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DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.

My guest is Australian actress Toni Collette. Her habit of taking on diverse roles and her talent for character transformation sometimes leave audiences unaware she's the same actress they've seen in other performances. Collette got an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in "The Sixth Sense." Among her other films are "Muriel's Wedding," "Velvet Goldmine," "About a Boy," "The Hours," In Her Shoes" and "Little Miss Sunshine."

Collette's talents are currently showcased in the Showtime series, "The United States of Tara," where she plays a mom with dissociative identity disorder, once known as multiple personality syndrome.

(Soundbite of TV show, "United State of Tara")

Ms. TONI COLLETTE (Actor): (As Tara Gregson) I just really resent picking up after them - I mean, not the kids, the alters. The messes they make can be astounding. I mean, having multiple personalities is like hosting a kegger in your brain, only you're passed out cold, while everyone else is just trashing the joint.

DAVIES: Toni Collette won an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award for her portrayal of Tara. In season two, which began last week, Tara and her family think they've finally vanquished the alternate personalities, who haven't appeared in months. But it turns out they're wrong.

I recently spoke to Toni Collette. We began with a montage of some of the alternative personalities in the series. First we hear Buck, a macho guy, talking to Tara's husband, Max. Then we hear T, a rebellious 15-year-old, talking to Tara's daughter Kate. And finally, it's Tara herself, talking to her understanding son Marshall, after the teenager T has had control of her body for a few hours.

(Soundbite of TV show, "United State of Tara")

Mr. JOHN CORBETT (Actor): (As Max Gregson) Hey, don't smoke in here, okay, man?

Ms. COLLETTE: (As Tara) I only smoke when I party.

Mr. CORBETT: (As Max) Well, this isn't a party.

Ms. COLLETTE: (As Tara) Says you.

Ms. BRIE LARSON (Actor): (As Kate Gregson) Are those my new skinny jeans?

Ms. COLLETTE: (As Tara) Don't they make my ass look fine?

Ms. LARSON: (As Kate) Fine for 40.

Ms. COLLETTE: (As Tara) You know how much it blows being 15 and stuck in this ancient body? I mean, look. I have a muffin top.

Ms. LARSON: (As Kate) It must suck.

Ms. COLLETTE: (As Tara) You suck.

How is she? T, I mean.

Mr. KEIR GILCHRIST (Actor): (As Marshall Gregson) She wasn't that bad. I mean, she was only here for a couple hours. Do you know she's a vegetarian now?

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. COLLETTE: (As Tara) Am I high?

Mr. GILCHRIST: (As Marshall) Maybe a little, yeah.

Ms. COLLETTE: (As Tara) Listen, I want to thank you for being such a strong, supportive kid. I'm really lucky.

Mr. GILCHRIST: (As Marshall) We're lucky, mom. I mean, because of you, we get to be interesting.

Ms. COLLETTE: (As Tara) You like being interesting?

Mr. GILCHRIST: (As Marshall) I love it.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. COLLETTE: (As Tara) I think I have the munchies. Do you want anything from the kitchen?

DAVIES: And that's our guest, Toni Collette, Toni Collette and Toni Collette...

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: ...from "The United States of Tara," playing the main character, Tara, and then two of the alternative identities that the character becomes from time to time.

Is there a difference between playing these different characters as alternate personalities of the same person? Is that different from playing them as if they were independent, free-standing characters?

Ms. COLLETTE: I try to do both, actually. I want the audience to be able to invest in each of the alters and to believe them wholeheartedly. So I try to make them as complex and as real and as whole as possible. But at the same time, they're all part of Tara. They all represent something that she can't quite access or that is repressed, and that's literally why they exist. So I'm conscious of why they exist in two ways.

DAVIES: You know, this is a very physical role, or series of roles, because when you, you know, when you become an alter and you transform yourself, I mean, you do amazing things with your voice, but you also physically become a different person.

And in some cases, there are people who are at odds with the body that they occupy. It's a 15-year-old kid in a 40-year-old person's body. It's a macho, male, kind of truck-driving sort of guy in a housewife's body. How does that affect the way you do this?

Ms. COLLETTE: You know, in reading a script - and I have the luxury of working with such fabulous material on this show - I find that characters either leap off the page and they're complete as I read them, I hear them and I feel them and I see them and I taste them, and it's a very immediate response. And theres almost not too far to travel to make them whole, you know.

So, you know, with T, I - she was very clear and very immediate.

DAVIES: That's the teenager, right? Yeah.

Ms. COLLETTE: That's right, yeah. She's 15, and, you know, she, I guess, represents escapism and irresponsibility and just giving her finger to the world and complete self-indulgence. And so I wanted her to physically just be moving out in all directions and kind of sloppy.

With Alice, she's very tightly wound. She's - we haven't talked about her, but she's the 1950s homemaker, and she's kind of the most controlling of the alters. She represents a kind of a need for order and is - can be manipulative in trying to achieve that.

DAVIES: The aggressively conventional mom, in a way. Yeah. Right, right.

Ms. COLLETTE: Yeah, yeah. But everything's just under the surface with her. She keeps a smile at all times, and - but still gets her way. But she's quite anal, which I quite enjoy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLETTE: And Buck, I was most nervous about creating Buck because first of all, I didn't want him to be a clich�, and I didn't want him to become laughable and for the audience to, you know, just be taken with the idea of a woman playing a guy.

I wanted the audience to be able to relate to Buck or invest in him as a character as much as the female alters. And so with that particular alter, I hung out with some fairly masculine blokes and - just to get a few tips on his physicality.

And, you know, I tried to avoid giving Buck a Southern accent, but I always came back to it. I thought it would be too much of a clich�, but somehow it works, and it was kind of inescapable, in a way. It's what I first heard, and I just kept coming back to it.

DAVIES: In "The United States of Tara," you know, one of these roles is a 15-year-old kid, and you have to pull off being a teenager. And I know that you took this role on just a few months after you'd given birth to your daughter.

Ms. COLLETTE: Yeah, three months.

DAVIES: Yeah, and, you know, it works. Was it hard kind of getting into shape, and trusting that you could pull that off?

Ms. COLLETTE: Abso-freaking-lutely, and I was petrified. This was my first child, and it was the most heart-opening experience. I've never felt so vulnerable in my life. And then to have to be so physical in front of a crew that I didn't know and knowing that it would be seen by others eventually was really a little bit scary and exciting.

I like putting myself in uncomfortable positions. There's something to gain from it, and I love the project on the whole. So I was willing to go there. But in terms of the physicality, I - you can't exercise straight away after having a child. And so I had to wait, I think, six weeks, and I was happy to wait. I was too busy staring at this brilliant, new creature that I had in my arms.

But once I started - I don't know. It was like it was me connecting to the show before even arriving in L.A. to shoot the show. So it just started the ball rolling internally, I guess, as well, which was handy.

DAVIES: There's a scene where you, as Buck - I mean, the macho alternative identity - gets into a fight in a parking lot with a teenager, who's one of your - a kid who has been unkind to your daughter. And you're really going at it. I read that in this scene, you actually caught the kid with a hard right and sent him to the hospital. Is this true?

Ms. COLLETTE: I believe it was a hard left.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLETTE: Yes. But he - we did a few takes, and he had a lot of studs and spiky bits in his costume. So I didn't walk away unwounded. I had scratches and blood and bruises that lasted quite some time, but I felt quite proud of them, because I'd never done a fight scene before.

Yes, I did clock him on the chin, and he didn't take it very well, actually. He had to do some press - I think the Toronto Film Festival was happening. He was getting on a plane the next morning, and he was the one who talked about going to hospital, but let me tell you - and the crew will back me up - he was fine.

DAVIES: Well, I wanted to dial the clock back a bit in your career and talk about "Muriel's Wedding," which was a breakout role for you, got you a lot of attention, made, you know, in Australia, in your home. And we have a scene here where you're Muriel. And, of course, you're this sort of overweight woman who is insecure and obsessed with the music of the group ABBA and also obsessed with getting married and has, in fact, at this point in the story, she's moved to Sydney to try to escape her old life and has made up a story that she's actually engaged to someone, she wants to be married to someone, someone named Tim Simms.

And in this scene, her friend, who's played by Rachel Griffiths, discovers that Muriel has been visiting bridal shops everywhere and trying on gowns, and she comes in to confront her.

(Soundbite of movie, "Muriel's Wedding")

Ms. RACHEL GRIFFITHS (Actor): (As Rhonda Epinstalk) What is going on, Muriel? I've seen your wedding album. You've tried on every dress in Sydney.

Ms. COLLETTE: (As Muriel Heslop) Well, that doesn't mean I'm getting married.

Ms. GRIFFITHS: (As Rhonda) What else does it mean?

Ms. COLLETTE: (As Muriel) I want to get married. I've always wanted to get married. If I can get married, it would mean I've changed. I'm a new person.

Ms. GRIFFITHS: (As Rhonda) How?

Ms. COLLETTE: (As Muriel) Because who would want to marry me?

Ms. GRIFFITHS: (As Rhonda) Tim Simms.

Ms. COLLETTE: (As Muriel) There is no Tim Simms. I made him up. In Porpoise Spit, no one would even look at me. But when I came to Sydney and became Mariel, Brice asked me out. Now that proves I'm already different than I was. And if someone wants to marry me, I'm not her anymore. I'm me.

Ms. GRIFFITHS: (As Rhonda) Who?

Ms. COLLETTE: (As Muriel) Muriel, Muriel Heslop, stupid, fat and useless. I hate her. I'm not going back to being her again. Why can't it be me? Why I can't I be the one?

DAVIES: And that's our guest, Toni Collette, with Rachel Griffiths in the film "Muriel's Wedding." You grew up in a working-class suburb of Sydney yourself, right? Do you identify with Muriel and her character at all?

Ms. COLLETTE: Absolutely. When I read the script, I just had to communicate to P.J. that it had to be me. I had to be the one. I just thought: There's nobody else who can help tell this story. I totally understand this person, and I have to do it.

DAVIES: You know, I'll hope you'll forgive me if I ask you a question that I know you've probably been asked so many times that you're tired of it, but this involves an incident when I believe you were 11 years old, and I read that you faked the symptoms of appendicitis so accurately that a healthy appendix was actually removed from you. Do you have much memory of that event?

Ms. COLLETTE: Not really. I mean, I don't - it's so embarrassing. I don't know why I did it. I remember my mother telling me when she was 11, she had her appendix out. And I was like, well, how could you - how did you know that was the problem? And she said: When the doctor pressed on the spot, it didn't hurt. It was when he released his hand is when she felt pain. And so I guess I wanted the day off of school, and I faked it. And I, you know, acted accordingly when he released his hand, and then he ordered me into the emergency room. And I just never voiced - I never owned up to it.

And I know that a lot of people say that actors of needy of attention, and I hate to admit it, but perhaps that was part of that, because I don't see myself as a very needy person. I try to shun any kind of attention that I get and focus on my work. But at that point, perhaps that was part of that embarrassing occurrence.

DAVIES: You know, looking back at "Muriel's Wedding," this film that was, you know, was a real take-off point for your career, you know, a lot of people would not recognize the Toni Collette when they look at that film today because, you know, you're much heavier. And I read that you gained 40 pounds for the role. I mean...

Ms. COLLETTE: Forty-three.

DAVIES: Forty-three.

Ms. COLLETTE: Every pound counts.

DAVIES: Were you asked to do this? I mean, how did that happen?

Ms. COLLETTE: Yes. Well, she was written as an overweight young woman, and yeah, that was definitely something they were determined for me to do. I know people wear fat suits, but they definitely were fattening me up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLETTE: In fact, I do remember coming to New York for the first time and doing a whole heap of press, and I remember people being fascinated when they were informed that I'd put on weight, that a young woman would do that. But I -if I love a character, I - to be honest, I wouldn't do it again. I've done it a few times since, and it's - I think the older you get, you don't have the bounce-back, and it's not quite as healthy. But people were really fascinated, and I don't know. It seemed oddly acceptable for a male actor, but for a female, oh, my God. How can you possibly? And I was kind of outraged by that.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Toni Collette. Her series, "The United States of Tara," is now in its second season. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is actress Toni Collette. She stars in the Showtime series, "The United States of Tara," which is now in its second season.

Well, in 1999, you got an Oscar nomination for your role in "The Sixth Sense," the M. Night Shyamalan film. And in this film, you're a struggling, single mother who has this kid who sees ghosts. And I thought we'd listen to a scene where you're at the dinner table with him, and you're asking him about the fact that your late mother's special bumblebee pendant seems to disappear from your room and end up in your son's room, even though he says he's not taking it. Let's listen to the conversation.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Sixth Sense")

Ms. COLLETTE: (As Lynn Sear) So who moved it this time? Maybe someone came in our house, took the bumblebee pendant out of my closet and placed it nicely in your drawer.

Mr. HALEY JOEL OSMENT (Actor): (As Cole Sear) Maybe.

Ms. COLLETTE: (As Lynn) God, I am so tired, Cole. I'm tired in my body. I'm tired in my mind. I'm tired in my heart. I need some help. You know, I don't know if you noticed, but our little family isn't doing so good. I mean, I've been praying, and I must not be praying right. It looks like we're just going to have to answer each other's prayers. If we can't talk to each other, we're not going to make it. Now tell me, baby, I won't get mad, honey. Did you take the bumblebee pendant?

Mr. OSMENT: (As Cole) No.

Ms. COLLETTE: (As Lynn) You've had enough roast beef. You need to leave the table. Go.

DAVIES: And that's our guest, Toni Collette, in the film "The Sixth Sense." A terrific role, terrific performance. Tell us how you got this part.

Ms. COLLETTE: Well, it's funny, you know. I was in New York, and I was desperate to work with Martin Scorsese. I went to audition for a part in a film he was making called "Bringing Out the Dead," and whilst I was here, my agent sent me another script.

And I didn't know much about it. He told me it was a new director, writer-director, and it was starring Bruce Willis. And no disrespect, but I just thought I don't want to do a movie like that. I just made an assumption about the kind of film it was going to be.

So I put off reading the script, and one night I was, you know, I was a little bit jet-lagged. I was up late, staying in a friend's apartment, and I thought oh, hell. I'll pick it up. And I couldn't put it down. And I just thought it was absolutely brilliant, and we all know about the twist at the end now, but man, the way you feel when you're watching it, I felt that when I was reading it. It was just so intense and so beautiful. I thought it was this beautiful, spiritual tale.

So, anyway, I went to meet Night, and I auditioned, and that's that. I get a message one day from my agent, and I call him back from a - this was before cell phones, so it was just a pay phone on the street. And I'd - he yelled on the phone: Toni, you've been offered. And I thought he was going to say, you know, the Scorsese film, and I screamed in the middle of the street.

And he said hang on, hang on. Did you hear me? You've been offered "The Sixth Sense." And I was like oh, no. And I remember feeling disappointed. Even though I liked it, you know, Martin Scorsese, you know, is like the be all and end all.

So I went back to my hotel room, and there were messages from Night, and he wanted to talk to me before I was flying back to Australia, and I was avoiding his phone calls. I was, like, oh, God. I don't want to commit to this one if the other one happens. The other one didn't happen. I ended up having an amazing experience on "The Sixth Sense." I loved making the movie. I loved working with everyone on that. I've got some great friends from that film, and there you have it.

DAVIES: Could you tell us about the audition? I mean, do you remember what scene you did?

Ms. COLLETTE: I remember I did the scene in the car at the end, and that's the scene that really made me want to do the movie. It's such a powerful and emotional scene. I also remember that prior to my trip to New York, I'd been in Mexico, and on my 25th birthday, I shaved my head.

So I wasn't looking particularly Hollywood, and so I was not insecure about that. I thought oh, well, if they're going to hire me, they're going to hire me for what I can do. Everybody knows there's wigs out there. And luckily they did. Yeah.

DAVIES: I have to ask why you shaved your head.

Ms. COLLETTE: Because I was 25, and I was alive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLETTE: And I had a lot of tequila.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Well, it'll grow back, until a tattoo, which won't come off. You mentioned a scene...

Ms. COLLETTE: I got a couple of those, as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: You were also in "Little Miss Sunshine," which was a terrifically successful film. And in this one, you're the mom, kind of the one centered person surrounded by these folks who are so caught up in their own obsessions and agendas, and it's just a terrific film.

But one of the interesting things, I read that this film, which was shot in a very short period of time, had this ensemble cast and that the directors, who were a husband and wife team, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, had you all go on outings, like bowling, in character. Is this right?

Ms. COLLETTE: Yeah. We had - I can't remember now if it was one or two weeks, but it was an extensive rehearsal period, and a luxury in the film world. And, yeah, it was really - they made it such great fun. And, you know, it was about all of us learning to feel comfortable with each other and - as well as learning about the characters and building the characters.

So part of that was, yeah, hopping in our van and going off on little adventures, one of which included bowling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLETTE: I went bowling recently and got six strikes in one game. Things have improved.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Ooh, you're an athlete.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: You know, when you look at your work, there are so many different accents, all done just so beautifully and convincingly. Do you have a technique for this?

Ms. COLLETTE: Not really. I mean, an accent can, in a way, be an entry into a character. I grew up watching a lot of American television. So the American sound has been in my psyche somehow for a long time, and is quite familiar. So I think that does make it easier.

Also, I think having a musicality about me, that helps in identifying different things in languages and getting them right. I just - I've never struggled with it, and I know that some actors do, and I feel very blessed to not have to think about how I'm sounding when I'm acting. So I can just, you know, not have to think about the technicality of it and try and be more in the moment.

DAVIES: When you're shooting a film like "The Sixth Sense" and you have a working-class Philadelphia accent, does it stay with you when you're off the set?

Ms. COLLETTE: No, I don't do that. I know some actors do. I've worked with them, and I, you know, I just go back to this, what you hear now.

DAVIES: Uh-huh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Well, Toni Collette, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. COLLETTE: Thank you. That was a real trip down memory lane. Thanks so much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Toni Collette stars in the Showtime series "The United States of Tara." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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