An Oscar-nominated actress with a proud on-screen resume dating back to the early 90s, Toni Collette‘s performances have taken her to the highest highs and the lowest lows of the human experience. But with Hereditary, the searing new horror film from A24, Collette has to go deeper than the lowest lows and move beyond the boundaries of the human experience; she has to channel shattering grief in the face of tragedy and haunting terror in the face of the inexplicable. I’m obviously avoiding spoilers here (and so should you), but suffice it to say, Hereditary is a film that places extraordinary demands on its leading actress, and Collette rises to meet them through each shocking, heart-breaking, or downright terrifying moment.
Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Ari Aster, Hereditary stars Collette as the mother of a family unit cast into a hurricane of grief and torment after a death in the family. The film debuted at Sundance earlier this year to a sea of rave reviews, and since then the film has rolled through the festival circuit amassing acclaim and accolades. For Collette, it might just be a career best, and if Academy members can look past their genre-biased, it’s the first performance of 2018 that absolutely demands awards attention.
This weekend, the buzzy horror movie finally arrives in theaters, and in anticipation of Hereditary’s theatrical release, I sat down with Collette to talk about the film and how she crafted her haunting performance. We discussed her experience reading the script and how she was convinced to take on such a dark role, working with a director who has such a clear and unwavering vision, why she channeled improv for one of the most emotionally charged scenes of the film, and the surprise of becoming a Twitter emoji.
I think what you did in this movie is just extraordinary. I’m kind of in awe, to be honest.
TONI COLLETTE: Oh my God. Thank you.
I’m a bit of a horror obsessive, and nothing really gets to me the way this movie did. Was the experience of reading the script as intense as it is to watch?
COLLETTE: Well I’ll never have the ability to watch it without It being affected by my experience, but I did not want to do anything heavy and when I read it, I knew I had to do it. So I would say it was probably similarly as intense. When I read it, it felt — it was one of those situations that you hear actors talking about, it always sounds incredibly pretentious, where it feels like it has somehow, I haven’t chosen it, it’s chosen me. I really wasn’t looking to do anything like this, but it was just felt so honest, and for a film that kind of creeps into a genre element to have such brave honesty and a kind of poetic vibe was an incredible combination.
Wow, for you to be convinced to do something this dark in particular, my goodness.
COLLETTE: Yeah. The most blackout dark it could be. I know. I’ve done films before where it was emotionally challenging and dark. I think the difference is, I met Ari obviously before agreeing to do it, and when you work with a director who’s just as married and just as committed to what’s going on, it feels less scary and you feel a little less vulnerable because you’ve got someone — not that we literally held hands — but there’s someone’s hand to hold who’s really right there for you. If at any moment you have any queries about anything. He wrote this. He is such an intelligent human being. He understands the human condition. The family dynamics are so true, and just the trust was just very safe. You know?
You get to go so many places.
COLLETTE: Yeah, and as an actor like I want, I want that opportunity. You want an opportunity to go for it. He really gave that to me.
I’m very curious about the creative dynamic between you two since you have to go to such extremes. Was it a scenario where you did a lot of takes, a few takes? Did you have time for rehearsal?
COLLETTE: We had one afternoon of [rehearsal]. When I got to Utah we had a dinner together, and then we had one afternoon with the kids to just talk through. We may have read a couple of scenes, but it was very clear to me that he was, his vision was strong and clear and precise. He was the most prepared director I think I’ve ever worked with. Seriously. Because it’s so emotional, I think you can’t really labor it, we just, everyone just made sure we understood it and we were on the same page. Then it was just a matter of, I think I, I didn’t want to ruminate and kind of dwell in it too much. So I would get to set knowing what needed to be done. It’s kind of, start with my head above water and then they’d call action and I would just dive in. I didn’t really want to stay underwater. It was a matter of almost like pushing it away until I had to do it.
That makes a lot of sense. You probably don’t want to take that one home with you.
COLLETTE: It’s exhausting. Yeah.
The camera work in this is so specific.
COLLETTE: Yeah, it’s amazing isn’t it?
It is, and how did that translate to your experience on set? The blocking must have been so precise.
COLLETTE: It’s exciting! Yes it was, but it was very, very exciting to have this very original clear outstanding vision, and I used to go up to Pav and the camera team was going, “Guys this is the fucking camera Olympics. You’re blowing me away.” Yeah, I mean I think Ari and Pawel [Pogorzelski] went to AFI film school together and they’d worked together in the past. They just had such a shorthand, and a very clear understanding of what they’re doing. I think for any film, when you start you have to have a vision and there are so many directors who get the job and don’t have a fucking vision. Ari was just all over this, you know? It was a pleasure in that way.
Was this one of the scripts that read with descriptions of camera movements?
COLLETTE: To be honest, I can’t remember now. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was just written emotionally, because now I remember having conversations about how it was going to be shot. There’s a shot which starts and kind of goes upside down as I’m walking to Ann Dowd’s apartment, and then some of the much longer scenes, like 14-page scenes where I’m just constantly talking in a maniacal kind of fashion, is a lot of dialogue. When he told me we’ll never go through the whole thing, because he knew that he was going to shoot from this line to this line then he was going to cut and move. So, it was stitched together. It was never traditional coverage. It was always a complete knowledge of what he was doing, and it was done in his own way. I’ve never worked in that way before in my life. That is exciting. You want new. You want original. Like, as an audience member and as an actor. That’s why I think people are responding to this movie.
Does it make you feel like you have to leap just that much further when you know you’re not getting traditional coverage?
COLLETTE: No, it just feels exciting. It felt like you could… I mean, trying to get everything right in a 14-page scene is a lot of pressure. So in a way, in one or two of those scenes, it just helped me and kind of took a little bit of the pressure off to be able to focus on smaller portions of the scene at a time.