Toni Collette was coming out of the Virgin bookstore on Times Square in New York,
accompanied by Velvet Goldmine co-star Christian Bale, both with a new book under their
arm, hoping to hear about a Martin Scorsese film ("I was really keen to work with
him. . . ") when her mobile phone rang. (They were doing publicity for Velvet
Goldmine, and her mind was on that subject.) It was her agent, who sounded excited but the
good news was not what Collette expected: the role she had landed was not with Scorcese
but with a 28 year old young US based, Indian born director, M. Night Shyamalan, and
co-starring with Bruce Willis, in The Sixth Sense.
"dense, complex work..."
Her first reaction was mooted - despite the fact that she was aware that the script had
stayed with her since first reading, a "dense, complex work." Collette had
already been surprised by the script, and she was about to be surprised by everything
else: The Sixth Sense has catapulted her into the major league. Or, to be more precise,
her performance in such a high profile film, has done it. But standing in Times Square at
that moment, she didn't have an inkling. Not even with Bruce Willis attached.
And Willis starts us talking about stars and stardom. "Stars give actors a bad
name," she says, "and I found it quite admirable that someone like Bruce Willis
who's very definitely a star is still interested in acting. It's too easy to be complacent
when the money is there and you're guaranteed work. But he's dealt with it all, and he's
really quite gracious."
And on the larger subject of stardom, Collette is refreshingly lucid: "I like to
surround myself with people who inspire me. And I think the reason stars exist is because
a lot of people don't have inspirational surroundings and it's easier for them to project
all their hope and wishes onto somebody who fulfils their dreams for them. . . which is
kind of sad ?"
The week before the film's Australian release, Collette is in Sydney on a publicity
tour, and we're sitting in a swank new hotel overlooking Sydney's Circular Quay, a bottle
of champagne chilling in the ice bucket (for later) and publicists shepherding media in
and out. She is at ease, her smile warm, her handshake real, her vibes cool.
Picking at a plate of fresh fruit for sustenance - her schedule has been put out by a
magazine photo shoot and we're now talking when she should be eating - this Toni Collette
is not the same one who was lifted out of obscurity by P.J. Hogan's super-successful film
of an ugly duckling who becomes a swan. This is a mature, self confident yet down to earth
26 year old woman. With the world at her feet. And she can hardly believe it.
"I'm overwhelmed - I never would've dreamt… I mean I'm quite successful at
what I do," she says, managing to sound factual and vaguely surprised.
Even her reddish blonde hair is surprised, it seems, caught in little clumps like
explosions of delight. The inner corners of her eyes are bright yellow, a splendid
contrast to her red lippy. Half an hour ago, she was in a funny costume and a dark hat for
the Juice magazine photos. But she's taking it all in her stride these days, a far cry
from just four years ago, when the briefest interview would send her into a panic for half
a day. "I absolutely hated doing interviews," she recalls matter of factly.
Not any more. She has dealt with some of the demons that jumped into her life on the
completion of Muriel's Wedding, the success of which became a dreadful curse for a while.
"I hated it when people looked at me and knew who I was," she explains,
"and that people thought they knew what I was. And told me - but they were
It got so bad she was about to give up acting. But then she turned it round and
promised herself to keep focused on her love of the profession, on her love of the
process. Her role opposite Ewan McGregor as the glam rock superstar Curt Slade's wife,
Mandy, in Velvet Goldmine, was a significant turn-around for her; she knew she had it in
her to play the role, but it took a while to figure out how. Once she found it, she was
free of much of the torment she had been going through.
"It opens a greater range of roles"
This time, she almost didn't bother reading the script of The Sixth Sense, fearing some
formulaic Hollywood action drama with Bruce Willis fighting his way through 100 pages of
dross. When she did read it, it stayed with her. It surprised her that Willis "would
want to do something like that…" to take the role of the child psychologist -
but then she was in for another surprise on set, to find Willis keen to talk to her about
the work, about acting. He was more than she had anticipated. (No doubt, so was she more
than Willis anticipated.) And of the young Haley Joel Osment, who plays her son, Collette
simply says, "Extraordinary - he's not like a child actor at all, but like a seasoned
Collette was not the only one in the running for the role; Marisa Tomei was another,
but there were others, and they had higher profiles - as well as being 10 years older, so
closer to the character's age. And that's something that Collette is happy about: she is
now seen performing in a role that stretches her - physically and emotionally - and shows
she has Range (capital R). "It means people don't so easily pigeon hole me and so it
opens a greater range of roles - which for an actor is perfect."
We joke that maybe now she'll get to choose from a wider selection that may even
include a male serial killer. In fact, she can't yet talk about her next film, but she is
adamant that she doesn't want to end up out of work because no-one dares to offer her work
on the assumption she is too busy. Or too expensive. "I don't make decisions on that
business basis . . . it's still very much about the story, the script, the
If asked, she nods eagerly that yes, she wants to work in Australian films with the
modest budgets of Muriel's Wedding. "Absolutely."
"He's very personable" on
director M. Night Shyamalan
As for her disappointment over the Scrocese project not coming off, Collette displays a
philosophical attitude: "I believe we're given what we need at any given moment - and
it turned out okay." When she met writer/director Shyalaman, her first question was
not, 'what does the M stand for' - because she already knew the answer. "It's Manoj,
because he's Indian, and Night is his nickname - and it stuck. He's 28, tall, dark skin,
wavy hair, softly spoken, beautiful eyes. . . . and unbelievably focused. He'd made a
couple of small films and a heap of shorts, and had become unbelievably pissed off at
being fucked over by companies like XXXXXXX who sometimes don't allow you to make the
films you set out to make. During the post production of his last film, Wide Awake, he
turned to Andrew Mondshein, the editor, and said, 'I'm going to make a film called The
Sixth Sense, it's going to star Bruce Willis and it's going to cost this amount of money,
it's going to out in this amount of time…he just has an amazing ability to listen to
himself. He's very personable, I like him a lot…he's more like a mate."
He's also a black belt in karate and all round a surprising guy, "who you wouldn't
imagine has all this stuff running around inside him…" meaning the 'stuff' in
The Sixth Sense, about award winning child psychologist Dr Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis)
who was once unable to help a scared youngster face down his demons. Sometime later, an
eight year old boy's terrible, terrifying secret challenges him to make good where he
failed before. The boy, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), is not a regular case, and his
mother Lynn (Toni Collette) is a single mother battling guilt, trying to survive and
understands little about her unique son. Once Cole reveals his extraordinary secret - only
he knows it, only he sees them, only he knows they're dead - to Crowe, the healing begins
- but Crowe has a profound shock in store when he discovers the link between the boy's
'gift' and his own redemption.
Astonishing for its sensitivity, The Sixth Sense plays both as scary ghost story and as
intimate human drama, through the veracity of its characters - and Collette is riveting as
the battling single mum, whose relationship with Cole is that of a friend as much as a
parent. "That was something Night insisted on - that she never talk down to
Cole," says Collette.
"I tend to look up to directors sometimes"
On set, Shymalan, became an ageless figure to Collette. "I tend to look up to
directors sometimes - and I don't like that. I used to do it a lot when I was younger when
I wouldn't speak my mind. But he's very open and he really trusted us. He's able to laugh
and it's a really a light atmosphere but at the same time very focused - and he makes you
feel very safe and as an actor that's really important."
Collette can indeed feel safe as an actor - both creatively and professionally. But
with a house in Ireland (on the shore of a lake, opposite John Hurt's house), Collette is
not settling in Hollywood. No need; her managers are there.