Toni Collette for “Japanese Story”

Aussie Toni Collette apologized for being a half hour late for our interview in the midst of the perennially frantic Toronto Film Festival. “I’m absolutely rooted,” she says, smilingly, desperately anxious to return to her Sydney home. At the same time, the award-winning Australian was keen to talk up Japanese Story, which opens in the US at Xmas and in Australia late September. Collette plays a geologist whose powerful relationship with a Japanese businessman in the midst of the Australian desert has emotional and far-reaching consequences.

The actress had serious misgivings about playing such an emotionally raw and damaged character, and was ready to pull out altogether “When the director broke her foot, and everything was being pushed back, so it was about to mess with my schedule.” Collette recalls “Doing press in New York, and I had my agent send me the script again, and there was just something in it,” she recalls. “I actually find it really difficult to talk about what it is that made me want to do it, because the connection that I had was quite compelling and so intense for me like as to how it spoke to me.”.

In trying to describe Sandy, a character trying to come to terms with an emotional void, Collette sees her as being “emotionally numb and an angry person who doesn’t really want to live in the world, and tries to gain as much control as possible. I think the story is about her unravelling and about the ice melting, and about her warming up and starting to feel again,” she adds. Without giving too much away, the film switches gears mid-way through. “There are so many points in this film that take unexpected turns.”

I mean, first of all, we were very isolated, we were in the middle of fucking nowhere, and the emotions and the intensity and the journey of my character felt very real in that context and there was no way of preparing for it, or talking about it. It was just a matter of getting my head out of the way and being in the moment. It was actually very lonely, and I was very angry and thank God I had Gotaro [Tsunashima], because he was just open and willing to be there and go with it — I think that because our characters didn’t really know each other initially, we kind of did the same thing, just not forcing anything and getting to know each other slowly. Butt he’s a beautiful person, and I really can’t imagine anyone else having done it.”

For Collette, it seems that her return to Australian cinema also marks a return to some of her best work. Last year, it was Dirty Deeds that screened at Toronto, and this year, in a very different experience, is Japanese Story. She still lives in Sydney but says that does not feel under any obligation to work there. “I would work there all the time if I could, but I can’t. I’ve get bored and so would audiences,” she insists. “I think it is good to work there, and I think that we have our own certain stories to tell, but I think that a story is a story no matter where they are.”

Since achieving unexpected success in 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding, Collette still finds it unfathomable that a film nobody expected would be a success, would catapult the then 22-year old Sydneysider into an international star. “When I did that, I wasn’t an actor, I didn’t have a career and I was pretty much out of everything,” she recalls. “I didn’t even contemplate the fact that people were going to watch that movie. It was just fun to make, so it was a total shock, and it changed my life completely. But at the same time, when I think about the story, it’s about someone pretending to be something else, and then finally realizing they’re okay and I think a lot of people feel the same way. You know, there’s always a sense of pretence, especially in America. I don’t feel bad about saying that I find it to be a very odd country.”

Which is why, one suggests, Collette found it almost a release to let herself go emotionally in a film such as Japanese Story. Though the film has been sold to the US [and is set for release there at Christmas], Collette has reason to concern that its intimate and very Australian themes, won’t transcend to a country whose mainstream films are largely of a generic nature. “When you look at the style and the state of the American film industry, and then a film like Japanese Story comes out which is honest, funny and so sad, you have to appreciate it. I just think the majority of film making in America is all about making money. It’s not about art, and telling good stories, but about rehashing the same story that made a lot of money in a different way and making more money. I’ve spoken to a lot of Americans who have appreciated Japanese Story, because it deals with the truth as well as with silence, quiet changes and contemplation and I think this country is in denial.”

Yet Collette spent most of her post-Muriel’s career working in America and she’l be the first to candidly admit that “certain films which I’ve been offered I dud for the money. I mean, I work in America, basically, for a living. I think it would be very easy to fall into the trap of working on something you don’t believe in, but I think, in general, I can’t involve myself in something I don’t totally believe in.” It has happened, but Collette’s Hollywood track record remains impressive: Emma, The Sixth Sense, Dinner with Friends, Changing Lanes, About a Boy and The Hours, show Collette’s willingness to take a chance, even in Hollywood. “I want to have a good life, not just a good or lucrative career. I want to be a happy person. Making movies involves every part of you, so it’s inevitable that some of whatever you’re working on seeps into your psyche and your soul, and you end up, having to live with the circumstances, during and after.”

Collette’s personal life has also come together, having married musician Dave Galafassi, earlier this year [“I got married to the most beautiful person in the world in January,” she says, gushingly, and the pair live in a house that Toni bought in Sydney’s Bondi Beach. No wonder the actress was keen to return home. “Because I travel so much the only chance I have to relax is with my new husband and house.” So Collette is having some time off, which is just fine by her. But we’l still see plenty more of the actress on our screens next year.

Having played so many morose and intense characters in the last several years, she will at last be making us laugh again, when she teams up with Nia Vardalos in Connie and Carla. “That was a really good experience and made me laugh every day, and really clever. Nia and I play cousins who grow up and we’re musical theatre enthusiasts who perform at the local airport for people who have layovers, and we perform every single bad, cheesy number from every musical ever written. We witness a murder; we go to a place that has no culture – i.e. L.A. We base our decision on that, because that way the baddies will we assume, that we are elsewhere and we end up going to a club one night and we become drag queens. We basically spend 70 percent of the film as drag queens, because we can still perform and pursue our dream and not be identified.” Toni describes it as “some Like it Hot in reverse”.

Collette also completed The Last Shot, with Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick and Calista Flockhart. “I play this kind of English, fucked-up, blond bombshell, making a come-back after being in rehab, and Calista Flockhart plays my best girlfriend.”

Collette, whose parents are working-class, has come along way, and recalls that her life is far removed from what she describes “as my angst-ridden twenties.” They were “angst-ridden”, she says, “‘because I had a big fat turn-around in my life which I wasn’t really expecting, which is this career.” Only now, at age 30, is Collette finally comfortable with her new-found success. “I think I’ve finally realized that it’s not going to go away, and I can kind of rely on it. I think it’s always in the back of an actor’s mind that I’m never going to work again. I know I will now, so I enjoy my holidays more.”