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In Connie & Carla, Toni Collette gets to play a girl pretending to be a drag queen Ė and she laughingly admits to Jenny Cooney Carillo that at one point when she looked at herself after being made up as a drag queen, she just wanted bigger lips. 

Connie (Nia Vardalos) and Carla (Toni Collette) are two small-town girls whose dreams of stardom have taken them nowhere. When they witness their boss getting killed, Connie and Carla pack up their battered dreams and extensive assortment of wigs and costumes and hit the road, running for their lives. Convinced the killers will never look for them in a place utterly devoid of culture (a.k.a. dinner theater), the pair ends up in the Land of Dreamers, Los Angeles. In a new place with new identities, they create a cover that makes them the toast of the town - headlining in a local drag club. Itís here they find the acclaim that has always eluded them, singing the show tunes theyíve always loved.

Youíve done so many emotional films recently, was Connie and Carla a deliberate decision to find the laughter again?
Yes, after I did Murielís Wedding, I think I was so about making people understand that I was a serious actress because everyone was about, Ďcome on, give us Muriel!í and I found it so frustrating! So I did move into a very serious area for a while and then it was part of the appeal to do this film, because it was so fun after all those kinds of heavy films, and I wanted the opportunity to do something lighter. 

How much did you identify with this character?
Sheís kind of dumb, so what are you saying (laughs)? I think there is part of me in everything I play, itís inevitable, but I think this character is so cute and so palatable and unthreatening that she was so much fun to be around and inhabit.

How did you approach the makeup for the look of this character?
It was fun to do but it took a long time to put on every morning. There were certain variations, because we had to have an initial drag look that was our first attempt as girls trying to look like guys pretending to look like women! But the makeup artists were very well studied in that area so we didnít have to do much experimentation because they knew what they were doing. What was funny was that after weíd been drag queens for a while, when I looked back to a scene as the regular Connie and Carla, I really found it difficult looking at my mouth, because I just wanted bigger lips! (laughs) 

What did you think of yourself as a drag queen?
Itís very extreme but I liked it. It was appropriate for the story and Iíve certainly never had any look quite like it before so that was part of the fun. I donít know how many looks I went through and there were tiaras left, right and center with about 40 wigs, so it was purely dressing up in every way.

Youíre an accomplished singer yourself but your character has to be a struggling dinner theatre singer. Did you have to tone it down a little to be someone not as good as you really are?
I grew up doing musicals from the age of 12 and got into acting through singing and doing musicals, so it felt like going home. And although it wasnít really an issue because Iím not saying Iím that brilliant, there were times I had to actually pretend I wasnít as able as I am. 

Would you like to make a Broadway musical?
There are times when I think Iíd jump at doing a musical again, but I take my hat off to those people on Broadway who make their living at it, because it is non-stop and exhausting and you have to be very disciplined.

How did you approach being a performer performing in this film?
In a way, it makes fun of the whole idea of performers because drag queens in general are up there completely taking the piss out of serious performances! So itís looking at the whole performance thing from an entirely different angle and there was a big fun factor in pulling that off instead of doing it seriously.

Were you worried about offending the drag queen community?
We didnít want to offend anybody by being inappropriate and I think we were pretty dead on. We were surrounded by what we were meant to be and they werenít backwards in coming forward if we were off the mark, which thankfully wasnít really that often. We shot this in Vancouver and we had the best drag queens working on the movie and they were such a riot to hang out with, so it was very easy for me to slip into that way of being. They were so quick witted; I guess they had to live defensively for a while until they found this niche for themselves and it comes across in their humor.

Now you are married, how do you balance your career with your personal life and is it important for you to work in Australia as often as you can?
In terms of work versus life, David is very patient and very supportive. Iím supportive of him as well because heís a musician. When I was shooting this, it was difficult because I was shooting in Canada while he was touring Australia half way across the world, so he was able to come over a few times but I donít think weíll ever do that again. Iím shooting in New York now and heís here with me. Itís not difficult because when youíre in love, you just make things work. As for working at home, I love working in Australia but I really just tend to work wherever my heart is; if Iím responding to a script out of Belgium, Iíll go there and it doesnít matter where it originates.

What are you shooting in New York now?
Itís a Curtis Hansen film called In Her Shoes, with Cameron Diaz. We play sisters who are very different. Sheís the irresponsible alcoholic one who sleeps around and I play a super responsible lawyer who has been taking care of her since our mother died when we were very young. We have a falling out and then discover this long-lost grandmother, played by Shirley MacLaine, and through our relationship with her, all three of us are able to let go of the loss and move into who we were meant to be. 

Do you have a best friend like Connie & Carla?
Iíve got a handful of female friends that Iíve known for a long time, but Connie and Carla are in their own league, donít you think? They are so naÔve and so clear about what they do and what they want in life that fear doesnít even enter their minds. Their friendship is tested but ultimately they are so close, it is a beautiful part of the story.

Were you as positive about your career when you were young?
Iíd sing for anyone as a kid and I was asked all the time. But Iíd be so nervous if I was sleeping at a friendís place, that Iíd make them turn the lights out before I could sing! So for a while that was why I didnít want to be the show pony after years of singing for everybody and here I am, jumping through hoops again so I must be over it!

How odd is it to act opposite the writer of the film?
Itís a luxury because Nia wrote a wonderful story and if there were any comments or questions, she was right there on the set. It was so easy to slip into those people because we really made each other laugh and I think it really comes across that we are good friends in the movie because we became good friends in life too.

How did you prepare to play these roles together?
We started rehearsing the songs and then we brought in the choreography and we talked about what the girls were like and what their differences and similarities were, but it was so clear in the script that it didnít need a lot of vocal attention between us. And when we got up to Vancouver, the boys came in for some more rehearsal and we finally got into drag and felt what it was like so that we could really focus on making that real.

How was working with Debbie Reynolds in this film? Could you compare her with another legend in your next film, Shirley MacLaine?
The thing that I like about both of them is, I think Debbie has a real Ďperformerí thing, where she puts on the sequined gown and gets up there and struts her stuff. And the thing I love about Shirley is that I donít think she takes it that seriously. She doesnít live in LA and she has her priorities right on. It is amazing to work with both of them, because they are legends! 

Did you pick any of the songs in the film?
All of the songs were written into the story by Nia but we each had a solo that was cut out and I do believe will be on the DVD, and for mine I had a choice between ĎI am Sixteen, Going on Seventeení and ĎI Enjoy Being A Girlí, so being a huge Sound of Music fan Ė it was the first video we ever rented when we got a video player when I was eleven - I chose that song and I looked like a little girl with pig tails in a gingham dress with freckles painted on but it was a contrast with this big drag queen voice!

Published August 5, 2004

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