Toni Collette: Worth the weight

Toni Collette put on pounds to make her breakthrough. Now she has done it again to co-star with Cameron Diaz - but it's for the last time, she tells Elaine Lipworth

There's never been a danger of Collette being pigeonholed or over-exposed. Since her brilliant performance in Muriel's Wedding, when she was 21, she has been respected and admired. At least as talented as any of her Aussie A-list contemporaries, Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett and Naomi Watts, she's often relegated to supporting roles. In real life, Collette is extremely pretty and looks every inch the movie-star, dressed in a Marc Jacobs summer dress with honey-blonde, shoulder-length hair, a strong face and a wide smile.

"I'm very happy with my lot. I like the variety I get," she says. "You don't want to spend your life repeating yourself. It's true of any kind of artist, you want to explore as wide and far as you can go, so that's what I've been trying to do." There were great reviews for her role as Harriet in the 1996 movie of Jane Austen's Emma, with Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role. Three years later she played Haley Joel Osment's terrified mother in The Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis. She also delivered powerful performances as a suicidal single mum in About A Boy, and as a Fifties housewife in The Hours. Every director that she has worked with, from The Sixth Sense's M Night Shyamalan to LA Confidential's Curtis Hanson (who directed her latest film, In Her Shoes), raves about her talent.

One reason for her position in this looks-obsessed industry must be that, although she looks great, Collette doesn't have the obvious, ultra-glamorous appeal of Kidman and Watts. She does take the lead in In Her Shoes, but her co-star is Cameron Diaz. It's a thoughtful and reflective story about the relationship between two sisters. Diaz plays the beautiful, dyslexic Maggie who can't hold down a job, while Collette is Rose, the clever lawyer who is overweight and can't get a boyfriend. (The only thing the women share is the same shoe-size - hence the title.) Shirley MacLaine also stars as the sisters' grandmother. "It was great being Cameron's sister," says Collette. "She has a heart of gold, she is always making light of things; she is very self-deprecating and has a gorgeous nature. Of course, she's beautiful too.

"Poor old Rose isn't that attractive to begin with, it's true," laughs Collette. "But she blossoms. She doesn't look fat and pale and pasty for the whole film; she finds the sun in the end." Collette has gained weight for parts several times over the years, first for Muriel's Wedding. This time, though, she says stuffing herself with fattening food took its toll. "Curtis wanted me to gain 45lb, but I just couldn't do it. I will not put on weight for a film ever again, it's too hard. This is the last time. It takes a long time for your body to recover. I was having milk shakes every day and lots of pizza and pasta with cheese and wine. But the hardest thing is not exercising. If I don't try to keep my muscles strong I start to sprain things and feel unhealthy, and it is tough losing the weight."

The film explores the development of the two sisters as they find out what is really important to them. "Curtis is the best director I've ever worked with. Ever." says Collette, emphatically. "If I could work with one director till the day I die, it would be him. He is such a humble, smart, gorgeous human being and he is good at what he does, so detailed. And I loved the story; it made me cry and it made me laugh. It's not just a chick-flick, men love it too. It's about relationships, emotions, siblings; about waking up.

"Rose is a complete workaholic who doesn't have a life; she doesn't want to look at her life. She is in an incredibly unhealthy co-dependent relationship with her sister, which is not good for either of them. They fight and the falling out they have is a real necessity so that they have an opportunity to stand alone and figure out who they are as individuals and what they want from life.

"Blood relationships are very bumpy because there is an intensity," explains Collette. "They know you better than anyone else even if you don't want to admit that." The eldest sibling in her own family, she grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney and is still close to her parents, Bob and Judy, and her two brothers. "My brothers don't want to steal my shoes like Cameron does in the film, but we do have our problems and fights."

As a child she was an extrovert who loved performing in school plays and went onto study at Sydney's National Institute of Dramatic Art. Uncle Vanya was her first big stage appearance, with Geoffrey Rush, and her first film was Spotswood, but it was Muriel's Wedding that led instantly to offers from Hollywood.

While the success was rewarding, Collette says it was also exhausting. "I am having more fun with it all lately. In my twenties I worked so hard and I was living out of a suitcase and flying around the world frenetically and I guess in the last four years or so I have just slowed down. I am not working as much and I just feel more relaxed. My life beyond work is more important."

She lives in Sydney with her husband, David Galafassi (a musician) and says that, since her marriage two years ago, her priorities have changed drastically. "My family, my relationships with my friends, my home and my music are the most important things in my life. I like being married," says Collette, tearing apart an empty plastic bottle of water, "but it was never something I felt I had to do. Women in the States seem to think 'I gotta meet a man, I gotta get married'. I don't get that, I was getting on with my life and having a great time. I really did not expect to meet my husband and it was probably the best surprise of my life. It is everything, it's fun, comforting, it makes me feel so safe and centred.

"I do want children," she says. "I am aiming at 34, so I have about a year to go." I don't know what kind of mother I will be and look - I'm really scared because I don't want to mess this child up. I know that I will try to instill good values and yet my children will probably end up in therapy in 30 years," she laughs. "I just want to be able to encourage my children to be themselves. And I know that when I do get pregnant I want to take time off and be really present and there."

Collette is a yoga fanatic who loves native Indian sweat-lodges, meditation and yoga, and there's definitely a hippie New Age side to her, but at the same time she doesn't sound waffly or pretentious. She's also passionate about music, and there were rumours that she was contemplating giving up her movie career to focus on recording and touring with her husband. "They were just rumours," she says, "but I've just recorded an album called Beautiful Awkward Pictures and I made it with my band. I've written all of it."

She has a healthy realism about her movie career. "I don't know that I want to do it forever. When it gets too much, I just walk the beaches of Sydney and get calm again. You just grab your surfboard, splash in those waves and feel happy to be alive. That's what really matters."

'In Her Shoes' opens today

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