing it is why I do it. It just opened everything up. I wouldn’t have a career if I didn’t do it.
People have tried to copy it, the kitschy stuff.
TC: But a lot of movies didn’t have the heart. It’s a definitely a balance. It’s that tone that I still gravitate towards. It's always got to have an honesty and some depth.
United States of Tara
Were you and disappointed that the series did not go beyond three seasons?
TC: Yes. I absolutely loved it; it was a really satisfying job. I still miss it. I kind of fantasise that Steven Spielberg is going to call up and go, “Alright let’s make the movie now!” It’ll never happen. When it finished I was like, “Where do I go now? What do I do now?” People still ask if it’s coming back and what happened to it. They’re confused as to why it ever went away.
Why do you think television is flourishing?
TC: There are a lot of good people working in television now. There’s also a lot of good writing because there are fewer restrictions and a bit more freedom, which is ironic.
I’ve seen your more recent network show Hostages. (Collette played a surgeon whose family is taken hostage.)
TC: Lucky You!
Is the series still going?
TC: I have no idea.
Was it what you imagined it would be?
TC: No. I like to work on projects, no matter what the screen size, that I can really connect with, believe in and collaborate on. (Clearly Hostages wasn’t one of them.)
Roles for women
Starring roles for women in movies are hard to come by these days.
TC: They’re out there but they’re usually quite slight, aren’t they?
You’ve played some wonderful mums (in Little Miss Sunshine, The Way Way Back, The Sixth Sense).
TC: It’s funny. You never say to an actor “You’ve played some wonderful dads.”
HB: Female characters are often defined by having children.
TC: And I hope that mine have been more than that. I intentionally show that. Yes it’s a very profound relationship but there are also so many other things going on with these women. I go crazy when I see two-dimensional mums or girlfriends.
A New York Film Institute survey has shown that the percentage of female roles in Hollywood is worse for women than ever before.
TC: Yeah it’s fucked up. It bothers me. I’ve been lucky, I certainly don’t feel hard done by, but there is a big issue that needs addressing. It comes down to people who have the money making decisions about the types of movies that are being made. The only thing I can do except sitting here complaining about it is to start to make my own movies which is why I want to produce and direct.
A Long Way Down
What attracted you to the role of Maureen in this English-language debut from French Heartbreaker director Pascal Chaumeil?
TC: I’m interested in representing real people. I love that Maureen is a woman who hasn’t lived at all. She’s dedicated her life to her (invalid) son and she’s looking at him so often she doesn’t realise she can look up and there’s a whole world out there. It’s about her suddenly realising she’s allowed to have a life. She’s so timid and naive because she’s had a limited life experience.
I suppose in some ways she’s like an older Muriel.
TC: You know, I was actually concerned about it because in the book the character’s much older. I always imagined her as frumpier so I physically tried to do that. It’s mostly clothes, my arse is probably wider than usual, but it’s more about how it made me feel. I ate differently, I felt a bit uncomfortable and I think that awkwardness contributes to her somehow. But I think she’s so sweet.