Let Her Eat Cake
04/03/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
IT WAS JUNE 1993 IN AUSTRALIA, AND Toni Collette, then 20, was the first of what would prove to be 200 young hopefuls auditioning for the title role in Muriel's Wedding. In this Down Under comedy an overweight misfit named Muriel Heslop is obsessed with getting married because, she believes, it will prove she isn't "stupid, fat and useless." Collette, who is in fact smart, svelte (at 5'8 ½", 140 lbs.) and talented—but who, like her character, had suffered rejection as a teen—insisted to the film's writer-director, P.J. Hogan, "I am Muriel." Three months later, Hogan told College's agent something few actresses hear: "She's perfect—but too thin."
"Don't worry," Collette promised. "I'll put the weight on." Supervised by a dietitian, she then sank her teeth into the role. And the rolls. And the pizza and the chocolate cake and the ice cream—six meals a day for the next eight weeks. Collette gained 42 pounds. Fortunately her contract also called for a personal trainer, who, through a three-month regimen of aerobic exercise ("I got right into it—an hour and a half, six days a week") and stringent dieting, helped Collette take it all off.
Now back to her pre-Muriel physique, the actress, 22, remembers her heavy-weight bout with mixed emotions. "I used to fluctuate from feeling really lethargic and gross," she says, "to feeling really sexy and curvaceous."
Both sentiments come through loud and clear in Collette's comic yet touching performance, which has earned her not only Australia's Oscar for best actress and a 15-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, both last year, but also expressions of gratitude from hundreds of Wedding well-wishers. Here in the U.S. (where she is on a three-week publicity tour) and elsewhere, fans of both sexes have been coming up to Collette and saying, essentially, that not only was she Muriel but they were too.
Collette, a free spirit who lifts her T-shirt to display the silver ring piercing her navel, says she and Muriel are sisters under the skin. Growing up in the Sydney suburbs, the eldest of three children of truck driver Bob Collette and his wife, Judy, a customer service representative, Collette, like Muriel, connected with the sounds of the '70s pop group ABBA. "She was shy," recalls her father, "but she could blow you away with her singing." At 14, she made her performing debut in a school production of Godspell.
"I fell in love with being onstage," she says. After beating out thousands for the lead in an Australian bicentennial musical, she told her parents she was leaving school at 16 to act. "She's a very determined young woman," says her father. "Strong-willed and pigheaded" is how Collette describes herself. After 10 months of working in a jeans store and a few acting jobs, she enrolled in Sydney's National Institute of Dramatic Art. She quit a year and a half later to accept the first of a string of Sydney stage roles. Collette was appearing in a play called Summer of the Aliens when Muriel's Wedding came along.
Quite unlike Muriel, however, "I can't imagine getting married," says Collette, who broke up with her last boyfriend four years ago and now shares a beachfront flat with two female roommates in the Sydney suburb of Coogee. "I think my friends and family keep me grounded," she says. "I could just live in a tent out in the rain forest, y'know. It would be divine."
SHELLI-ANNE COUCH in Sydney
MARY SHAUGHNESSY in New York City