When you bother celebrities for a living, you learn a lot about your friends' unbalanced relationships with the celebrated.
For instance, people are never indifferent to famous actors or directors - they "hate!" So-and-So, or they "love!" same, and throw up their hands like Italian politicians. People, you can't reasonably love or hate someone you have never met. It's not healthy.
Toni Collette prompts exactly this sort of exaggerated response. Everyone "loves!" Toni. When you mention her name, a cooing sound, the kind one hears in pet stores stocked with fluffy puppies, breaks out in all directions.
Much of this fondness is rooted in Collette's breakthrough performance in Muriel's Wedding, an ugly-duckling story that had tween girls, grandmothers and acid-tongued queens alike falling at her feet. From there, Collette transformed herself into a haunted single mother for The Sixth Sense, went highbrow to highbrow with Meryl Streep in The Hours and struck comic gold opposite Steve Carell and Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine.
As Collette explained in a recent phone interview, her latest role, or roles, is even more diverse than her long resumé. Playing Tara Gregor, the title character in United States of Tara, Collette gives us a character suffering from dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder and a mental illness that has rarely been treated believably, or with dignity, by Hollywood.
It's a tribute to Collette's talent that her portrayal of Tara, and Tara's many personalities (known as alter egos or alters), is both funny and respectful, and never cheap. One more reason to love Collette.
Tara has to be an actor's dream role.
It is for me. I imagine it would be so for any actor. I can't believe my luck. I mean, not only is it a great story, and I get to play a great character - several characters - but I think with any role that I take on I look for ways to reveal things about the character, and this is like taking that to the extreme. There are whole other individuals to help tell this one story.
How do you keep the situation from becoming too much about acting, becoming too actor-y?
Ah… I think because I'm working with such great material, and we're all very conscious of keeping the story very much rooted in reality. I tend to try to not be too actor-y, but I know what you mean. When you see people acting, you're not involved in the story, and the story is the most important thing.
Would it be possible to overplay a character with DID?
Ha! I would say so, yes. I think that's a very real possibility. Ha!
Then, are the tricky parts the transitions between Tara's alters?
Well, I realized, and this is possibly why you asked that previous question, that the transitions are always different, and the alters are always different, but they're not over the top, you know? But there is a lot of variation, so I was kind of worried about making the transitions real, because they happen so frequently in the show, and I was very conscious of trying to change them up and give them variations, in the way the audience observes them.
There is still a lot of dispute over the validity of DID as a diagnosis. How much research did you do into the disease?
It's in dispute? Oh, no, this is a very real illness. I wasn't aware of that controversy. I think it's something that's taken very seriously. Although it's very rare, it's very real, and there are people who are living with it, and it's a really hard thing to have to live with.
And I think because it comes from such a horrible place, and it is so real, that's why we've been so vigilant in making sure we represent it in a very honest way. The show's actually won an award for representing DID in such a true way, and I know there was quite a bit of trepidation before the show aired, because, you know, of the topic and all its seriousness, and yet the show's a comedy. It could have been a disaster, and perhaps on another network it might have been. But the trepidation has faded and it's actually been very positive for the DID community.
The beautiful thing about the show is the messy reality of the family. They completely support and accept each other. And that's why I think the show goes beyond mental illness - it's about a family, not just a "crazy lady." The family is really complex, and Tara's kids have known nothing other than this, so they handle it in a unique way, because it's all they've known. This show has depth and complexity, it's not some big, broad-stroke comedy.
I hear this over and over, and your show is further proof: All the good parts for women over 25 are on cable television.
Hmm. Well, there are quite a few great roles for women on TV, I'd have to say, but there are some great roles for women in film. I would hate to kind of jump on that bandwagon, because I feel like I've had great variation in my career, and I've predominantly worked in films. I don't really feel like I have anything to moan about.
But I have to say, when this came along, I wasn't looking to work in television. But there was no way I was ever gonna say no. I just absolutely loved the material. It's really exciting to have something I can sink my teeth into … so, I must have been craving that.