MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Fractured family life is also at the center of the other summer film starring Toni Collette, a dark drama called The Night Listener. Unlike the harried but good natured mom in Little Miss Sunshine, here Collette explores the spooky side of the maternal extinct. It's a film where people are rarely what they seem.

Collette's character, Donna, pursues a friendship over the phone with a popular New York radio host played by Robin Williams. The two share a fondness for Donna's adopted teenage boy, a street smart kid with AIDS and a horrifying history of sexual abuse. Pretty soon Donna's story and her motives start to seem suspicious and perhaps pathological.

TONI COLLETTE: Most of the time I'm kind of drawn to characters because where they're at emotionally is interesting to me or is somehow running some parallel line to something that I'm feeling, you know. And it's like some exorcism.

NORRIS: So if each character gives you a chance to enter your psyche and sort of unlock a door and discover what's in there, what were you interested in exploring in this character, in the role of Donna?

COLLETTE: Well, you know, I used to wonder when we first stared this whether Patrick, the director, took me on because he knew of this incident. I keep being asked - now I'm doing a lot of press at the moment for these films and I keep being asked, I hear you're really proud of yourself. You were a really great liar when you were younger.

And it's not anything to be proud of, but I think I used to just do things to get attention, as most actors do. And I pretended to have appendicitis and it went too far and they were actually taken out when I was 11 years old. And this is the kind of thing my character does.

I'm not saying this is my reason, but for her she, I think she had a really tough upbringing and I think everyone deserves love and she never got it and she goes out of her way to get it.

NORRIS: Toni, can I ask you about the incident when you were 11? We can't just let that go. Your doctor didn't figure out that you were pulling his leg?

COLLETTE: Well, my mother had her appendix taken out at the same age, which is why it entered my brain at all. And she had told me when the doctor pushes in that's not when it hurts. It's when they release the hand, that's when it hurts. And so I just knew when to react appropriately. And, you know, years later I still don't understand why I did it. It's so embarrassing. It's totally embarrassing. So there, now we can move on.

NORRIS: In this film, The Night Listener, there's a scene in the film where the character played by Robin Williams, Gabriel Noone, actually travels to meet this boy Pete that he's been in communication with over the phone and the woman, Donna, who's been taking care of him. And things don't quite go as planned. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE THE NIGHT LISTENER)

COLLETTE: (As Donna) You know, I thought you'd be different. I thought you'd be able to look into his soul with all his complexities and contradictions and see him as your own flesh and blood, the way I do.

ROBIN WILLIAMS: (As Gabriel) That is how I see him.

COLLETTE: I don't think so or you wouldn't have distrusted us like that.

WILLIAMS: I spent the last two days stumbling around this place just so I could say -

COLLETTE: Just so you could say what? That you were sorry for thinking him a fraud? Give me a break. Pete needs people who are really there for him and there's no way I'm taking you to see him. No way.

END SOUNDBITE

NORRIS: That's the character Donna, who is part Florence Nightingale, part Nurse Ratched. I mean, you are, if I may say it, just really creepy in this role. And was that a lot of fun for you or is it difficult at the end of the day to shed that?

COLLETTE: Oh, no. I think it's inevitable that you absorb something of what you're working on just because you're in that world and thinking about it's taking up the space, you know, between your ears. But, no, I'm not any kind of method actor or anything.

But I think with this, when I saw the film at Sundance it was really intense and really full on for me, because I think when we're making it, there was part of me that just kind of compartmentalized what was going on just to get on with it and not sit there thinking about it day in and day out, you know.

NORRIS: You know, one thing I've noticed over several roles is that you speak with a perfect American accent. How is it that -

COLLETTE: Well, thank you.

NORRIS: How is it that you're able to do that and could you please answer with your American accent?

COLLETTE: Any particular state?

COLLETTE: You know, I think it's because I watched too much American television when I was growing up.

NORRIS: What were you watching?

COLLETTE: Anything from Petticoat Junction to Bewitched to, you know, Mr. Ed to the Love Boat to The Dukes of Hazzard to, you know, The Brady Bunch. All the great shows, clearly.

NORRIS: Toni Collette, it's been wonderful talking to you. Thanks so much for coming in.

COLLETTE: Oh, thank you. Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Toni Collette's latest films are Little Miss Sunshine and The Night Listener. You can watch clips from both films at our website, NPR.org. And, she's not just an actor. Collette is releasing a CD this fall in Australia called Beautiful Awkward Pictures.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLLETTE: (Singing) The river's flooding. Boats are sinking. Life is fading in an attempt to get through to the ocean of you. I'll make it blue. How do you do? Watch out, watch out. The fool's are fighting. The love is dying.

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