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Toni Collette: Character as Craft

by Rilla Kingston

CREATING CHARACTER

There are seemingly infinite methods for building character in a performance or dramatic role. The popularity of a given method changes with the trends in performance over time, propelling forward different acting conventions at one historical moment, and all but erasing them the next. The iterations of these conventions are contingent upon the aesthetic, geopolitical, and socioeconomic environments they operate in. While transient, they hold a lasting impact on the actresses who work within them and the audiences who engage with their performances. Since the mid 20th-century, character acting has been eclipsed by other conventions and acting methods in popular practice. Today, a subset of actresses still operates within the convention to inform their performances by relying on the term “character actress” to define their image within our ever-globalized cultural consensus.

Toni Collette is an actress who operates within the convention of character acting but has yet to be labelled or defined by it. Through a historically based analysis of the construction and function of character actresses in film, I will argue that Collette is not only a character actress; the progression of her own filmography is representative of the contemporary changes within the convention. To contextualize these changes, I will first examine how character types came to define their function in secondary roles in the films of the mid 20th century. Within the movement away from character types in the films of the 1960s, there came a reconstruction of character acting and the popular perception of the character actress, with the versatility in her physicality being the defining feature of the convention. I stress that the semiotic shift the convention has undergone since the height of its popularity in mid 20th century Hollywood should not be viewed as progressive nor should an actress’s participation within the mode necessarily make her a “good” actress. The importance of the critical acclaim, iconicity and casting of the actress in question lies in the assumed value judgement that is communicated to potential audiences and in the effect that has on the cultural conception of the actress. Through the changing function of character type, physicality, and supporting roles within the convention, I will align Toni Collette’s acting method and career with one of a character actress. For Collette, building a character is primarily through the expression of a physicality — a technique developed and refined by the character actresses of mid 20th century film.  

FOUNDATIONS: BUILDING THE CHARACTER ACTRESS

In this section of my essay, I examine the evolving definitions and functions of character acting in film and the specific conditions placed on actresses operating within the convention. I argue that character actresses today are no longer defined as “featured players” but continue to rely on character types and expressive physicality to remain within the acting tradition. Character acting is a performance convention whose roots can be traced back to Commedia dell’Arte, Stanislavski’s touring theatrical troupes, employing “system and typage” in their performances (Roof 15). From the 1930s to 1950s, character actresses predominantly played supporting roles in the formulaic Hollywood films of the era (Twomey and McClure 8). As versatile specialists, these “featured players” provided their audiences with a familiarity built on playing reoccurring types, yet with a distinct individuality visible through a strong use of physicality (Rudolf 53). In the later 20th century, trends in performance moved away from the American Method and Stanislavski’s system and subsequently, the strongly upheld dichotomy of leading actors versus character actors in film began to collapse (Zarrilli 16).

During the Golden Age of Hollywood, studios relied on the repetition of character types across films to provide thematic continuity for their audiences. Character actresses reinforced these types primarily through their physical expression, and were enlisted as “featured players” in supporting roles (Twomey and McClure 8). The character types of the era were derived from “typage” seen in early film and the versatility required of actresses in contemporary theatrical troupes. Types were essentially bodily-rooted, as they played on cultural stereotypes and the physical eccentricities of the actors themselves (Mathijs 143-144). These conditions of the convention are described by prolific character actor of the time, Alan Napier: “Good character actors — little men, fat men, ugly men, come out of stock companies where the exigencies of putting on a new play every week or fortnight with a company of only 10 or 12 souls makes it necessary for all but the leads to essay all sorts of roles for which they are not obvious types” (Twomey and McClure 9). Where “typage” relied on the actress to be herself, “type” required the actress to create character through their physicality (Naremore, 1990). In All About Thelma and Eve, Judith Roof describes the relationship between character actresses Thelma Ritter and Eve Arden and their career-long engagement with the character-type of the sidekick:

“We understand the sidekick’s role by their type, by the fact that neither fits the stereotype of the conventional lead. Each is too much something — too tall, too direct, too uninhibited — and cartoonish with large, expressive eyes and plastic faces whose range of expressions can mirror the absurdity of events. Although most Hollywood characters, including bankable stars, are also types, secondary characters are more conscious of their own typing, betraying a level of conscious performance of type reflected in the way they deliver their lines and the level of sheer performance their commentaries require” (Roof 118)

While present in its delivery, this conscious performance of type is also produced through the character actress’s use of physicality. In being “too much,” character actresses “make the look, shape and posture determine the role, and hence the acting” (Mathijs 144). For example, ZaSu Pitts’s “fluid fluttering hands” and manipulation of her physicality facilitated her transition from a silent film ingenue to secondary comedienne (Twomey and McClure 184). The character actress’ use of exaggerated gestures, posturing, and speech injected individuality into stock roles — or character types — within an existing cultural conception (Arnheim 53). With the continued repetition and proliferation of these character types, character acting became as determined by type as type was determined by character actresses. Character types gave the audience a referential framework, and character actresses a niche in supporting roles in film. This progression in character acting seen in Hollywood from the 1930s to 1950s moves away from earlier “typage,” where actors were cast for their physical eccentricities, and such particularities were repeatedly encoded through gesture and physicality.

The character actress was ultimately defined by the character types accessible to her; her function in film was restricted as a “featured player” in supporting roles. Even Thelma Ritter was relegated to playing secondary roles despite the critical and popular success she would achieve throughout her two decades in film from 1947 to 1968 (Roof 13). The character types that she and her contemporaries embodied and propagated had an established lineage of being repeatedly assigned to supporting roles. Ostensibly, types, repetition, and re-casting give the impression that these actresses are merely placeholders whose only noteworthy work was through their character’s involvement with central characters and the exposition of plot (Roof 20). However, it is through their roles as featured players that character actresses facilitate the intertextual function of the film “because they are embodying synecdochally both the anxieties and epistemophilia that drive narrative tension and curiosity” (Roof 119). As Roof describes in All About Thelma and Eve, the roles these actresses play “embody class and gender differences in the middle’s bubbling confusions, they represent safety, security, and reliability as an alternative to the imperatives of mainstream ideologies, and they embody the knowledge gained from occupying an ambivalent, inside-outside position”(Roof 119). Therefore, in their supporting roles, character actresses existed outside of the “real” interest of the film and were viewed as auxiliary to the plot (Roof 14). This space allowed for not only the exaggerated physicality expected of type, but also the embodied representation of difference through a multiplicity of signs “usually narrowed and held in place by a controlling narrative, a context that can rule out some meanings and highlight others” (Naremore 26). It is within this multiplicity that the secondary character type finds its contours and positions the actress within it as a specialist (Twomey and McClure 8).

The character actress was thus enlisted to reinforce the direction of the narrative; her versatile range was showcased within types by being situated in opposition to, or secondary to, the lead role. The reiteration of types across supporting roles was essential to both the audience’s understanding of the film and popular conception of the character actress. An audience could expect the function of the actress’s role in the film by simply seeing her name beneath the title on a movie poster. For example, if Mary Boland was billed, one could expect her to appear as a “fluttery dowager” or “zanily doting mother,” because that was the type she played in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), The Woman (1939), and Pride and Prejudice (1940) (Twomey and McClure 50; IMDB “Mary Boland”). This expectation was an essential marketing tool for studios, and an element of the popular appeal of Hollywood films of the era. Audiences could refer back to past performances by the actress, or within the type, when watching her latest role, and experience a satisfaction when their expectations were fulfilled (Roof 78). By operating within character types and supporting roles emblematic of film in the 1930s through 1950s, character actresses occupied distinct niches and defined conditions of the conventions that still exist in film and theatre today. Many character actresses experienced long and prolific careers, often acting within the same type or progressing from one type to another as they aged. Where golden age films gave leading ladies the opportunity to achieve lasting iconicity, the character actress was often granted career longevity and an opportunity to perform outside expectations of verisimilitude (Roof 118; Dean 770).

The present iteration of character acting, also contemporarily referred to as “repertory acting,” emphasizes the versatility of an actress’s range over the character types that originated the acting style. The convention now exists “in between the embodiment of what Stanislavsky would call a character (a well-rounded, deepened role) and what Naremore would call a type (a stereotypical, one-dimensional role) and what Arnheim describes as the individual possible person played by a character as ‘exaggerated and caricaturized’ (‘man as he is’ instead of ‘man as he should be’)” (Mathijs 143). With the upstart of non-acting performances (i.e. Happenings) in the late 20th century, types fell out of fashion and the actor’s relationship to the body was reconsidered (Zarrilli 7). In 1960s theatre in particular, there was a move away from the business and craft of entertainment and subsequently an expansion of acting methods and techniques (Kirby 48). Consequently, the practices of character acting were adapted into the late 1980s and the condition of physicality shifted from a focus on the appearance of body to the manipulation of  face and voice (Mathijs 144). The convention is now defined as a complex mode of acting which is textually-based. Character acting is dually defined by the creation of character — largely done through some understanding of Stanislavski’s system — and by complex acting, a process through which the actress does some action to imitate, simulate, or represent something physical or emotional (Kirby 43). These contemporary conditions of character acting allow for the versatility of character actresses to be displayed while they engage with roles and types.

Through these methods, contemporary character actresses become masters of character and contribute “well-rounded,” physically-rooted portrayals in both supporting and leading roles. Today, character actresses remain embodied performers, but now have the potential to move beyond type and into leading roles. Both Octavia Spencer and Tilda Swinton are considered character actresses through cultural consensus, and have accumulated major starring roles in recent years.  However, just because the opportunity exists does not mean that it is available to all character actresses. Despite prolific careers with hundreds of credits, Margo Martindale and Beth Grant are still firmly held within character type (Waugh).  In a 2016 interview with IndieWire, Martindale describes how it was not until later on in career that she began to be offered a variety of supporting roles that, as a character actress, she considers herself extremely lucky to even have (Erbland). Character acting can therefore be viewed as a convention whose contingencies to physicality and type have been dramatically redefined; character acting now exists as opportunity for actresses within both supporting and leading roles.

TONI COLLETTE: CONTEMPORARY CHARACTER ARTIST

Toni Collette is an Australian actress known for her diverse acting range and for playing an eccentric collection of characters over her 25 years in acting. Born Antonia Collett, November 1st, 1972 in Blacktown, New South Wales, Toni left school at the age of 16 to pursue a career in acting, attending the National Institute of Dramatic Arts and Australian Theatre for Young People (IMDB “Toni Collette”). Collette worked in Australian theatre and television until her breakout role as the title character in Muriel’s Wedding (1994) propelled her into the international spotlight at just 21 years old. Her performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical, and is still referenced in interviews today (see Brillson, Cohen, Hardie, Wise). After leaving Australia in the mid-1990s, Collette made a name for herself as a versatile actress in supporting roles in major Hollywood productions, and later as a leading lady in independent films. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999). In the film, she played Lynn Sear, the mother of a young boy who sees ghosts; over the next decade, Collette would be cast in, in her words — “solid, supportive roles” which were, more frequently than not, mothers (Idato).

In the early 2010s, Collette consciously moved away from these parts to take on lead roles in her own starring vehicles, returning to theatre after a prolonged absence from the stage (Idato). Collette is critically lauded as a chameleon, and approaches each character with an embodied performance parallel to the Stanislavski-based approach that presently defines character acting (Cohen). Like the character actresses who came before her, Collette made a name for herself by playing supporting roles and by revisiting the same type over and over again. Through an analysis of her described acting process using a representative sample from her filmography and her recent departure away from character types, I present Collette as a contemporary character actress whose acting easily aligns with the present conditions of the convention.

Toni Collette is a master of character. Through her use of physicality and quirk, each role is individual, multidimensional, and entertaining. In Emma (1996), one of her earliest films, Collette plays Harriet Smith, an Austenian sidekick to Gwyneth Paltrow’s lead. As Harriet, Collette communicates status, narrative weight, and humour through her physicality. In the scene where Emma prods Harriet to engage the reluctant Mr. Elton in conversation, we see discomfort in her face and unease through her small gestures. Even this early on in her career, she understands the principles of an embodied performance. Collette’s approach to acting mirrors the complex mode of Stanislavski-based character acting popularized in the late 20th century. She describes acting as “working internally and presenting something which is understood through action, which hopefully is beautifully told within a story on film” (McLean). As she’s grown older, Collette finds she approaches acting in a different way. When she started out, she says, “It was just a way to get s— out of my system. It was just a need to communicate something, anything, a form of expression, just to get it out so I wasn’t walking around with whatever it was. Now it’s more fun, more inventive. And each job is different, it’s never just the same old grind, there’s always something surprising, which I love” (Harrod). Collette has left behind her own personal need for expression as the basis for her created character acting. She has now adopted an approach with a similar impulse that aligns with the conventional method used by many character actresses. The following case study exemplifies her method and its key emphasis on physicality to create character.  

In 2009, Collette took on the titular role in the Showtime television series United State of Tara. Collette portrayed a woman learning to cope with her dissociative identity disorder. For her work in this role she won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy in 2009 and was nominated again in 2010. Throughout the show’s three seasons, Collette would play 5 well-defined characters as Tara’s alternate personalities. Collette aimed to make each alter as “complex and real and as whole as possible” (Davies). She credited the screenwriters for the alters’ well-rounded development; from the text she was given, Collette developed a unique physicality for each character — all within the same body. In developing the character of each role, Collette focused on both the body and what each character psychologically represented.  This references the components of Stanislavski’s system through “one inner, where the mind and imagination created the thoughts and feelings of the character; the other outer, where the body expresses and communicates what is going on inside” (Davies). The following is an excerpt from her 2010 Interview with NPR that specifically describes how she relates to three of Tara’s alters, T, Alice, and Buck, and how she embodied their characters in her performance:

“[T] was very clear and very immediate. She’s 15. She represents escapism and irresponsibility and just giving her finger to the world and complete self-indulgence. And so, I wanted her to physically just be moving out in all directions and kinda sloppy.

“[Alice] is very tightly wound. She’s the 1950s homemaker and she’s kind of the most controlling of the alters. She represents a need for order and can be manipulative in order to achieve that. Everything’s just under the surface with her. She smiles but still gets her way. She’s quite anal which I quite enjoy.

“I was most nervous about creating [Buck the truck driver]. I didn’t want him to be a cliché and I didn’t want him to become laughable for the audience to be taken with the idea of a woman playing a guy. I wanted the audience to be able to relate to Buck — or invest in him as a character — as much as the female characters. So with that particular alter, I hung out with some fairly masculine blokes just to get a few tips on the physicality” (Davies)

From these examples, we see the duality of Collette’s approach in crafting character as she accounts for both the character’s internal world and external expression. Collette uses physical signs to demonstrate that internal life, as she does with T through her determinedly sloppy movement. It is precisely this emphasis on physicality and gesture that defines Collette as a character actress.

Despite the significant praise she received for her creation of these characters on United States of Tara, there were those who criticized her chosen approach. In her 2009 review of the show, Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times critiqued Collette’s performance, stating that “Tara has four personalities and is one-dimensional in all of them. Her alters are caricatures, and while grotesque exaggeration may all too often be the case in real life, a drama requires more subtlety” (Stanley). In film, television, or theatre, representing people with mental illnesses as caricatures can be harmful and reductive if performers harken back to ill-conceived stereotypes or, as Stanley notes, grotesque exaggeration. Character acting in such depictions is thus limited in its efficacy in such roles due to the emphasis placed on heightened physicality and history rooted in “typage.” However, I argue that Collette’s performance as each character is multidimensional and remains respectfully in the realm of representation, as opposed to replication. While characterizing Tara’s alters as caricatures would have been inappropriate, it would have been equally unsuitable for Collette to have instead used the American Method, where actors “approach characterization by ‘living the role,’ that is, erasing distinctions between ‘self’/‘the real’ and the fictional role” (Zarrilli 18). Furthermore, the subtlety that Stanley calls for is absent in the comedic drama’s highly stylized staging and screenwriting, both of which serve as the textual base for Collette’s performance — therefore Tara’s characterization is in keeping with the show’s design. In her portrayal of a woman with dissociative identity disorder, Collette walks the line between realistic and representational through her use of physicality. Her characters are consequently well-rounded and demonstrate internal lives and yet they are not inappropriately verisimilitudinous. While United States of Tara provided Collette with her first television starring vehicle, her performance also relied on background as a character actress and subsequent experience in supporting roles and character types.

Over the course of her career, Collette has made a conscious effort to dodge playing the same part over and over again (Hardie). She has, however, repeatedly played the mother character in a variety of supporting roles. The eccentricities of her characters have garnered her critical praise and culturally significant nominations, such as her academy award nomination for her part in The Sixth Sense (1999), BAFTA nomination for her support in About A Boy (2002), and a Golden Globe nomination for Little Miss Sunshine (2006). These performances and subsequent nominations communicate a dual meaning to both audience and studio: Collette is a “good” actress and she plays the character type of “mother” well, if we allow award nominations to be a proxy for perceived acting ability.

In this respect, her career could be paralleled to renowned character actress Thelma Ritter, who was also widely critically acclaimed for her supporting roles and repeatedly typecast as the female comic second (Roof 13). Both women’s careers boast an eclectic mix of roles and can be considered “good” character actresses, but the defining difference in the two is their contemporary engagement with type and typecasting. In a 2015 interview for her supporting role in Glassland (2014), where Collette plays a mother struggling with her alcohol addiction, she voices her frustration with being associated with the type: “it makes me crazy when people say, ‘Oh, you’ve played so many mothers’ — as though it’s all the same character. All people are different. All women are different. A lot of women haven’t had children but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re individuals and have some kind of individuality and spark about them” (Wise). In recent years Collette has made a conscious effort to break from the mould, tackling more leading roles like Milly in Miss You Already (2013), and starring vehicles such as United States of Tara (Idato). The ability to make such professional decisions are ultimately temporally tied to the changing spaces character actresses can inhabit today and the dissolution of character type as a primary plot device in film. While most of her starring roles, including her breakout hit, Muriel’s Wedding, have been in independent films, their inclusion among her supporting work in bigger Hollywood projects serves to emphasize the versatility of her acting. In a 2013 interview with the Sydney Morning Herald titled “Maternal Instinct,” Giles Hardie reiterates that “no matter how many times Collette plays a mother onscreen, or off (she has a daughter, Sage, and a son, Arlo), Collette is not seen as a mother. As the Huffington Post said recently, she has ’made a name for herself portraying raw, awkward, complex female characters’” (Hardie). As a contemporary character actress Collette operates both in and outside of type. In creating of character through a Stanislavski-derived approach and focus on physicality she exists within the paradigm but is able to act outside of supporting roles and is critically recognized for her versatility. Just as she refused to be defined as a “Muriel” in batting away more “fat girl makeovers” films and turning down the title role in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), she selectively chooses roles of women and mothers which she can portray in ways that are multidimensional and different from another (Hardie). Collette exemplifies how the changing function of a character actress is negotiated in Hollywood today and the present niches they occupy as artists who operate within the convention.

REFLECTIONS

While researching Toni Colette for this project, there was a general dearth of reviews, interviews and articles that describe Collette’s approach to character. She is a shapeshifter who assumes a dizzying array of roles and characters with a perceived ease and an intelligence shared with other contemporary character actresses. Throughout my research, however, I struggled to find a single article that defined her as a character actress. I suggest that this is due to the historical referential framework that is still enforced when we, as audience members and critics, discuss character actresses. Not only are they compared to other character actresses, or to themselves within their types, they are constantly compared to other actresses operating with popular acting conventions of their time. In the 1930s through the 1950s, character actresses were compared to their “leading lady” counterparts and presently, we can contrast character acting with the personality acting that runs rampant in Hollywood’s romantic comedies. Though these stated conventions all have a heavy investment in character types, the conventions typically attributed to leading roles are dually associated with the expectation of iconicity. While character actresses are often described as “prolific,” they are rarely viewed as “iconic.”

When compared to contemporary personality actresses like Julia Roberts and character actresses like Margo Martindale, Collette seems to have a complicated place in Hollywood’s hall of fame. Because her leading role in Muriel’s Wedding rocketed her to international fame early on in her career and jointly solidified her performance within the realm of the cult classic, Collette was granted the space to negotiate the trajectory of her acting career in a way unavailable to other character actresses. Her decisions to take on complex supporting roles in blockbusters and to star in similarly developed independent films thus confuses her critical audience and leaves her in a descriptive limbo dependent on character type and her status as a chameleon. This widely practiced iconism in defining an actress’s place in our cultural lexicon tells us very little about her ability to shape performances through her use of acting methods. I propose that a historically based deconstruction of an actress’s method and the acting conventions she operates within provide audiences with a workable framework for understanding her performances. By labelling Toni Collette as a character actress and presenting both the present and past conditions of the label, her iconicity is not the primer of her existence as an actress. Instead, she is defined by the way in which she constructs character, a fundamental element of performance.

CONCLUSION: CHARACTER AS CRAFT

In the past century, character actresses have gifted audiences with diverse portrayals of quirky roles in recognizable types and have expanded their reach beyond secondary characters to leading ladies. Where the convention was once strictly defined by the Hollywood studios who repeatedly called upon character actresses to reprise their allotted type for the sake of continuity, actresses today are critically lauded for the versatility they bring to each role and the diverse ranges their physically-based acting methods allow. Within the present iteration of character acting, actresses approach roles primarily using a Stanislavski-based method which  accounts for their particular use of the face, voice, and body. By defining how actresses existed (and continue to exist) within the convention, audiences are afforded a legible framework that is based on character as a condition of performance as opposed to dominantly enforced definitions based on iconicity.

Toni Collette is defined as a character actress primarily through her informed use of physicality in creating character, and additionally in the complicated trajectory of her career in film. Because she approaches acting through a method similar to Stanislavski’s system to create an embodied performance underlined by quirk and exaggeration, she can be aligned as working within the character acting convention. As a contemporary character actress, her film career of the last two decades exemplifies the continued complexity of negotiating the convention’s relationship to supporting roles. As Collette continues to assert that her character cannot be reduced to type, she moves back and forth from supporting to leading roles across platforms and further divorces the conception of character actress as only suitable for secondary roles like the sidekick. In this respect, Collette truly is a chameleon in both the versatility of her acting style and in the kind of roles she is willing to approach with a physicality-based method. While we cannot expect whom she will play, this analysis provides some insight into how she plays her roles; we can therefore anticipate that in her future projects Collette will lean heavily on physicality to create her character. As Toni Collette and other contemporary character actresses begin to migrate into more and more leading roles, there is the potential for the convention to take on another reiteration in film and the popular consensus, repositioning character as the defining condition of medium’s craft.


Works Cited

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Brillson, Leila. “Toni Collette Was Shocked to Learn Muriel’s Wedding Is a Cult Classic!” Refinery29, N.p., 07 July 2013. Web.

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Cohen, Stefanie. “Chameleon Toni Collette Gets Grounded.” The Wall Street Journal, N.p., 27 Mar. 2014. Web.

Davies, Dave. “Toni Collette: Keeping Track Of Multiple Personalities.” Fresh Air, 01 Apr. 2010. National Public Radio. Web. Transcript.

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Photo: Toni Collette in Jasper Jones (2017). https://concreteplayground.com/sydney/arts-entertainment/film/see-australian-legends-toni-collette-and-hugo-weaving-represent-in-the-new-jasper-jones-trailer/

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