You may know Toni Collette as Sheryl Hoover, the mom who keeps that whole van moving West in the indie comedy hit Little Miss Sunshine. Or you may know her as Cameron Diaz’s sisterly keeper from In Her Shoes, or even as ABBA-enthusiast Muriel, her breakout role, in the Australian Muriel’s Wedding. I know Toni Collette because I saw The Sixth Sense as a middle-schooler in 1999, and it haunted me most of the way through high school. Toni was nominated for an Academy Award that year for her role as Cole’s mother, Lynn Sear, and justly so, because it was watching her fear, her uncertainty, that inspired my own. Through a long and varied career, the 37-year-old Sydney native has played women who have suffered a little--they are quiet, or underappreciated, or overwhelmed, but they almost uniformly show their strength in the end. And Toni Collette plays them with subtlety and warmth, and humor.
But you may not know Toni Collette from her movie career at all. Last winter, she debuted her role as Tara Gregson on Showtime’s “United States of Tara,” the Diablo Cody-penned, Steven Spielberg-produced family sitcom about a suburban American housewife—and her several distinct alternate personalities. “Tara,” which returned for its second season last night, demands many things of its star, and subtlety is not always one of them. Luckily, she has a big, sunny personality of her own, and enough energy to play four, or five, or six different people as the show demands. Here, she talks a little about working with Diablo Cody, learning to play a man, and ordering ham like a British person.
How did you first hear about the role of Tara, in Showtime’s The United States of Tara?
I live in Sydney, and I got a phone call from my agent in LA. He said he was sending a script to me--he knew I wasn’t interested in working in T.V., but he thought that the material was really good and I would respond to it and I said alright. He sent it that day, and I picked it up and read it in the car while my husband was perusing a store. The minute he got back into the car I finished it, I closed it, I turned to him and I said: “I have to do this.” I’d never come across anything like it. I’d never heard of it; I’d never heard of Diablo, Juno hadn’t come out yet… I’d heard of Steven Spielberg. But I had no aim to work in T.V., and it’s been such a joyous ride, and I really appreciate the challenge of this job, I find it really satisfying and fun.
Diablo Cody is great at writing teenagers—and Tara’s two teenaged kids on the show are no exception. What’s it like getting to play a teenager, too (as one of Tara’s “alters,” T)?
It’s fun. I agree, she does write really wonderful teenage dialogue. All of the alters represent something that exists within Tara that is repressed or that she can’t access. So T represents a kind of escapism and an irresponsibility and a “fuck you” to the world, and who wouldn’t love playing that? I mean I’ve had a really varied career but I’ve never really been hired as the oversexed, kind of overtly “bring it on person,” so it’s really great fun.
In order to play Tara and her alters, you invented a sort of language of movements to define each personality—you have your movements for Buck, for T, even for the moments when Tara is transitioning into someone else. Each alter has her (or his) own walk, her own mannerisms and these things separate her from the rest. How did you come up with these different movements?
I really think it comes down to the luxury of working with wonderful material. And not just with this show, but when I read something [I want to do] I feel it immediately and I can even hear how it sounds as I’m reading it and that’s what happened with this--I feel like I really gelled with the material. Buck was the hardest. Because I didn’t want it to feel laughable or like a gag, there’s this woman playing a guy. I wanted him to be just as valid as the female alters. With Buck, I spent a bit of time with some swaggering male friends. John Corbett tried to help, made me put his shoes on but I just swam around in them. That didn’t really help, just made him laugh. I think once we started rehearsing and shooting it all just felt right, it had a flow.
Speaking of Buck, the show does seem to break down gender stereotypes: Buck is a “man’s man,” a Vietnam vet, he likes guns and motorcycles, and he happens to inhabit the body of a woman. And there are also on the show these well-written male characters like Tara’s husband Max and her son Marshall, who are sensitive, complicated guys, and Tara’s daughter, Kate, is really tough and blunt. Do you consider United States of Tara to be a feminist show in some ways?
I think it’s a human show. And maybe that means it is a feminist show because it’s inclusive. I hate to exclude anybody, and I think it’s a really fair, and realistic depiction of life—the mess, and chaos, and the beauty of family.
Do you see Tara as a kind of metaphor for “the modern housewife” or do you approach her as a real person struggling with her issues?
Well both! And not just for women, but for men also. We all wear different hats, and we have relationships and responsibilities and we present different parts of ourselves at any given moment throughout the day. That’s not just a female experience. But it is a very definite and pointed metaphor of the show.
Besides Tara, you’ve played a lot of memorable mothers in your film career: Sheryl Hoover in Little Miss Sunshine, Lynn Sear in The Sixth Sense. Do you find yourself drawn to mother roles?
Maybe they were drawn to me, I don’t know! I just had a child two years ago, so I was playing all those mothers without really having any experience except being on the other end of it with my own mum. But I always imagined before I was a mum that that relationship was going to be the be-all and end-all in terms of the ferocity of love. The do or die aspect and the protective aspect and just this unending well, which is all very real I realize now. And I guess what I liked about those particular mothers in those films is that they were whole human beings. I tried to make them as complex and as real as possible, so they were not just, you know, “the mom.” I hate seeing roles where it’s just “the girlfriend” or “the handbag.” I like to give a character life—I like to make them breath and make them real. Otherwise there’s no point in them existing.
Speaking of Lynn Sear, I’m from Philadelphia and you do a good Philly accent. You’re from Australia and you have a better Philly accent than I do. How did you learn to change your voice for acting? Were you the type of kid who always did funny voices?
I would go into stores and pretend to be British. Ask about, you know, the sliced ham in the deli. Just stupid. I always mucked around with accents. And I still do. I love doing Scottish accents. It’s fun. I find it really easy doing American accents because I grew up watching a lot of American T.V. Our [Australian] culture is completely saturated by the American culture. So that sound has been really familiar for a really long time. For the Philadelphia accent, I used to hang out with the Teamsters. That was a way in. Drive around town with them and listen.
Photo courtesy of Showtime
Bonus! Watch the season two premiere of "United States of Tara" here on the BUST Blog