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Final Gravity

Toni Collette  ('Connie & Carla') Toni Collette ('Connie & Carla')
'Sensing A Song'

Hot on the heels of Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett came another Australian thespian sensation, Toni Collette. Onscreen she's absolutely magnetic, consistently compelling in a wild variety of roles, her emotional intelligence shining through even in brief supporting roles. She can so very human - funny, warm, decadent, hurt, sympathetic, neurotic - and consequently so very attractive. Unafraid to send herself up, to appear genuinely drab, dumb or even ugly, she is clearly one of us - a proper people's princess.

Toni Collette was born on the 1st of November, 1972, in western Sydney, Australia. Her father, Bob, was a truck driver, while mother Judy worked for a courier service as a customer service rep. The family would be completed by two younger brothers.

At 14, she was cast in a school performance of Godspell, and that was pretty much that, Toni being one of those lucky few who find their vocation early. At 16, with the support of her parents, Toni decided to leave school and enrol at NIDA, the National Institute of Dramatic Arts, on a three-year course. She never made it. Ever headstrong and keen to follow her instincts, she left after a mere 18 months to act for real in her feature film debut, 'Spotswood' alongside Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Still things didn't exactly take off for the her. But, she did not have to wait long for this to change. In 1992, she went up for the role of Muriel Heslop in PJ Hogan's unruly comedy 'Muriel's Wedding.' Toni won the part, working with a dietician and putting on 40 pounds for the role, in just seven weeks. And she was wonderful, winning Best Actress from the Australian Film Institute and, as the film slowly grew into a worldwide success, picking up a Golden Globe nomination.

Since then she has appeared in such movies as 'Emma,' 'Velvet Goldmine,' 'The Sixth Sense,' 'Changing Lanes,' 'The Hours' and her latest, 'Connie and Carla' - created by Nia Vardalos of 'My Big Greek Fat Wedding' fame.

'Connie and Carla' casts Vardalos and Toni Collette as Connie and Carla, two struggling Chicago dinner theatre performers who accidentally witness a mafia hit, subsequently hitting the road, and running for their lives. Assuming the killers will never look for them in a place devoid of culture, the pair head to Los Angeles, where they assume new identities and find their middling talent at song and dance perfectly suited to new careers - as drag queens. Much to their surprise, they inadvertently become the toast of the cabaret circuit. As their ruse becomes increasingly difficult to maintain, they discover that it is indeed lonely at the top, especially after Connie meets Jeff (David Duchovny), an introspective, conservative guy she'd really like to be a real girl with.

Chatting recently with the Aussie actress herself in L.A., Collette happily admits she is a finally in a movie in which she spends less time than most crying ... and is so happy for that fact! "It's so funny because after I did 'Muriel's Wedding' I think I was so adamant about making people understand that I was a 'serious' actress, because everyone was saying "come on give us that Muriel grin". I found that so freakin' frustrating, so I did move into a very serious area for a while which was part of the appeal," she explains.

Why take this role in the first place? "Well, on paper it was so much fun, had so much appeal and I really wanted the opportunity to do something lighter."

Is the character of Carla a lot closer to you than any of your other character predecessors? "She's verging on dumb, what are you saying," Collette retorts laughing. "I think it's inevitable that there is part of me in everything that I play, but I think this character is so cute, palatable, and unthreatening."

What was your first impression when seeing yourself with all that heavy-duty make-up on for the first time? "I thought it was very extreme, but I liked it! It was appropriate for the story and I've never had anything like it. It was purely dressing up, you know?"

Was it a touch change of gears to have to do this musical? "I grew up doing musicals from the age of 12 and got into acting through singing and by doing musicals, so it felt like going home," she explains. But her attraction to 'Connie and Carla' went beyond the idea of mere musical performing, she adds laughingly. "In a way it makes fun of the whole idea. I mean drag queens in general are up there taking the piss out of serious performances, so it's looking at something from a very different angle."

How much researching the whole drag queen subculture was put into motion? "Well, we didn't want to offend anyone in the process by being inappropriate, but I think we were pretty dead on. We were surrounded by what we were meant to be and they weren't backwards in coming forwards if we were off the mark Also, we had the best drag queens working on the movie who are such a freakin' riot to hang out with that it's very easy for me to slip into that way of being."

Tell me more about the next movie we'll see you in, the Curtis Hanson flick 'In Her Shoes' co-starring Cameron Diaz. "Yeah, well, we play very different sisters. She's playing kind of an alcoholic, sleeps around, very irresponsible while I play a very fixed, super responsible lawyer. Our mother died when we were very young and we've developed this very co-dependant kind of relationship where I take care of her. Anyway, we have a falling out and both discover this long lost grandmother [Shirley MacLaine] that our father kept hidden from us. All 3 of us come to this point where we are able to move on and be the person we're meant to be instead of holding onto that experience that happened so long ago. It's actually funny and sad and I'm enjoying it," Collette says with a wry smile.

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