Fascinating fact about Toni Collette: she is the second most recognizable and highest-paid Australian actress in Hollywood, after Nicole Kidman. However, if you put the two of them in a cool contest, Toni would win every day of the week. Ever since Toni played Muriel, an ABBA- and wedding-obsessed woman who escapes her abusive father in “Muriel’s Wedding,” she has built an awesomely diverse career, starring in indie flicks like “About a Boy,” “Velvet Goldmine,” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” And then last year she made the switch to the small screen, in Showtime’s “United States of Tara,” playing a suburban mom with Dissociative Identity Disorder who fractures into a ’50s housewife, a bratty teenager, and a male Vietnam vet anytime she gets stressed. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Diablo Cody, this show is one of the best on television, and Toni won an Emmy for the role. After the jump, Toni dishes exclusively to The Frisky about everything, from this season’s newest alter ego—a ’70s flower child—to the alter she’d most like to add to the show.
The Frisky: You’ve generally acted in movies. How has the switch to television been?
Toni Collette: What I appreciate about the medium of TV is the pace. There’s a lot of waiting around in film, though sometimes with low-budget movies the pace picks up a little. But we’re shooting a half an hour every five days and it’s really, really quick. And I get to do more of what I love in a day. I think this particular job goes above and beyond. As an actor you pray for variation and you hope for originality and this just gives that to me in spades.
The Frisky: It’s like five roles in one.
TC: I feel ridiculously lucky.
The Frisky: Which of the personalities is the most fun to play?
TC: Probably T. She’s the most physical. She’s always moving out in all directions—no real focus—she’s all about escapism, and irresponsibility and irreverence and giving the middle finger to the world, and just doing her own thing. She’s really indulgent. It’s fun playing a teenager.
The Frisky: Where do you get your inspiration for playing a teen?
TC: I watch them. And I was one. And great writing. I mean, all the characters when I first read the script were so pronounced and obvious to me. I could hear their voice and see how they move, and that’s when I know I absolutely have to do something because it speaks to me with such clarity.
The Frisky: What were you like as a teenager?
TC: As a teenager you’re not that self-aware, so in retrospect it’s a little bit blurry. I was quite gregarious. I was already singing and dancing and acting by that stage. I remember teachers saying, “Now, Toni’s the perfect example of someone who could be school captain.” I was quite good at school, though I left early when I realized I could actually go act for a career.
The Frisky: Which of the personalities is the hardest for you?
TC: There’s a new alter in season two that I feel I don’t personally relate to so well. Her name’s Shoshana—she’s still fun to play, but it’s a little difficult. In season one, we dabbled with the idea of co-consciousness where Tara can communicate with an alter directly and Shoshana is very involved in that. So on top of creating a whole new character, I was acting with a tennis ball or a piece of tape on the wall or nothing at all, and when you don’t have that human interaction to play off of, it can be a little bit weird.
The Frisky: Tell me more about Shoshana.
TC: She’s female. The same way Alice exists in the ‘50s, Shoshana exists in the ‘70s. She has a kind of peace and love aspect to her. She’s very much a confidante and mentor for Tara.
The Frisky: If you got to invent any personality for the show, what would it be?
TC: I love doing accents. I love doing Indian accents.
It’s never going to happen. But I wouldn’t want to inhibit the writers. I’m very happy to go on their ride in terms of where the story goes. And it’s not just about whipping out an alter—they all represent something within Tara. So it depends on where we go in the third season.
The Frisky: Buck is obviously many people’s favorite. What’s your inspiration for him?
TC: I had the most trouble putting Buck together because I didn’t want him to be laughable or a cliché or for people to think it’s a gag that a woman’s playing a guy. I wanted him to be completely believable and a whole individual people could relate to and invest in. There’s a very good friend of mine in Sydney who kind of moves the way Buck does. It was mostly about the physicality. I tried to avoid a Southern accent, but I kept coming back to it because it just felt right. Harley Davidson contacted me and they’re going to give me some bike lessons, so I’m hoping to actually do some riding in the next season.
The Frisky: Now that you’ve played a man, if you could pick any male role to play in a movie, what would you want to do?
TC: The one that pops to mind is Peter Sellers in “Being There.” It’s one of my favorite movies—it’s the same director as “Harold and Maude” and Shirley MacLaine’s in it. He’s not overtly masculine or anything—he’s just really interesting and quiet and kind of contained. He falls into a lot of situations that are beyond his control and just completely embraces them. It’s such a beautiful aspect. It’s a great movie.
The Frisky: When the show first came out, a lot of people were concerned that it was making fun of people with multiple personalities. What’s your response to that?
TC: I can understand that trepidation. I think it was alive and well before the show aired. Once it aired, that dissipated quickly. That killed it. The show is rigorously researched and the DIV have actually embraced the show and I think it’s because it’s such a real depiction of what it’s like to live with this very rare but real illness.
The Frisky: You’re a new mother. What about Tara do you relate to?
TC: Anyone can relate to the idea of wearing a million different hats and having different responsibilities and relationships. I’m sure you’re different with your friends on a Friday night than you are with me sitting here right now. We all present different parts of ourselves given our environments and circumstances. I think that’s the definite metaphor for the show.
The Frisky: So, you’re also in band.
TC: Yeah. I’ve been writing music since I was a teenager. And then I married a drummer. Well, I always wanted to do it. But it always seemed too hard or too complicated or I didn’t quite know how to make it a reality, so it was just me in my room writing songs. I’ve always had a lot of musician friends, but it just happened very organically—the right people came into my life and I had time to do it. We made a record and we toured and we’re planning on doing a second album. I think creativity all comes from the same well and it’s just a different outlet. It’s fun and freeing. I was a singer before I was an actor—I started in musical theater. I’ve done “A Chorus Line,” “Cats,” “Grease,” and I much prefer to sing my own songs. It’s more satisfying and personal.
The Frisky: So, let’s talk about three guys who’ve been your man on screen—John Corbett’s your husband in “United States of Tara,” Hugh Grant in “About a Boy,” and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in “Velvet Goldmine.” In real life, which one would you shun, which one would you shag, and which one would you marry.
TC: Oh, no. [Laughing] I can’t go there.