Will playing a crazy person on television eventually make you lose your mind?
Yes and no, in the case of Toni Collette, the Australian actress who plays a suburban mom with Dissociative Identity Disorder—multiple personalities, all of them nuts—on Showtime's wildly underrated dark comedy United States of Tara, which returns tonight for its second season.
"There's a real delicacy to playing a person with multiple personalities," said Tara creator Diablo Cody, who won an Academy Award for her Juno screenplay. "You don't want it to turn into a one-woman show.
Collette has five roles on the show (and counting): Tara, a wife, mother, and sometime-artist; Alice, one of her "alters," a prim 1950s-style housewife; Buck, a vulgar biker dude who loves the ladies; T, a 16-year-old hellraiser who wears thongs and, in one episode, sleeps with Tara's gay son's first boyfriend; and, rounding it out, an unnamed fourth alter nicknamed "Gimme," a kind of feral beast who growls and pees on people while they sleep. The performance, which often calls for her to transition between characters in a single scene, earned Collette a Golden Globe and an Emmy this year. It also totally knocked her out.
"Even beyond any film I've ever done, when a season ends, it's really hard to shake," the 37-year-old actress said one recent afternoon at a diner in New York. "There's a stain that's left. I almost feel like a shell." Not that she's complaining. ("I'm just lucky to have a good naturopath," she says—who helps her supplement the R-and-R with Spirulina, Vitamin C, and fish oil.)
Tall and statuesque, in full hair and makeup, the tan, blond Collette wore a black leather jacket and ordered fizzy water with lemon. She was jet-lagged but refreshed after some time back home in Sydney with her rocker husband and their infant son. She leaned far forward as we talked, crouching down close to the table as if everything was a secret. She had just come from filming a cooking segment on the Martha Stewart show, she said, and was worried that all the camera closeups had captured the chipped pastel-green polish on her nails.
After a long and varied film career, including an Academy-Award nominated performance in The Sixth Sense, Collette said she prefers the pace of television. "With films, you leave the set one day and are like, 'Shit! I should've done this or that. I'm a hideous, dirty person.' In TV, there's no time." She watches rough cuts of the show and isn't one of those actors who can't bear to watch herself perform, but she does find watching full episodes difficult to watch, "because I relive all the emotion of it all over again."
Created by Steven Spielberg and Diablo Cody, Tara has been a big hit for Showtime, drawing nearly a million viewers to its first-season premiere, according to Nielsen, and fueling the pay-cable network's cottage industry in tough, female-centric shows. Where once few roles existed for talented actresses above a certain age, now there's an entire network essentially devoted to them.
Tara and her Showtime sisters on Nurse Jackie, Weeds, and the upcoming Laura Linney series The Big C, defy almost all the TV-ready stereotypes for wives and mothers. They aren't young, perky, perfect, faithful or especially apologetic about it. All live double, triple, and quadruple lives, juggling families, careers, affairs, diseases, coping-mechanisms, and vices while trying not to lose themselves in the process. Of these women, only Tara truly morphs into separate characters, but the underlying point is easily relatable. We all contain different versions of ourselves: at work, at home, with friends.
The special charm of Tara—and the reason the role was irresistible to Collette—is that these identities are so distinct. It's not just that she gets to play a nuanced mature female character. She also gets to play a teenager. And a man.
"There's a real delicacy to playing a person with multiple personalities," said Diablo Cody, who won an Academy Award for her Juno screenplay. "You don't want it to turn into a one-woman show. You don't want it to feel like Saturday Night Live. We're trying to do a smart dark comedy for cable, and it had to have a very specific feel. It couldn't be too madcap."
The show also stars John Corbett, who fine tunes his practically perfect Aidan role on Sex and the City as Tara's absolutely flawless husband Max. They have two children: Kate, a blond cool-girl played by Brie Larson, and Marshall, her gay younger brother, played by Keir Gilchrist. The family lives in Kansas and functions fairly normally, all things considered. Collette's Tara occasionally goes on benders, makes out with boys, or morphs into Donna Reed, but otherwise, they're just like the rest of us.
Cody and her second-season show-runner Jill Soloway brought in playwrights to work alongside established television writers in crafting this season, in which viewers learn a lot more about the source of Tara's disorder and see how her demons filtered down to her children. Cody also invited actual sufferers of Dissociative Identity Disorder and doctors who treat the disease in to speak to the staff. This latter part didn't go so well.
"I appreciate the education," she said, "I think I just have a problem with authority. I walked out on one of the doctors last year. I feel kind of bad about that though, but he was telling me I should change the name of one of the characters. You run into that in Hollywood."
Doctors who think they're screenwriters, housewives who think they're truckers: It all goes back to the same place. Soloway said she and her staff tried to play with other kinds of borrowed identities as well—online avatars, shifting sexualities, private fantasies we either play out or don't.
Season 2 kicks off with an idyllic montage: After nearly confronting the origins of her condition at the end of Season 1, Tara is back on meds and the alters have been quiet. Everything is sunny, everyone is getting along. The children are doing well in school. The parents have their Obama-style date-nights. But you know right away that the calm won't last. Joey Lauren Adams makes a cameo appearance as a bisexual bartender in the season premiere.
"What are those moments in all of our lives when you're out with your husband and you see a cute girl, and you're like, 'I'm not gay, but whoa she's hot,'" Soloway said. "What would happen if I went back to the bar when my husband was sleeping? I wouldn't—but what if I did? What if I put my hair in a ponytail went to the bar and let my inner lesbian out?"
Season 2 also brings out (spoiler alert!) Tara's inner therapist. In the fourth episode, we meet Shoshana, a fifth alter, a Jewish analyst who seems to have stepped right out of a Woody Allen film. Now Collette isn't just playing a mentally ill woman, she's also playing her own shrink.
"Most premises for television shows don't leave much room for growth," Collette said, but the ability to introduce new alters, like Shoshana, and to develop and refine the existing ones creates almost limitless potential. Collette has particular affection for the therapist, and a keen interest in psychology herself. "That's what acting is," she said, "going into someone else's mind and figuring out how they tick."
Showtime hasn't officially renewed Tara for a third season, but it seems awfully likely. Collette said she is contracted for seven seasons. She's hoping to direct a few episodes down the line, in addition to the five-odd fully formed characters she plays, but that probably won't happen for awhile, she said.
"There are only so many hours in the day." And she's only one woman.
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.