Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette, co-stars and close friends

Drew Barrymore, left, and Toni Collette. Picture: Contributed

Drew Barrymore, left, and Toni Collette. Picture: Contributed

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THEY play lifelong pals in their new film, but there’s nothing phoney about the close bond between Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore

AS WE wait for her co-star to arrive, Drew Barrymore tells me she’s going to “multitask”. Feet tucked up underneath her, Chanel shift dress and long beads looking as casually comfortable as I think Chanel ever has, she sends a text to her kids, has a conversation about health supplements with someone checking he’s bought the right ones, presumably on her recommendation, she gets out a proof of her new book, Wild Flower and starts editing – “this should say fire not five” – then there is an issue with a photograph matching some text, annotations are made… It’s really quite impressive.

Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette in Miss You Already

Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette in Miss You Already

But she stops the moment Toni Collette walks in and says hello. Floats might be more accurate. The co-star of Missing You Already is pretty jet-lagged and looks a bit spacey. Barrymore turns down the corner of the page she’s on, hands it to her assistant and says, “I’ll pick it back up on the next break.”

“Have you taken off your make-up?” Collette asks, looking at Barrymore’s scrubbed face as she settles in her seat.

“Yes.” It’s true, there is not a shred of cosmetics on her face. “We don’t have any more photos or anything.”

“Yes we do,” says Collette, deadpan. There is a pause. She grins. “Just joking.”

Barrymore gives her the finger and they both laugh. “I’m going to squeeze in a workout before the show,” says Barrymore.

I feel like I’m eavesdropping, watching two mates shoot the breeze.

“Oh really,” says Collette. “I already did.”

“I know, you got up at six, you’re amazing,” says Barrymore. “I was asleep.”

Collette turns to me and smiles. “We’re just talking, aren’t we?”

Doing an interview with two actors can be a tricky business. There have been occasions I’ve been asked to do this before and it’s clear that one A-lister, let’s call him “Bob”, has been paired up with “Michelle” because Bob is deadly dull (in interviews at least) and Michelle has enough charisma for the two of them. On other occasions I might notice that the one who’s plainly been up all night and is smoking furiously in a non-smoking hotel room is basically being chaperoned by his compadre. I can only imagine that this chaperone-type must have done something terrible during the shoot for which s/he is being punished.

With Barrymore and Collette, it’s different. They actually genuinely seem not only to like each other but to really know each other. There are anecdotes about holidays and news of their kids, in-jokes, favourite stores (a Japanese place in Venice Beach called Tortoise with a Zen garden through the back, apparently), the bowel-loosening effects of magnesium, raised eyebrows. It’s all there. They’re mates, pals, BFFs.

And it’s just as well, because Miss You Already just couldn’t work unless there was proper chemistry between the two women at the heart of it – Milly (Collette) a successful, glamorous, work-hard-play-hard PR person married to Kit (Dominic Cooper) with two kids, and Jess (Barrymore), who works at a community garden and basically keeps Milly on the straight and narrow whilst also trying to conceive with her partner, Jago (Paddy Considine). It is a film about friendship, devastating illness – breast cancer – and its gruelling treatment, love and longing.

It’s a weepy, for sure, I looked like I’d had some kind of allergic reaction my eyes were so puffy after watching it, but it’s funny too (Considine is a bit of a revelation) mainly because Collette and Barrymore pull it off as friends and neither writer, Morwenna Banks, nor director Catherine Hardwicke have shied away from the complexity of the characters or the story. The cancer diagnosis in this film doesn’t create a saint or make everything fall neatly into place. There is something more real and more messy here and again it feels like it is anchored by the friendship of the two central characters.

So would platonic chemistry be harder to fake than romantic chemistry on screen? “I do think so, yes,” says Barrymore. “We were lucky because we just got right into the electric connection.” She smiles at Collette who is making goofy faces at her. “I think it would be so much easier for me to pretend to be in love with a guy who I wasn’t in love with because you just channel that kind of marvelling, giddy thing.”

“Or you just move straight into the physicality of it,” says Collette, “whereas with platonic love there’s a whole array of stuff.”

“You can’t just do the gazing in the eyes,” says Barrymore. “It’s so different.”

What Miss You Already captures are the moments of tenderness and intimacy as well as the disagreements and disappointments between best friends. “In a lifelong friendship you go through so many ups and downs, closeness, distance, anger, pain, joy, working at it, it feeling like a f***ing effort,” says Barrymore. “But the majority of it is humour, altruism, the most genuine care and concern. It’s almost like a psychic connection, you don’t even have to say it, you are so intuitive with each other. I’ve definitely had some real tough love moments with my friends over the course of 20 or 30 years. You come out stronger for it, but friendships take a lot of work.”

Collette is one of those actresses who I can’t ever remember turning in a disappointing performance. From Muriel’s Wedding (when she was just 20) onwards the 47-year-old has barely faltered, with a succession of awards and nominations, an Oscar nod for The Sixth Sense, an Emmy for United States Of Tara, in which she played a woman with dissociative identity disorder, and a Screen Actors Guild award for her role in Little Miss Sunshine. Collette was the first to sign up to Missing You Already. But it was two and half years later that the film finally got the go-ahead.

“I didn’t want to let go,” she says. “I was like a dog with a goddamn bone I was so determined.”

“Lockjaw,” says Barrymore.

Collette smiles her agreement. Why was she so passionate and committed? “It’s really special and unique, somehow important. Not only is it about female friendship, it tackles cancer and conception, everything. It’s life, love, loss, death – it captures a very real slice of life.”

If you were casting the characters you might be tempted to swap the two actors around: Barrymore would be the wild, demanding, funny but sharp Milly and Collette would be the quieter, homelier Jess. Did they instantly know who they’d play when they read the script?

“Yes,” they both say simultaneously. “I was going to play them both,” says Collette with a roll of the eyes.

“I think there was some flexibility on your behalf,” Barrymore chips in, sounding not for the only time like a big sister.

“Someone else was supposed to play Milly, but I absolutely loved it so I said I would play Jess, then that person fell out and no one else would stick,” says Collette. “I was doing a play at the time and the character was really grounded and capable, the one who was strong in all this spinning chaos in the people around her. A friend said to me, ‘If you’re going to do this movie, don’t be that again, you need to be the other part.’”

“I was perfect for playing Jess,” says Barrymore. “I really wanted to watch her,” she nods at Collette, “and support her and be a backbone for her to go on that crazy journey. I was just making babies and about life and making life and I had that mushy body.” Barrymore has two daughters, Olive, three, and Frankie, 17 months, with her husband, art consultant Will Kopelman. “I really wanted to channel my friends who’ve been the admirations of my life. Jess is such a great friend.”

Barrymore has certainly known what it’s like to need a good friend. She was a child from an astonishing acting dynasty (legendary movie star John Barrymore was her grandfather) who made her first TV commercial before the age of one and melted everyone’s hearts as Gertie in E.T. when she was just four years old. By the time she was in her early teens she was struggling with drink and drugs. Then there was rehab and, following a successful juvenile court petition for emancipation from her parents, she moved into her own apartment. She was 15.

“My friends were more like Jess when I was going off the rails and being a little selfish and hedonistic. Always together at work, though, same as Milly,” she shrugs.

Barrymore has made films her whole life. There have been lulls but she’s never stopped acting, never stopped being a movie star and popular too. There was a whole slew of rom-coms in the late 1990s then, amongst others, came the Charlie’s Angels reboot that was made by her production company, and her directorial debut, Whip It, with Ellen Page. But for Missing You Already, she was tapping into the most recent phase of her life, “Jess mode”. “I was so in that place,” she says, “wanting to be that rock.”

“So much so that I can’t imagine you any other way,” says Collette.

When filming was finished Collette and Barrymore and their respective husbands and children – Collette is married to musician Dave Galafassi and they have two children, Sage and Arlo – went on holiday together. “You had changed your hair from Jess, dark brown, back to blonde,” says Collette. “We were sitting in a restaurant in Paris and I was totally freaked out because you looked like a rock star and it was like where have you gone?”

“Yeah, well, you were puking up your cream sauce shortly after,” says Barrymore, instantly back in Jess-mode.

Collette had lost weight for the role of Milly – she also shaved her head – and was feeling drained both emotionally and physically by the end of filming. She got spectacularly sick on their holiday. “I was fine,” she says, “although I did end up in hospital.”

“It was hard for her emotionally and physically to come out of being Milly. I watched her and it took some time,” Barrymore adds.

The film certainly doesn’t shy away from the physical impact of treating cancer – from sickness to hair loss to how surgery changes our very relationship with our bodies. Collette plays it beautifully – understated, truthful, harrowing.

“If you’ve never gone through treatment for cancer I think this film is the most truthful explanation of what it’s like,” says Barrymore. “But it’s unfortunate because I know pretty much everybody has gone through it or has someone close to them who has.”

The response in Toronto was really amazing, says Collette, with the stunned audience staying seated when the lights came up. “And that’s really why I make films. I want people to engage emotionally. I do,” she says.

But the film is funny as well. There’s drunkenness, a fine turn by Frances de la Tour as a wig maker, and a road trip to the Yorkshire Moors to visit the landscape where Cathy and Heathcliff roamed as the characters share a fixation with Wuthering Heights.

“I did really scour the Brontë house while I was there,” says Barrymore. “Brontë Town. It was really cool.”

“Why didn’t I do that?” Collette wonders.

“Didn’t you? Didn’t you walk around the town?” Barrymore asks. It turns out that no she didn’t.

“From 20 to 35 I spent most of my life driving in an RV across America,” says Barrymore, warming to the road trip theme. “All over the place. It’s the best, such a great way to travel. Laundry basket, map, nowhere to go, nowhere to be; you don’t like it, leave, you like it, stay. It was so fun. Weeks at a time.”

“There’s nothing better than filling the tank with petrol and taking off without a clue of where you might end up,” Collette agrees.

“We’d literally flip a coin to decide if we’d go right or left, or if we’d go to this town or that town,” says Barrymore. “It was so cool.”

Her success makes it hard to imagine those free-wheeling times returning. Apart from her acting, there’s the make-up brand she owns, Flower Cosmetics, as well as the new book, Wild Flower, (the one she’s proofing in her breaks) – it’s a collection of essays about her life. She also has a very successful film production company, Flower Films, which she set up in 1995, and which was responsible for Charlie’s Angels and Donnie Darko amongst other hits.

I had read that Collette was thinking of following suit.

“I’ve started a production company and we’ve got a couple of projects,” she says a bit bashfully. “It’s just the beginning.”

Barrymore beams and winks at Collette. She looks properly proud. She laughs and rolls her eyes. “I know some of the projects too and they’re really good,” she says. “Really good.”

The press trail for Missing You Already takes them to Australia next week.

“I’ll get to see my mum and dad,” says Collette smiling.

“Is it summer there?” asks Barrymore.

“Spring,” Collette tells her. She stares out at the relentless rain, battering the window. “It’ll be nicer than here.”

“I wish I’d been able to work it out so that we could’ve gone straight from here,” says Barrymore, and I start to feel like I’m eavesdropping again. “But I have to go back…” she turns to me. “I have to be there for my daughter’s first week of school, so I am going back to New York before I go to Sydney. It’s three days of travel for two days of being there. Ridiculous.”

But starting school…

“I can’t miss it,” she says. “I won’t.”

“No way in the world,” chimes Collette.

They both smile.

Twitter: @scottiesays

• Missing You Already is on general release

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