Toni Collette on the Horror and Beauty of Grief in Hereditary

Toni Collette on the Horror and Beauty of Grief in Hereditary
Image:Getty (with enhancing by Sam Woolley)

H’aw’ya?” Toni Collette asked me as I entered the conference room at A24’s New York City office on Monday. It’s hard to say which was weirder: hearing the actor’s natural Australian accent or seeing her warm and smiling. She spends much of the movie she was in town promoting—Ari Aster’s familial tragedy/horror hybrid Hereditary—wild-eyed and howling in American-accented anguish. After a rapturous response at this year’s Sundance, Hereditary arrives with such buzz that part of A24’s marketing strategy is encouraging prospective viewers to “believe the hype.”

Collette plays Annie Graham, an artist and mother who’s struggling with a wave of difficulties with her family, kicking off with the death of her mother, whose passing she receives ambivalently. Annie is often cold and makes questionable parenting calls, while still blaming herself for her family’s problems even if she can’t quite articulate why. For a while, she grounds the movie, though as it hurtles to its climax, unhinging more and more with each scene, so does she. It is a furious, dynamic, frankly astonishing performance.

I’m being vague here about details because I think it’s best if you know nothing about the extraordinary and invigorating Hereditary before heading into it. There aren’t spoilers below, per se, but Collette and I did talk specifically about the emotional commitment this performance required during our 30-minute chat. We also discussed the bigger picture of her wide-spanning career (which has included such beloved works as Muriel’s Wedding, The Sixth Sense, and Showtime’s The United States of Tara) and Hollywood, as well as Harvey Weinstein and the sea change she’s witnessing in her industry. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.

JEZEBEL: Is the hype surrounding this movie daunting at all to you?

TONI COLLETTE: No, it’s exciting because I have made so many movies that kind of get kicked out and then drop like three feet from you. The fact that people: A) know this movie exists, and B) there’s this incredible, palpable energy around it and interest is fun. I love this movie. I think Ari is an incredible new filmmaker. It’s so surprising on so many levels. It was to me as I was reading it. I was told I was being sent a genre piece and I was like, “This feels like The Ice Storm, what are they talking about?” It just felt like this beautiful look at how painful grief is. And for all of the elements in this movie to be married so succinctly and creatively is so impressive.

To me, the scariest thing about this movie is that it’s fueled on the fear of the unknown. It’s so far-out that during the first viewing, it feels like anything could happen.

He’s so clever. Really, it’s this family grieving. They’re trying to navigate one of the most painful things any of us will go through. You care about them so much and when you’ve invested all this energy, it’s even more frightening. It’s not gratuitous, all the scary stuff comes from a place of purity. The actual story is so grounded and so real…and then it is just bonkers!

It reminds me of something from the ’70s in its clear vision and agency in achieving it.

It’s funny, this is a business and people want to invest in movies with a guaranteed audience. You can never determine who’s going to want to see your film, but a lot of those big films just water down everything, neutralize it for the masses, and ironically a film like this, which has this kind of strength and boldness and originality about it, that’s what people respond to. They respond to something with truth involved.

What did you tap into, if anything, for the emotional truth of the character?

It was just the script. It was all there.

It wasn’t anything personal?

I have kind of two answers for this. I think it’s inevitable that there will be something of me in there because I’m responding to what’s written and it’s my interpretation of it. But I never directly draw on things, because it just feels cheap and like a betrayal of my own life and my own special relationships. I think acting for me is more about empathy and if something’s really, really well written, you feel for that character. And when you steep yourself in the world, you feel a responsibility to make it as true and honest as possible. With this, I knew what was required of me and I pushed it away. I was not looking at that, that’s not happening and then they’d call action and I’d just let it come out and as soon as they called, “Cut,” I’d push it away again. I just didn’t allow myself to become completely, completely embedded because I think it is the heaviest thing I’ve ever worked on. I’ve done other movies where it’s been emotional, but it’s not consistent. This film, there was no easy scene. It was all weighty. In a way, it was [during] this film that I learned to take care of myself when I work like that and having to dabble in those areas.

I never directly draw on things, because it just feels cheap and like a betrayal of my own life and my own special relationships.

What else did you to do take care of yourself?

At the end of every day, even if I was exhausted, I could still feel an intense energy. I would get on the elliptical cross trainer and just run for an hour, just to literally move the energy out of my body. Just to cleanse. Having a shower wasn’t quite enough.

When you were unleashing emotionally, was there any sense of limitations? Was there a sense of being over the top? Was there even a top?

The only time I questioned it was toward the end. It becomes quite escalated and my character is somewhat maniacal. I just needed to check in with Ari every now and again, like, “Is this too much? Am I going to far?” He kept saying, “No,” and I kept not believing him but trusting him and doing it anyway and he was right. There’s so much that my character discovers that it would put you over the edge in that way.

There’s nothing easy about [Annie]. She’s really complicated. It was great to play some things…there’s kind of a harshness to her, which I am not. I think in the past I’ve played a lot of warm characters, and she’s so hurt and so anxious and overwhelmed and confused and I think that when you’re so consumed by negative emotions then you can’t really communicate properly because it owns you. She’s working from that place. Yes, I’ve played so many mothers in my career, but this woman she kind of turns the idea of motherhood on its head. There are moments where she’s warm with her kids and loving and caring, but the majority of the film, she’s frustrated and short with them, if not completely tearing their heads off. But I always feel like you could tell why it’s happening.

You said you purged this everyday, but what about when filming was over? Did it leave lingering effects?

It didn’t. I kept checking in with myself and there was nothing and that’s the first time it ever happened.

So it’s both your heaviest role and the one that left you with the least amount of baggage?

Yep. But it’s because I knew ahead of time that it was going to be intense so I made sure to take care of myself and I’ve never done that before. So…good on me. [Laughs] I’m so proud of myself, like, I’ve finally grown up.

Ari said you went through hell on this movie. Is that a fair assessment?

I went through hell… Well, what does he mean by hell? [A torrent of laughter, as though the skies have opened up and rained down “Ha”s] Look, it was incredibly challenging. But honestly every actor wants an opportunity [like] the way I get to fucking go for it, and I got to fucking go for it. I’m not gonna complain about that. I’d do it again tomorrow.

I got to fucking go for it.

Is it personally cathartic?

No. It’s satisfying. There is a sense of catharsis to it, but…personally cathartic? Like, am I exorcising my own shit?

Yeah, exactly.

There probably is an element of that because it’s inevitable when you’re soaked in that stuff that you do use yourself. I used to try to explain it to people, but I don’t really understand it myself. I like that the process is a little mysterious to me because then it’s not in danger of being self-conscious.

It seems to me, in certain ways, that you have an ideal level of fame, in that you can take on work like this but you don’t seem to be hounded by paparazzi.

Yeah, you’re assuming right. It’s great. The roles that I’ve taken are roles that I have loved no matter the size of them and no matter the size of the screen. It’s never a cerebral decision. If I have to think about it too much, it’s pretty much an indication that I should not do it. It’s usually just like, “Oh my god I have to do this.” And I’ve taken jobs for other reasons, but they never feel good.

Do you feel that you’re underrated?

No, because I don’t rate anything in life. I have read people say that about me, but what does that mean? What do they want for me that could be any more? I feel so satisfied in my work.

I guess people want more appreciation for you?

I don’t do it for recognition. I do it selfishly for my own personal sense of creativity. It’s something I can’t help but do. I’ve been doing it since I was a teenager. I love it, I can’t imagine not doing it, I still get so much out of it. Most people work at their job for 30 years and they’re bored to tears. I am still so excited about my job because there’s so much variation within it.

I don’t do it for recognition. I do it selfishly for my own personal sense of creativity. It’s something I can’t help but do.

I kind of feel like every job is not just about the job. It’s a life experience, and it’s either meant to happen or it’s not. Once I’ve completed a film, that’s it. That’s my experience. I take all that good stuff I’ve enjoyed with all of those deliciously creative people and they are my memories now. I’m able to have whatever experience it was, but then it’s gone. It’s not mine any longer. It has a life of its own, beyond my control or anyone else’s, really.

People say that as a woman, once you reach age 40 in Hollywood…

…Well, not for me. And probably not for women in the future because it’s changing so much. And not just women, minorities. Everyone needs to be represented in storytelling. It’s so important. It’s not just a business—it’s how we see ourselves. The conversation about women and women’s roles in filmmaking/storytelling is making a change. We need to keep going, but we’re heading in the right direction.

On Instagram, you posted a message about Harvey Weinstein in October, a few days after the initial New York Times story about him hit. You wrote: “Thankfully, it never happened to me, however I did hear numerous, very real stories about other actresses being sexually harassed and/or abused by him. He was notorious.” What was it like to operate in that culture where you were hearing these stories come out of the industry you were depending on for your livelihood?

First of all, livelihood: I didn’t know I had a career, I was just feeling really lucky. I never felt like I had to be anything particular for anybody else. Harvey was making great movies and he was an active producer and he had pretty good taste. He was great at distributing films. He was kind of ahead of things in that regard, or so it seemed to me at the time. I was a total newbie. I was in my early 20s, a total baby. I didn’t know myself, let alone the world. Even though I was aware of uncomfortable feelings and a couple of people had told me about things they had experienced, I did not feel powerful within myself to think I could go and tell somebody else about it or make a difference by doing anything about it. I was a kid!

It must be wild to witness the sea change around you.

Yeah. I think it’s a societal change. I think that for a long time, women were treated very differently. That’s a very obvious statement. It’s about time everyone realize…it’s so funny. It’s like people are saying, “Oh, women exist?” We’re half the planet. We’re totally capable humans. It’s so crazy to me because I’m an avid believer in equality across the board and I always have been, so when you have an obvious understanding about the way things are, it’s so bizarre when there’s a difference of opinion. And that it’s acted upon. It’s all changing and it’s a relief.

It must have been frustrating to be an avid believer in equality in Hollywood for the past 20 years.

In terms of?

Pay gap, for one thing.

I don’t know how much other people are being paid.

But there is a general sense that women make less than men.

I’m only newly aware of that. It’s absurd. It’s also absurd that, “Hey, we need to sell a car. Let’s put a woman with hardly any clothing on the bonnet. That’ll do it.” We’re all washed in these images that are hugely imbalanced. The worst part is: men see it and believe it, and so do women. What we’re constantly saturated in has an effect. So we’ve gotta change the whole arena. [Snickers, and says in sotto voce:] This is getting wide.

We’re all washed in these images that are hugely imbalanced. The worst part is: men see it and believe it, and so do women. What we’re constantly saturated in has an effect.

Yeah, it’s culture. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth from the atmosphere.

That’s why it’s such a big moment now. It’s a massive cultural shift and we’re never going backwards.

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