Toni Collette is no stranger to one of the most rare kinds of movies: those about female friendships. “Muriel’s Wedding” is about two friends, one who gets cancer. The same thing happens in “Miss You Already,” with Collette the one who gets ill. She’s Milly, an extrovert whose struggle with disease brings her even closer to her longtime bestie, Jess (Drew Barrymore). It sounds like a bummer to make, but Collette says it was a blast — at least up to a point.
How much time did you get with Drew Barrymore to establish that long, deep connection?
Not much, actually. We had five rehearsal days. Prior to that we’d written to each other. We both loved the script; we both admired each other; we both wanted to have a great time. So we just went for it. And luckily we just loved each other. We got on like a house on fire. The more time we hung out the better we got. That just infused the film with something very real, because you can’t always fake chemistry. But we got lucky.
Films about female friendship seem to be rare, though you’ve done your fair share.
I’ve been pretty lucky. “Muriel’s Wedding” was the second film I ever did, and that’s what that film is about. It’s a lot like this, actually: It’s about two best friends and one of them gets cancer. And in “In Her Shoes” and “The United States of Tara” we’re sisters but friends as well. So it hasn’t been that rare. Although when this film came along it felt like it had been awhile. It felt rare in 2014.
It’s also a film directed by a woman, namely Catherine Hardwicke. It seems odd pointing that out every time that happens, but there’s more awareness these days of how infrequently that happens.
When I got a whiff of the fact that there was an issue about the lack of female directors, I made a point of working with as many as possible. I hate to be sexist, because I don’t think you just hire a woman for the sake of it. You hire the right person for the job. And Catherine was the right person for the job. We’re all humans, we all share the planet. We’re all eager to tell stories. Just get the right person.
This is dealing with grim subject matter, but it seems like it was fun to make.
That’s part of the spirit of the piece, which is very life-affirming and more celebratory than sad. It was also because of the budget. There was no chance of anyone running off and finding their solitude. We were all hunkered down on set. That gave it a personal, intimate feeling. When you’re hanging out with people for 15 hours a day, a lot of humor comes out of that. You get to know people in a different way. It’s not like working in an office, where you might have a little conversation every day. It’s hours on end.
How common is that, that everyone gets close?
It depends on the people, it depends on the director. Catherine Hardwicke is both kooky and committed. The highest budgeted films do have more segregation. It takes more time to light a set, so I go to my trailer and hang out. There’s not as much communal time.
You haven’t done too many of those, though. You haven’t done any superhero movies.
I think it’d be super-fun to be a superhero. I’m not averse to any particular budget. I’m just averse to a s—ty story. [Laughs] I don’t care about the size of the budget; it’s about the quality.
Hollywood isn’t doing many mid-level films anymore, but places like England, where they don’t have anywhere near that much money for films, still crank them out.
I’m Australian, and there’s no such thing as a studio system there. Every film is independent. Every film has to struggle to get financed. There’s a certain amount of pressure in making a film for next to nothing. I did an Irish film called “Glassland,” which I think was the lowest budget of any film I’ve done. It wasn’t even a million dollars. It might not have been $500,000. Money doesn’t breed creativity. It’s passion that does. It’s pure guts and passion and dedication that gets them across. There’s a pressure cooker feeling, and a lot of good things can come out of that.
You’re also dealing with mortality. Did you wind up reading a lot of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and about the five stages of death?
I don’t need to. I’m a Scorpio. I think about it a lot. [Laughs] It was very cathartic for me. I have two friends who have died from cancer, and I’ve had friends who have fought it and they’re still alive. I didn’t want to get it wrong. It’s both frightening and liberating when you find out you don’t have as much time as you’d thought you did to live your life. We come from something and we exit to the same place, and it always seems more infinite than this small, temporary window and this small, temporary body.
How was it coping with Milly’s physical decay?
I always think it’s going to be fine. I know I’m not that person. But inevitably it gets under one’s skin. On this one I started off playing someone with bountiful energy, and it diminishes, and it diminishes, and it diminishes. Sometimes I don’t know whether the body understands the difference between your mind and reality. It took me awhile to get over it. I was tired at the end; I was depleted for months and months and months. I can’t watch the movie anymore. I’ve watched it five times. The last time was at the premiere in New York. It’s just exhausting. It’s like reliving it, and I don’t need to relive it again.
Are you someone who can rewatch her films?
No. I imagine as my kids get older and they can watch the kinds of movies I’ve made, I’ll watch them again.
For Millie accepting that her body is falling into itself is particularly rough.
Milly’s very much into her exterior self. She’s very attached to her body. She needs people to appreciate her physically; she has a very healthy sex life. When all of that shifts for her, it’s mountainous. There’s the cutting of the hair. That was the fifth time I’ve done it. I knew for her being so vain it would just be everything for her. But I also loved that she didn’t become indulgent. The film isn’t indulgent. It’s not sentimental.
Even the scene where Millie shaves her head and gets a wig isn’t played for pathos. It’s about her strength.
You know, I learned that wigs, which make people feel better when they lose their hair, are so expensive and such bad quality. I couldn’t believe it. They’re ripping people off with these s—ty wigs they have to pay too much for. That’s how it was in the U.K. It might be better here.
But it’s probably not.
[Laughs] You might be right.