''Actors go through phases of wanting to play people who are f---ed-up, but this woman is truly disturbed,'' says Toni Collette of Donna, a character who insists she's the adoptive mother of an adolescent boy dying of AIDS. Only, the kid may be a figment of her twisted imagination. ''It's totally fascinating. And scary.''
Adapted from Armistead Maupin's 2000 novel that itself was based on creepier-than-fiction real events from the author's recent past, Night Listener is the tale of Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams), a radio-show host who develops a telephone friendship with a terminal AIDS patient (Rory Culkin) claiming to have suffered unspeakable acts of sexual abuse by his birth parents. When an increasingly unstable Donna continuously thwarts his attempts to meet the kid in person, Gabriel starts to suspect he's been duped.
''I was delighted to purify the story [and] force myself to look at the bare bones of [it],'' says Maupin, who co-wrote the screenplay with his ex-partner Terry Anderson. Director Patrick Stettner (The Business of Strangers) pitched in too, dreaming up such scenes as a chilling encounter between Gabriel and a cop with a stun gun. Convincing Maupin's longtime friend Williams to play his alter ego was a cinch. ''We took the script over to his house. We made a complete end run around his agents,'' Maupin says with a cackle. ''I was very proud of that!''