Toni Collette never wanted to scare you shitless.
“I reallllllly wasn’t looking to do anything this heavy, but when I read it, it was totally undeniable,” the Australian actress says about her new film Hereditary, in which Collette unhinges her jaw in a laid-bare horror performance that has audiences screaming, first out of fright, and then out of awe: “Give her an Oscar!”
It’s rare for a horror film to garner awards buzz for an acting performance, but that’s what happened almost immediately after Hereditary first screened this winter at the Sundance Film Festival. “OK, look, I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a film that’s had this much palpable excitement around it,” she says when we meet in Manhattan, a few days before Hereditary finally hits theaters. And people seem extremely excited to be terrified by Toni Collette.
“I don’t like horror films,” she says, shaking her head vigorously. “I don’t like them!”
Despite the fact that she’s done some of her best work in the genre—her first Oscar nomination was for The Sixth Sense—and has become somewhat of a modern Scream Queen in her own right with recent credits in Krampus and Fright Night, we believe her.
As we talk in the bright Flatiron District offices of A24, the ace indie distributor-cum-kingmaker behind the likes of Lady Bird, Moonlight, The Witch, and Ex Machina, the only thing sunnier than the summer rays flooding into the cavernous conference room is Collette’s demeanor herself: a wide grin and self-effacing guffaw at near-constant employ, even as we talk about her work in this movie about intense grief.
“I have a feeble kind of theory about why people are so excited,” she says. “I think people generally like horror films because it is cathartic, and they get to work through some fears. But also it’s worse than reality, so that’s kind of comforting in a way, because reality is kind of confronting at this moment. But it’s also very rare that an original film comes along.”
Hereditary comes from first-time writer-director Ari Aster. To give too much away about the plot would be an extreme act of jackassery, so we’ll say just this much.
The film opens with a prologue in which you learn that the estranged mother of Collette’s character, Annie, died after the two briefly reconnected in her last days. She’s prickly and unforgiving to her family, including a teenage son and special-needs daughter, as she grapples with her complicated feelings about the loss. But when another unspeakable tragedy occurs, she begins to unravel. So, too, does her grief, directing her to pursue family secrets—both from this world and the beyond—that send both Annie and the film into a terrifying tailspin.
“This really to me is a film about the grief,” Collette says. “Ari said he wanted to tell a story that a classic family drama which curdles into a nightmare.”
You can almost divide Hereditary into two pieces.
There’s one in which Annie, at times grotesquely though humanly unpleasant in her grief, gets an Ordinary People-esque acting showcase, which Collette chews through in a gristly tour de force.
Then the film’s paranormal elements and mythology meticulously dial up. There are escalating scenes involving séances, multi-level dreams, and children decapitating dead birds with scissors, until Collette’s performance, initially so grounded in the relatability of grief, climbs to meet the hysterics of the supernatural madness. Like Annie, we’re meant to first feel in control of our dawning dread, making it all the more unsettling when it all becomes untethered.
The groundedness at the beginning is crucial, Collette says. “You really care and feel for these people and you invest in them emotionally. Then it’s too late and you’re taken somewhere else. I think it makes the scary part of the film even scarier.”
At this point, Collette takes care to reiterate that she did not want to be scaring you right now. “I really didn’t want to do anything heavy because I was starting to feel that I was accumulating some emotional gunk from past jobs,” she says.
Pressed further, she says that working on Catherine Hardwicke’s Miss You Already, in which she played a cancer patient alongside Drew Barrymore, who played her best friend, had an unexpected lingering effect on her. “I had never died in a movie before I did that film,” she says. “Not that I was feeling it, per se, but I was just thinking about it like a year-and-a-half later. I was just like, why am I still thinking about this?”
“I think when I was younger I would just fling myself in without any idea of the consequences,” she says. But after noticing what she was taking on, she “wanted to try to clear myself out and take some lighter work. And then this came along.”
She joking flips the bird with her middle fingers, ostensibly direct to Aster. She couldn’t say no. It was a script that allowed her to play a mother “so contrary to this myth of what motherhood means and what it should be,” she says. “It certainly isn’t your regular horror film. It’s based on something so profound. That’s what people are responding to.”
Being aware of the emotional darkness that might be coming for her was helpful, allowing her to brace for it ahead of time and protect herself. At the end of each day, she would physically move around in order to expel the energy out of her system and keep it from stagnating. It helped that she was shooting in Park City, Utah, away from her home. She had enough solitude at her apartment each night to work through her emotions, rather than having to make dinners or pack lunch for her two kids. On the weekends, she’d return home to her husband and family, “so it was nice to have a complete departure from what I was seeped in at the time.”
Hereditary, for of all its horror elements, is a remarkably frank portrait of a mother’s grief, and therefore a scary shoot for a mother to take home with her at night. But the way in which the film’s horror elements are in conversation with that grief drives home the point that there are few topics as ripe for exploration in the horror genre as mothers and their relationships with their children.
“Maybe it’s because that relationship is meant to be the most comforting, supporting relationship, the most trusting relationship there can be,” Collette says. “Most horror films question that. To not have that, to feel like you’re free floating without that, or to suddenly realize your home is not a safe place, is scary.”
We start joking about that very idea of the home as a safe space. I’ve been terrorizing my boyfriend in the weeks since we screened Hereditary together with its eerie clucking sound—a click of the tongue that the movie’s trailer offers a small taste of how unsettling it is—sneaking up behind him and making the noise often enough that I wonder if my relationship is actually in jeopardy.
To wit, the clucking sound is so scary that while we joke about it, Collette casually does it and it instantly lasers a chill right down the spine, shaking every bone and suddenly we’re reminded: That’s right, this actress is cheery, present, considerate, and an all-around delight. (A five-minute tangent we go on about Muriel’s Wedding, Connie and Carla, and the gay community’s adoration for her attests to that.) But she also boasts a near-unrivaled ability to channel the kind of dark derangement that can scare the hell out of every one of us.
Despite that skill, she is still staunchly resistant to all the scarier aspects of the horror genre. We ask, for example, how she feels about séances, given that one of the pivotal scenes in the film takes place at a particularly traumatizing one.
“I would never do a séance or a Ouija board or anything like that,” she says. “I remember kids talking about it in high school and I never wanted to be a part of it. Not because I didn’t believe in it, but because you don’t know what you’re inviting in. I think the physical world that we see is a beautiful, temporary celebration, but there’s so much more that we don’t know about it. We are so small and so stupid. We are both vital and completely insignificant. I would never open that door, because you never know what’s going to come through it.”
Still, despite being avowedly against scary movies, she concedes that she did recently, and finally, attend a screening of Hereditary. She makes a point to see all of the films she’s in, even if they might be slightly traumatizing. At first, she starts talking about how watching the film is different for her because she can remember shooting the scenes and the conversations surrounding the character and knows the trajectory of the plot. But then she chuckles and gives me one of those conceding who-am-I-kidding looks.
“There’s a moment where the cluck happens when my character is driving along,” she says. “It’s just me on the screen and I know it’s going to happen and I still fucking jumped along with everybody else. It’s so embarrassing.”