From the Actor’s POV: Toni Collette on HEREDITARY and the Scripts of Her Career

By Travis Maiuro · May 8, 2018

In the third episode of The A24 Podcast, actor and comedian John Early interviews Toni Collette on the pretense of promoting her new A24 film Hereditary (in theaters June 8). Turns out, Early’s a bit obsessed (to say the least) with Collette, and the first third of the episode turns into one giant, albeit charming and funny, gush-fest over Collette’s early career and Early’s teenage years spent making a Toni Collette fansite.

But obsession, at least in this case, leads to interesting conversation. Both are actors with interest in the writing process. When they discuss the scripts of Collette’s career, they lend a perspective that writers — whether budding or established — need to hear and keep in mind. Film, as we all know, is collaborative. But we writers need to stick together with our actors, arguably, more than anyone else — yes, even the director. It’s the actors who physically bring the words we type to the screen, putting it all on the line — whether they think the script is good or bad. Sure, not all actors can be counted on to do this. Some may make you, as a writer, roll your eyes (and want to do much worse). But thoughtful actors like Collette and Early make it apparent, through their discussion, that they put in the work a script — good or bad — deserves.

What follows is Collette’s perspective on the script of her upcoming film and the scripts of her past. Writers, take note.

When a script asks for a lot emotionally:

Early brings up Collette’s work on the film Japanese Story. He points out that it’s a “perfectly made container for [Collette] to just go there, emotionally.” He admires her courage, admitting that if he saw that in a script he would be so scared, he’d quit the project.

“It’s daunting,” Collette says. “It’s weird because I feel like I have to do it. I feel like I am the one that has to make this completely truthful and I don’t know how I’m gonna do it, but there’s this compulsion… There’s this saying that projects or films choose you, or whatever, and it sounds really wanky, but I really feel that that does happen — to a certain extent.”

Deciding to take on the Hereditary script (a script that asks for a lot emotionally):

Ironically, when Collette received the haunting and terrifying Hereditary script, she was at a point in her career in which she was actively avoiding scripts of that nature. She was having trouble shaking off the roles she was inhabiting — she was doing heavy movie after heavy movie without any respite. “I was doing these films that really got under my skin and I found myself thinking about them a year later and I was like, shit, I need to figure out a way of letting go of these things because clearly, they are kind of affecting me in a way that I don’t quite understand…”

It turned out that doing light, breezy movies wasn’t as easy as one would think — the satisfaction wasn’t there. “I tried doing other films which were not heavy,” Collette says, “But it just became so dull that I wanted to smash my head against a wall, so I was like I gotta find a happy medium here… I got a message from one of my agents saying, I know you said you just wanted to do comedies… but I really think you need to read this… and I was like, ughhh, okay I’ll read it— and as I was reading it, I was already sucked in and I called [my agent] and I went, ‘FUCK YOU — how do I not do this? There’s just no way I can’t do it.’ It is intense but you know what? I think actors fucking ache for a job where they get to really go for it and in Hereditary, I really, really did.”

Find you an actor who talks about you the way Toni Collette talks about Ari Aster:

The enjoyable first read of the Hereditary script was just the start of what would be a magnificent experience for Collette. She gushes about the film’s writer/director, Ari Aster, almost as much as Early gushes over Collette herself. “Ari Aster, I have to say, I think he’s a living genius, I can’t wait to watch all of his work… After reading it, I met with him here in LA… he’s so sweet and so kind and he clearly had a handle on what he was doing… when we got to Utah, I was so blown away — this guy was the most prepared director I’ve ever worked with.”

Collette continues, focusing her love on Aster’s script. It wasn’t just the challenge and the thrill of taking on the daunting responsibilities of the script that intrigued Collette. It was the way the script embraces true horror— the horrors of real life. That she could easily see this movie as a heavy family drama, rather than solely a crazy horror flick, spoke to her:

“What I love about it, it felt to me, when I first read it, like The Ice Storm, like this heavy, kind of family drama and there’s this certain amount of grief and it’s all about the family dynamics and how they change when they’re all having their own responses to something very, very sad and how you survive as a family, how you survive on your own, and how you affect each other. And you really get to know these people in a way that you care about them. I think Ari is so smart to have done this because once that care is established, the film goes, I’m just gonna take a turn here.”

On diving into her own writing:

Early and Collette discuss more than just acting in the episode. Early discusses the ways creativity changes as you get older — he finds that there’s more of a satisfaction, a more relaxed calm when he approaches his creative work now, compared to the way he was in his early 20’s. Collette agrees with this, saying, “I suppose when you do satisfy a certain urge or need to express something, then it’s done. And you have to keep growing so you have to kind of develop new ideas and needs and there needs to be a gestation period for that.”

To that, Early asks Collette what she craves now, creatively.

Collette responds, “I used to write a lot when I was younger and I’ve just had no time so whenever I find the time now, that’s a real priority… I’ve been adapting some stuff and starting to produce a little bit more… when my kids are older I want to direct. It already kind of takes over when I’m working…”

And what most of us want to hear, Collette on her classic Sixth Sense role:

Arguably one of Collette’s most iconic roles, it’s interesting to hear just how much Collette informed her own character. It’s another reminder of how important your actor is to your script — their ideas and their creativity, if allowed to breathe and flex its muscles, may be better than the original ideas on the page.

“I was trying on all these costumes and I thought, Oh I’m just gonna go down to the local market in Philly and buy a few things that I think might be right,” Collette recalls.  “And then I kind of explained what my vision of the character was… it was completely different from what had been imagined… It was really collaborative and they really listened to me.”

“They really listened to me” is a prime example of creative minds coming together — not fighting but rather taking the time to listen — and producing something timeless. Could you imagine that character any other way?

Listen to the full episode below.

Travis Maiuro is a screenwriter and freelance film writer whose work has appeared in Cineaste Magazine, among other publications.

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