Ten years ago she dominated the screen, literally, gaining 40 pounds to play the pudgy, ABBA-loving wannabe bride in 1994's much-feted dark comedy Muriel's Wedding. Since then Toni Collette has established herself as a keen ensemble player: Picture her as a depressed mum scrapping with Hugh Grant in About a Boy, or a prattling, panicked '50s housewife sharing a sudden kiss with Julianne Moore in The Hours.
It took a tiny, sharp shock of a movie to bump this actress back into a starring role -- Japanese Story, which Toni Collette inhabits with jagged grace. As Sandy Edwards, an Australian geologist stuck playing tour guide to a Japanese businessman (Gotaro Tsunashima), Collette is aggressively flinty -- until their car gets bogged in the outback and her detachment spins into desperation. But wait, there's also a love story with a wicked twist that shoots the actress in an unforeseen direction -- and looses a performance that won her the Australian Oscar. ''For any actor, let alone a female actor, it's such an amazing part because it's so intense and turbulent,'' she says. ''I found it quite confronting.''
With blond layered locks and swinging chandelier earrings, Collette, 31, is lovely yet low-frill. In a Manhattan photo studio, she folds her legs yoga-style as she speaks in a zingy Aussie accent, punctuated by nose crinkles, arm waggles, and an occasional girlish burp. (''Sorry,'' she says, waving it away. ''Lunch.'')
Collette's acting approach is equally low-key. She and Japanese director Sue Brooks clicked at their first script meeting, and the movie was on -- eight weeks of roasting sun and sleeping in gas-stop trailers on a sliver of a budget. ''She's very Australian and I'm very Australian -- the expression we use is No bulls -- -,'' Brooks says. ''Some actors go on and on, and you think: They don't really understand [the story]. Toni got it in a very straightforward way.''
Maybe because she's been acting for half her life. Collette left her suburban Sydney school at 16 and toiled for six scrimpy years -- subsisting on 20-cent dinners at the local Hare Krishna kitchen -- before she broke out big in Muriel's Wedding. ''It was a religious experience almost, it was so...meant to be,'' she says of the film. ''And not just for me, for everyone involved.'' (Like good friend Rachel Griffiths of Six Feet Under, whom she met on set.)
In the years since, Collette's returned often to the realm of the awkward and the weary, most notably as Haley Joel Osment's ragged, fiercely protective mom in 1999's The Sixth Sense. ''She's very raw,'' says director M. Night Shyamalan. ''Her [work] isn't polished to the point that it becomes a 'performance.' It's still rough around the edges.'' It was Sixth that earned Collette a supporting Oscar nod -- despite her initial confusion as to what kind of movie she was in. ''I didn't realize it was a horror film,'' she says. ''I thought it was a simple, gorgeous spiritual tale, and then I realized I was in something else. But I still love it.''