Toni Collette was recently informed she had reached a notable professional milestone. “Someone told me I was the first woman to have an orgasm on the BBC,” she says with a grin. “And I’m happy to take the accolade.” In Wanderlust, a six-part drama co-produced by the BBC and Netflix, Collette plays Joy Richards, a therapist trying to keep her relationship with her husband alive after a cycling accident makes her reassess their marriage.
One of the opening scenes depicts Joy’s teenage son walking in as his mother is trying to masturbate. Later in the first episode, Joy has a sexual encounter in her consulting room that leads to the, ah, eventual climax.
It’s fairly edgy fodder for the BBC and marks one of the first times that a middle-aged woman’s desires have been so frankly portrayed on screen. This was one of the things that attracted Collette to the part. “It’s so honest and fresh in the way the women are portrayed,” she explains. “To be a middle-aged woman, to be in a longterm relationship and to be alive, dealing with a lot of things – it’s tough. Certainly a middle-aged woman’s sense of self-esteem, of sexuality, is not often talked about.”
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Was she anxious about filming some of the more explicit scenes? “At first I was a little bit nervous but I got over it quite quickly. The more empathy I have with the character, the easier it is and it’s an important story – it’s representative of a big truth that’s got no real voice.”
Like her character, Collette is middle-aged (45), she’s in a long-term marriage and she’s a mother – she has two children, Sage, aged ten, and seven-year-old Arlo. Unlike her character, she is a highly successful actor: after drama school in her native Sydney, her breakthrough role came at the age of 22 when she starred in the hit indie film Muriel’s Wedding. Collette still has people shouting the famous line “You’re terrible, Muriel” at her in the street.
After that, Collette rapidly became known for her scene-stealing turns in movies such as Little Miss Sunshine, About a Boy, The Hours and The Sixth Sense, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. She has won an Emmy and a Golden Globe, and is one of the most respected character actresses of her generation.
But she admits that, like Joy in Wanderlust, she finds it hard to keep her career, children and marriage on track.
“I think when you’re in your 20s and alone, you can afford to be selfish and I really wish that I’d enjoyed it much more,” says Collette. “Once you have a relationship and beautiful little people to look after, your life changes.”
We are talking in a café in the photographic studio in south-west London. She’s wearing a pink coat and has a large bottle of water in front of her and has yet to go into make-up for the shoot to accompany this interview. There are dark circles under her eyes, the result of having just stepped off a long-haul flight from her home in Los Angeles. Occasionally she will lapse into silence as she apologetically tries to fish out the right word from the edges of her sleep-addled brain.
“My children are the lights of my life and I certainly can’t imagine my life without them. But I can’t imagine my life without acting either and it’s good for them to see me being passionate and working hard.”
On a practical level, it comes down to highly efficient scheduling with her husband, the musician Dave Galafassi. “I’m a very organised person but I’m crap at cooking. My husband does most of the cooking. I’m happy to do laundry and water the garden or take the kids to gymnastics.” But at times, she adds candidly, “it really is just about putting one foot in front of the other”.
Wanderlust, which is written by playwright Nick Payne, explores many of these preoccupations. The quality of the script persuaded Collette to swap the sunshine and blue skies of California for five months filming in Manchester. Plus, “it was the most incredible cast”, she says (her co-stars include Steven Mackintosh and Zawe Ashton). “So f***ing talented.”
Ah yes. As well as being willing to act out an orgasm, Collette loves to swear. She’s Australian and speaks with delightful straightforwardness about almost anything, including therapy (“I’ve had it”), ageing (“I love it”) and doing accents (“My favourite is Indian because it’s so much fun to do but it’s also very racist”).
Does she think Brits are more repressed than Australians? “Yeah, until they’re really drunk,” Collette replies, laughing. “And maybe that’s why people drink in this country. That and the weather. Australia is very laidback, there’s a youthful quality compared to what is tradition in this country, which I think is still repressed and really polite. I’m not like that. I just call a spade a spade.”
It’s an attitude she formed growing up in a suburb of western Sydney, the daughter of Bob, a truck driver, and Judith, who was in customer services. Collette recalls her mother being “capable and resourceful” and her parents instilled in her a strong work ethic. When she decided to quit school at the age of 16 to pursue a career in drama “they must have been freaking out! I was such a baby, I was completely unaware.”
They needn’t have worried; Collette had already proved herself to be a naturally gifted actress at a much younger age – so gifted, in fact, that when she pretended to have appendicitis at the age of 11, doctors actually went ahead and removed her appendix. “I’m mortified. It’s so embarrassing! My mum had hers taken out and told me, so maybe that was why I did it. I did have a slight stomach ache…”
After graduating from Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art, Collette got parts in an Australian television drama and then in the comedy feature film Spotswood, with Russell Crowe and Anthony Hopkins. Muriel’s Wedding came along in 1994 and the role – as a socially awkward woman who dreams of getting married – required her to gain 40lb in seven weeks.
“It didn’t bother me,” Collette says. “I’ve always had this understanding that what is on the inside is most important… It wasn’t about me, it was about the character.”
If there is a through-line in her work, it’s perhaps that she has always chosen the unexpected, multifaceted parts, and is often drawn to women who are dealing with some level of emotional trauma. Even in About a Boy, a 2002 comedy drama based on the novel of the same name by Tony Parsons and starring Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult, Collette gave the film its beating heart with her portrayal of a single mother living with depression.“I was like, this is a comedy! Why am I the one crying all the time?” she jokes. “I look for things that challenge me… I never wanted to repeat myself.”
She was also a suburban housewife with dissociative identity disorder in three seasons of the American television series United States of Tara. This year, she starred in the supernatural horror film Hereditary, dubbed “the scariest movie of 2018” by critics. “Yeah,” Collette says drily. “It was heavy.”
Along the way, she has worked several times with the disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Collette says Weinstein never subjected her to unwanted sexual harassment, but, “I did a lot of films with him in the 90s. I think he gave off a ‘don’t f*** with me’ vibe. I was very young and I was aware that his behaviour was questionable around other people and that he was a bully but I didn’t know the extent of how sexual it was.”
She thinks the #MeToo groundswell and the rise of the Time’s Up movement marks a necessary change in attitude. “Absolutely. It’s about time… Any time I hear of someone who is a bully in that way, I just think ‘Wow, what an unevolved person you are.’ It’s so pathetic that someone would use their position of power to treat people that way.
“I’m really now inspired and proud of the women who are coming forward to speak about their own experiences because when it’s that public, it’s very confronting.”
It has not always been the easiest industry for women in their 40s to flourish in, but Collette is positive about the future. It’s certainly true that she has never been out of work and her performance in Wanderlust has given an overlooked demographic a necessary voice.
“I think if we women are loud and persistent enough, things will change for the better,” she says. “We all need to see ourselves reflected and understood [on screen], rather than just seeing some middle-aged white guy.”
She laughs her signature throaty cackle – a combination of warmth and depth. And as she leaves, I find myself thinking that if you’re a middle-aged woman struggling to make your voice heard, there are probably few better custodians of your story than Toni Collette.
Wanderlust will air on BBC1 on Tuesday 4th September at 9pm