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A veritable cast of characters

Toni Collette can slip adeptly into any role, as her work in contrasting films at Sundance persuasively attests.

January 29, 2006|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Park City, Utah — WHEN you think about meeting actress Toni Collette, it's natural to think about which Toni Collette you are going to meet.

Will it be the put-upon but triumphant Muriel Heslop of "Muriel's Wedding," the desperately worried mother of "The Sixth Sense" or the no-nonsense geologist of "Japanese Story"? Or one of the two wildly different roles the Australian actress has in films debuting at this year's Sundance film festival?

In "The Night Listener," Collette is compelling as Donna, a spooky, mysterious blind woman. In the smartly funny "Little Miss Sunshine," Sundance's popular hit, she is smoothly comedic as the overmatched but game beacon of sanity in an all-over-the-map family.

In person, Collette, dressed all in black except for red sneakers, turns out to be all and none of the above. She is a noticeably grounded person who exudes a healthy vitality. "My father says I came out of the womb with a spotlight on me doing this," the actress says, putting her hands next to her face for a mock-Al Jolson moment.

Only 33, she calls herself "a lazy actor. I take roles because I'm drawn to them, and I'm drawn to them because I understand them, I don't have to fight to become them." What's left unsaid is the astonishingly wide range of characters who fit that description and Collette's remarkable gift for bringing individuality and emotional intelligence to her work. When she's on screen, you don't see Toni Collette in her latest role, you see the character she's supposed to be.

"A lot of people have careers playing themselves, but I don't want to repeat myself; it's a luxury of this job and I might as well take advantage of it," she says. "After 'Muriel's Wedding,' I received a plethora of similar parts, which I turned down. Though actors are very scared not to work again ... something in me wanted to stick it out.

"I'm picky with what I do because I learn as a person from the role. It's not about work -- these are life experiences for me."

Despite the importance of acting for her, Collette, who began as an early teen, and toured with an Australian troupe at 16, says of her career, "I never planned it out. I have read about people openly talking about these rules, like 'Step One, you do this kind of film, Step Two, you do this kind.' But there are no rules in this industry, no structure to it. I either respond to stories or I don't."

That kind of serendipity has worked out well for Collette. She laughs and says she took her breakthrough "Muriel's" role because it was "a diversion from delivering pizzas." And when she got her part in "Sixth Sense," her biggest commercial venture, "I'd actually gone to New York for a meeting with Marty Scorsese about 'Bringing Out the Dead.' When I got the 'Sixth Sense' role I didn't want to know about it, I just wanted to wait and see what happened with Marty."

As for working with "Little Miss Sunshine's" ensemble, which includes Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell and Alan Arkin, what impressed her most was how well everyone got on, and how "for actors, how egoless everyone was. I think that's an important quality in life."

Collette is willing to look any way necessary for the good of the part. "I don't understand why you have to look like a model to be a successful actor, what a character looks like is an extension of what they feel," she says.

"This is going to sound offensive, but for female actors there is a uniform of being you are meant to aspire to. There's this new batch of younger women who all look the same: the same rail thin body, the same blond hair -- it's like they all go to the same hairdresser. It's kind of scary, and not the kind of image you should be putting out. What audiences and I respond to is what you can't see, what can't be fully explained. What's between the lines, unseen."

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