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Role Recall: Toni Collette on 'Muriel's Wedding,' 'The Sixth Sense,' 'Hereditary' and passing on 'Bridget Jones's Diary'

Toni Collette never anticipated that acting could be her livelihood. The Australia native was a regular in the Sydney theater scene and barely had any screen credits, namely her feature film debut in the 1992 comedy Spotswood (known in the U.S. as The Efficiency Expert) starring Anthony Hopkins and fellow newcomer Russell Crowe.

In fact, Collette was delivering pizzas when she landed the lead in Muriel’s Wedding (1994), the sleeper hit rom-com sensation that turned her into an international star. “It completely changed my life,” the now-50-year-old performer says of her eponymous role as the socially awkward, ABBA-loving video store clerk who dreams of getting hitched, in a new Role Recall interview with Yahoo Entertainment (watch above). “It opened up so many doors and gave me so many amazing opportunities. It made me feel like I could really do this. I never thought that I would have a career. I just thought that it was a one-off, to be honest.”

In the 28 years since, Collette has become one of the most versatile — and venerated — performers in Hollywood. She earned an Oscar nomination for playing the distraught mom of a boy who sees dead people in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999), and any cinephile will tell you she was absolutely robbed of a second nod for her intensely terrifying turn as another mother dealing with the supernatural in Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018). She moved from Jane Austen (Emma) to Brian Slade (Velvet Goldmine). She made an art form out of playing multiple characters (and earned both an Emmy and Golden Globe) in Showtime’s short-lived but beloved The United States of Tara (2008-11) and helped coax unforgettable, star-making performances out of child actors Haley Joel Osment (Sixth Sense), Nicholas Hoult (About a Boy) and Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine).

She can turn up in a star-studded ensemble like the murder mystery Knives Out (2019), play against type as a New Agey Yas Queen, and steal every scene she’s in.

Collette is digging for more gold in her new comedy The Estate. She plays a hapless New Orleans woman who, along with her bawdier sister (Anna Faris), are in danger of losing the family diner when they make a play for the inheritance of their detested dying rich aunt (Kathleen Turner), only to be challenged by their sleazy cousins (David Duchovny and Rosemarie DeWitt).

“When I first read [the script], my husband was like, ‘What is going on over there?’ Because I was crying with laughter and really laughing out loud, which is very rare when you're reading a script,” Collette says. “It was really fun. Yet again, it's an ensemble and all of the actors were just so fantastic. Anna, I'd never met her. She's the sweetest. And we became an instant team.”

The actress shared memories from the making of many of her most fantastic projects in our latest episode of Role Recall. Some highlights below:

On packing on over 40 pounds for her breakout role in Muriel’s Wedding:
“I don’t know if I ate many pizzas. I remember drinking a lot of Ensure Plus. I think it’s a high fat kind of drink that they give to people in nursing homes. I had seven weeks to put on 43 pounds.”

On how she really feels about ABBA:
“I love ABBA. F**king love ABBA. Always have. And everywhere I go, when ‘Dancing Queen’ comes on, I just think, ‘I’m so happy this song follows me everywhere.’”

On the role she gunning for instead of The Sixth Sense:
“I was actually in New York meeting Martin Scorsese for a film called Bringing Out the Dead. And I was so enamored by Marty and obviously wanted to [work with him]. I knew about him. I didn’t know who Night was. So I was kind of focused on trying to work with Scorsese. Who wouldn’t be? I still wanna work with him. … [Finally I called my agent back] and my agent said, ‘You’ve been offered—” and I screamed before he got it out. I thought he was saying ‘You’ve been offered Bringing Out the Dead,’ and he said, ‘You’ve been offered The Sixth Sense.’ And I was like, [disappointedly], ‘Aw.’”

On that unforgettable Sixth Sense scene when Lynn (Collette) and Cole (Osment) are stuck in traffic
It felt like it was bubbling up so much in me that I remember the night before I went to New York and went to a Burt Bacharach-Elvis Costello collaboration, this live performance that was being filmed, just to avoid thinking about it. Because I thought, ‘I don't want to get too involved in it. I just need to be present in the moment because if I think about it too much, it’d be too much, too intense or something.’ And it was intense anyway. And I remember when we did it, Night shot Haley’s side first and I was just bawling my eyes out. And he kept saying, ‘Toni, Toni, we're not even on you. Just wait till we turn around.’ But I was so full and so present in what that meant to me that it was very healing, actually, doing that scene.”

On turning down Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001):
I really couldn't make the decision. I was busy doing a musical on Broadway called The Wild Party and I wasn’t available. But sometimes I think about that and I think, ‘I don’t know, that character’s so similar to Muriel.’ It might have been too close. And I try not to repeat myself.”

On playing the heavy role of a mother with cancer in the comedy About a Boy:
“I mean I play a suicidal woman who feels like she’s failing at being a good mother and failing the world, not being able to save the world. I remember thinking, ‘All of you a**holes are in a comedy and I’m the one in a tragedy here.’ I was really jealous of their experiences because mine, I think, was a little different.”

On her desire to do more United States of Tara:
“It was one of the most beautiful, profound, challenging-in-all-the-right-ways experiences. … I mean, if they asked me to go back and do it tomorrow, I would. That's how much I loved it. I was so sad when it ended. It felt premature. And I think it happened before all of this streaming stuff really kicked in. In a way, it was ahead of its time. But the story, for a comedy, was just so moving to me. I loved it, I loved it, I loved it.”

On sawing her head off in Hereditary:
“Well, the story to me is just a really sad story about a family grieving. And so when it came to doing that, which is an overtly horrific moment, it felt ridiculous. I was hanging up in the attic, and Ari Aster, the brilliant writer-director, had a very specific idea of the rhythm of how I use the piano string to saw my own head off. So I literally was watching him and he was moving how he wanted me to move until it got faster and faster. So it was kind of technical in terms of just pleasing him in the rhythm of how that movement was. And it was fun, actually. It was fun putting all the prosthetics on and getting all the blood lined up. But it just felt like a complete departure from what the film actually meant to me.”

Video produced by Kyle Moss and edited by Teri Keiser

The Estate is now playing.

Watch the trailer: