Toni Collette for “Connie & Carla”

Aussie actress Toni Collette happily admits she is a finally in a movie in which she spends less time crying, referring to musical comedy stint in Connie and Carla, created by Nia Vardalos of My Big Greek Fat Wedding fame. “It’s so funny because after I did Muriel’s Wedding I think I was so adamant about making people understand that I was a ‘serious’ actress, because everyone was saying “come on give us that Muriel grin”. I found that so freakin’ frustrating, so I did move into a very serious area for a while which was part of the appeal,” Collette explains in a Beverly Hills hotel room.¬† In describing why she chose to break out doing Connie and Carla, Collette recalls that “both watching it but also on paper it was so much fun, had so much appeal and I really wanted the opportunity to do something lighter.”

Connie and Carla casts Vardalos and Toni Collette as Connie and Carla, two struggling Chicago dinner theatre performers who accidentally witness a mafia hit, subsequently hitting the road, and running for their lives. Assuming the killers will never look for them in a place devoid of culture, the pair head to Los Angeles, where they assume new identities and find their middling talent at song and dance perfectly suited to new careers – as drag queens. Much to their surprise, they inadvertently become the toast of the cabaret circuit. As their ruse becomes increasingly difficult to maintain, they discover that it is indeed lonely at the top, especially after Connie meets Jeff (David Duchovny), an introspective, conservative guy she’d really like to be a real girl with.

One of Collette’s more irreverent screen characters of late, the actress wouldn’t be drawn on whether her Carla is closer to her than any of her predecessors. “She’s verging on dumb, what are you saying,” Collette says laughingly. “I think it’s inevitable that there is part of me in everything that I play, but I think this character is so cute, palatable, and unthreatening.” At times unrecognisable in heavy-duty make up to bring out the drag in her, Collette recalls first seeing herself in the mirror and thinking “It was very extreme, but I liked it, it was appropriate for the story and I’ve never had anything like it. It was purely dressing up, you know?”

Having played several morose characters of late, in the likes of Japanese Story, About a Boy and Changing Lanes, it was fun to see the actress sing and dance through some classic musical numbers, not that any of that was a big stretch for the stage-trained actress. “I grew up doing musicals from the age of 12 and got into acting through singing and by doing musicals, so it felt like going home,” Collette explains. But her attraction to Connie and Carla went beyond the idea of mere musical performing, she adds laughingly. “In a way it makes fun of the whole idea. I mean drag queens in general are up there taking the piss out of serious performances, so it’s looking at something from a very different angle.”

The trick in doing this film was, in researching the whole drag queen subculture, not to offend anyone in the process “by being inappropriate, but I think we were pretty dead on. We were surrounded by what we were meant to be and they weren’t backwards in coming forwards if we were off the mark ¬†Also, we had the best drag queens working on the movie who are such a freakin’ riot to hang out with that it’s very easy for me to slip into that way of being.”

Toni Collette is now part of that proverbial Aussie posse that has taken Hollywood by storm. Always working, Collette now has the added challenge of juggling a consistently frenetic acting career with her recent marriage to musician Dave Galafassi. “In terms of work versus life. David is very patient and supportive as I am of him. When we were shooting Connie and Carla it was quite difficult because he was touring Australia and I was shooting in Vancouver on the other side of the world, so he was able to come over a few times but I don’t think we’ll ever do that again. I’m shooting something here at the moment and he’s here with me, so it’s not difficult, you know? When you’re in love you just make things work. Sometimes it’s a struggle but you get through it and you get over it and you keep going.” The couple own a home in Sydney’s Bondi Beach, but seems to spend much of her working life overseas, especially here in the US. “I love working in Australia but I really just tend to work wherever my heart is. If I’m responding to a script out of Belgium I’ll go and do it there, so it doesn’t really matter where it originates.”

The film she is currently here in Los Angeles is a Curtis Hanson film called In Her Shoes, co-starring Cameron Diaz. “We play very different sisters. She’s playing kind of an alcoholic, sleeps around, very irresponsible while I play a very fixed, super responsible lawyer. Our mother died when we were very young and we’ve developed this very co-dependant kind of relationship where I take care of her. Anyway, we have a falling out and both discover this long lost grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) that our father kept hidden from us. All 3 of us come to this point where we are able to move on and be the person we’re meant to be instead of holding onto that experience that happened so long ago. It’s actually funny and sad and I’m enjoying it,” Collette says.

The one parallel between Collette and her latest character, Carla, is that both were always capable of performing at the drop of the hat. In Toni’s case, when she was a tad younger, she recalls. “I’d sing for anyone, but I used to be so nervous I’d kind of make them turn the light off so it would be in the dark.” In a strange way, nothing much has changed.