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Toni Collette’s doubly strong work ethic

Though she says she’d like to make fewer films, she hasn’t slowed down yet
/ Source: <a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a></p>

Say it ain't so.

Can Toni Collette really be serious — as the actress has been quoted as saying recently — that she's thinking about drastically cutting back on the number of movie jobs she takes on, leaving fans of her wide-ranging and much lauded performances high and dry? You wouldn't know it from looking at her current schedule. By her own count, the actress will shoot five films this year, including the just-wrapped mystery-thriller “The Dead Girl,” due out in 2007. Adding to her sense of ubiquity, Collette appears in two movies out just this week: “The Night Listener,” a creepy psychological thriller in which she plays the adoptive mother of a young AIDS patient/sex-abuse victim (Rory Culkin), and “Little Miss Sunshine,” a comic road movie about the quirkily dysfunctional family of a young girl (Abigail Breslin) on her way to a California beauty pageant.

The answer to the slowdown question is yes and no, says the “exhausted” actress, reached by phone in the plush comforts of a hotel room bed, where she's recovering from several early morning TV interviews promoting her two new films. She and her husband, musician Dave Galafassi, would like to have kids someday, Collette explains, which would necessitate taking at least a little time off. Still, she isn't talking about pulling a Greta Garbo anytime soon, even if she could.

“I really only take roles that I love and that I have some kind of innate compulsion or need to tell that story,” she says. “Although it's almost like I have no control over it. It's like they choose me.”

The 33-year-old traces her interest in show biz to her early teens, when her love of singing drew her to musicals and talent contests in her native Australia. Still, she acknowledges that the acting bug may have bitten even earlier. “To tell you the truth, my father says I came out of the womb literally singing and dancing, as though there was a spotlight on me. When I ask what I was like when I was little, they just say ‘loud.’”

These days, that image may not be the one most people have of Collette, who’s better known for the subtlety, rather than the volume, of her acting. “I'm not the extrovert I used to be,” she says. “I think that somehow the thirst has been quenched.”

Though Collette has made a conscious effort to avoid being typecast as the dowdy loser, ever since her breakout performance in 1994's “Muriel’s Wedding” — a role for which she reportedly gained at least 40 pounds — it seems that she hasn't entirely shaken the reputation as an actress willing to immerse herself in a part. In director Curtis Hanson's 2005 “In Her Shoes,” for instance, Collette again put on weight. “Twenty-seven pounds, my friend,” she says with a cynical laugh. “Curtis wanted more, but I just did what I could in the time that I had.”

Most recently, for “The Night Listener,” she was asked to fatten up but declined. “I just said, ‘Look, I can't do it again. I've kind of just gotten back to normal again. How about wearing 17 layers of clothing and acting my way through it?’”

When all is said and done, Collette finds it hard to shut the door entirely, leaving the possibility open that she might go down that road again — but only for the right part. “I think if a character is worth it, I would do it,” she says, adding that she's at “the age and stage where I don't want to do it anymore. My health is more important.”

So why even bother, when fat suit technology and state-of-the-art makeup can accomplish pretty much the same thing?

“From my point of view, it's more about feeling something,” Collette says, “even if it's something as simple as feeling exhausted because you just have no energy. But also I've been told that it affects your face in a different way, and that's something you can't really do with makeup.”

Still, she protests that she's “not really any kind of method actor, and I don't go out of my way to become someone,” even while admitting that it's occasionally hard for her to completely separate herself from the characters she's playing. “I think there's an inevitable fact that I somehow absorb part of what I'm doing, because that's what you're constantly thinking about, and that's what's in your veins, and that's what you get up at 4:30 in the morning for and fall into bed after.”

Getting carried away, then, could be an occupational hazard for someone who makes a habit of playing characters as unhinged as Collette's often are.

“To be honest, when I saw [‘The Night Listener’] at Sundance, I was shocked,” she says. Not because she didn't physically recognize herself, but because the performance was, according to her, “more intense than I had planned.”

She has certainly played heavy — and not just on the scales — before. Collette counts 2003's “Japanese Story,” in which she portrayed a woman whose Japanese businessman lover dies while the pair are lost in the Australian Outback, as among the most emotionally taxing roles she has ever taken. Yet to anyone who samples both of Collette’s new films, it's obvious that the actress knows there's a time to be serious and a time to cut up.

It's a lesson she says she learned on the set of “The Boys,” a 1998 fact-based Australian film about a group of young men who rape and murder a young woman. Ironically, Collette says, “it was one of the most fun shoots I've ever had.”

“I think sometimes in order to get through it, when you're not actually working, outside of ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ you just have to get through it any way you can. So sometimes it's just by laughing.”