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She wants to work in Australia again, and the choice is about the right script, Toni Collette tells Jenny Cooney Carillo, in the wake of her first action role in the new Shaft; ďit ainít about the money, babyÖ.Ē

Toni Collette is the toast of Hollywood and Broadway, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in The Sixth Sense in 2000 and a little later in the year, a Tony nomination for her performance in the Broadway production of The Wild Party. But her tastes are as eclectic as her wardrobe and now the Aussie star is marking another first by appearing in Shaft, a new approach to the ground-breaking 1971 drama of the same name, film also starring Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa Williams and Christian Bale.

"one very hysterical moment"

"Realising I was in my first action movie was one very hysterical moment," she says with a chuckle; "I found myself clutching Sam Jackson while he was shooting a gun and dragging me along thinking, Ďoh my God, Iím in an action movie!í And I want my own gun next time!"

Toni won a Best Actress award in the Australian Film Institute Awards for her starring role in Murielís Wedding, which also brought her a Golden Globe nomination, and her supporting roles in Lilianís Story and The Boys before heading overseas for diverse career choices such as Emma, with Gwyneth Paltrow, 8 Ĺ Women, Velvet Goldmine and The Clockwatchers. But the easy-going, chatty star says she sees nothing unusual about wanting to do a cool, gritty movie like Shaft. "I came to L.A. and there were a couple of things I liked and Shaft was one of them," she explains. "I was not only interested in working with Sam (Jackson), but also Christian (Bale), who Iíd worked with before on Velvet Goldmine and heís a really good friend. I wasnít quite schooled in Shaftism though," she adds. "I didnít quite understand just how much of a cultural event it was when the original movie came out in the 70s and I guess being a part of that is also cool. Iíve also never been in an action movie before and I was interested in exploring the balance of being the emotional center of something which is just so spectacular - which makes me sound like a very wanky actor," the down-to-earth Toni interrupts with a self-deprecating grin, "but itís true!"

In this Shaft, Samuel Jackson plays police officer John Shaft, a man whose uncle and mentor is the cool, tough private investigator, John Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree in a cameo return to the Shaft role that led to a new genre of African-American films at that time. John Shaft (Jackson) arrests college kid and heir to a fortune, Walter Wade (Christian Bale) for murdering a black student and tracks him down again two years later, after he has skipped bail, fled the country and finally returned. But to get a conviction, Shaft must find the only murder witness in the bar that night, waitress Diane Palmieri (Toni Collette). And he must find her before Walter and his team of corrupt cops, local drug dealers and hired hit men get there first.

"to be truthful to what was on the page"

"The circumstances within the story are so extreme and so far away from my own life that the only thing I could do was to be truthful to what was on the page," Toni says. "This woman witnesses a murder and it affects her in such a profound manner, sheís carrying around all this guilt and fear and loses all sense of trust, so I used it as an exercise. I do usually carry around what Iím working on and I think it can be dangerous, so this was an exercise in distancing myself from it and still allowing myself to go into it in the moment."

Ironically Toni won her current Broadway role after original choice Vanessa Williams left the project to have a baby and the pair met for the first time on the set of Shaft. "Vanessa told me she knew I was doing The Wild Party and she thought it was fantastic," Toni says. "I think she was disappointed that she wasnít doing it but hell, you have to prioritize your life. Sheís creating another human being and I think thatís pretty impressive."

Family plans are definitely not something in the immediate future for the free-spirited 27-year-old, however, as she acknowledges her single status and restless nature at this point in her life. "Iím itchy to get out of New York because I havenít been in one place for this amount of time in the last six years," she says of her nine-month commitment to the theatre production. "I just live wherever Iím working and Iím young and nomadic and thatís OK for now, but eventually I want to be back in Australia."

"Iím dying to do something at home"

Although she bluntly admits "Iím dying to do something at home", Toni says this is also unlikely in the immediate future. But she balks at the suggestion that her reticence has anything to do with becoming unaffordable to local productions. "It ainít about the money, baby," she says in mock Shaft speak. "Itís about falling in love with a project, something that just makes my juices flow and affects me. There has been one project where I didnít listen to my gut and I knew I shouldnít have done it and did it, but I still learned from that. I learned that I should listen to myself. I grew up in Sydney but who knows where Iíll end up permanently. I donít think anything is permanent. Everything changes..."

Publication date: 12/10/2000

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Toni Collette - in Shaft

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