HEREDITARY, Ari Aster’s full-blown horror feature that ranks as a controversial critical favorite, has Toni Collette going fall-out for nearly its entire two hours-plus, wailing and keening as her life descends into a nearly unmanageable series of ghastly events. A bravura performance more typically seen in opera, Collette brings a sense of wonder to the film’s revelations as in, How does she do it! Here, in a slightly condensed version of a recent interview, the Australian-born actor best known for MURIEL’S WEDDING, THE SIXTH SENSE, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and UNITED STATES OF TARA explains how.
Q: Basically, how would you talk about this? What is HEREDITARY?
Toni Collette: I’d say it’s a very frank look at a family in pain. It’s about part of the human condition, which is confronting great loss, and how people try to deal with that successfully and very unsuccessfully. It’s also about what we inherit from our family. I mean, it’s very extreme in this case but I found it really fascinating that there could be a film that both existed as a horror film and also as something so honest.
Q: Annie is such a complex character. How would you describe her?
TC: I agree, and that’s really why I wanted to do it. I just thought, ‘Oh my God. How often do you get a chance to really go for it?’ This woman is just so complicated. The film itself is very dense, the character is so unexpected in her own right. Because she’s very contrary to many ideas of what you would imagine someone to be like. She’s not your typical mother, she’s not your typical artist, she’s not a great wife. In fact, I think everything except her art is probably her toeing the line in life and doing what she feels is expected of her. There are just so many different layers about self knowledge. She’s really repressed — and I don’t blame her. There’s so much toxic and unthinkable behavior within her family. There’s that sequence that’s kind of a dream within a dream sequence where she says terrible things to her son Peter [Alex Wolff]. But it’s a really great opportunity to have some insight into her awareness. Because that moment is her subconscious. She’s not really talking to Peter, she’s just having this experience while she’s asleep. But it shows you that somewhere down deep inside, she does know what’s going on. But this woman who lives with a certain amount of this ominous dread and just this knowledge that there’s something very wrong, without not quite being able to put a finger on it — that for me is the closest thing you’ll get to a confession. It’s the truth of the movie and it’s not in a waking moment. I love that she’s an artist who both controls and explores her world through her art.
Q: She does these miniature little doll house settings, or things that might be …
TC: She’s re-creating her physical world, and she does it to control it because everything feels so overwhelming and out of control. She also does it to try to understand something that she just can’t understand, which is the aforementioned dread. It’s so painstakingly slow, the whole process. Steve and his team from Toronto, who made all of those incredible miniatures, will tell you it takes months and months and months. That scene where she destroys her work, it is so heartbreaking on so many levels. Because the metaphor is that she just can’t face her reality. It’s not just about the pressure of having to produce for a show, or the frustration of her family or the deep pain that won’t go away. It’s literally not being able to look at it any more. Yeah, I mean Ari Aster’s writing was just so rich and dense and clear. It’s so much of a relief and so exciting to work with someone who has such a strong vision, like a truly bold, strong voice.
Q: I was going to ask how you worked with him. Did you take your script and mark places where you would be at level 5, and that would be the top level that you’d go? And then there would be level 3 and he would …
TC: Look, I’m telling you, when you’re working with material this good, I mean it may not have spoken to other actors in the same way, but I felt that it was so clear. Everything that I had to do just seemed evident. I knew what was required of me, and to be honest, apart from some initial conversations and Ari sending me a bunch of backstory emails, I pushed it away. I found it so kind of easy to get to those places that, it just scared me a little bit. So I held it away from my self and just allowed it to come out between ‘Action!’ and ‘Cut!’ and then pushed it away again. I had said to my agent before this film came along that I didn’t want to do anything heavy; I was looking to do comedies. And then they sent me this! So in a way I was trying to shake a cumulative past work, and so in endeavoring to make this film, I just knew that I had to do it. I had no choice but I also knew that if I was going to do it, I couldn’t work the way I had worked before, which was to throw myself into it without any idea of consequence and not really taking care of myself. Inevitably I would end up completely exhausted and in a heap at the end of the job wondering, ‘What just happened?’ There’s nothing wrong with that; when I was younger that was common practice for me. I feel like I kind of grew up as an actor in this movie, because yes, like I said, I knew what it required, and so when I felt myself, it’s a very honest and emotional, extremely emotional film. And very honest. I think everything is energy in life and the audience picks up on it if you’re faking it. Whether you’re trying to be technical as an actor, you just can’t fake those things. You have to feel it.
But I just really was able to kind of control the output, and at the end of the day I found ways to move that energy, which is very consuming when you feel it, because that’s what it is, to literally move energy and just shift it. That’s all it is. All emotion is energy. It just comes out in different forms. So I just found myself kind of going to the gym, jumping around, running on the electrical cross-trainer, rather than letting it get me down. That’s the first time that I’ve done that, and so by the end of the film I actually felt fine. This is the first time in a long time where I walked away like, ‘Wow, that happened.’
Q: You would not say this was the most difficult and the most demanding role you’ve ever played?
TC: Yes, I would say that. But I think I handled it in a much better way that served me, as well as the film. Not just the film.
Q: There was a moment when she is standing above her son’s bed and is talking to him and confesses about the time that she had sprayed him with gas and held a match. The audience breaks into laughter at that moment, when she says, ‘But I didn’t drop the match.’ She’s telling this horrible sort of thing about like you said before, she’s making this confession in a dream-like state. Were the laughs intended, because there is humor in this sort of dark, dark absurd …
TC: I agree. I think in order for an audience to survive it, they need to let some air out. Because otherwise, it’s just too much. It’s a lot to undertake and yeah, there are moments which do naturally create some levity. I think that the film itself lends itself to a communal, theatrical experience, because every build up of nervous energy becomes sort of infectious in the cinema, and it becomes like a shared experience with people. And it makes it fun in that way. Some of it was intended and perhaps some of it wasn’t. Any good writing will have the intention in there, and if you play it straight, it will come through. But yeah, it’s really, really fascinating to watch it with an audience, because they tend to kind of have those little teetering moments at pretty much the same places — and I can totally understand it. You need it. You need to be able to just rest for a minute and feel safe in it, because it’s a very cathartic experience. It’s confronting.
Q: It’s got this buzz, this hot horror movie. Is this an unusual place for you to be?
TC: There’s been a smattering of films where there is some kind of knowledge that there’s a special quality about them. I mean, I’ve been making movies for almost 30 years, Stephen, and this is the first time that this kind of palpable energy has surrounded a project. It’s really interesting — it’s exciting, actually. Obviously with every job you go into, you care about it, you hope someone will connect with it. But for it to happen on this level is quite amazing.
Q: With your own kids, how aware are they of what mom is doing? Do you make a line about what they can and cannot see of what you’ve done?
TC: Oh, absolutely. There’s very little that they can watch at this stage. They’re only 10 and 7, so it’s going to be a long time before they see this one.
Q: When you look back at your career, starting out as a teenager, does it all seem so clear to you? Does it seem a little bit easier than it was, looking back at the time?
TC: Well, at the time, it was so different from the world that I grew up in, that it was almost fascinating as I was going through it, because it was such a different world. I did not have any expectations. I had hopes, I had dreams, but I had no expectations, and I think it’s the expectations that can really [expletive] you up. So I’ve been so appreciative of every experience that I’ve had, because I know where I came from and it just seems like a dream. To be honest, still I pinch myself. I just did this film with Dan Gilroy [VELVET BUZZSAW] and we were shooting at the Hollywood Forever cemetery. I remember driving out of the cemetery on my last day, looking up at the HOLLYWOOD sign and I mean, honestly it’s so far away from the world I grew up in that, I’m 45 now, I still pinch myself. So I still have a sense of appreciation. I think that’s healthy in life, in general. But yeah, when I was young, I think obviously it’s easier to look at things in retrospect, because you can see the flow and the growth and the progression. But when you’re in it, it’s just putting one foot in front of the other. I still think life is like that for me. I don’t have a grand plan. You know, I have a few personal ones. But as far as career goes, I like to be open to the experience. It isn’t just about work. It becomes a life experience for me, and I think that we’re given the experiences we’re meant to have. So I’m very open to things and I can very much feel when it’s right, and I can very much feel when it’s wrong. If I get to kind of cerebral or intellectual about it, I know that I’m thinking about it too much and I probably shouldn’t do it.
Q: What do you play in Gilroy’s movie?
TC: It’s set in the art world and it’s really fascinating actually. I play quite an ambitious art curator whose ambition leads her to become an independent art advisor. Art is the ability to express something that’s very much internal. So it’s physicalizing an idea that is very much internal. It’s so strange, it’s just about lots of different things. It’s about monetizing art, it’s about how slippery that world is, it’s about how art has its own energy, and that can live on beyond the immediate production of a piece, an immediate expression. It does live on and have a life beyond that. It’s about how success can really limit someone’s ability to then produce, because suddenly it does become about producing rather than a natural eruption or expression. It’s just a really interesting world about the values and the value of art.
Q: What made you say Yes? Was it Gilroy or was it the character or was it both?
TC: It was both. Definitely both.
Q: You’ve been talking about the spiritual element of feeling things and acting upon them in your life. One of the things in HEREDITARY is this idea, they have seances and they’re contacting another world, in a way. What’s your feeling about that and do you think the movie is promoting that belief?
TC: If you watch this movie and then go and have a seance, you’re a [expletive]ing idiot! (laughs) I believe that the physical world is very temporary, very beautiful and very limited. There is so much that we don’t understand. We are so small and so insignificant, and I would never partake in anything like that because you have no idea what you’re inviting in.
Q: Did you keep anything from this movie? Do you keep souvenirs, other than your script?
TC: I think I threw the script out, actually. (laughs) I did keep a couple of the miniatures on this one and oddly, my jeans. I spent so much time in those jeans. It’s somewhat about jeans in a different sense and they were just very much a part of my character. They’re covered in paint.
Q: They’re a character that you’re going to have with you, in a way.
TC: I have worn them since actually and I do think about the movie. Maybe I shouldn’t wear them!
With only a producing credit Guillermo del Toro stepped aside from the sequel PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital, Universal Home Entertainment, PG-13) to go win two Oscars this year for THE SHAPE OF WATER. That means UPRISING is Steven DeKnight’s action-packed monstrous vision for what follows del Toro’s 2013 original. And a cheerfully bonkers sequel it is with a stand-out cast led by charismatic John Boyega (STAR WARS!) as the son of heroic Jaeger pilot who died fighting now teamed with a 15 year old hacker (Rinko Kikuchi) and his former co-pilot (Scott Eastwood) to a Tokyo battle with the alien monsters known as Kaiju. The bonus features on this HD picture with theater quality sound includes DeKnight’s audio commentary on deleted scenes, featurettes (‘Hall of Heroes,’ ‘Unexpected Villain,’ ‘Next Level Jaegers’).
STRIKING OUT: SERIES 2 (DVD, 6 episodes, 2 discs, AcornTV, Not Rated), a popular award-winning Irish legal drama, benefits from both familiarity and ethnicity. A wronged woman – she caught her fiancé cheating just before the wedding – Amy Huberman’s Tara Rafferty is one plucky heroine who took a walk from her future hubby’s big law firm and began her own practice. That practice is now threatened – betrayal! imprisonment! – and her second season cases may carry a whiff of desperation – defending against a deportation, nailing a bigamist, even suing a convent. Well-paced and extremely well played, especially with Huberman’s lightly comic edge, STRIKING OUT scores. Also a behind the scenes featurette and the cast panel at the TCA (Television Critics Assn).
Paul Verhoeven’s SPETTERS (Blu-ray, Kino Lorber Classics, Not Rated) was astonishing in1980 for its matter of fact depiction of sex, romance and violence among some Netherlands’ blue collar kids. It still astonishes. Verhoeven, best known today for BASIC INSTINCT, ELLE, ROBOCOP and SHOWGIRLS, made SPETTERS as an antidote to the global success of SOLDIER OF ORANGE (1977), a salute to Dutch heroism in WWII which was, he notes in the audio commentary, presented to the Queen. SPETTERS is the unrespectable, in your face, flip side. With his rising star Rutger Hauer (BLADE RUNNER) in a key supporting role, the filmmaker focuses on the fortunes of three lads and one very determined beauty who is looking for the way out of her traveling food stand. With a closet case, a gay gang rape, unabashed male and female nudity and X-rated sex, Verhoeven alienated homegrown critics. The director’s commentary is, as expected, quite candid. He ruefully notes how his young lead, whom he felt had the potential to be the next Rutger Hauer, commits suicide in the film – a scenario based on an actual case. In real life, he notes, the actor did so a little over two years later. For the explicit sex in the gang rape he recruited a gay director who had staged this scenario in a Dutch film the previous year. In Dutch with subtitles.
Republic Pictures’ star Vera Ralston commands center stage in the wondrously overwrought women’s melodrama from 1948: I, JANE DOE (Blu-ray, Kino Lorber Classics, Not Rated). Looking pristine and sharp in a new HD Master from a 4K scan of the original negative, JANE DOE begins like a Joan Crawford or Bette Davis noir with our heroine shooting a man in cold blood. Then comes the court case which leads to the flashbacks which reveals why, oh why, poor Vera has to hide her identity and seems so eager to go to New York’s electric chair and end it all. But in one of the film’s many agreeable twists, the victim’s wife (glam Ruth Hussey, best known for THE UNINVITED), conveniently a lawyer, takes up Jane Doe’s appeal and vows to save her life. John Carroll is the hunky slab of masculine arrogance who gets plugged and a first-rate Gene Lockhart is the repulsive courtroom pitbull eager to flip the switch on Jane Doe. I, JANE DOE is screening in August at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art as Part 2 in the Martin Scorsese Presents series: Republic Restorations from Paramount Pictures.
Fritz Lang’s iconic 1945 noirc THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (Blu-ray, Kino Lorber Classics, Not Rated) is newly mastered in HD. Like THE BLUE ANGEL, it’s a study in temptation, exploitation and obsession, presented with the nearly surreal clarity of a nightmare. Edward G. Robinson’s professor Richard Wanley admires a portrait of a woman in a gallery window and suddenly sees the sitter’s reflection. Joan Bennett – ‘the woman in the window’ – is standing next to him and invites him to her place for a drink. What follows, emphasized by Lang’s frequent mirror images, includes a fight to the death, murder, poison ivy and blackmail. This hit marks Bennett’s ascension as a noir queen; she reteamed with Lang and Robinson a year later for SCARLET STREET and continued playing femme fatales thru the mid-50s. There’s a first-rate audio commentary by film historian Imogen Sara Smith.
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