“Chameleonic” is an overused term when it comes to actors who can seamlessly transition into whatever role is thrown their way. Still, when it comes to Toni Collette and her abilities on screen, there’s really no other word for it.
In the past few years alone, she’s appeared in the nightmare-inducing horror Hereditary, true-crime drama The Staircase, all-star murder-mystery Knives Out, sci-fi thriller Stowaway, unapologetically crude comedy The Estate and Best Picture nominee Nightmare Alley – and that’s without even touching on her career-defining roles in the likes of The Sixth Sense, About A Boy and Muriel’s Wedding.
For her latest transformation, the Australian star has joined the cast of Amazon Prime’s new seven-part drama The Power.
An adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel of the same name, The Power is set in a world where teenage girls around the globe suddenly develop a remarkable ability to command electricity with their hands, and explores how different young women in markedly distinct situations adapt to their new gift.
In the show, Toni plays Margot Cleary-Lopez, a politician determined to do the right thing by the girls who are grappling with their new powers – including her own teenage daughter.
“I just think she’s really cool!” Toni tells HuffPost UK, when asked what first attracted her to the character.
“She’s incredibly complex and smart and passionate and idealistic and grounded and forthright – and when the [power] comes to be, she is even further empowered
“Ultimately she’s very brave, because everyone else is trying to squash it, and pretend it’s a hoax and it’s not really happening, because it’s dangerous and it’s going to disrupt the status quo, and really change the way society has been structured for so long. And even she, a woman who is somewhat privileged and in a position of power and influence, has to face all this misogyny and sexism on a daily basis.”
“And she’s a mum,” the multi-award-winning star adds. “So she’s got a full-time job in so many areas of her life, and she only has so much energy. I could really relate to that.”
On the surface, Margot might seem quite different from some of the other women Toni has played on screen in the past, due to her decisive and confident nature.
However, as the woman herself points out, “Margot is also incredibly vulnerable because her world is changing as well”.
“She has to step out of her comfort zone, and when she does, she’s judged – even by her own husband, her biggest supporter, and she finds that her equal partner is suddenly looking at her differently,” Toni says. “She’s just trying to do the greater good, and protect and support young women everywhere – and even her husband is not supporting her in that, and he’s making assumptions that aren’t true about her intentions.”
Toni says that Margot’s “beautifully and honestly written” relationship with her husband Rob (played by John Leguizamo), and “the strains on that relationship once the power comes in” were a big part of what drew her to the role, with the show’s all-female directing and writing team helping to make more authentic storytelling when it came to the show’s core characters.
“Everyone was just the best at what they did, and it was very smooth, and very inclusive, and very fun,” she enthuses. “And there was a sense of empowerment – it’s exciting to work on a show with that many women, on and off the screen.”
She continues: “When we were shooting, towards the very end, they showed us the sizzle reel for the first time, and I found it so incredibly moving, I got goosebumps! Because it’s all of these women, all different ages, all different backgrounds and cultures having these incredible experiences and really coming into themselves.
“And it’s not just exciting to be a part of – I’m excited for other women to see that on TV.”
Toni acknowledges that a show about women using their power in the face of adversity feels particularly relevant in the current climate, where women’s rights are once again on shaky ground, particularly after the overturning of Roe vs. Wade in America.
“It couldn’t be [more prescient],” she says. “The electrical charges are definitely a metaphor for the inherent power that we all have – that, historically, the patriarchy has encouraged boys and men to nurture and develop, but women haven’t had the same opportunities.”
However, she also points out that the team couldn’t have known just how pertinent the show would feel, as it began filming “before Covid”, but production was later shut down due to the pandemic.
After what she describes as “a bit of casting snakes and ladders”, Toni was then brought in “at the very end” to replace Leslie Mann, who was previously cast in the role as Margot, and “shot the entire season in five weeks”.
“That was exhausting – I’ll never do that again,” she insists. “It was just a matter of scheduling, and it had to be done that way, but if we get to do a second season, I was like, ‘you guys, you’re giving me days off!’.”
Of course, intense shoots are nothing new to Toni, who in the last few years has been put through her paces on projects like the critically-lauded horror film Hereditary, the unnerving psychological thriller I’m Thinking Of Ending Things (a project Toni describes as “bonkers”), the hard-hitting Netflix series Unbelievable and the recent adaptation of the crime documentary The Staircase, both of which earned Toni nominations at the Emmys.
She shares that, in recent years, she’s put new coping mechanisms into place to help her through more difficult projects.
“When I’m working, the only way I know how to do it is instinctually. And I connect with myself, and I feel things, and that’s exhausting, right?” she explains.
“A lot of people would ask me, ‘how do you shake it off? Are you a method actor? What do you do to let go of a character? Do you take it home with you?’, and I’m always like, ‘no, no, no, absolutely not’. But then I realised, accumulatively, I was carrying stuff. The body doesn’t know what is fiction and what is real, so if I’m feeling it, the body is like, ‘shit, this is really happening’.
“The Staircase, I was fine. Hereditary, I was fine. The job that made me realise I needed to take better care of myself was Miss You Already, where I played a character who ultimately died from cancer.
“A year and a half later, I still found myself thinking about it, and I was like, ‘this is not right, I shouldn’t be carrying it around in any way’. So, I just had to figure out a way to take care of myself – which I did, and I do.”
After Miss You Already in 2015 – in which she and Drew Barrymore played lifelong friends, one of whom is diagnosed with cancer – Toni says she specifically “declared, ‘I don’t want to do anything heavy’”.
“But then, things like Hereditary come along,” she recalls. “You can never determine who’s thinking of you, or what’s going to come in.”
“So when it came to something like Hereditary, I was taking care of myself progressively throughout the shoot,” she continues. “I didn’t wait till the end and realise, ‘oh my god, I’m depleted, I’m going to collapse here’. I figure out ways daily how to come back to myself and shed what’s not mine. And it works. I can do it, I don’t have to put myself through the ringer.
“And that’s important – even for people who don’t do what I do.”
In 2024, Toni will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of her breakthrough role as the lead in the Australian dark comedy Muriel’s Wedding (“God I’m old, eh?” she jokes when this milestone comes up in the conversation).
Tony observes a lot has changed for young women making a start in the entertainment industry in the decades between Muriel’s Wedding and The Power, noting: “There’s a certain knowledge about how people should conduct themselves around women, and how they should and shouldn’t treat women.
“I think that the characters available to play now, and the stories that are being told, are much more inclusive of all types of people – not just white dudes. So yeah, the type of work, and the way that people interact, it has really changed.”
Still, she wouldn’t change a thing about her own career journey.
“I love and I am so grateful for my career, I’m very happy,” she states, adding with a laugh: “At one point, I couldn’t believe I even had a career – but it’s very established now, I’m allowed to say it, I own it, it’s mine!”
“It’s been nothing but positive, honestly,” she continues. “I can count on one hand the amount of people I could do without working with, it’s mostly been very, very good, inspirational, fun people, who make me feel excited to be alive, and share the experience of storytelling with.”
On why Muriel’s Wedding has endured for the last 30 years, Toni suggests: “It’s just so honest. It’s so frank, and unafraid. And she’s so authentic, and her journey is so inspirational.
“There’s something so brave about this girl, who really has no experience, just escaping an abusive past and kind of reshaping her whole family dynamic and history. She’s an underdog, but also she just goes for it.”
“But it’s quite dark,” she says of the film, recalling being reduced to tears when watching it at a 25th anniversary screening in 2018. “I was crying so much, I hadn’t seen it in years, and one of my best friends Dan Wyllie, who plays Perry in the film, turned to me and said, ‘that is the saddest funny film ever made’.”
“I think people get confused with the Waterloo outfits and think it’s just drag,” Toni suggests, quickly adding: “Which should be celebrated forever!”
While Toni’s love for Muriel is apparent, she isn’t the character the actor would be most excited about revisiting if the opportunity arose.
Instead, without hesitation, she brings up her leading role in the late-2000s sitcom United States Of Tara, which earned her wins at both the Emmys and Golden Globes for her performance as a mother with dissociative identity disorder.
Toni played Tara, as well as the character’s “alters”, with Sex And The City star John Corbett, Atypical’s Keir Gilchrist and future Oscar winner Brie Larson joining her in the main cast.
“It was just a really, really special job that I think ended too soon. That’s really the only one I think about, and if it came up again, I would jump at it,” she admits. “I loved it.
“Weirdly, I’ve just watched it again with my 11-year-old son, who loved it as well. I know it’s about a woman with dissociative identity disorder, but I think anyone can see themselves in her, because we are made up of so many different parts. It’s not just about a woman with a mental illness, there’s so much to identify with.”
Our interview takes place just over a week after the 2023 Oscars, with Toni previously being nominated (“in 1876,” she jokes) for her role in the 1999 psychological thriller The Sixth Sense.
Speak to a few Toni Collette fans online, though, and it’ll soon become apparent the consensus is she’s been “robbed” of subsequent nominations on more than one occasion – most notably for her performance in 2018’s Hereditary.
The Oscars have long been accused of overlooking performances in horror films (with a few notable exceptions, not least Toni’s own Sixth Sense nomination), and Hereditary has repeatedly been held up as a shining example of this.
However, Toni is insistent that she never bought into the “Oscars buzz” that followed her performance in Ari Aster’s break-out film.
“Look, I’ve been around long enough to know that buzz is nothing real,” she says, but admits that one positive thing to came out of the conversation was an awareness that people were watching and appreciating her work.
“I was very aware of people saying I was ripped off, and people were really upset about it,” she laughs. “But I just suddenly realised that people are actually watching – and that people cared! It just made me feel supported in a way that I didn’t even realise was there, you know?
“You go to work, you enjoy the people you’re working with, and beyond that, I don’t know who’s out there watching anything. And people were very vocal! So that was surprising and kind of sweet.
“To know that there’s been some kind of real appreciation is always a good thing, because ultimately, the great thing about my job is connection, right? It helps me connect with myself, and when other people watch it, they connect with themselves, and that’s the most important thing in life, to me.”
Future recognition at the Oscars, Toni adds, is “not something I think about really, to be honest”.
“It seems to be… choosing my words carefully here… it seems to be a healthier, more inclusive pool to swim in now,” she observes. “I love movies, and I love what I do, so I think celebrating them is great. But going to something like that, for me, is nothing but stress. Of course I would be honoured! But it’s not something I think about.”
Instead, one of the most hard-working, celebrated and, yes, chameleonic stars of her generation says that she chooses to focus on “the work itself”, preferring to derive her job satisfaction from “the experience of doing and being – and that’s it”.
“You can go in with all the preparation you want, but I love – and this is almost like a metaphor for life – that you have to let go and be in the moment,” she says. “That’s when the true magic happens. All of the unexpected things that pop up in a scene are so exciting and magical to me.
“That’s what I love about my job. All the other stuff that comes with it, I could honestly leave it behind.”
The first three episodes of The Power are available to stream on Prime Video from 31 March, with the remaining episodes releasing weekly.