Toni Collette on why her twisty new thriller Pieces of Her left her feeling 'bloody exhausted'

Toni Collette on why her twisty new thriller Pieces of Her left her feeling 'bloody exhausted'

When viewers tune in for Netflix's twisty thriller Pieces of Her starting Friday, they'll meet a world-weary woman named Laura. Turns out, that exhaustion was mutual for Oscar-nominated actress Toni Collette, who played her.

The eight-episode series, which hails from showrunner and writer Charlotte Stoudt and is based on Karin Slaughter's New York Times bestselling novel of the same name, is set in a sleepy Georgia town where a shooting sets off an unexpected chain of events for 30-year-old Andy Oliver (Bella Heathcote) and her mother, Laura. Turns out, Laura has been hiding a lot of deep, dark secrets, and the attention brought to her family from the shooting threatens to destroy the careful life she's created.

Ahead of Pieces of Her's debut on the streamer, EW spoke to Collette about how much the role affected her, why it's really a story about "personal freedom," and why nothing on the show is what it seems.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First of all, had you read the book before signing on or did you pick it up at all during the making of the show?

TONI COLLETTE: I hadn't read the book. I was sent two scripts for episode 1 and 2. And then I met with Charlotte Stoudt, the creator, and Bruna Papandrea, the producer, and Minkie Spiro, the director of all eight episodes, and it was very intriguing. Look, I tend to not look at source material because I find that ultimately, I have to just focus on what I have in the script and it can get confusing in terms of information, and how to extricate what we're using a lot of or what we potentially may not be using. So I haven't read it, but it's right here. Yeah, I should read it. [Laughs.]

One of the ideas the show plays with is, how well do we really know someone? So, in your own words, who would you say your character Laura is?

Laura, when we meet her, she's currently a woman living under the witness protection program. She comes from a very affluent, influential family in San Francisco. She was very controlled and oppressed as a child. She showed a natural inclination for playing the piano and she was a child prodigy, but her father was very determined to push her to the point where she became rebellious and pushed him away. Then she entered into a relationship with a guy — she thought she was rebelling and finding some freedom and instead she was finding another man who controlled her in a very similar way to her father, which is what a lot of people do, because we seek out that which is familiar rather than that which is entirely healthy most of the time, and things go horribly wrong there. And there are major consequences to the point where I have to create a different identity, but I've had a child. And interestingly, in order to create a safe atmosphere and normal life for [her daughter] Andy, I think that Laura does the same thing her dad was doing to her. It's too controlled, it's too contrived, there's no freedom. I mean, the story's about personal freedom, and it's so intense.

Since she is straddling those two different identities that you mentioned, did you find it was harder or easier for you as an actor to create this character?

Well, there was just so much to play with. I mean, with any character you play, you can choose moments to hide or reveal any given thing about that particular person. But with this particular character, so much is withheld. She's so repressed and everything is hidden. So I just remember Minkie Spiro, our amazing director, always telling me, "It's just so wonderful when I don't know what you're thinking because you can see so much going on, but you just don't know." And she appears to be horrible to her daughter. [She's] really actually quite mean, and it's all in the name of saving her, and you don't realize that till later on. And so it was fun to play with all those levels of revealing things.

Pieces of Her
Pieces of Her

NETFLIX Bella Heathcote as Andy Oliver and Toni Collette as Laura Oliver in 'Pieces of Her.'

Your character is a former piano prodigy, and we do get to see some of that come back to Laura. Did you have prior experience with the piano?

I have a bit of a musical background. I'm more of a singer, but I played piano when I was younger and I tinker away, but I hadn't had a lesson since… I mean, I wasn't even double digits, I don't think. So I hadn't had played with any focus or seriousness for a very long time but the knowledge that I did have thankfully did kick in. I had a great piano teacher, but I only had two weeks to learn that piece. And I had to know it by memory because she is reacquainting herself with this incredible beast of a majestic instrument and is remembering so much while she's playing. It's not just about playing for her, she's remembering an entire lifetime. So I basically panicked for two weeks. All I did was play a piano and panic. And at first I was really pissed off that they couldn't change it. We only had the location on this day so it had to be that. And I only had that two weeks to do it, to prepare, but I played every single thing and I'm very proud of that.

You've said previously that this role surprised you with how intense it was. You're no stranger to intense roles, so why did this one stick out to you?

When I read it initially, I thought, "Oh, this isn't quite crazy for me. I get to work at home, all those kids are doing all the heavy lifting. I don't have to do any emotional [things], it's all just really easy for me." I was so wrong, but I think that it was a self-protection thing. I think I made myself believe that, and I literally could only step one foot at a time because everything was just way more intense than I anticipated, it really was. Every scene was just much more emotional, there is so much at stake, that is so extreme at every given moment. And she's not a demonstrative person — that's what I mean, having to withhold everything and internalize everything is actually a horrible way to live.

So it was just a lot to contain for an elongated period of time. I was bloody exhausted by the end of it. I got on a plane to go do another job and I just remember feeling like, "Oh, I feel like a zombie here." Thankfully, I had some time to catch up with myself before I started on the next one, but it was just intense. And I mean, that's part of the allure of it too, the story is just so intriguing and it really is honestly very thrilling and you just cannot see the twists coming — and it's all the things that make it very entertaining that also were very difficult for me personally. [Laughs.]

In a few words, tease what viewers should expect from Pieces of Her. Why should people tune in?

Nothing is what it seems. It's incredibly intriguing and it's a story about personal freedom, and I think that's something we all want and seek.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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