Over the years, the warm, expressive face of Toni Collette has become a welcome fixture onscreen, particularly when it comes to portraying realistically multidimensional women. From “Little Miss Sunshine” to “United States of Tara” to “Hereditary,” Collette has become an expert at breaking gender molds and achieving complex, groundbreaking performances across a varied slate of stories and genres.
Collette’s newest accomplishment “Wanderlust” is no exception. Now streaming on Netflix, the show stars Collette as a British therapist named Joy who lives a perfectly comfortable life with her husband Alan (Steven Mackintosh) and three kids. When we meet Joy, she’s recovering from a recent bike accident that left her with a broken hip—but she’s too resilient and averse to inactivity to let that hold her back.
Alan, on the other hand, is more partial to routine. The clash is causing their sex life to dwindle, and both of them can tell it’s time to try something radical. So, when they begin to open up about how they’ve been pining for other people—Joy for a swimming class cohort, Alan for a colleague—they decide to embark on an experiment: have sex with other people to rescue their relationship.
Joy is a fascinating character—funny, empathic, and bold enough to go after what she wants. The role is a great fit for Collette, an agile performer who often takes on characters that require her to stretch her limits. In a world where moms are loving, wives are doting, and women are generally pleasant, Joy is just one of the many roles in which Collette has proven herself unafraid of taking risks.
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Here are some of the ways in which Collette has been known to subvert stereotypes, push boundaries, and tackle a range of roles outside the sweet-mom norm.
Unapologetic About Sex
“Wanderlust” begins with a familiar premise: a tired, dead-end marriage suffering from monotony in all arenas—especially inside the bedroom. Naturally, wandering eyes and irrepressible libidos start to look elsewhere. Traditionally, it’s the husband who takes on this unfaithful role, succumbing to temptation through an illicit affair with the nanny or the kids’ teacher or the friend.
But this time, Joy is the one eager to pursue a rowdier, livelier sex life, keenly suggesting to her husband that the only way to save their marriage may be to free themselves up a little from it. Even in a world ever-moving toward sexual egalitarianism, it’s still rare to see a woman this unapologetic onscreen, and Collette is the ideal actor to embody it.
Traditionally Masculine Traits
Joy’s fervor in “Wanderlust” isn’t a stretch for Collette, who often takes on characters with traditionally masculine traits. The most overt example of this lies in the wildly unruly “United States of Tara,” in which Collette stars as a Kansas City mom named Tara living with dissociative identity disorder. As a symptom of the disorder, Tara often disappears into a slew of various alter-egos, which allow her to run the gamut on all types of characters and personalities. One of the most memorable of these alter-egos is Buck, a vulgar macho man who hits on Tara’s friends and claims to have gotten crabs from sleeping with a local bowling alley waitress. Suffice it to say, Collette isn’t afraid of enacting traditionally masculine attributes.
But performing masculinity isn’t always about being crude. In “Miss You Already,” Collette plays the buoyant Milly, a hard-working mom and wife battling breast cancer. She’s the undeniable head of house, serving as both the breadwinner for the family and the go-to for her young kids. Amid her treatments, Milly maintains an upbeat, irreverent attitude, teaching her kids about what it means to undergo chemotherapy while also keeping a happy face for her husband, even while she’s breaking down inside. Milly may not be a virile, aggressive role, but her persevering attitude, tendency toward pride, and control of the family place her in a role that is, more often than not, reserved for men.
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Though we might like to imagine moms as eternal beacons of love and support, real life rarely makes it that easy. Moms are human too, with all the flaws and faults to show for it. Collette has taken on the role of the questionable mom again and again, ferociously embracing her characters’ negligence or bitterness without tropes or. Coincidentally, two of the most memorable instances occur opposite Steve Carell: as Pam in “The Way Way Back” and Sheryl in “Little Miss Sunshine.” Pam, especially, is an appalling mother, reveling in the Cape Cod party scene while regarding her son only with scorn. Sheryl is a slight improvement, doing her best to support the struggling Olive despite a slew of responsibilities and distractions.
But Collette’s best flawed mom portrayal came even earlier, in the acclaimed 2002 film “About a Boy.” While the beloved movie foregrounds the budding relationship between Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) and Will (Hugh Grant), Collette steals scenes with her portrayal of Fiona, Marcus’s depressed single mother. When we meet Fiona, she’s in the midst of a suicide attempt—slouched in the living room having overdosed on pills. Fiona easily could have been a flat character: the careless mom only present to serve the plot by driving Marcus to an outside guardian.
But in Fiona, as in many of her other roles, Collette finds pathos in the despondence, and in doing so brings a welcome female sensibility to a movie largely centered around male bonding. The performance earned Collette nominations for both a Golden Globe and BAFTA Award, cementing her as a tour de force and setting the stage for years of multidimensional roles to come. With “Wanderlust,” Collette has once again defied the one-dimensional mom standard, bringing to life a fully realized woman whose mistakes, weaknesses, and vulnerability just make her all the more real.