How Toni Collette Survived 'Hereditary,' the Year's Most Terrifying Horror Movie (Exclusive)

Toni Collette, Hereditary
Photo Courtesy of A24

ET sat down with the actress to discuss 'The Sixth Sense,' awards season attention and surviving the most terrifying movie of the year.

"I remember when I first started coming to L.A.," Toni Collette says as she relaxes into a sunny spot near the window on an otherwise overcast afternoon. "The woman, Jeanie Drynan, who played my mum in Muriel's Wedding, I would stay with her and she would watch Entertainment Tonight, and it was just like, Wow! I'm really just down from the Hollywood sign!"

Muriel's Wedding, the 1995 Aussie comedy in which Collette stars as the titular lovelorn oddball, launched the actress stateside with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical. A few years later, M. Night Shyamalan cast her in his horror film, The Sixth Sense.

Collette starred as Lynn Sear, single mother to a dead people-seeing 9-year-old son, Cole (Haley Joel Osment). "Night had made one other feature, but Sixth Sense really was, it felt like, his first big foray into feature films," she remembers. The twisty thriller earned six Oscar nominations in 2000, with a Best Support Actress nod for Collette. (She lost to Angelina Jolie for Girl, Interrupted.)

"I know people used to campaign, even at that point, but honestly, there was nothing, nothing," Collette thinks back during a sit down with ET in a suite at the Four Seasons. Dressed in a pinstriped shirtdress, her wavy blonde hair parted down the middle, she breaks into a toothy grin as she recalls producer Scott Rudin phoning her "so early" in the morning to share the news. She was 25 years old and, Collette says, "there was no utterance about the idea of me ever being considered for something like that."

"I mean, I grew up in Sydney watching the Oscars, and this whole world just seemed so far away," she says. "When you work on a film that gets that kind of attention, you just really feel happy for everyone. Because they're long hours, people spend so much time away from their families and [give] so much to it that you just feel like, man, somebody actually f*cking saw it and got into it, you know?"

Nearly two decades after Sixth Sense, Collette, who's 45, is returning to the horror well with Hereditary, one of two films starring the actress that will be released on June 8. ("I don't think I've ever had two films come out on the same day, let alone two completely polar opposite films!" she exclaims of Hereditary and Hearts Beat Loud, a feel-good indie opposite Nick Offerman.)

Collette wasn't searching for something like Hereditary, but she is a believer that projects choose her. And this was no exception. "I know that it did because I was very emphatic about not wanting to do anything heavy," she explains. "Yet, when I read it I was like, uhh..." Her eyes turn to saucer pans and she breaks into a laugh. "'I have no choice!'"

"I was sitting in my bed in my rented apartment with the window open," she recalls of reading the script for the first time, while filming the comedy of manners, Madame, in Paris. "It was boiling hot in the middle of summer and there was loads of traffic outside, and I remember when I started reading, I was like--" Collette dramatically grumbles profanities under her breathe. "'It's so noisy.' And by the end, I couldn't hear a thing, I was so absorbed in the story. I called my agent and swore at him, because he sent me something knowing that it would do this to me!"

Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Hereditary writer-director Ari Aster, in crafting his own fiendish horror film, looked to classics from the '60s and '70s, including Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby and Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, as well as Japanese horror movies and family dramas. "I knew that I wanted to make a film that served as a serious inquiry intro grief and trauma," he tells me. "And then have that curdle into something else." Collette plays Annie Graham, an artist specializing in miniatures who inherits unholy hell following the death of her estranged mother.

"It's revelatory," Collette exclaims, leaning in closer. "But not in the way that you usually associate it with. It's not a positive change in one's life. It's a sudden awareness of everything hideous -- complete betrayal, a waste of one's own life, really, [that] everything's been orchestrated and manipulated -- and there is no hope. She's trapped. I found that--" She laughs and sits back. "I'm a pretty positive person, generally. And the fact that it is lit-er-ally hopeless, I found that really overwhelming."

Discussing much else of what befalls Annie, husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and habitually tongue-clicking daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) would risk spoiling Hereditary's secrets. Suffice it to say, the family is put through the wringer, grappling with grief, trauma and, eventually, something supernatural. The whole time, Annie is white knuckling it to stay in control -- until she isn't. One dinner scene, teased in the trailers, requires not simply an outburst, but a rageful eruption in which Collette remains at a 12 for an entire monologue.

"The thing is, the whole f*cking thing felt big to me," the actress says of movie's grueling shoot in Utah. "Everybody else was walking around [on] eggshells when it came to shooting a couple of particular scenes, but I swear to god, there was not one easy scene in this film. I knew it was going to be heavy, but there just was no let up."

As for how she managed to get into the state of mind to shoot the movie's most intense sequences -- while maintaining her sanity -- she says, "It was a case of not thinking about it too much and almost pushing it away until I had to just jump in and then jump back out again." And when she was in it, she says, she let whatever happened happen. "That is actually the most freeing, great day at work for me, when I'm out of control, when I'm not completely aware of what I'm doing. I've quit berating myself and rerunning the scenes f*cking months after shooting them. It is a way to hell." She shrugs good-naturedly. "I mean, I still do it to a certain extent. Like, after the fact, Ugh, I should have done this! Or, I should have done that! But you can't take away from the validity of a moment that feels real."

It's a realization that amplified seeing her young co-stars work on Hereditary. "I was watching Alex. He's much younger than me, and he was sometimes turning himself inside out, which was..." She chuckles. "Amusing, actually. I just think I've been doing it a while now."

"Our great actors, our movie stars, have something that's sort of intangible. You can't quite put your finger on what it is about them that is so great," the director Brett Haley tells me between puffs from a vape on the Four Seasons balcony. "She certainly has that intangible quality of just, like, greatness, where you just go, Man! What the f*ck?! She's really earned her stripes, and she can do anything. Go watch Hereditary and then watch our movie [Hearts Beat Loud] and tell me Toni Collette can't do anything!"

Hereditary premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was hailed as "a new generation's The Exorcist" and "the most traumatically terrifying horror movie in ages." Collette in particular was lauded for her superlative performance, instantly prompting speculation that A24 will campaign Academy voters to consider her come next year's Oscars. When I ask for her reaction, Collette purses her coral lips -- "Uhmm." -- then laughs. "I guess it's the same thing, you know?"

"You put so much into it, for it to be recognized in a broader sense is nothing but flattering," she says. "The experience of making a film is very selfish. My experience at work is what I will take away. But you always hope that there's going to be an audience out there that gets it -- and there really does seem to be for this film." Collette leans in again, her eyes lighting up. "There's this certain palpable energy around it. It's very exciting."