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Toni Collette lends ‘Hereditary’ its terrifying power

The Oscar-nominated actress for ‘The Sixth Sense’ returns with the horror film, in what critics are calling the scariest film in years

  • Toni Collette stars in “Hereditary,” from first-time director Ari Aster.Image Credit: A24
  • Image Credit: Supplied
  • Crafting figurines is a fine pastime for a child, but "Hereditary's" Charlie (Milly Shapiro) isn’t a well-Image Credit: A24
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Toni Collette wasn’t looking for darkness when Hereditary came calling. But when the darkness found her — in the form of the unnerving saga of the Grahams, an American family haunted by tragedy, mental illness, and perhaps something supernatural — the opportunity was too delicious to pass up.

“I wasn’t interested in doing anything heavy, but I picked up the script and I couldn’t stop reading it,” the Australian native explained one May morning, slipping into the same busy Westside eatery where, just over a year ago, writer-director Ari Aster convinced her to take the plunge and play a woman who begins to unlock cryptic family secrets after the death of her own estranged mother.

The result, a claustrophobic chiller that distributor A24 releases on June 14 in the UAE, features one of the most dynamic and memorable performances of Collette’s career, in what critics are calling the scariest film in years.

Collette’s Annie Graham is many things. A miniatures artist who fills her home studio with dioramas of her own life, she re-creates memories as a means of reclaiming control. A mother of two with a strained relationship with her own mum, she is overprotective of one of her children and coldly resentful of the other. And when the unthinkable strikes, she struggles to cope with a sense of powerlessness that gives way to relentless dread as Aster spins his crumbling, nightmarish narrative.

The film has had audiences cowering in terror since it premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, jangling nerves with its potent visceral scares and leaving viewers rattled with the deeper psychological concerns baked into its DNA.

“There’s this trend especially among American family tragedies, or family dramas, where people suffer a loss, and they go through a very tumultuous time together, but ultimately it brings them together and strengthens their bonds,” explained Aster. “That’s just not always what happens. Sometimes something happens and it takes one person down in a family, and it ends up taking the family down. I wanted to make a film about that.”

Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff and newcomer Milly Shapiro co-star as the husband and children, respectively, whose lives are also upturned by revelations after the passing of the eccentric family matriarch; The Handmaid’s Tale Emmy winner Ann Dowd also excels in a supporting role as an overzealous stranger from a support group for grief counselling.

But at the centre of Hereditary’s quietly raging, rapidly crescendoing storm is Collette, delivering a powerhouse performance so riveting it could — and, some pundits say, should — earn her awards-season attention. (She has one Academy Award nomination, for The Sixth Sense in 2000.)

“It’s pretty crunchy,” she laughed, describing the complicated dynamic that emerges between Annie and her family, making for razor-tipped exchanges at the dinner table. “My character had such an unfortunate relationship with her own mother, much of her own ability to mother her own children and to be selfless is difficult for her. And I think part of being a present mother is learning how to be somewhat selfless. But there are so many idealised myths about what motherhood should be, and I love that both my character and the character of my mother have nothing to do with these myths.”

TAKING A CHANCE

Collette too admits she isn’t one to watch scary movies. “But it isn’t simply a horror film. It’s quite natural and emotionally raw and honest. For those qualities to blend in a film like this is really unusual, and I loved that.”

She had her hesitations, however.

Over the years the veteran actress realised that slipping into the skins and psyches of others was a job that sometimes came home with her. She has two children, now ages 7 and 10, with musician husband Dave Galafassi. Did she really want to volunteer to live inside a punishing nightmare about motherhood, trauma, compulsion, and grief for the duration of filming?

“I kind of know immediately if I want to do something or not; it’s very apparent. I was looking for reasons not to do it,” laughed Collette, who had to be sure the emotional toll would be worth it. “So I thought I’d speak to [Aster] and see if he was a [jerk]. But he’s actually the kindest, most humble, dear human being. It was so evident that he knew exactly what he was doing.

Collette’s intense commitment to character and ability to access a spectrum of relatable human experiences have long been present in her work, from the Abba-obsessed misfit of her 1994 breakout film, Muriel’s Wedding, to that Oscar-nominated turn in The Sixth Sense, in which she played another mother dealing with supernatural mysteries that lay just a hair’s breadth beyond comprehension.

IN AWARDS-SEASON MIX

Her performance in 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine earned a Golden Globe nomination, and the following year she dove into the lead role on Showtime’s The United States of Tara, for which she won a Golden Globe and an Emmy playing a housewife and her multiple “alters” living with dissociative identity disorder over the course of three seasons.

Lately she’s been working at a breakneck pace, and had half a dozen feature films premiere theatrically or at festivals in 2017 alone. But Hereditary stands out from the pack.

Rewarding as Collette describes it now, a year after filming, making Hereditary was nonetheless a draining experience — part and parcel with the job, she says.

“A lot of this is so intensely emotional, and my job as an actor is to make it completely transparent and as honest as possible,” she shrugged. “I’ve been to drama school, I’ve been doing this a long time, but ultimately the most important thing is to empathise. In order for the audience to feel it, you need to feel it. It’s all energy. You can’t fake it.”

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Don’t miss it!

Hereditary releases in the UAE on June 14.

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