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Actress Collette on portraying cancer victim

MoviesBy Esther McCarthy
Toni Collette
Toni Collette

It’s the ultimate challenge for any movie maker - to tell the story of a woman with breast cancer without coming across as maudlin or manipulative.

Little wonder, then, that the makers of Miss You Already turned to Toni Collette to play the seriously ill and seriously rebellious Millie in their movie. 

Playing complex, complicated women has made the Australian actress the go-to star for feisty roles, and made her one of the world’s most-loved actresses. 

Speaking to Sunday World exclusively for our Living With Cancer series, she told how she was determined not to portray her breast cancer patient as a victim. 

“She’s a cow at times, so selfish, and self-destructive, and thoughtless, and I loved that. The more complex a character, the better,” she said.

The movie shows how illness puts Millie’s lifelong friendship with her friend (Drew Barrymore) to the test. 

“I loved that she was real and she didn’t suddenly turn into a saint. It’s a very unique, realistic and relatable life that these women are sharing. 

“It demystifies a lot of what the experience of cancer is like I think. When we were researching it, there was a lot to get right physically and emotionally. 

“We spoke to people who had cancer, who still have cancer, doctors, and specialists, a plethora of people who were so informative and so willing to talk.”

One moving scene in the film, which opens in Irish cinemas next weekend,  shows her character’s mastectomy scars, while Collette also lost weight and had her head shaved for the role. It reminded her of a close friend she lost to the disease just a few years ago. 

“Everyone unfortunately has some experience of some kind of cancer because it’s everywhere, this bastard of a disease. Just a couple of years ago I had a very good friend who lost her battle and died. 

“I also have people I’m very close to that survived, and as much as I realised what they went through, I realised it’s a very very personal journey. You can’t make assumptions, I think it’s a lonely journey. When you’re facing your own mortality, nobody can take that weight for you. it’s something that you alone have to contemplate and accept.” 

Having her head shaved to portray her character’s period on chemotherapy was, she said, less difficult than it might appear. 

“It was just one take and that was it. I think it was more traumatic for everyone else because I’d shaved my head four times prior to that. I think it’s such an important film, I would have done anything. Shaving my hair off was the least that I could do. 

“They gave me vodka but I didn’t need it, I think everyone else needed it!” she guffaws. 

It’s that distinct, throaty guffaw that has livened up Collette’s roles ever since she first shot to fame in the worldwide hit, Muriel’s Wedding. 

Blockbusters (The Sixth Sense), indie smashes (Little Miss Sunshine) and acclaim (The Hours) have followed since, and just this year she shone as an alcoholic in the gritty Dublin drama, Glassland. 

It marked a welcome return to the city she regards as a second home. As well as living in Wicklow and Dublin for many years, she has close friends here and works as an ambassador for the Irish charity, Concern. 

“I’m so excited to come back,” she says. “I used to have a place in Wicklow and because I’m from Australia and it’s so far away, from everywhere really, when I was in my 20s and doing a lot of work in the Northern Hemisphere I’d go and stay with my friends in Dublin. I’m so fond of the city.  

“I spent a lot of time here. A really good friend of mine, Gordon Campbell, who has sadly passed away, had this company called the Academy of Everything is Possible  -  which I think says something about the Irish spirit  -  and I just loved it. I think there’s a real similar sensibility between the Irish and the Aussies. On a very basic, human level, we get each other.  

“I lived in a gate lodge to a much bigger property in Wicklow that needed renovation and I never quite got around to renovating it. But I used to spend quite a lot of time there in that exquisite landscape.  

“You could walk and walk for hours and not see anybody, or run into a herd of wild horses, jump in a lake. Without meaning to sound like some sort of wanky hippie, I just find the most comforting thing is nature. And to be able to just walk out and know you can be free, lose yourself, was magnificent. I haven’t really found anywhere like that, where I’ve had the opportunity to do that, since then.” 

The Wicklow Tourist Board should hire you, I wager. “Yes they should! 

I didn’t experience that kind of weather growing up in Australia, there was an enjoyment because it was quite novel to me, huddling around the aga.” 

She is hopeful that Miss You Already will open up a dialogue between women and their loved ones about cancer. 

“We spoke to people who had it, who had gotten rid of it. We learned about how the body starts to break down. There were people on set who helped us make sure it was completely honest and representative of a truthful experience.

“My friend who survived cancer is not particularly articulate about her experience, but when she saw it she just sobbed for an hour afterwards and said: ‘that is it, that’s exactly the experience’. To me that’s the greatest compliment.”