Toni Collette: Keeping Track Of Multiple Personalities
Australian actress Toni Collette adopted a Philadelphia accent when she played Haley Joel Osment's mother in M. Night Shyamalan's thriller, The Sixth Sense, and she gained 40 pounds to play the socially awkward, ABBA-obsessed daydreamer in the indie-comedy Muriel's Wedding — but it's her Emmy-award winning role(s) on Showtime's United States of Tara that showcases how quickly Collette can transform herself into a character.
That's because on Tara, Collette plays several leading roles; or rather, several variations of the same role — all splintered parts of a suburban housewife's personality. The alters emerge when her character, Tara, is under great stress — and include an irresponsible teenager named T, a 1950s housewife named Alice and a macho, male truck-driving sort-of-guy called Buck.
In an interview on Fresh Air, Collette explains to Dave Davies how she approaches playing more than one role on Tara.
"I want the audience to be able to invest in each of the alter [egos] and believe them wholeheartedly." Collette says. "So I try to make them as complex and real and as whole as possible.
Collette credits the show's screenwriters for giving her characters that "leap off the page."
"They're complete and I see them and I feel them and I taste them and it's a very immediate response. There's almost not too far to travel to make them whole," she says.
Critics have said Collette's career took off after her performance as Muriel in Muriel's Wedding, but she reveals that she started acting long before she hit the big screen. When Collette was 11, she faked having appendicitis to get out of school — fooling her mother, the doctors and even the local emergency room.
"I remember my mother telling me when she was 11, she had her appendix out. And I said, 'How did you know that was the problem?' And she said, 'When the doctor pressed on the spot, it didn't hurt, it was when he released his hand, is when [I] felt pain,' " Collette says. "And so I guess I wanted the day off of school and I faked it and I acted accordingly when [the doctor] released his hand and then he ordered me into the emergency room and I just — never owned up to it."
After her appendix was removed, Collette set her sights on musical theater. At 12, she started acting in local performances, which led her to realize that she enjoying acting too.
"I kind of realized I could sing, so I played around with that for a while. And that led me to acting in itself, which I came more passionate about by the age of 15," she says. "When I was 16 or 17, I decided to leave school to pursue an acting career which, you know, doesn't happen. And to this day I'm amazed that I made that decision."
Collette's acting roles include performances in Emma, Little Miss Sunshine, Shaft and The Boys. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in The Sixth Sense and received both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her role in United States of Tara.
On how she plays T, the 15-year-old girl alter ego of Tara on United States of Tara
"She was very clear and very immediate. She's 15. She represents escapism and irresponsibility and just giving her finger to the world and complete self-indulgence. And so, I wanted her to physically just be moving out in all directions and kinda sloppy."
On playing Alice, Tara's conservative housewife personality
"She's very tightly wound. She's the 1950s homemaker and she's kind of the most controlling of the alters. She represents a need for order and can be manipulative in order to achieve that. Everything's just under the surface with her. She smiles but still gets her way. She's quite anal which I quite enjoy."
On playing Buck, a macho truck-driving man on Tara
"I was most nervous about creating Buck. I didn't want him to be a cliche and I didn't want him to become laughable for the audience to be taken with the idea of a woman playing a guy. I wanted the audience to be able to relate to Buck — or invest in him as a character — as much as the female characters. So with that particular alter, I hung out with some fairly masculine blokes just to get a few tips on the physicality."
On identifying with her character Muriel in Muriel's Wedding
"I just had to communicate to [director] PJ [Hogan] that it had to be me. I had to be the one. I just thought, 'There's nobody else who can help tell this story. I totally understand this person and I have to do it.' "
On speaking with an American accent
"An accent in a way can be an entry into a character. I grew up watching a lot of American television and so the American sound has been in my psyche somehow for a long time and is quite familiar and so that does make it easier. Also, I think having a musicality about me that helps in identifying different things in languages and getting them right. I've never struggled with it and I know that some actors do and I feel very blessed to not have to think about how I'm sounding when I'm acting. So I can just not think about the technicality of it and try to be more in the moment."
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