Actress Toni Collette

Originally aired on July 5, 2013

Winner of several best actress awards for her star turn in United States of Tara, Collette describes her latest film, The Way, Way Back, and her return to series TV.

Academy Award nominee Toni Collette has an impressive résumé spanning three continents. The Australian native's breakthrough turn came in Muriel's Wedding, for which she earned the Aussie equivalent of an Oscar, and she went on to portray a wide variety of characters. She earned a Tony nod for her role in Broadway's Queenie and a best actress Emmy for Showtime's United States of Tara. Collette dropped out of school to study drama and first performed on stage as a teen. She not only has a new film set for release this summer—the coming-of-age tale, The Way, Way Back—but also returns to the small screen this fall in the new CBS series, Hostages.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Emmy winner and Oscar nominee, Toni Collette, excels at playing characters who are, to say the least, slightly off-kilter. She won her Emmy for playing a woman with disassociative identity disorder in the “United States of Tara.” And her Oscar nomination came for playing the mother of a child who sees dead people in “The Sixth Sense.”

This month she can be seen in a movie, a coming of age comedy in fact, called “The Way, Way Back.” The movie reunites her with “Little Miss Sunshine” costar, Steve Carell. And this fall, she returned to television in a new series for CBS titled “Hostages.” Good Lord [laugh]!

Toni Collette: God, I’m exhausted [laugh].

Tavis: You’re working like a Jamaican. Anyway, let’s take a look at a clip from “The Way, Way Back.”

[Clip]

Tavis: So not enough work, I see.

Collette: I’ve been really lucky. There’s been a lot of good material around. You know, I’ve been enjoying it the last 18 months or so, I think, I’ve been going at it.

Tavis: Since you said that, let me follow up on that right quick. Depending on what actor in this town you talk to, there’s an abundance of riches or, more often than not, there’s a dearth and a paucity of good stuff. So why is all the good stuff coming to you?

Collette: [Laugh] Well, I don’t know what to say to that. I mean, I think everything goes in fits and starts. It’s cyclical and it happens in phases. You know, after I finished with “United States of Tara,” I had my second child. I took some time off and then I was ready to go back to work again.

I didn’t think it would be so freaking fast. But it really depends on who’s out there, who’s writing, who manages to get their film kind of up and green lit and ready to go. I’ve been really lucky, yeah.

Tavis: I was reading to prepare for our conversation about this particular movie and, of course, watching the movie as well. But I read somewhere where you said that part of what attracted you to this particular character – we’ll come back to your playing character slightly off-kilter in a moment.

But part of what I read at least that made you want to do this was that, as you read it at least, every character in this particular film either had an element of growth or growth potential, were trying to grow. Tell me what this growth thing was in these characters that drew you this time.

Collette: Well, I think the most interesting thing about any story is how people change, you know. And that’s usually a struggle ’cause change is pretty much an uncomfortable thing. We’re all really happy with what’s familiar.

But what’s inevitable in life is change. That’s what life is. With my particular character, she thinks she knows what she wants and she’s kind of going for this relationship with a guy who is really a bad person.

Tavis: This is Steve Carell.

Collette: That’s right, yeah. People are used to seeing him as a very funny man and he’s certainly capable of doing that. But he’s not that in this movie. He’s quite a dark, manipulative kind of shady dude and he treats my son really badly.

One thing that I loved about the story – I mean, it’s actually my son’s. It’s his story really. You know, he’s 14 years old and he’s dragged on this holiday with his mom and this relatively new relationship and trying to see if they can make it as a family and it all kind of goes horribly wrong.

But he reveals to his mother – you know, we have this idea about growing up to knowing everything and I think kids are so perceptive and sort of kind of unstained and he just sees this guy for who he is. And he’s the one who kind of opens my eyes to it and his change enables my change.

Tavis: What’s the takeaway for the audience going to be seeing Carell in a character not like we’re accustomed to seeing him in?

Collette: Well, I think it’s exciting to see actors do new things. But I think the feeling people take away from this movie, it has such a big heart and it ends on such a high. I mean, even me, I’m given a chance at the premier to kind of go and have dinner and not watch the movie. But I want to watch it because it is so exciting to watch all the other actors do their work.

And this journey you go on with this boy is just, you know, someone who’s completely uncomfortable in himself learning to be confident. And it’s done in such a funny way and it really gives you, you know, really great feelings for him. What do they call it? Feel good movie? It actually is that. It’s so joyous.

Tavis: Is that typical for you? When you finish something, you’re anxious to go to the premier to see it? Or is there usually…

Collette: No, not at all!

Tavis: Okay [laugh].

Collette: I mean, I don’t mind watching them. I like to see everybody’s work and, you know, if it paid off or not and how it was thrown together because you kind of have to let go and someone else continues the journey. So I do like to see it, but I don’t like to repeatedly watch it. But I find this movie just so lovely that, if given the chance, I haven’t said no yet [laugh].

Tavis: Right. As I said earlier, this reunites you with a couple of people. So what happens inside of Hollywood when there are people that you work with that you want to work with over and over and over again? I mean, obviously, the material has to be there for it to happen.

Collette: That’s right.

Tavis: But I get the sense and I’ve talked to a number of folk over the years who end up in these relationships with other actors where they end up over a period of time working together repeatedly.

Collette: Yeah. Well, I guess it depends on who it is and the individual and the circumstances. I mean, I would work with Steve any day of the week. He is just such a talented guy and such a gentleman and just, you know, lovely to be around. But this wasn’t planned. We didn’t say, come on, let’s find something. It was a very fortuitous thing that happened.

But, yeah, there are some actors where you think, come on, let’s really knuckle something out here and work to make another story together. I think really, if something’s meant to be, it will be in the end.

Tavis: I mentioned earlier in the introduction and you kind of chuckled, so I assume I’m not too off-kilter myself in make the comment that you liked playing characters that are a bit off-kilter. If I’m right about that, what is that attraction for you?

Collette: I think there are so many movies that kind of represent this kind of idea of what it is to be human which is just off the mark and it’s kind of a glossy Hollywood version of what life is. First of all, I really think there’s no such thing as normal. So if you believe that, then everyone is a character and very much an individual.

So I personally kind of yearn to play characters who are complex and who strike a truthful chord in me and who are challenged in some way and, I guess, who kind of move through those challenges.

Tavis: What are you learning about the complexity of our individual humanity and how it is that – I’m asking this because I think we live in a world now where, for whatever reason, not that we ever did, but I’m finding it more and more troubling for me that as humans we can’t revel in the humanity of each other and the complexity of each other.

This isn’t a Hollywood conversation now. I’m talking about your mother, so you have to raise kids in this world where they’re trying to develop their own identity and yet in so many ways people, again, don’t revel in the humanity of the other. What do you make of that?

Collette: I really believe in a oneness. You know, if I’m looking at somebody else not in a narcissistic way, but you’re kind of seeing yourself. What I do affects others; what others do affects me. We’re all in this together.

You know, as far as kids go, they have to develop a sense of individuality. It’s just something that everyone goes through. But I think the older I get, the more I appreciate the fact that we really are just so connected, you know.

To me, I mean, there are so many different things to believe in, but I think ultimately we’re all energy and, you know, that energy keeps changing, but ultimately it’s a connectedness. And it’s strange because it seems that society is kind of promoting or nurturing this kind of ostracized existence. People are kind of very much in their own little world.

I don’t know. It’s a funny time, but I’m sure in any time you live in, you’d consider it funny because, as I say, life is change and it’ll just keep doing that. It’s a matter of embracing it or not.

Tavis: You said something a moment ago about – it’s a fascinating point. We could have a whole show just about this notion that there are in the world today so many different things to believe in, which takes me back to the movie.

The movie in some ways is about that notion. You’re trying to raise this boy who’s trying to figure out what to believe in. Does that make sense to you?

Collette: Yes, absolutely.

Tavis: So when you said that, it kind of took me back to the movie. With regard to your own children, how in a world where there are in fact so many things to believe in, aside from your character, how do you direct and guide…

Collette: Your own children?

Tavis: Yeah.

Collette: I think, as with everything in life, you’ve got to follow your gut. If you believe it wholeheartedly, then it’s not gonna feel like you’re kind of pasting on an idea. First of all, I allow them to have their own ideas and nurture and foster that, you know, that sense of following their own instincts.

But as they get older – my kids are five and two, so the big questions do start to pop out every once in a while. I do know that my husband and I like one of us will answer and then kind of look to each other and go, “Was that okay?” [Laugh]

But, you know, you’ve got fundamental beliefs and I think it’s not a matter of sitting down and having a lecture. Eventually, it all infuses and, you know, we’re living as a unit. We love each other and we support each other and that in itself is a great thing to feel solid in. You know, not everyone gets that in life.

Tavis: The movie that we’re talking about tonight, “The Way, Way Back,” doesn’t fit this particular question, but now that you have two young children, does that in any way factor in to the choices and decisions you make about the work that you take now that you know years from now they will be looking at?

Collette: I wonder if, in years from now, if they knew that I started to kind of amend my ideas and choices, I think they would find that disappointing.

I think if I’m true to myself – I’ve never been, you know, you hear that actors have like plans. I’m gonna do this type of movie, then I’m gonna play this kind of character, and that’ll get me from A to B. I’ve never done that. I honestly just follow my gut and I don’t think you can go wrong with that. So I don’t know if it has changed.

I’ve never really been a fan of violence. I mean, who is? But I haven’t really done many movies where – that just doesn’t really turn me on. I’m more into, you know, the character and their journey and those kinds of movies don’t really allow for that. It’s a different focus.

Tavis: Well, “The Way, Way Back,” the new one, is a movie about the journey of characters, a variety of characters in fact, starring one Toni Collette. Once again, it’s called “The Way, Way Back” and I think you’ll enjoy it. Toni Collette, I always enjoy having you on our program.

Collette: It’s so nice to be here.

Tavis: Good to see you again.

Collette: Thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Goodnight from Los Angeles. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: July 8, 2013 at 9:47 pm