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Toni Collette was in New York recently, promoting her latest hit movie About a Boy in which she co-stars with Hugh Grant. But her heart was in Australia, as Jenny Cooney Carrillo discovers, where she has again set up her permanent home. 

“My brother and my sister-in-law had a girl, Mia, yesterday and I can’t believe that I’m not in Sydney,” the excited actress says with a grin, looking positively glowing in a black tank-top, kaki skirt, wearing bleached blonde short hair and flattering makeup. The former NIDA student, born and raised in Sydney, has been a globe-trotter for eight years – thanks to her first major film role in Muriel’s Wedding leading to a Golden Globe nomination and a career that took her all over the world in back-to-back films. She received an Oscar nomination as Haley Joel Osment’s mum in The Sixth Sense in 1999 and now she stars as the mother of another boy, 12-year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), in the whimsical About a Boy, based on the best-selling book by Nick Hornby. 

"I guess I just stopped running "

But while 29-year-old Toni is happy to be in the U.S. to help promote her latest film, she is eagerly anticipating a chance to truly embrace her real-life role as first-time auntie now that she has decided to be permanently based Sydney. “I think I found it very difficult at first living away from everybody that I knew and loved in Australia - especially when there was all that confronting kind of change going on with this sudden career that I wasn’t expecting,” Toni reflects on the journey that led to the decision last year. “But the more I travelled, the more I formed really good trustworthy groups of friends in each place I lived and I’ve tried living in so many places that I guess I just stopped running and came full circle to be home in Sydney, where I love being.”

After Muriel’s Wedding, co-starring Rachel Griffiths (whom Toni says she’s still friendly with “and I’m a big fan of Six Feet Under,” she adds), she found herself in hot demand overseas but made choices that were not always high-profile or glamorous. In 1996 she appeared in the Jane Austen drama Emma, before returning to Australia in 1997 to play Diana Spencer in the small-budget film Diana and Me. She then played the wife of a glam rocker in the edgy small-budget drama Velvet Goldmine in 1998, returning that same year Down Under for a supporting role in the film The Boys. And shortly after getting her Oscar nomination for The Sixth Sense, she headed to Broadway, where she received a Tony nomination starring in the musical The Wild Party and more recently appeared in supporting roles in Shaft and Changing Lanes, both starring Samuel L. Jackson. 

“I’ll tell you why,” Toni quickly responds when asked about her surprisingly non-leading-lady choices. “I think that sometimes there are more interesting and complex and more challenging parts for me to play in a really good script and they’re usually supporting characters. It’s very rare that a leading role will actually have the meat that I’m interested in.”

In About A Boy, Hugh Grant plays terminally single and ecstatically child-free Will, a 38-year-old wealthy Londoner whose family inheritance helps him make a profession out of avoiding responsibility. When a fling with a single mum inspires him to pose as a single dad to pick up more women, he inadvertently forms an attachment to a 12-year-old misfit named Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), whose mother Fiona (played by Collette) is a depressed, eccentric hippie-chick. Although Will and Fiona don’t hit it off, Nicholas makes Will into a father figure and the pair experience unexpected transformations in their lives.

"acting isn’t about gratifying myself"

“Why is there a need to be glamorous?” Toni asks bluntly, referring to the fact that her latest role features the star crying through the movie and unflattering wardrobe. Scoffing at one description of her choices as ‘fearless’, she adds; “acting isn’t about gratifying myself. I’m not up there to be some huge movie star. I’m up there because I’m interested in telling stories and I’m into the transformation of becoming someone else and creating their reality, so I’m not particularly thinking about how I’m going to come across.”

After returning to Australia last year to co-star with Bryan Brown in the comedy Dirty Deeds, Toni also took eight months off work. “I was learning how to have a life,” she explains. “I’d been working basically since Muriel’s Wedding and I was getting to the point where I was fearful of moving into an area where I may start to resent my work because I wasn’t having enough time to just relax. So I went home to Sydney, bought a house and tried to create a space that I was comfortable in and just have a little bit of normalcy, whatever that may be,” she adds with a chuckle.

And is that where she’s heading as soon as her interviews are done? “Yep, and I’m loving it,” she beams. “I don’t want to live anywhere else. It’s fine to go to work in other places but I personally feel most comfortable in Sydney.”

In Dirty Deeds, loosely based on a true story and set in Sydney in the late 1960s, Toni plays the wife of Bryan Brown’s character, a local gangster controlling the poker machine profits until some Chicago mobsters try to muscle in on his territory. “I play Bryan’s younger and oh-so-beautiful wife,” Toni says with a laugh, as if to prove she’s not allergic to looking good on-screen. “And she’s really kind of the brains behind all the action, which I loved.”

"unconditional love"

As for playing mothers, Toni says: “It’s not that difficult,” she shrugs. “It’s just a matter of being compassionate and a mixture of the script and your imagination. I was a kid. I have a mum and I want to be a mum one day so I just think those kind of characters have such unconditional love in their life that it only makes them richer to play.”

Published August 1, 2002

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