Australian actress Toni Collette joins the scream team

A still of Toni Collette from Hereditary. Picture: PA Photo/Entertainment Film Distributors
A still of Toni Collette from Hereditary. Picture: PA Photo/Entertainment Film Distributors
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It’s been almost two decades since Toni Collette starred in The Sixth Sense.

The Australian actress, 45, was nominated for an Oscar for her turn as the mother of a young boy who sees dead people.

Toni Collette during the filming of the Graham Norton Show at BBC Studioworks 6 Television Centre. Picture: Isabel Infantes/PA Photos

Toni Collette during the filming of the Graham Norton Show at BBC Studioworks 6 Television Centre. Picture: Isabel Infantes/PA Photos

Now she is returning to the supernatural genre for her new film Hereditary, about a family battling malevolent forces that are trying to colonise their bloodline. It has already been hailed as one of the scariest films in years.

But taking on such intense, not to mention terrifying, subject matter was never part of the plan.

“I actually said, ‘I don’t want to do anything heavy or emotional. I just want to do comedies, I want to keep it light’.

“Then I was sent this script and I was like, ‘I’m going to have to do this’ because it was just so brilliantly written.

“I’m assuming I had the experience that you get as an audience member when you’re watching.

“It feels very fresh, very original, very raw and very surprising and I think as an actor and as an audience member that’s what you want.

“You want to be woken up and have something exciting.”

Collette plays artist Annie Graham, whose mother’s death from cancer prompts her family to unravel cryptic secrets about their ancestry.

The result blends horror, dread and a deeply unnerving fear of the unknown.

“I just loved it,” the Muriel’s Wedding star says, “and then when I met Ari Aster, who wrote and directed Hereditary, he was just very clearly in control of what he was doing.

“He had such a vivid, strong, clear vision and I felt very much like I could trust him.”

Some audiences have reacted so strongly to the film that there has even been crying and screaming in screenings, but all that is good news for Collette.

“It just means that they’re drawn into the story, because in so many films you are able to sit back and not be a part of it.

“The point of storytelling is to be able to be absorbed by it, and I guess that’s happening successfully, so that’s a great thing.

“But there are moments of levity in the film and they come about naturally.

“I don’t know whether Ari intended them or not because we all played it completely straight but maybe it was written in there.

“With the nervous anxiety of watching the movie, there are these moments that rise to the surface where there’s nervous chuckles, which is really lovely to be a part of.”

The reaction has been so positive that it has become that rare thing – a horror film generating Oscar buzz.

“It’s really flattering, I’m just excited that people are excited about a movie and want to see it, to be honest.

“As an actor the experience for me is making it and making the movie was perversely satisfying, as well as difficult and exhausting, so it’s really just lovely and gratifying that people are interested in it at all, let alone that kind of level of excitement about it.”

It has already been a good year for thrillers and chillers, with A Quiet Place directed by John Krasinski and starring his wife Emily Blunt, pulling in 300 million dollars at the global box office, with good reviews to boot.

There was also Steven Soderbergh’s unsettling Unsane, starring The Crown’s Claire Foy, and Ghost Stories, starring Martin Freeman and Paul Whitehouse.

If the world is a scary and uncertain place, why are audiences still flocking to see terrifying tales?

“Maybe because it’s worse than reality?” Collette says.

“But I think this isn’t just a straight genre film. I think it’s a combination of things, and I think that’s probably something people are attracted to in this one.

“It’s very much about a family that’s grieving and there’s a real honesty to it, as well as being horrific.”

That family is in fact inspired by Aster’s own, who endured a string of trials over a gruelling three-year period.

“Things had gotten so relentlessly awful that the feeling prevailed that we basically must be cursed,” he says.

“I’m always writing from a personal place, but I also love genre, and I’d never want to baldly dramatise any of the suffering that I or my family had gone through.

“By taking the idea of a family being cursed and then literalising that, I was able to put a lot of those feelings through a horror movie filter.

“And if you’re making a film about life being unfair, the horror genre is a very unique playground for that. It’s this sort of perverse space where life’s injustices are more or less celebrated and even gloried in.”

Hereditary is released in UK cinemas on 15 June.