‘Hitchcock’’s Toni Collette on Acting, Accents & Australia

When it comes to accomplished actresses, Toni Collette is as versatile and disarming (in a good way) as they come. From The Sixth Sense and About a Boy, to In Her Shoes and Little Miss Sunshine, the Aussie star can’t be faulted for not exploring enough genres or assuming enough varying roles. Take her show United States of Tara alone and you’ve got several characters right there! Indeed, the 40-year-old mother of two has thus far assembled quite an impressive oeuvre, and she’s just getting started.

In Hitchcock—the comedy-drama about Alfred Hitchcock’s relationship with his indispensable wife Alma Reville, as portrayed during the making of his seminal movie Psycho—she acts alongside the likes of legendary actors Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren; the role of Hitchcock played by Hopkins (in full makeup and fat suit) with Mirren as his better half. Collette takes on the role of Peggy Robertson, longtime assistant to the “Master of Suspense,” a discerning and discreet right-hand-woman to the oft-challenging horror honcho of Hollywood. Both entertaining and informative, the 98-minute flick opens in limited release this Friday and nationwide come December.

Last weekend, we were lucky enough to steal some time with Collette to chat about her stance on Hitchcock and Hitchcock, what it was like to reunite with Hopkins, and her hatred for structured dialect learning.

What was it like working with Anthony Hopkins again? You acted together so long ago on The Efficiency Expert.
When I was 17. My first movie! 

What was it like to have that reunion?
It was lovely. We had a very short rehearsal with Sacha [Gervasi, the director] before we started shooting. We arrived and I sat in [Hopkins’] car with him and we reminisced about that [earlier] movie. I was a baby! 

I’m really lucky to have another chance to work with him. He’s a legendary actor, but also a complete sweetheart. I think when I was 17 I was too nervous to really get to know him. On this job I feel like I have. He’s just a wonderful person and such an incredible actor.

Was he goofy at all on set?
Oh yeah. He’s always joking. Tony’s very easy to work with. In no way like Hitchcock, except that he’s good at what he does. 

Any funny stories?
Nothing specific. The set just had an air of fun, a fun vibe. Suddenly, it feels like this big movie. It’s about to come out and people are talking about it in a context that’s kind of beyond me. But, in making it, it was so easy. It felt light and free and focused, but I think Sacha created a very pleasurable set. And, I think that’s smart, because it allows people to feel relaxed and hopefully do good work.

You have a great range of facial expressions and personalities within your work. But in this film you needed to be more restrained and not express everything going on inside. How was that for you? 
That’s very much Peggy. She takes everything in her stride. The fact that you recognize that there’s something underneath is a good thing, because that’s what I wanted it to feel like. She’s almost like the silent partner. He’s making all these seemingly crazy decisions and he’s incredibly moody and she just takes it, moves through it, doesn’t take it on. But you can hopefully see that she’s got her own opinion underneath the obvious. 

Definitely. You’re also accustomed to taking on various voices and accents for your roles. Did you ever, or do you now, have a coach for this?
When I first came to America I worked with a woman for an hour and found it completely distracting; I never worked with anyone again. On About a Boy, I worked with a British dialect coach and I recently worked in London again where the producers wanted me to work with a dialect coach. It was the second day after arriving, I was completely jetlagged. I was basically lying down talking to this poor woman and I just thought, Oh my god. If I have to think about the things that I’m being told to think about, it’s just a complete distraction. I’m more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, I-hope-I-get-it-right kind of person. 

On that “free spirit” note, did you prepare at all to become Peggy?
A lot of it was imagined, because there was very little information about her. Not as much as the more famous elements in the movie, in Hitchcock’s life. I watched a couple of interviews with her, read as much as possible, looked at a few photos. She was a very stylish lady, very well put together, so I found it great fun wearing Julie [Weiss]’s costumes. I feel like I had the best costumes in the movie, actually. [Laughs]

So, how did the process play out?
Piece-by-piece. Everything starts with a script. That kind of determines where you leap off from. I loved the script. I found it interesting that this woman, like Alma, Hitchcock’s wife, is incredibly strong and capable and very much an individual. But, she also dedicated her life to somebody else’s work, which I found to be a strange combination. I just loved that she didn’t take any shit from him. That’s what made their relationship so successful and [enduring]. The fact that she’s just real with this guy who’s very intimidating to other people [is great].

Is it more difficult playing the part of a person who existed in the real world, versus a fictitious character?
I think so. There’s a certain amount of responsibility. Having said that, Peggy wasn’t famous like the other characters represented in the movie, so there wasn’t as much pressure. Phew!

What’s your overall take on the film?
It’s a confident film in terms of the filmmaking. In a way it kind of represents Hitchcock himself. His acerbic wit [is] sewn throughout the piece. I love the story. I’m sure this is a common reaction: you think, Oh, it’s a movie about movies. And, in a sense, it is. [But], it’s so much more than that. It’s about his relationship with his incredibly talented, strong, capable wife. And, also, the rest of the women. His relationship with women in general is kind of strange and interesting and funny. 

Absolutely. Unlike a lot of actors working in the film and TV industry, you live neither in New York nor in L.A. You live in Australia. What’s that like?
I’m from Australia, so it feels normal to me. It’s a blessing and a curse that it’s so far away. When I go home, I feel like I’m on another planet. It’s very relaxing and familiar and easy. When I travel, it feel[s] like a work-oriented venture. I have two small kids now, so things have kind of changed. But, we are a bit of a traveling circus. We don’t spend much time at home, but we make the most of it. It’s fun. It’s a great life. It’s a really interesting way to be. I don’t want to do it forever. It’s exhausting. But, I’m really lucky to be working on the quality films I’m working on, especially this year. 

Can you tell me more?
Every single [film] has been a great experience, both personally and professionally. I’m not lying, every single film I’ve done this year has been fantastic. Really satisfying. But, I am looking forward to going home and lying down for a minute. 

What all have you conquered this year?
I did Hitchcock. Then I did a film called The Way, Way Back, which was written by the guys who wrote The Descendants. I got to work with Steve Carell on that. It was set on the beach in Massachusetts, so I would literally walk out the front door and ride my bike to the end of the street to go to work. It was lovely. I have a little part in a Nicole Holofcener film. Again, great story, great actors, a very Holofcener vibe, which I dug. I recently completed a film called A Long Way Down, which is another adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel. I love, love, love the story. Initially I was nervous to play my character; I thought I’d been miscast. I thought she was very different from me and I didn’t know how to make her real, but I loved playing that character. The story’s really beautiful. So, yeah, it’s been bloody brilliant. 

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