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Interview: Toni Collette

Toni Collette, Anthony Hopkins, and Helen Mirren in Hitchcock. [Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures]

Interview: Toni Collette

Before she recounts what she's been up to this past year, Toni Collette takes a breath. In the wake of 2011, which saw the actress say goodbye to one baby (her Showtime series The United States of Tara) and hello to another (her now 18-month-old son, Arlo), you might think Collette was lightening her schedule, with little more than a little-seen indie (Jesus Henry Christ) and a small part in Hitchcock. But the actress has a much different tale to tell, divulging tidbits about at least six projects, all of which left her little time for rest in 2012.

"This year has been bonkers," Collette says. "It's been right up there with the mid 2000s. I've been home about six weeks in total. But it's been great—a very full, satisfying year of my family being a bit of a traveling circus."

It's a Saturday morning at Manhattan's Le Parker Meridien hotel, where Collette and her Hitchcock cast mates are chatting up journos about the Master of Suspense. Collette, who plays Hitchcock's longtime secretary, Peggy Robertson, in the film, goes on about a handful of other filmmakers, whom she now calls collaborators. She says she just wrapped work on Nicole Holofcener's untitled latest, which sees her and Julia Louis-Dreyfus play best friends, and "obviously" co-stars Holofocener muse Catherine Keener, who's "kind of a goddess." She'll also appear in The Way, Way Back, the directorial debut of The Descendants scribes Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, alongside Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Amanda Peet, and Allison Janney. And then there's A Long Way Down, an adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel directed by France's Pascal Chaumeil. "It was a supreme experience," Collette says of the latter.

Dressed all in black, Collette is lounging on the couch of a small suite. She looks especially lean—a far cry from the full-figured heroine of her indie breakout Muriel's Wedding, or even the curvy sister she played in In Her Shoes, a film that left her swearing off future weight gain for roles. For many, Collette is something of an indie queen, her additional credits ranging from Velvet Goldmine to Little Miss Sunshine. And having now logged art-house and mainstream hits, she wields some perspective on the fluctuating indie scene, and how it's changed amid the industry since she got her start.

"I think it's predominantly all about indie films at the moment, to be honest," Collette says. "I think the film industry's changed so much. There's no real middle ground. There are these $100 million budgets, and then there are $4 million budgets. I love independent film. There's a healthy attitude to it, and it's freeing because, whenever money is involved, there's always a lot of pressure to follow through or to make money back, obviously, but with low-budget films the focus is telling the story, and that's my focus."

One story Collette is eager to tell involves the common experiences of making Hitchcock and The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan's Hitchcockian phenomenon that landed the actress an Oscar nod. Though the latter film hit theaters more than a decade ago, Collette says she felt a similar vibe on the Hitchcock set (particularly in terms of likely audience embrace), and that she also encountered private, eerily familiar spook moments.

"When we were making The Sixth Sense, I had a couple of weird things happening," she says. "In the hotel room I was staying at in Philadelphia, I started meditating a lot, and then I would wake up at night, roll over, and look at the clock, and it was always a repeated number—1:11, 3:33, 4:44. That started to really spook me. And it did start happening again during Hitchcock."

Anecdote notwithstanding, Collette doesn't register as someone especially woo-woo or superstitious. She comes off as a woman with no shortage of secrets and side projects, like her focus on animal rights (she's fought against unethical sheep farming in her home country of Australia) and her musical ambitions, which, in 2006, led to the debut album of the band Toni Collette & the Finish. Naturally, one wonders if Collette will pick up the mic again soon, or moreover, let those interests spill into a musical film, in the vein of, say, Velvet Goldmine or 2004's Connie and Carla.

"I'd like to make another album," she says. "It's just that there are only so many hours in a day, and being a mom and working so much and making movies, it doesn't really allow a lot of free time. In order to write you've got to have solitude—just a little bit of time to yourself. And I would love to make a musical film. There was a time when I thought musicals were the ultimate cheese factory, but music is so powerful; it conveys so much. I think music is probably the most immediate of all art forms in terms of its ability to get under your skin. So I think, in an ideal world, a good story with music; it can only be heightened and made even more exciting."

But before anymore tuneful exploits come along, Collette will be busy serving up that full plate of projects, which seem to promise her ubiquity in 2013. What else is on the menu? A drama opposite Jennifer Aniston called Miss You Already, an animated flick, a thriller called Defiant that casts her as the lead, and even a "surfing documentary." For an actress who raked in TV trophies playing shades of the same woman, Collette sure seems like she could use a couple of multi-tasking doppelgangers.

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