6:00am Saturday 22nd March 2014
She has talent in spades, but it's her likeability that makes Toni Collette most stand out. As her latest movie, A Long 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.
Toni Collette is tickled about her growing sense of Britishness. The Australian actress recently spent a stretch of time over here to shoot A Long Way Down and it's clear that Blighty has left its impression on her.
"I became addicted to PG Tips when I was filming in the UK," says Collette, laughing. She also admits that she finds our dreary weather "comforting".
A Long Way Down is adapted from the Nick Hornby novel of the same name, and sees the 41-year-old actress play sweet-natured mother Maureen, who has a severely disabled son and forms unlikely friendships with three strangers (played by Pierce Brosnan, Breaking Bad actor Aaron Paul and rising Brit star Imogen Poots) who, like her, are contemplating ending their lives.
It didn't take much for Collette, who's known for her breakthrough role in 1994's Muriel's Wedding and previously starred in About A Boy, another Hornby adaptation, to fall in love with the project.
"I thought the story was so beautiful and real and funny, and so heartbreaking. I loved all the characters," she 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's 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".
"She's a really rare and unique woman and I adore being around her," Poots' praise continues.
Like the characters she's played, from marriage-obsessed Muriel to busy mum Sheryl in Little Miss Sunshine, Collette is relatable and 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.
"All the thoughts you've had about a character suddenly have to become practical. Not only that, but everyone's watching you and it has to be filmed!"
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 adds.
She currently lives in New York but will be leaving soon and going "wherever the wind takes me", and although she clearly enjoys her work, she admits that she previously fell out of love with the industry.
"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 currently starring in Channel 4 drama Hostages.
"That's what you want. I mean, Jesus, 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, chuckling.
It's the time she spends with her daughter Sage, six, and two-year-old son, Arlo, that she treasures the most.
"I'm a mum, so I love spending any down time with the kids," she says. "I enjoy what my children enjoy. I enjoy them being happy and gleeful."
She also enjoys yoga, something she's been practising since her teens.
"If I do have time to myself, I like something grounding that brings you back to you, something centring," she says.
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."
Extra time - Toni Collette's best roles
:: Muriel's Wedding (1994) - Under-confident ABBA fan Muriel dreams of escaping her deadbeat hometown, finding love and having a lavish wedding.
:: Emma (1996) - In this adaptation of the Jane Austen classic, Collette plays the naive Harriet, who falls foul when her matchmaker friend Emma tries to set her up.
:: The Sixth Sense (1999) - Collette plays Lynn, the mother of a boy who can communicate with dead people in this creepy classic.
:: About A Boy (2002) - This Brit flick sees Collette play suicidal mother, Fiona, whose son befriends an over-privileged bachelor (Hugh Grant).
:: Little Miss Sunshine (2006) - Busy mum Sheryl is the glue that binds her mismatched family together in this endearing comedy.
:: A Long Way Down is released in cinemas on Friday, March 21
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