Toni Collette Can Finally Laugh Off Her Bombed Audition for Spike Jonze’s ‘Adaptation’

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

In this week’s cover story with Toni Collette, we posed one simple question: Is there anything she can’t do? And after a lengthy call from Australia late last month, we’re still inclined to say, well, nope! She’s about as good as it gets. Diving into our Backstage 5 questionnaire, Collette gives us a deeper look at her early career, the audition she bombed (before it came back full circle with her latest Netflix feature, Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”), how to navigate a film festival as a newbie actor, and the advice she’d give her younger self. 

How did you get your SAG-AFTRA card?
I think it must’ve been when I did “Clockwatchers.” I think it was that. It was my first American film so, I’m assuming that’s how I got it. 

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s your time, as well, to get to know the people you’re potentially working with. You don’t want to be pompous, but use the time to gather information.”

Do you have an audition horror story that you could share with us?
I was meeting with Spike Jonze on “Adaptation.” I love his films. I was in L.A., I was so excited that the audition came up. But prior to that, I’d been doing an Indian cleanse called panchakarma, where you live on, like, three handfuls of dal and rice a day and you have all these experiences with massage and hot oil dripping on your forehead. I was feeling really spicy and feeling like I was communicating with nature—you know, that kind of vibe. Then I go to meet with Spike.

We’re sitting in a room and we have a conversation and he goes, “OK, let’s read.” I did the scene, and then he would say, “OK. Now, let’s try it this way,” and he would give me some direction—and I did it the exact same way. Then he would say, “Right, right. Then let’s try it this way,” and I would do it the exact same way because I had lost all energy and was a total zombie after this bloody cleanse. I had no ability to dig in and find anything. I was just so hungry. [Laughs]

Have you been in touch with him since or been able to make amends?
I did have another moment with him where I went to meet him about being the voice in “Her,” of the computer, which was an incredible film. I didn’t end up doing it, but I did bring up that I felt terrible about that initial audition that I had with him because I was just out of my mind.

How funny that that’s your audition horror story and you’re now working on a Charlie Kaufman film, who wrote “Adaptation.”
I know. I love “Being John Malkovich.” I love “Adaptation.” One of my literal favorite movies of all time is “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Honestly, I’m such a fan. I can’t believe I got to work with him.

With that audition horror story in mind, what’s your best piece of audition advice?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s your time as well to get to know the people you’re potentially working with. You don’t want to be pompous, but use the time to gather information. Sadly, most actors are so desperate to work, you just always feel like you’re in an inferior position when you go in and it’s incredibly imbalanced. It would come back to just be you because there is nobody like you and if you’ve made an assumption about what you think they want and you’re trying to be something else—I mean, you are trying to be something else; you’re creating a character. But if it comes from you, it’s going to be so original. If it comes from an idea or something else, then there’s no authenticity. Use yourself; don’t be afraid to do that and don’t make assumptions. 

What's one screen performance every actor should see and why?
I saw “Breaking the Waves” in the cinema in London when it came out. Emily Watson is completely brilliant and utterly heartbreaking in it. I walked out of the cinema and into the night like a zombie. I wandered for hours in shock. I was awake until dawn. The film, and Emily’s performance, affected me very deeply. I haven’t watched it since. I want to remember that pure, blown away, visceral reaction forever.

You have found a fair amount of success on the festival circuit. You look at TIFF with something like “Muriel’s Wedding”; Cannes and “Japanese Story”; Sundance and “Little Miss Sunshine.” For actors who are making their debut on such stages, what’s your advice to make the most of that experience?
I was so young and unaware really, for much of [“Muriel’s Wedding”]. I was guided by whomever was taking the film there at the time in terms of what they required of me and what my involvement would be. But now having done it for a long time: First of all, if you’re going with your own film, you never get to watch other films. If you have the freedom to go and do that, it’s such a luxury to just bathe in all those films. It’s such a celebration of film and if you get to do it, I would, because eventually, you won’t be able to because you’re just doing interviews the entire time. [And] there are a lot of filmmakers at film festivals, so just get amongst it if you want to get out there and meet people. And don’t forget that it’s fun! It’s something that you want to do because it’s fun. That’s the initial draw, I imagine: it’s play. It’s an environment that doesn’t take itself too seriously and it’s slightly more relaxed. Enjoy that. Just get out there and meet people. You never know what might come off bumping into the right person.

And what’s one piece of advice you would give your younger self?
Probably to worry less, enjoy it all, and remember that you’re also valid in the room.

All very important. It’s easy to lose sight of that, especially when you’re starting out.
Yes, you forget. You just feel—I don’t know. You could very easily become a people-pleasing person, but if you’re really good at what you do, you’re going to bring something that they want from you. It is always collaborative, it’s not a one-way street. You have every right to be there. I think enjoying things and not worrying so much is a big one.

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Benjamin Lindsay
Benjamin Lindsay is managing editor at Backstage, where if you’re reading it in our magazine, he’s written or edited it first. He’s also producer and host of a number of our digital interview series, including our inaugural on-camera segment, Backstage Live.
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