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Toni Collette: 'Irish and Australian people are so similar'

Published 03/10/2015

Toni Collette
Toni Collette

Toni Collette took on the role of a breast cancer victim because it felt important to her. She tells Hilary A White about her love of Ireland and the power of positive thinking.

When probed, most interviewees will show a thin enthusiasm for the venue of that particular stage of promo duties. Toni Collette, however, looks genuinely thrilled with herself to be back in Dublin.

"Yes," she squeals like a giddy child. "And it's apparently the most incredible day to be here because it's… what's it called? The Creative Festival?

"Culture Night," I correct.

"Culture Night. How brilliant is that. I'm going to do The Late Late Show and hit the town for that," she gushes with the first of many smiles, each a large-scale event that her whole head happily gets involved in.

Collette may be one of the finest actresses of her generation, but there is nothing arch about the 42-year-old's apparent familiarity with the Republic and its capital. During her mid-twenties, the Australian was ascending the Hollywood ladder thanks to a breakout performance in the 1994 comedy classic Muriel's Wedding.

The US and Europe was where a lot of the work was coming from, so instead of slogging back down under after wrapping, she would use Dublin as a decompression chamber. She was spending so much time here she ended up buying a house just outside the city.

"It needed renovation, which I never did, but I spent a lot of time out there," she says.

It all began, she explains, through "a short relationship" with Tudors star Jonathan Rhys Meyers (a year-long outing that Collette would describe in hindsight as "probably dangerous"). The pair had met on the set of Velvet Goldmine (1998).

"Through him I met some really, really wonderful people - I'm actually having drinks tonight with a couple of them - specifically a man called Gordon Campbell, who was an original soul. He passed away a couple of years ago. Coming from Australia, it's just such a schlep to get home if I've finished working in the northern hemisphere, so I would come to Dublin and just camp out at his place.

"So I spent heaps of time here - and my ancestry is half-Irish. I just think there's a real understanding between Irish people and the Australians, a really similar sensibility."

In 2014 she was announced as Concern's first Official Global Ambassador, which she considers a great honour.

"I know they started here and are based here, but I think what they do goes beyond borders. The work they do is so profound and they left such an impression on me, they could have been based on the moon and I would have jumped in."

A short film by the charity showed Collette on the ground in Haiti and the effect of the experience is visible on her face. To this day, she speaks about the devastation she witnessed and how it inspired her to do anything she could to highlight Concern's work.

"People are so disconnected from reality and we're all so ostracised. It's something we don't contemplate, that there are fellow humans on the other side of the world who have lost everything. When I went there it left a massive, gaping hole in my heart."

Collette grew up in the western Sydney suburb of Blacktown, the daughter of a truck driver and a customer service rep. A story persists today that she faked appendicitis at the age of 11 to the point of surgery, indicating a career on stage and screen beckoned. At 16 she enrolled in Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Arts, delivering pizzas to pay the bills.

Jump forward to 2015 and Collette is not only one of the most recognisable and distinct faces in cinema, but also a highly respected performer, known for her striking transformative abilities and range.

An Oscar nod came for her turn as the worried mother in The Sixth Sense (1999) and she is warmly regarded for strong supporting roles in The Hours (2002), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), About a Boy (2002) and The Way Way Back (2013). If she looks familiar it's because she has made some 54 films since she and a young Russell Crowe made their feature debut in 1992's Spotswood.

She's currently on the promotion trail for Miss You Already, a savvy and dexterous UK drama about a close friendship put through the wringer following a breast cancer diagnosis. It is an admirable film, full of comedy and keen observation, but one that also airs discussions about topics rarely encountered on the cancer radar - victim selfishness, for instance, or the toll taken on a marriage.

Collette plays Milly, a successful London PR executive who has it all until a lump is discovered, while Drew Barrymore plays her slightly dowdier pal, Jess. Life imitated art and the pair struck up a strong friendship on set.

"I loved the relationship these girls have," Toni trills. "I found it incredibly funny. And despite the fact it looks at the experience of cancer very truthfully and realistically, it's fun, man.

"This woman is so complicated, and as an actor that's what you want. But I knew it was important, and I try to work on films that feel important. This disease is everywhere and I think the film will unify people."

She researched thoroughly to tackle the physical and emotional toll of treatment.

"This film is lifelike, and I think it would have been an insult to anyone who'd been touched by cancer to make it any other way," she says.

Collette's first love is music and she plans to record more with musician husband Dave Galafassi as well as step behind the camera to direct.

"I have two small kids on top of a film career, so it is a matter of time management," she smiles, before reminiscing on her recent family break in Los Angeles ("lots of swimming and sun and being healthy and having fun").

As if sensing how disarming her optimism is, she adds: "If you tend to ruminate about things negatively, you draw that to you. So if you chose to focus on a positive, you kind of create it. Your mind is so much more powerful than you realise."

  • Miss You Already is showing in cinemas now

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