Toni Collette Tells Us The Scariest Thing About 'Hereditary' [Interview]

Toni Collette was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in The Sixth Sense, and now she's back in the horror genre with Hereditary, a film so scary it makes The Sixth Sense feel like an episode of Sesame Street. Hereditary is deeply disturbing, an unnerving, visceral piece of filmmaking that will freak you out and leave you profoundly shaken by the time it ends. Collette delivers an absolutely unreal performance in the film, playing a matriarch whose family becomes haunted when her character's mother dies. She's physical and raw and wounded and grieving and furious – it's arguably the best work of her entire career.

You can read our full review of the film here, but I recently sat down with Collette at the film's press junket in Beverly Hills to talk about whether this script intimidated her, what it was like working with first-time director Ari Aster, the scariest thing about this film for her, and more. Enjoy our full Toni Collette Hereditary interview below.

(We get into heavy spoilers about midway through the interview, but I've marked that section with a big spoiler warning, so read freely until then.)

Congratulations on the movie. I've heard some actors say that being slightly scared of a part is a good sign that they should take the plunge and play it. Were you intimidated by this role when you first read the script?

I wasn't intimidated, I just knew that I had to do it and I wasn't entirely sure how to achieve that. But after making a declaration of pushing heavy films away and wanting to focus on lighter was sent to me. I reluctantly read it, and then it was inevitable. I had to do it. I think a little bit of fear is a good thing.

You've worked with first-time filmmakers before, but this is one of the most demanding roles of your career. How much does the director's experience factor in to your decision to take a particular role?

It's so funny: I've heard that actors don't want to do certain jobs because the directors are first-time directors, which seems so crazy to me. A) If the director has also written it, there's already a clear understanding of their storytelling ability. B) Everyone has to start somewhere, so, you know...what the fuck? (laughs) And C) It's kind of a wonderful thing because they're not set in their ways yet. It's going to be beautifully collaborative on a good day. So, it was evident when I spoke to Ari and met with him. It was already there in his writing. It was an undeniable 'Oh shit, I'm going to have to do this. It's so fucking good' kind of situation. But then when I spoke to him, he seemed a little green. He was a bit fumbly on the phone. I'd been shooting in Paris, so I spoke to him from there, but when I got back, we had a meeting and it was just so clear that he was more than capable. He'd created the most complex, complete world. He had such depth of understanding of the human condition, really. I mean, this is about people who are grieving and family dynamics, and family is, I mean, whether you get on with your family or not, those connections are really powerful and profound. To take this story which seems like it was one thing and create a natural extension into what is essentially a different genre was just so smart. He's so, so intelligent and so understanding. He was the most meticulously, specifically prepared director I've ever worked with. Every single thing you see on the screen is absolutely intentional. And every single person – he hand-picked everything in this film. It really is all Ari. He's an incredible filmmaker. And he's so humble and sweet and kind, and that's a pretty rare combination. (laughs)

Totally. You deliver some really bone-chilling primal screams in this film. How exhausting was it to prepare for the mental breakdowns that take place in this story?

It was almost a case of once I decided to do it, that was it. There was no having to prepare for each scene, because there were no easy days on this. So it was kind of a matter of pushing it away until they called action and then just kind of letting it out.

There are a lot of long takes in this film. With your experience working on stage, was that notion of playing scenes out in long shots part of the appeal of this project from the start, or did it evolve into that on the day?

I'm pretty sure years before we even started filming, Ari knew exactly which shot, which cutting point, every single nuance. It was something he talked about right off the bat, how he was going to shoot it. And I found it neither intimidating or the opposite. It just was what it was. I found all of his decisions in terms of the way he shot I thought were just really creative and original and exciting to work with. I several times went up to he and [cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski] just going, 'Guys, this is like the camera Olympics!' Because they were just so inventive! And they did it in a way that didn't distract from the story. It really did enhance it and gave it a kind of poetic quality, as well.

I find myself far more frightened of movies like this that deal with spirits and cults than films about masked killers because it feels like some of this stuff might actually be real and I'm just unaware of it. The Sixth Sense had a little of that, too. Is that something you're drawn to in a horror film?

I am not drawn to horror films. (laughs) I can't watch them. But yes. Very definitely in both this film and The Sixth Sense, I loved that everything that happens within the film actually comes from a very honest place. It's actually quite pure and says something very real. I'm not interested in gratuitous fear, and this is a deep, complex story. I think the scariest thing about the movie, being someone who's optimistic, is that it is a revelatory awakening for this woman. And all these unsettled feelings that she didn't understand her whole life suddenly, it dawns on her and she starts to put it together. Usually you associate that kind of moment in your life with some kind of progressive, positive change. And this is further entrapment and no hope whatsoever. As well as complete betrayal. That's the scariest thing: there is no hope.

That sort of leads into my next question, which is in addition to the traditional horror elements, this movie also grapples with ideas like parental resentment, trust in a marriage, and feeling guilty about not being sad enough at a loved one's death. Was there a particular aspect of this story that spoke to you the most?

I loved all of them. They all seemed somewhat contrary and yet very real and probably very common. I think the idea of motherly love is an ideal, actually, now. Because relationships are complicated. People are complicated. Hormones are complicated. There are certain things we expect from mothers which seem to be quite archaic now (laughs), and I love that within this film, there are very individual, real responses from my character. And that she's not just this two dimensional woman. She's, at times, incredibly unlikable, and I like that.

Warning: Major Spoilers Ahead.

I've saved a spoilery question until the end: can you tell me about the scene at the end with Annie on the ceiling of the attic where she's sawing her own head off. I lost my mind in the theater. Was that you up there? Did they make a model of your face and use that? How did that work?

That was me. It felt like another film, to be honest.

Really? There was nothing particularly unnerving about how unsettling that was? Or did that just come through in the filmmaking? On the day, it was fine?

On the day, it was just strange and quite funny, because it was so distant from everything that we'd been doing that was really, really grounded in something very real. I mean, it's obviously horrible. There was a whole prosthetic that was made for me, and I really did have a piano string [around my neck]. Ari was very – one thing I really love about the film is, it's got its own rhythm. It's not trying to pander to people and please people. It just is very confident and has its own rhythm. Even the sound, it's very specific. It was all something that Ari was creating and aware of, and it's all intentional. As I was pulling the piano string, he would go, 'Now. Now. Now. Now,' [mimes slicing through her own neck one pull at a time] until it started to speed up. Obviously afterward they added the sound of it falling to the ground off my body, so I didn't quite lose my head. (laughs) But yeah, it was a strange one. I love the ambiguity of the maniacal quality that my character starts to creep towards toward the end of the film, because you really don't know whether she's losing it or whether she's literally finding it. So from that sped up place, it just leaps into something which, given what we'd already worked on, it did kind of feel far-fetched, but it's not within the context of the story. On the day, it was like, 'This is bonkers!' (laughs)

Is this the first time you've played a character who's caught on fire?

(Thinks for a second) Yes.

What was that experience like for you?

I had a thick shirt on so they could put what is essentially like a steel plate underneath my shirt, on my forearm. It was almost like a gas fireplace, so once they turned it on, it was going to light up. But it was controllable. But yes, it did concern me. (laughs)

I probably have time for one more question. Are you someone who takes the character home with you? Or are you able to really disconnect from it at the end of the day?

A bit of both. And I would always, in the past, have answered absolutely the latter. But in the last several years, and the reason I had said to my agent that I don't want to do anything heavy is that I did start to find things were accumulating. I had to figure out a way to kind of shake it off. So I am figuring that out. I don't want to be...I am so thankful for this role, because actors – I certainly do – I want to go for it. You rely on someone else's words, right? So it really is a gift to get this from Ari, because I imagine most actors would want the opportunity to really go for it. So as intimidating as it can seem, if you're exhausted one day, or you've been on the phone with someone, any element – you didn't sleep, or you haven't eaten enough – nothing ever got in the way of it. It was all kind of gravy. It just felt special as we were making it.


Hereditary is in theaters now.