Toni Collette Says She's A "Sucker for An Underdog" and Her Latest Co-Star, a Horse Named Bo

The star of feel-good dramedy Dream Horse talks pursuing small-town dreams, wrestling with tough accents, and her role in Guillermo del Toro's "incredible" Nightmare Alley.

by | May 20, 2021 | Comments

Dream Horse

(Photo by Kerry Brown / © Bleecker Street Media / Courtesy Everett Collection)

For a certain kind of movie lover – read: this writer – nothing could be a more enticing lure back to theaters than the promise of Toni Collette tearing into a meaty underdog role on the biggest screen possible. This week, that certain kind of moviegoer is in for a treat. In Dream Horse, the feel-good Welsh film that critics say has arrived in theaters – after delays due to COVID-19 – at just the right time for a country in need of some serious uplift, Collette plays real-life small-town hero Jan Vokes, a working-class woman who wakes up one day with a singular ambition: to breed a champion race horse. The film, whose story was told in the 2015 Certified Fresh documentary Dark Horse, follows Vokes as she rallies a disparate group of locals – among them Damian Lewis’s initially skeptical local accountant, Howard Davies – to put some money together and make that dream come true.

For Collette, who recently wrapped on Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming Nightmare Alley and is currently shooting Netflix drama Pieces of Her in Sydney, Australia, it’s another critically acclaimed performance as a woman whose circumstances are humble but who should not be underestimated, a trait she says she’s been attracted to from the time of her breakout film role as Mariel/Muriel Heslop in Australian comedy classic, Muriel’s Wedding. In Vokes, Collette says she found someone to whom she could relate: “I am a sucker for an underdog story,” Collette says. “Feeling out of place, but having a certain amount of faith in oneself, just having this gut feeling of, ‘I have to pursue this. There’s no real clear reason why, except that I’m backing myself here and I feel it and I have to do it.'”

Ahead of the movie’s release, Collette spoke with Rotten Tomatoes about the pressure to get one of Wales’ most beloved (true) fairy tales just right, forming a tight bond with her cast and a horse named Bo, and why she can’t wait to see what the “singular” Del Toro has done with the highly anticipated Nightmare Alley.

Dream Horse

(Photo by Kerry Brown / © Bleecker Street Media / Courtesy Everett Collection)

Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: Congratulations on the film – and on mastering the Welsh accent. The whole time I was watching I was thinking, this must have been work! What was your approach to nailing the notoriously difficult accent?

Toni Collette: Panic, initially. I mean, it’s a very intimidating collection of sounds, and I wasn’t very familiar with it. And not only is the Welsh accent on the whole a little scary from the outset, but then this is a very specific area called The Valleys. Thankfully, I had an incredible dialect coach who helped me – she’s from there, and it was very, very specific. I can’t tell you how helpful she was. Also, just being there and the cast and the crew were the most beautiful group of people, so supportive. So, the familiarity of the accent, it became more and more of something that didn’t seem so scary and far away to reach, but I was very intimidated by it. At the beginning, I was like, “I’ve got to get out of this job. I won’t only embarrass myself, but I will let down this entire nation, because this is a true story and I cannot screw it up!”

Rotten Tomatoes: I mean, it feels like the most Welsh movie ever made and you’re at the center of it doing this accent, and look, to my ears – and I’m not steeped in the language – it sounded great! The other thing I kept thinking is, the movie is such a feel-good film, and people are saying it’s such a treat that it’s coming out at this point in time, because we’re in need of this kind of film. It actually wasn’t supposed to be out right now, but do you think the timing adds something to the movie?

Collette: It couldn’t be better time. It could not be more perfect. I think the fact that people are able to go and have a communal experience of sitting in the dark together and watching a story unfold and getting emotionally involved is such a special treat. I think all the things we took for granted are now seen so differently. So, to be able to go and do that for a start is amazing, but to be able to watch something as special as this, that is so full of joy, so uplifting, so inspirational and all about hope and realizing your dreams… it just couldn’t be better.

Rotten Tomatoes: The movie is about a woman who wakes up one day with a dream and acts on it. And when I was watching your character Jan, a lot of the time I was thinking abut Muriel [Collette’s character in her breakout, Muriel’s Wedding]. They’re these two women from small communities who have a dream, right? But, Muriel’s dream is to run away and get out and Jan’s is to pursue her dream within her community and lift up the community as well. Did you see any parallels between these two characters – both chasing dreams, in different ways, at different points of their life?

Collette: Absolutely. I think I am a sucker for an underdog story. I just am. And I grew up in Blacktown [a suburb in western Sydney]; I had very humble beginnings and I had this dream of acting, which seemed so distant and unachievable. I very much relate to feeling out of place, but having a certain amount of faith in oneself, just having this gut feeling of, “I have to pursue this. There’s no real clear reason why, except that I’m backing myself here and I feel it and I have to do it” – and to succeed is an incredible thing. But really, what I’m inspired by in Jan Vokes is that she’s so determined and so full of love and passion, and simply looking for some purpose, some meaning in her life. Really, there’s that line: “I just want something to look forward to when I wake up in the morning” – it’s such a simple dream. And to be honest, I don’t think she really thinks about uplifting the community. I think it’s a by-product of her own [dream]. I think that’s that thing of, if you live your truth, you can only have a positive knock-on effect and I think that’s what happens in this scenario.

Dark Horse

(Photo by ©Sony Pictures Classics/courtesy Everett Collection)

Rotten Tomatoes: Jan (above, from the documentary Dark Horse) is obviously an incredible and inspiring person. To what capacity did you work with her or get to know her in the process of making the film?

Collette: I didn’t meet her until she visited the set a few weeks into filming actually. I’d been living, obviously, with the script and everyone’s stories about spending time with her and the documentary that had previously been somewhat successful at Sundance as well. I was kind of steeped in her world, but I didn’t really communicate with her directly. When I heard she was coming to set, I was really nervous. I mean, as I said, it’s a real responsibility playing someone who exists, but then she’s right there. It’s like meeting Santa Claus or something, it’s quite jarring, but also very exciting. Kind of want to pee your pants and cuddle them and you don’t know them at all. And it was a bit stiff and shy and it was a little disjointed, but I just love that there’s this normal woman who pursued her dream and now there’s a movie made about her. That in itself is an incredible thing. That just blows me away.

They all visited the set a couple of times and then obviously at the end of the film they appear, which I think is so great. It’s so important for people to see them and it’s done in the most fun Welsh way. I mean, they can’t stop singing. That’s their culture. They will sing at the drop of a hat about anything.

Dream Horse

(Photo by © Bleecker Street)

Rotten Tomatoes: [Laughing] I admit I was watching the movie and thinking, “They’re going to sing ‘Delilah’ at some point –  it’s going to happen. It has to, it’s Wales!” And then it does.

Collette: Oh yeah baby. And there were songs that we, all the actors, just ad-libbed, that we kind of made up as we went along, which ended up on screen. But not only that, the composer then used what we had made up on the spot and started to compose from that. So, some of the score is actually inspired by us just mucking around on set. I love the organic nature of how that came to be.

Rotten Tomatoes: Sounds like a fun shoot, with great people. Director Euros Lyn has said that you formed a particularly close bond with one of your co-stars: Bo, one of the horses who plays Dream. Tell us about that bond.

Collette: Well, look, I’m not a particularly horsey person. I have had some mind-blowing almost spiritual experiences with horses, but I’m not around them often. And yes, there were several horses playing Dream. There were some that did a lot of the running racing, and then Bo was the acting horse. All of my scenes were with Bo, and they were emotionally intimate and I feel so lucky to have had an experience working with a creature like this, because there’s no crazy judgment and the mind going round circuitously trying to make sense of things. The horse is just there. The horse is just present and listening, and it’s all just energy between us and it was really profound. I loved him and I even looked into flying him back to Sydney. It was highfalutin, it was never going to happen, but I just felt so connected to this horse, and it wasn’t just in my mind because the crew could see it. Everyone’s like, “Oh my God, this is incredible to capture this on film,” but they are beautiful, sensitive, perceptive creatures, and it was pretty spesh. [Editor’s note: That would be Aussie shorthand for “special.”]

Dream Horse

(Photo by Kerry Brown / © Bleecker Street Media / Courtesy Everett Collection)

Rotten Tomatoes: This film obviously shows a very nurturing relationship between man and horse. It’s a beautiful side of this sport. But watching the movie I couldn’t help also thinking about some of the conversations around horse-racing, and controversies, which have particularly come up in Australia in the last couple of years every November [the month of nation-stopping horse race the Melbourne Cup] – the debate around how dangerous racing can be for the animals. These owners clearly were incredibly careful and caring about the wellbeing of Dream, but there is another side. Was that conversation ever something that you thought about or was in the back of your mind as you got to know this world?

Collette: Absolutely, yeah. I really don’t know much about horse racing. Like Jan, it was a real education for me. I think the focus of the story is her relationship with Dream and what it does for herself and her community. Dream is almost like a third child to her. She’s so protective of his wellbeing and his health. And it’s torture actually for her to watch him do what he is actually very good at. They talk about him being born to do that and she did do that, she did state, “I’m going to breed a race horse.” But she falls so heavily in love with this beautiful animal and they have such a bond that it becomes quite upsetting for her. She can barely watch. I think she feels… Look, I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but she can’t go and visit him [today]. He has a great life. He’s out to pasture, he’s got beautiful carers and she can’t visit him. She can’t face it.

Guillermo del Toro

(Photo by Kerry Hayes/Universal Pictures)

Rotten Tomatoes: The last time we spoke was for I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and I’d asked about shooting Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, and at that time everything was on pause and you hadn’t had a chance to do it. And now it’s done.

Collette: Done baby, yeah!

Rotten Tomatoes: First of all, how was it doing a production with COVID-safe protocols? And then secondly, what can we expect from your character Zeena and this film?

Collette: Well, it was an amazing experience. Guillermo Del Toro is an incredible human being. There is nobody like him, and I’m so thankful that I got to work with him and I hope to do it again and again, because it is truly very satisfying and just a huge amount of fun. I love him. I love him as a person. I love him as a director. There is nobody like him. He is singular and incredible.

I took my family. We lived in beautiful house in Toronto. There were varying degrees of lockdown. But I’ve got to say, I think, you couldn’t get any safer than a film set. They’re so regimented and disciplined and demanding in terms of having to toe the line and everyone does their best to not get it. You really are in a bubble and the whole of Toronto is in masks and you’re just sanitizing your hands a million times a day and trying not to be in big crowds and you just have to be mindful of that. Especially when you’re working, because there’s a bigger risk there. It’s not just you, it’s everyone else, you know?

Rotten Tomatoes: And finally, is there anything you could tell us about the film? What can we expect genre-wise – is this a big Del Toro fantasy? People are so curious.

Collette: It’s not fantasy, it’s a period drama. It’s just as gorgeously saturated visually [as his other films], but it’s very much a drama. It’s unlike some of his other work and the actors are incredible. It looks incredible. I personally can’t wait to see it. I think there’s almost four hours of footage, which needs to be whittled down. And I know that he’s editing furiously at the moment, but it was a total joy. I think we all felt very privileged to be able to work during that period when so many people just couldn’t do much at all.

Dream Horse is in theaters May 21, 2021.

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