Director Michael Dougherty’s Christmas horror tale Krampus opened earlier this month (and is still around if you want a nice dose of a twisted anti-Santa Claus to take the edge off the holiday season) and one of its many pleasures is watching brilliant Australian actress Toni Collette star as Sarah, the matriarch of the dysfunctional family that comes under attack from the title entity. Collette’s Sarah is buttoned up and controlling, but she and her husband (Adam Scott) are losing touch and her son Max (Emjay Anthony) is ready to renounce Christmas entirely — paving the way for the supernatural mayhem to follow.
Collette’s long and illustrious resume includes her breakthrough film Muriel’s Wedding and her turn as a terrified mother in The Sixth Sense, plus distinctive roles in About a Boy, Velvet Goldmine, Little Miss Sunshine, Enough Said and her three-season run on Showtime’s The United States of Tara. Den of Geek spoke with her just as Krampus was opening about working with monsters on set, Christmas in Australia and her very first movie…
Den of Geek: What did you know about the Krampus myth before this?
Toni Collette: Absolutely nothing. I was sent the script and along with the script came a little package of collated information and images. It was more of a visual thing, how Mike saw the movie. And they were pretty interesting images. [laughs] I was like, “Oh, what’s going on here?” Then when I read the script, I just found it to be so original. I have never in my life read anything like it. The idea of there being this kind of dark shadow of Santa, you know, balancing out Santa’s light at that time of year I found really interesting, and it’s a huge celebration that kids love and are completely intimidated by in Austria. Amazing.
Were you surprised to learn that there was a “dark Santa” out there?
There’s a dark side to everything. Maybe it was more of a relief. [laughs] No, no, I was surprised. I’d just never heard of it. Yeah.
What’s Christmas like in Australia?
Hot. [laughs] I mean, personally, I can only talk about my Christmas. It’s family-oriented and there’s a lot of yummy food, and there’s gift giving, and a beautiful tree, and carols, and images of Santa hanging ten on a surfboard. There’s always swimming in the ocean. Yeah, it’s a beautiful day. No one has to rush off and do anything else.
The movie touches on some of these situations where there is this family tension or that one relative that nobody wants to see that ends up…
I’ve never had that. I feel sorry for those people. I mean not everybody loves their family. I’m very aware of that. Luckily I do and I want to be with them and share the day with them. I’ve always loved it. I think it’s a really special day, especially now that I have small children of my own. It just gets better and better. But yeah, I can understand people who don’t want to be voluntarily with their family and feel they are forced to be with people they don’t really like and it’s more something to endure than enjoy.
What was your way into the character of Sarah? What did you grasp most strongly about her?
I think she’s a control freak and she’s just incredibly anal, very much a perfectionist. And the more I could play with that, the further she had to go in terms of her journey, because she has to let all that go. She becomes much more grounded and strong.
Did you watch Michael’s previous film, Trick or Treat?
No. I don’t like horror films.
You’ve been in a couple, including this one.
I know, but it’s different making them when you know what’s going on. And also, with this particular film, Krampus has got a sense of humor. I don’t think that’s often the case with horror films. I just don’t need those images in my mind at night when I’m trying to go to sleep. Nope.
The movie also touches on the idea that there is that point where everybody feels a little bit of that exhaustion of the holiday season, whether it’s the shopping, or the relentless advertising, or the sales and all that. Is that something that you can relate to in terms of this character and the story?
Well, they start in the midst of all that commercialized nightmare where people are pushing and pulling and grunting and doing anything to tick off every gift on their list. To be honest, I think my character is probably a little more organized and starts her shopping in March or something. [laughs] So she doesn’t have to go through that particular stress. I think she probably would have avoided it had Max not had his little nativity play there.
Michael used a lot of practical puppetry and practical monsters on the set. Did that make it easier to evoke a real response?
Oh yeah, absolutely. It really helped. And Weta Workshop do the most incredible work. Those creatures were so intricate and delicate and detailed. The only time I’ve ever had to act with a tennis ball is when I was acting with myself in United States of Tara. But this kind of film, you know, the creatures are so…There’s a sweetness to this movie as well. I don’t like the psychological ones. These are creatures that I know really don’t exist, so it’s easier.
There is something about the creatures that’s scary and funny at the same time.
Yeah. There’s a kind of giddy kid-like infusion that Mike was aiming for. And I think he did it really successfully. It creates a really great time. I imagine if I was 14 years old I would absolutely love this movie and want to watch it three times in a night.
Any scenes that were particularly physically tough to do?
I was in a harness going up the chimney. Initially, I got in there and I was like, “You know what? I’m could hang around in this all day. This is so comfortable.” After 10 minutes I was like, “What the fuck? Get me out.”
And also, the long snow sequence at the end, kind of trudging through the snow. It was this weird silicon that would suction our shoes off. It was that much of a suction. So it was difficult to actually move through it. It was like a workout. And we were doing that whilst having debris hurled at us with all the, you know, maybe six massive fans. It was three days of that. I was sore. I felt like I’d been hit by a train and my head was three times the size by the time we’d finished. [laughs]
Are you generally game, though, for that kind of stuff?
I’ll do anything. Yeah.
Anything you’ve said no to?
Not that I can think of. No. I mean if I like the project and I can see that it’s worthwhile and essential to the piece on the whole, I’ll absolutely do it. Yeah. It’s fun.
How has the craft of acting changed for you over the 20 years that we’ve seen you on the screen?
I think when I first started acting I kind of needed it more. It was a really great emotional release for me and I think I had less control. It was just very…I mean I’m still intuitive, but I think it was just all gut. And now I’m a little more creative with it.
For a long time I thought your first film was Muriel’s Wedding. Then I recently read that it was…
Well, I think it’s also called The Efficiency Expert…And that threw me off too, because I was like, “Well, which one is it? Were there two?”
Yeah. They renamed it.
You did that with Anthony Hopkins, Russell Crowe. Do you remember that first experience…?
Oh my god. Yeah, I do. Absolutely. It was just pure fun. I’m 17 years old. I was living away from home. I arrived, they gave me a wad of cash and said, “OK. Have fun.” [laughs] I was like, “What is this? Per diem? What’s per diem?”
But just being on set… I had a little bit with Tony. Most of my stuff was with Ben Mendelsohn, who is such a wonderful human and a great actor. It was just pure joy. I was like a pig in shit. It was my first movie. It was so exciting. And I was in Melbourne. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there. It’s a wonderful city. I just loved it. I loved our director. I loved his wife. Yeah, the whole experience was just so positive I wanted to do it forever.
What role do you get asked about the most? When people stop you on the street, what do they like to talk about?
Mostly Muriel’s Wedding, for sure. It amazes me. People just still love that movie so much. It’s such a great thing. And it’s important to me because it’s a film that, until that time, I didn’t really have any kind of concept of the audience. It was a pure experience. The making of the movie was it. And then, all of a sudden, it just kind of just kept opening all these doors. So yeah, I love that people still adore it.
I just literally a few days ago finished a film in Australia called Jasper Jones, which is an adaptation of a really beautiful novel of the same name. I did this film with Daniel Radcliffe called Imperium, which is based on a real experience of…We both play FBI agents and I convince him to go undercover as a skinhead with a bunch of Nazis, essentially. It’s about the idea of domestic terrorism versus blaming everyone over there.
What else is coming out? Glassland comes out in February. That’s an Irish film that I did at the beginning of last year. Beautiful Jack Reynor. I play his mom and I’m a complete alcoholic. They’re just poverty stricken, living together and he’s trying to save me, and it’s completely heartbreaking.
Krampus is out in theaters now.