“She’s a total cow—a narcissistic, vain, self-obsessed person who treats other people badly and doesn’t give them the time of day because she’s so caught up in herself.” Meet Milly, as described by Toni Collette; she brings this mad mama to life in Miss You Already (November 6), the heart-tugger that turned TIFF goers into sobbing heaps over its portrait of lady friendship. It doesn’t spare the grit and grime of BFF-dom between the loud, hard-partying Milly and supportive earth mother Jess (Drew Barrymore), or of the ravages of cancer once the disease strikes Collette’s character. From giant needles to post-mastectomy sex drama, it’s all here. The film went through many cast changes while in development, but that delay was audiences’ gain—Collette originally signed on to play Barrymore’s role, but producers just couldn’t find their Milly. “My friend said, ‘You’ve got to stop playing these parts. Why don’t you play the other one?’” Collette says. “The hot mess, the one who’s out of control! And I’m so glad I forced it upon them.” Collette shaved her head—for the fifth time—for the role, and inhabits it with the fierce, warm strength of a woman both formidable and eye wateringly vulnerable. It’s refreshing to see such a flawed female in a film written and directed by women (Morwenna Banks and Catherine Hardwicke, respectively), that passes the Bechdel test so resoundingly. “I’d hate for the film to be known as a cancer movie, because it’s so much more than that. It’s a different kind of love that you don’t normally see on film,” Collette says. “In other hands, it could have become this glossy, sentimental hairspray commercial.”
What was the hardest day for you on set? What was the scene that stretched you the most as an actor?
There’s only a tiny little bit of it used in the movie, but it’s the scene where I find out that the cancer has gone to my brain. I did three takes, and they’re about to move on and I just felt like I hadn’t hit it yet. Everything else had felt so real and satisfying, and we knew when we got it, so I was just really frustrated ’cause it was a really, obviously important moment, and then I said, “Catherine, I need to go again.” I just had to talk to myself and go, What am I resisting? Just f-cking let go and do it. Milly’s such a fighter, and she pushes it away for so long, and that was the moment the floodgates opened for her, so it was the fact that the floodgates were going to open. So we shot this scene, and it was very extensive and intense. I went back to my trailer and it did not stop for, like, 40 minutes, and I think that’s why I had resisted it: I knew as soon as it opened that it was going to be hard to close again.
What kind of prep did you do for the role? Did you actually shave your head?
I just sort of…ruminated [laughs]. I just thought about the role a lot. I had a couple of years to think about it, but there’s only so much you can do in your mind; eventually, you have to jump in and do it, and my only aim was to make it as honest as possible in those moments. That’s it. I think everyone else was more freaked out about the head-shaving situation. I didn’t mind it.
There are not that many female directors in Hollywood. Was there anything different about working with a female director?
All directors are different, no matter their genitalia. She’s a dynamo. She’s just as married to what you’re doing as the actors are. She’s right in there with you, and she’s very detail oriented and just so thoughtful, like constantly coming up with new ideas and trying to make it fresh and interesting. And what I loved about her was she surprised me. She always had a new way of looking at things, and she would take us completely off-road before returning. I love being surprised. She made it fun.
Do you wish there were more projects like this that so brilliantly pass the Bechdel test?
I wish the test didn’t have to exist. I wish we didn’t have to talk about it. That’s what I wish—hopefully one day we’ll come to a festival and we won’t even have to comment on it…
And it’ll be ladies as far as the eye can see?
Well, it’ll just be humans, and half of them will be women, maybe more.
This year there’s actually a decent number of female directors.
Yeah, it’s great. But it’d be good if it didn’t have to be a topic of conversation.
Do you have any past projects, close to your heart, that you wish had gotten more attention?
It has a cult following, but Velvet Goldmine was one of my favourites. But a cult following is not necessarily a large following, so I wish it had exploded a little more. I think it’s a really great movie and Todd Haynes is a wonderful filmmaker.
Your character Milly dresses in a very va-va-voom way, and her beautiful wig is an integral part of the story. How did they help you get into character?
Absolutely—the costumes always help create the feeling of the character for me. In those heels and those power dresses…
Those shoes were gigantic. Were they all Louboutins?
There were a bunch. There were some cheap ones thrown in as well; it’s a low-budget film. Milly’s really attached to her veneer, and a big part of what she goes through is the fact that that changes so greatly. So we really wanted to have her indulge in that and to make her as sexy and stylish as possible.