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Interview: Toni Collette on doing a comedy about suicide with 'Long Way Down'

"Long Way Down" star Toni Collette talks about her reservations about playing a character so different from her and how doing TV is just like any other job.

Toni Collette plays a mother who wants to commit suicide in "Long Way Down." Credit: Getty Images Toni Collette plays a mother who wants to commit suicide in "Long Way Down."
Credit: Getty Images

Toni Collette understands any apprehension about her new film, “Long Way Down.” “I know that it doesn’t sound right, that there’s a film about suicide and it’s a comedy,” the actress says. “But I don’t think it’s about suicide. I think it’s a celebration of life. It’s about friendship and connection and hope.”

In the film, Collette plays Maureen, a middle-aged woman with a son who suffers from an extreme form of cerebral palsy. For specific reasons withheld till later, she’s decided to jump off a roof on New Year’s Eve — only to find three others (played by Pierce Brosnan, Aaron Paul and Imogen Poots) about to do the same thing.

It’s tough subject matter, but it’s the kind of thing its author, Nick Hornby — on whose 2006 novel the film is based — can easily do. “I love Nick’s writing,” says Collette, who also starred in the film of his “About a Boy.” “I always gravitate towards a tone he excels at, which is a depth and poignancy combined with something that’s very funny. He’s great at going back and forth between those.”

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For preparation Collette visited physical therapy centers in London, where she observed parents with their ailing children and worked with therapists. “I needed to make it seem real and routine.”

Toni Collette (with Imogen Poots) had a blast making "Long Way Down." Credit: Magnolia Pictures Toni Collette (with Imogen Poots) had a blast making "Long Way Down."
Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Still, she had her reservations. “I knew I wanted to do it, but right before shooting I didn’t know if I could. Maureen was so different from me. But I ended up falling in love with her,” Collette recalls. “She doesn’t have a life. She has her son, and she gives and gives and gives and gives to him. There no one actually reflecting her life back at her. She never sees herself. She’s quite altruistic, really. So when these people come into her life, it’s like she’s been asleep and suddenly she wakes up.”

Maureen is not wholly sympathetic, though. “When you hear about a mother who’s decided to commit suicide and leave her child, you can make a harsh judgment. But once you get to know Maureen and what she goes through and learn her thought process, you find there’s so much more to her,” Collette says. “I think she has the most heartbreaking of all the storylines. Her decision to kill herself is not about her own unhappiness. She has a crazy lack of self-esteem.”

Then again, this is a comedy, and one that hangs with four disparate people as they become great friends. The same happened in real life. “We spent every spare moment together, on-set and off,” she says. “I became like Julie on ‘Love Boat,’ scheduling all the extracurricular activities. I would book all the restaurants.”

She’s also about a wrap up a run on Broadway in Tracy Letts’ “The Realistic Joneses,” and mixing up mediums is part of her repertoire too. She won an Emmy and Golden Globe for HBO’s “The United States of Tara,” though she’s not convinced TV today is always the greatest place for an actor. “It depends on the material,” she says. “If the material is good, that’s great. If the material is bad, it’s as bad as any other bad job. I’ve had one really satisfying, completely heightened, wonderful TV experience, and I’ve had one that’s not so great. It’s like any job.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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