With a strong-featured, hyper-expressive face whose wide-set eyes don’t appear to miss a thing and a joie de vivre that she radiates in person as well as on screen, Toni Collette imbues all her characters with a grounded sense of realism as well as layers of emotional nuance. Ever since she captured international attention as the endearingly open-hearted title character in Muriel’s Wedding, she’s been in constant demand, playing a wide range of parts—from warmly nurturing, realistically harried moms in films like The Sixth Sense and Little Miss Sunshine to The United States of Tara’s title character, a woman with dissociative identity disorder who’s fighting to keep herself and her family together while coping with an evolving cast of alter egos.
Collette has been exceptionally prolific in the past year or so, appearing in 11 films and two TV series since 2017, with three more films currently in post-production, but her tour-de-force performance in Hereditary stands out even in that tsunami of output. Always intense and increasingly desperate, Collette’s Annie is our guide into the bloody heart of darkness that’s writer-director Ari Aster’s debut feature, a psychological horror film about a mother who keeps losing the people she loves in ever more macabre catastrophes.
I talked with Collette this week at the New York office of A24, Hereditary’s U.S. distributor, about the advantages of aging and how she’s learned to protect herself from the afflictions her characters endure.
You left school when you were 16, right?
Sometimes I look back and I think, “How the hell did I make that decision?” My parents were mortified.
I was wondering about that. Because your parents weren’t show-biz people.
Not at all. And I was really good at school. I was always at the top of the class, and I found school so satisfying. But then I found this thing that made me feel so alive. I loved it so much, and I couldn’t deny it. Even at that age, I was like, “Nope, this is it.” So ballsy! [laughs] I wouldn’t make that decision now!
It seems as if acting still makes you happy.
I can’t imagine not doing it. I always danced—tap, jazz, and ballet. And then when I was 13, I think, I did a musical at school right after my grandmother died, and it was just the most incredible outlet. It felt so cathartic to be able to access feelings and express them. And then, of course, as you get older you look at life differently and look at people differently and it becomes more psychologically interesting. But throughout it has always been fun.
And now you’re starting to make films happen in addition to just acting in other people’s work. You formed a production company last year. Is that to direct or to develop things you can act in that other people will direct?
Both. Producing and directing. You need to keep growing, you know? I’ve been [acting] since I was a teenager, and I’m about to turn 46. At times, I find it frustrating that I’m not involved in the process much earlier on. I think it would be more satisfying. I want to have a say in the types of films that I’m making and what they have to say. I’ve got options on books—lots of things that are being adapted. I’ve got a couple of original ideas.
What types of films are you interested in making?
Probably the types of films that I’m in now. Mostly, I totally go for things that feel reflective of life. I like stories about real people that are both poignant and comedic. But it’s hard to say what type of anything you want to do, because I never know until it hits me.
You’ve said that you’re drawn to projects that show there’s no such thing as normal, or show people finding their voices, living authentically, or being supported by an extended family. I can see how those themes run through your work, but I’m not sure they apply to Hereditary—except maybe the one about there being no normal. Does this feel like a bit of a departure for you?
Yeah. I’ve never really made a film like this. I’ve done films where there was some emotional heavy lifting to be done, but this starts up here [gestures at shoulder height] and keeps on escalating. Also, I’m usually attracted to some kind of growth and change in a story. There’s growth and change in this, but it’s not positive. There’s a lack of warmth to Annie, and a lack of hope, which I’m generally attracted to. The story just fascinated me. It was this honest look at grief, emotionally so raw, and it turns into something so unexpected. I found the material original and surprising, and who doesn’t want that?
There did seem to me to be some parallels to The United States of Tara, in which you also played a mother who loves her children very much but is kind of possessed by other people who are sometimes awful to their children.
Well, Annie isn’t possessed per se, though she’s consumed by something she doesn’t understand, which I guess is very similar to Tara.
You didn’t think Annie’s mother was possessing her? When she sleepwalks, I thought Annie was being kind of remote-controlled by her mom.
I find the sleepwalking scenes to be really insightful about what Annie knows, because that’s her subconscious speaking. In her waking life, she’s not able to tap into what’s apparent. She’s so repressed, because looking at it is too much, too painful, too unbelievable. And so it’s only in that kind of dream-within-a-dream sequence that she speaks the truth. It’s the closest thing to a confession, yet there’s nobody to hear it, because it’s a dream.
But when she tried to kill her kids while sleepwalking?
Well, she woke up from it. She didn’t do it. There’s part of her that’s trying to save her kids, though she doesn’t know what she’s saving them from. And so, even though it seems destructive, maybe in that moment [killing them] seems like a better option than the pre-ordained alternative. Horrible as that is.
You often wonder, as you’re watching: Is Annie nuts, or is this a Rosemary’s Baby situation where there really is something supernatural going on? Did you think she sometimes worried that she was going insane?
No, no no. She was getting closer and closer to the truth.
And she knew that, always? She never questioned herself?
I think her whole life she was questioning herself. But she’s starting to figure things out. The reason she becomes so maniacal is because she’s getting closer to the truth—so it’s ironic that, the closer she gets to the truth, the more other people see her as crazy.
You’ve said you dealt with the constant intensity of Annie’s emotions by keeping your feelings at a high pitch during the shoot but holding them at bay until the camera rolled. How do you manage that?
I just didn’t let them take over. I am an empath, and this woman is going through such horrible things, and it was such an incredible script. It was very easy to feel for her. That’s my way of getting into the emotion of it, just trying to understand how someone would feel, and then I feel for them and it seems to flow out of that. When I was young, I used to love to just fling myself into the fire. [laughs] But I knew that this was a lot of work and I knew what it required of me, that I needed to pace myself to survive it without feeling totally exhausted at the end. I just dealt with it on a daily basis rather than letting it accumulate. I think also that where your focus goes, energy flows. So even though I’m pushing it away, I’m very aware that I’m pushing something away, and that something gets bigger and bigger, so when it’s time for it to come out it’s literally sitting right here and just flows out.
It’s interesting that that was your process on Hereditary, since living with intense emotions that you mostly keep at bay is just what your character was going through in the film.
I read that you were feeling burdened by residual emotions after having played some very intense parts just before you got this film, so you had told your agent to get you something light and instead you wound up with this. It sounds like you were feeling a real need to figure out how to portray turbulent emotions without letting them leak into your personal life.
Yeah. This was the first time I was able to do it. It was like I was finally understanding how I could manage it. There’s no other way to [play a part] but to feel it. But I was able to do it without getting stuck in it.
Is this something you’ll be able to do from now on?
Yeah. I think I’ve figured it out. Finally! [laughs] How old was I when we were making this film? Forty-four?
Is that something you can learn from others, by studying theory or talking to someone who’s done it, or do you just have to figure it out on your own?
I think you have to figure it out. Well, that’s what I did. I don’t want to speak for everybody. Because much of it is actually a mystery. People talk about, “I do this and I do that and this is my process,” and that makes me so uncomfortable. If I were to be so aware of what I was doing, it would just make me too self-conscious to do it. So I try to just get out of my way. When I’m out of control, something else is happening that has its own energy, and there’s a sense of spontaneity, and it feels like a completely valid point in time. You kind of can’t argue with it, if it’s a pure moment.
The film has a few welcome laughs. Were you playing those as comic relief?
We all just played it completely straight. I think with great writing, somehow the intention comes through if you just play it for what it is. It was so funny watching where people [watching Hereditary] would have this collective nervous giggle. It’s always the same moments.
I was so happy to see Ann Dowd, but she’s almost like a human spoiler now.
[laughs] Watch out!
Right. Her character seems so kind and helpful, but you can’t help thinking, “Look out—it’s Ann Dowd! There must be something else going on there.”
She was incredible to work with. She’s so warm and open. It’s exciting to work with her because it really does feel as if anything could happen. She’s really open to the moment, which is what I like to do as well.
Those kids were something too.
Everyone in the film. This was Milly Shapiro’s first film!
But she’s done a lot of professional theater, right?
Yeah. She was one of the original Mathildas on Broadway, and she played Annie, and she’s got a Grammy and a Tony. She’s very accomplished. She was very impressive in the movie, because for such a young human, she’s got such a grip on what we were doing. She was very conscious of her decisions and what she wanted to reveal and how she wanted to play her character. She’s very intelligent, and also just a sweetheart. And Alex Wolff, who plays Peter, he just loves turning himself inside out. Bless him!
I saw an interview where he said he banged his head on a wooden desk for that head-banging scene and almost knocked himself out.
It’s so funny when actors are young and they feel like they really need to push themselves, like you have to feel it to make it real. To a certain extent I believe that, but also it sometimes feels a little indulgent. Unnecessary. Dangerous. I think maybe as he gets older he won’t do that.