Toni Collette (‘Hereditary’): ‘It’s not your average horror film’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Toni Collette has been earning accolades from critics left and right for her bone-chilling performance as Annie Graham in “Hereditary.” She has won Best Actress prizes from the Gotham Awards, Chicago, Detroit, and the Online Film Critics Society, and is nominated at the Critics’ Choice Awards and Independent Spirit Awards. Should she be nominated for an Oscar, it would be her second career nomination, following, 1999’s “The Sixth Sense.”

Collette recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Rob Licuria about taking on such a difficult role, the response to “Hereditary,” and her history with award shows. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Toni Collette, you were recently nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and just won at the Gothams. Congratulations!

Toni Collette: Thank you so much!

GD: That’s pretty exciting, isn’t it?

TC: Yeah, it’s nice. Look, I mean, I’m a jobbing actor so for people to have responded to “Hereditary” in this way is incredible. I’m really excited for Ari [Aster], who wrote and directed the movie. It’s his first movie. It’s been really interesting watching the response to it.

GD: Did you think that a film like this would actually be so acclaimed and so well-received by critics and accolades and stuff like that?

TC: I don’t think you can ever determine stuff like that. You’ve just gotta choose your projects ‘cause they speak to you and mean something to you, but I found the film to be really original and interesting and an amazing combination of things. It’s not your average horror film. It’s not just having these jump scares, as they call them here in America (laughs). Perhaps in Australia, also. I don’t know. I don’t watch horror films! I just found this story to be so moving and profound and about some things that are important in life. It’s about family dynamics and grief and about how those things can really change you. I thought the way it was shot was incredible. I remember talking to the camera team every day saying, “This is like the Camera Olympics.” It’s a very beautiful movie. I think it has a certain sense of poetry to it and it’s really profound as well as being a horror film. Those things were really interesting to me.

GD: Yeah, I was saying to Ari earlier that it starts off a film about grief and dysfunction and family dynamics and the tension builds and builds and then it veers off into something very dark and confronting. When you took on the role and obviously read it and started preparing for it, and we can kind of give spoilers if we want to, was there anything in particular that you were really nervous about or apprehensive about?

TC: No, it was more of a case of I was not looking to do anything like this, and in reading it, it was almost like I had no choice. I knew that I was going to have to do this, and I can’t even pinpoint what it is, but I think it is that it says something very real about grief and that it’s almost like an awakening. This woman is being betrayed by her mother her entire life. Every decision hasn’t really been her own. She lives with this ominous dread of knowing something’s wrong but she doesn’t know exactly what it is, can’t pinpoint it, and this moment within this story is where she realizes the reality of her existence and it’s a complete betrayal. Everything has been orchestrated for her and in any other movie this would be a moment of hope, where there’s some kind of understanding of what she’s been living with but I think the film is truly horrific because there’s absolutely no way out. I think that’s the saddest and scariest part of the movie.

GD: I can’t recall a film that freaked me out as this one, for ages. It just completely scared the crap out of me, which is great, but for weeks I’d say to my wife or I’d say to my best mate or someone at work, “Do you remember that scene in ‘Hereditary’ where Toni’s in the ceiling?” And I’m wondering because you’re in it, you’re right in the thick of it, what are you hearing from friends, family or colleagues? Do they come up to you and say, “Oh my god, this film?” What are you hearing from people?

TC: There’s a lot of different responses. There’s so much to latch onto or to be fascinated by. Some people are blown away. It’s a study on grief so they find it incredibly moving and maybe emotionally confronting. But there are others who are blown away by the fact that at a certain point I’m lingering somewhere I shouldn’t be. It does take on this turn which is fairly unexpected, although it is planted all the way through the film from the beginning. It’s a true nightmare. It’s an inescapable nightmare that these are people are living and it just changes on a whole other level.

GD: Yeah, it becomes a barrage. By the end of it I was puffed.

TC: It’s incredibly cathartic. People, their faces are wet from crying, their bodies are so tense from holding all the fear. It’s an incredibly physically cathartic experience.

GD: For a film to do that is really exciting. And there are so many memorable scenes. Annie’s slow and devastating breakdown and then you’ve got Steve’s demise and Alex [Wolff] in the classroom and obviously the car. We won’t go into too many spoilers about what happens to Charlie but I’m wondering, can you pinpoint a favorite scene or something that you just look back and think, “I just love the way that turned out?”

TC: It’s a dense film. My character’s an artist and works with miniatures. She, as I said, is someone who’s quite repressed, doesn’t understand what it is she’s living with, and her work is a way for her to try to get a grip on her existence and it’s therapeutic in a way. Sometimes the way it’s shot, it’s so beautiful. Right from the beginning when the camera pulls back from the window and pans around to the doll’s house and then you go into the doll’s house which becomes reality. It just feels so original right from the beginning. The whole thing was a bit of an onslaught. I don’t know if I could pin down one particular moment. I think it’s an incredible thing when we’re at the second funeral in the movie and the camera sees the family and as the coffin goes down, the camera comes down and moves into the earth. Visually it’s just a stunning and brave film that Ari and Pawel [Pogorzelski], our cinematographer, made.

GD: Yeah, they’re very exciting filmmakers. I’m so looking forward to what else Ari can come up with after that. So, Alex told me a few weeks ago that he found he was never more vulnerable and the film actually really affected him personally ‘cause he went to places that he wasn’t expecting and I’m wondering if, given what your character has to do and put up with in this film, has it had a lasting effect on you?

TC: No, but I had said to my agents, “I don’t wanna do anything heavy anymore.” I did this film called “Miss You Already” and I don’t think I’d ever died on-camera before. I found myself thinking about it two years later and I was like, “I think I need to do some lighter work,” and I had explicitly said, “I don’t want to do anything heavy” and then they called me about this film. As I said, I just had this compulsion and this knowledge that I had to do it. And in saying that, I was aware of where I had to go and it was the first time in my life where instead of just throwing myself against the wall and seeing what sticks and being left in a heap at the end, I really took care of myself throughout the film so by the end I really did walk away and I didn’t feel haunted by it. I didn’t really think about it that much, and I believe it was because I knew how intense it was. Instead of preparing and ruminating and crafting and concocting, I spent my time pushing it away, pretending that it wasn’t happening until I actually had to do it on-camera and I let myself fall into it and just allowed it to happen. I think that’s the beauty of working with something that’s that well-written. I could see it very plainly and very clearly and it was intense so I kind of pushed it away rather than inviting it in until I had to onscreen, between action and cut.

GD: Yeah, you mentioned earlier that awards and stuff like that aren’t the reason why you take projects and they’re certainly not something that drives your career, but how do you feel about what awards do for certain films and certain performances and actors? Do you think that they’re valuable? Do you care about them at all?

TC: I grew up watching certain award ceremonies. There’s a romanticism to them, and with a film like “Hereditary,” I think Ari really is the a kind of master at what he does. He’s so specific and so meticulous and so considered in absolutely every decision that he makes that I love that the film is being seen, that it’s had a huge audience and such interest.

GD: You’ve got an amazing awards history to date and I remember back in 1994 when you were nominated at the Golden Globes for “Muriel’s Wedding.” As an Aussie I was so excited! I don’t know if you weren’t there or you weren’t the room at the time when your category was announced or something. I can’t quite remember.

TC: I had popped off to the loo and missed it.

GD: That’s right. But it was still pretty freakin’ cool. That film means a lot to me. It’s like, if you don’t like that then you’re not Australian. There’s that, and you’ve got accolades for things like “About a Boy” and “The Hours” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Japanese Story,” “The Black Balloon.”  There’s so many that we could say, but for me, I have to just bring this up, I have no choice. I was watching “The Sixth Sense” the other night. I was flicking on cable and I saw it and thought, “I have to watch this.” I was watching with my kids, which was probably not appropriate but whatever.

TC: How old are they?

GD: They’re 10 and nine.

TC: That’s not appropriate, dude!

GD: It’s not appropriate, oh shoot. I’m gonna get in so much trouble. But they wouldn’t let me change the channel. They’re like, “Dad, this is amazing,” and they just closed their eyes through all the scary bits. Anyway, that’s a whole other story. But the scene in the car with you and Haley Joel Osment is one of my favorite scenes and that’s the scene they played at the Oscars when you were nominated for that, such a long time ago now. I’m just wondering, what does that film mean to you and that performance and the way that you were received for that film?

TC: It was totally out of the blue. I was completely surprised. I’m sure people campaigned but probably not as hard as they do these days. Disney had absolutely nothing to say about my performance. They were in no way touting me, so when that happened, it was shocking. My experience is the making of the movie. I just wasn’t expecting that at all and I had a really fun night after my category had come and gone. The thought of having to get up and talk in front of all those famous people is too petrifying.

GD: It is petrifying, and then you obviously won Golden Globes and an Emmy for “United States of Tara” so you then had to do it. You had to go up and say what you had to say.

TC: Yeah, it’s not really my forte. I find it stressful. I work on projects that I believe in and when they get recognized in that way it makes me proud for everyone who works on it. It really isn’t just about any one person. The filmmaking process is the most collaborative experience, or it should be, and that’s what I enjoy about it.

GD: This is my final question, I know a lot of people who weirdly have taken ownership of your performance in this film, “Hereditary.”

TC: What do you mean? How?

GD: It’s like, “Have you seen it? If you haven’t seen it, you need to go and see it right now. Get it on Google Play and then let’s talk.” And that’s why I think people are noticing it this award season ‘cause it’s so different and it really stays with you and I really just wanted to say thanks for that, and congratulations, and I hope you do really well this award season.

TC: You are so lovely, thank you. I really appreciate it. It’s been a total pleasure, and thank you.

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