There’s a line in playwright Will Eno’s Broadway debut The Realistic Joneses, in which husband and wife, played by Tracy Letts and Toni Collette, have a moment. He looks at her straight on and, as if seeing something for the first time, blurts, “I don’t know what your normal look is.” It’s true—intentional or not, Collette makes a lot of faces on that stage, a lot of looks, never holding one for very long.
“My face moves, unlike some actors’ do,” she laughs a few days later over the phone. “I guess it’s kind of a response to what’s happening internally.”
Her gift for technical precision, which helps with making all those faces, makes Collette a director’s dream. She’s had twenty years to perfect the skill, evident in her most famous roles—maybe you remember her best as Haley Joel Osment’s terrified mother in The Sixth Sense, or as “Miss Granola Suicide” in About a Boy (which Collette remembers less than fondly: “I remember thinking, ‘Jesus, this is a comedy. Why am I the one standing here crying?’”)—and her newest, as flailing rock journalist Ellie Klug in the new indie comedy, Lucky Them.
Ellie grew up with and dated the “most influential” (fictional) artist of Seattle’s ‘90s folk music scene, Matthew Smith, who gave it all up one day, drove his car to the top of a waterfall, and disappeared. Ten years later, Ellie writes for a sinking music magazine whose apoplectic editor, Giles (played by Oliver Platt), is rightfully on the verge of firing her. She turns in dud stories, misses deadlines, and is prone to occasionally sleeping with her young, struggling musician sources. So Giles issues Ellie an ultimatum: Find Matthew Smith and write a killer story, or find yourself a new job.
Collette talked to The Daily Beast about her return to Broadway, Lucky Them, and (not) researching her role as an alcoholic rock journalist. “I’ve been very good at staying up ‘til 5am myself in the past,” she says, laughing.
I became a fan of yours in high school when I first saw Little Miss Sunshine, but I didn’t realize until recently that you’re actually Australian. Does that still catch a lot of people off guard?
That’s so funny! Yes it does, actually, which is good. It’s the greatest compliment. I love that.
In Lucky Them, you play a journalist, though as an actress you’ve dealt with more than a few interviewers. Is there anything you’ve observed over the years that helped you with the role?
Oh, god. Well, someone else mentioned in an interview the fact that when I first interview Lucas [a musician in the film, played by Ryan Eggold] after his gig, the way I got the recorder out and asked if it was okay, they were like, “How did you know to do that?” I was like, “Are you kidding me? I’ve been on the other end of that for years!” I guess I did absorb a thing or two, but the quality of anything depends on the person who’s doing it, right? Someone like Ellie, her intention is to numb out. She’s basically self-medicating with a lot of alcohol and avoiding any kind of intimacy or real relationship because it’s too confronting.
And having experienced the loss of Matthew Smith ten years prior to when this story takes place, that’s the thing that kind of started her on a downward slope. The quality of her work is affected by that and it’s pretty crappy. Sometimes, I think, people’s best work comes from something that is really personal or somehow important to them. So in terms of having to go back and look at her relationship with Matthew Smith and what it meant to her and what may or may not have happened to him, it did allow her to reconnect with a part of herself which was quite dead. So the story itself is about letting go and being present and being responsible for one’s life.
Was it a surprise when screenwriter Emily [Wachtel] actually got Johnny Depp to play Matthew? I know she had been pursuing him for the role for a long time.
Yeah, it was very last-minute. You can understand why people didn’t believe her. (Laughs.) Saying, “It’s gonna happen! It’s gonna happen!” I’m like, “We’ve been trying for ten years now, it’s ten minutes before we’re about to shoot so I don’t think it is going to happen.” But yeah, it did happen. It was probably a combination of Johnny’s relationship with Paul Newman [who started the film before his death in 2008, after which his wife Joanne Woodward took over as executive producer] and…I don’t know actually why he wanted to do it! But I know he mentioned to our director Megan Griffiths that he could relate to Matthew Smith in that he’s someone who isn’t entirely enamored with the idea of being famous.
Are you a fan of rock music yourself?
I’m a fan of music, some rock music. But I like many types of music. But I suppose a kind of longstanding love of specific bands would be Radiohead, Wilco, Neil Young, Tom Waits, REM. But music is so subjective and people like music because of the way it makes you feel. God, there’s so much music in the world so it’s hard to make a list.
I read this very old interview with you—from 2002, when About a Boy was just being released in theaters—where you talk about a “secret sadness” and how acting helped you “stuff inside” that you felt you “needed to let out.” Is that still something acting does for you?
Sometimes, but I think my relationship with acting has changed. I think when I was younger I still felt it was a real outlet. It is that still, sometimes, but it’s also just really creative in a fun way. You know, to be able to create a character and tell a story is a crazy way to make a living. I feel so lucky to be able to do this.
Your other current project, The Realistic Joneses, closes in July after 132 shows.
It’s interesting because one of the great things I love about filmmaking is you capture a moment in time and then there it is forever but in theater, you also capture a moment in time but it’s only to a certain group of people in that room. There’s something so magical about that. And I really like the challenge of having to sustain and recreate the story each night. It’s something I haven’t done for a while and this specific piece of material really made me want to go back to working in the theater. I think Will Eno’s writing is just so beautiful, he’s so perceptive and really captures something very real about pure existence.
It’s because I think he’s somehow written a play that goes in 90 minutes that is about absolutely everything. And it really, I guess it can be polarizing. There are some people who come out of it saying, “That was about nothing. Nothing happened.” And it’s so amazing to me because I think it is about everything. It’s about life and death and everything in between.
We’re also coming up on the 15th anniversary of The Sixth Sense—what has that role meant for you over the course of your career?
Oh man, it was so much fun to make. I’ve done a couple of films in Philadelphia and it’s a great, great town. But I think more than anything it was great because I made a couple of really great friends. The work was great, but when you’re able to take away something a bit larger than that, that’s always pretty special and it’s not always the case. But yeah, when we were making it, we did have—without being corny—a sense of it being somehow special, that it would do something. Certainly not what it did do, that was beyond anyone’s expectations or imagination.
Do you remember filming the scene where you break down in the car?
Oh, yes. Absolutely, I do. I remember we shot Haley’s side of it first and Night, our director, was so concerned. He said, “Don’t let it all go now, just hold back ‘til we cover you.” But I was so connected to the story and specifically that moment that just right out the front gate [I started crying]. And then when they turned around to cover me, I think they did two takes and that was it, it was just very quick.