Why Toni Collette's Latest Role Was 'Life-Changing'

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Plus, a look back at 'In Her Shoes' and why she thinks the movie would get a better response today.

Now exclusively in movie theaters, director Catherine Hardwicke's Mafia Mamma stars Toni Collette as suburban mom who unexpectedly inherits the family mantle—a position of power in the Italian mob. The Aussie actress, who's known for iconic roles in The Sixth Sense, Knives Out, Nightmare Alley and Ari Aster's 2018 Hereditary, says shooting Mafia Mamma was "blissful" and "empowering," and that it's one of the best experiences she's ever had on set.

Parade.com spoke with Collette about her role in what's likely to become a cult classic, and working with director Hardwicke and iconic co-star Monica Belucci.

What drew you to this role of suburban mom who becomes a mafia don? I think it was that it's pure fun, but also it's really empowering, in a non-dogmatic, totally gleeful way. It's the most fun I've ever had at work in my life. It was this beacon of light. It was sent to me during Covid, and it was this strange, confronting, challenging time for people. It made me laugh so much out loud in a room on my own. I thought, If this can do this to me, we've got to share this! So, I managed to get Cat [Hardwicke] on board; I'd worked with her before on Miss You Already. Her energy is just infectious. She is just the most authentic, original, incredible, unbelievably creative human.

It kind of boggles the mind that the director of Thirteen also directed Mafia Mamma. I hate to be pigeonholed, so I imagine directors don't want it either. I admire any artist who continues to kind of jump and jive and challenge themselves to do new things. This film is many things. It's a comedy, but it's also got a lot of action, a bit of violence. And it has some real meaning to it. It's about a woman coming into her own sense of self, and waking up to the fact that she has a life. Honestly, it was the best experience of my life. I loved making the movie.

What can you tell us about working with Monica Belucci?   
I think it was a total coup to get her. She's a total icon. But she's so sweet! She's so down to earth. There's so much that's outrageous in this movie. I just loved making her laugh; I'd look over and see her giggling, rolling her eyes, like she couldn't believe what was happening because it's just too much. Also, she's a style icon, so to be on camera being made over by Monica Belucci was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Toni Collette and Monica Belucci in 'Mafia Mamma.' <p>Bleecker Street</p>
Toni Collette and Monica Belucci in 'Mafia Mamma.'

Bleecker Street

You're clearly having a lot of fun with the physical comedy in Mafia Mamma
I'm not exaggerating. Every single day all we did was laugh, sing and dance, and just love each other. It was a total love fest. It got progressively hotter and hotter as Italy does, but honestly—it was just the best. It was just a blissful job.

Related: Toni Collette's Preferences for Filming Love Scenes Are Not What You'd Expect

Mafia Mamma was shot on location in and around Rome. What can you tell us about the production?   
It changed my life. I've been there several times, but living there was a life-changing experience. I'd get up in the morning, and I would walk for anywhere from one-to-two hours before work. Being able to walk through history, and be truly awed at every turn is just the best way to start your day. You just feel so much gratitude, and your life is contextualized. You're in history; you're one of many. You feel very small, but in a healthy way.

I come from a very young country, so to be surrounded by that daily was breathtaking. The history of it is mind-blowing. Rome and Bangkok are my two favorite cities, so to be able to shoot in one of them was a total dream come true.

You do a lot of action scenes in Mafia Mamma. Are you open to doing more action movies, or maybe even a superhero film? 
I'm open to anything, honestly. I do not discriminate. So long as it's well-written and it's something I actually connect to and it's not a piece of s--t [laughs]. 

Toni Collette in 'Mafia Mamma' <p>Bleecker Street</p>
Toni Collette in 'Mafia Mamma'

Bleecker Street

One of the most underrated movies in your entire, formidable filmography is 2006's In Her Shoes opposite Cameron Diaz and MacLaine, a movie that more or less went under the radar at the time. What are your thoughts and feelings around the film today? 
In Her Shoes was a really amazing experience. I loved working with Curtis Hanson. He's one of the best directors I've ever worked with. I miss him so much. He's an incredible filmmaker, and that story about two siblings is a story that is so profound, so beautifully told. I've worked with [screenwriter] Susannah Grant a couple of times since then; I think her writing is incredible. That adaptation is beautiful. I think—it's about family. Everyone comes from a family. There's so much to relate to when it comes to that story. Curtis was so thorough in the way that he worked, and he really listened to me. It was a special experience.

At the time, for whatever reason, it just didn't fly the way people thought it would. Maybe if it had been released now it'd be different. There's an openness to female leads [laughs].

Hereditary has kind of become a cultural leviathan since it came out a few years ago. If that's becoming the role you're most associated with, how do you feel about that?
Well, I don't mind that. I literally gave it everything I could give. I'm glad that it's been appreciated. You don't often know who's watching or how they're responding—but people are very vocal about that film. I'm still learning things about it. The other day I was told that I am known on social media literally as "Mother" [laughs]. I just couldn't believe it—like, what? It blows me away... I was not looking to do anything like this, and when I read it, it was undeniable. The piece was so strong, and I knew I had to do it. There was no way out of it.

Related: Toni Collette Has the Best Reaction to Being Called 'Mommy'

For me, knowing how challenging it was going to be before going in, it became two different things. Yes, it was a really incredible opportunity to bring some honesty to grief, and to family dynamics, and how intense that can be. But personally for me, it was an opportunity to kind of clean as I go. It was the first time I'd worked on something that intense, and taken care of my own wellbeing at the same time, so I'll forever be thankful for that.

As actors, you just jump in and you go for it, but as I've gotten older I realize the body doesn't understand what is fiction and what is real. The only way I know how to work is I have to feel it to make it real. I have to figure out a way to shake if off and cleanse it, and realize it's not mine and I don't have to carry it. I learned that on that movie. It was a big, profound experience, and I'm so glad it resonated with so many people. 

From Bleecker Street, 'Mafia Mamma' is now playing. 

Next, Toni Collette Compares 'Hereditary' to 'In Her Shoes'.