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Toni Collette Has A Racehorse And A Dream In Newest Movie

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The new movie "Dream Horse" features a racehorse, Hope, and a small town in Wales that I can't even begin to pronounce. Jan Vokes works at a big box store during the day, tends bar at night, cares for her husband who's grown too arthritic for farm work. One night at the bar, she overhears a tax adviser talk about buying into a racehorse syndicate, and her dreams take shape.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DREAM HORSE")

TONI COLLETTE: (As Jan Vokes) So you got a name? Dream Alliance. What do you think?

SIMON: The film earned raves at Sundance. Damian Lewis plays the tax guy. And the barkeep, who becomes a notable figure in the racing world, is played by Toni Collette, one of the leading stars in Australian, British and American films. Toni Collette joins us now from Australia.

Thanks so much for being with us today.

COLLETTE: Total pleasure to talk to you. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: This is a rare example of bar talk actually leading to something, isn't it?

COLLETTE: (Laughter) Yep. And it's actually kind of legal, you know? A lot of things that go down at the bar aren't.

SIMON: And this is a true story we're talking about.

COLLETTE: Oh, yes. It's very much based on a true story. Yeah, yeah. I play a woman - well, she's kind of dissatisfied with her life and looking for some purpose. And she decides that she'll have a crack at breeding a racehorse, which, honestly, it's such an elitist place to try and get one foot in. And most people have hundreds of horses, and this is one woman without a clue as to how to do it, without any money, and she manages with her dream and her passion and her determination to bring other people into it and become successful. And I find it so moving the way this horse brings this small community together.

SIMON: Yeah. It's a community that's been through a lot, too, right?

COLLETTE: Yeah. It's a small village in Wales, and their industries there had been shut down. It's - they lived very humble lives, don't have much. And they give all that they can, which is not much. You know, it just shows, I think, that, you know, money isn't everything. And the fact that these people had this passion and were the complete underdogs and end up on top is - I just find it so beautiful.

SIMON: Did you get a feeling for Wales while you were there?

COLLETTE: Absolutely. You know, it was never, like, the top of my list. I hadn't really thought about Wales much, to be honest. And it was shockingly beautiful. I will always go back there. It is the most spirited of places. It has the biggest heart. The people are so grounded and have such a sense of poetry. They break out into song at the drop of a hat. Yeah, the sense of community and just the landscape - my God, it's jaw droppingly beautiful. I absolutely loved it.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, tell us about working with the horse, although I think I read you had to use two or three horses, as happens in the movie business.

COLLETTE: Yeah, a small slew of horses that play Dream Alliance, but there was only one that I did my acting with. The others specialized in different kinds of shots.

SIMON: Running.

COLLETTE: Yeah, running. Exactly. So my acting partner was a horse called Beau, and Beau was beautiful. I wanted to bring Beau home to Australia. I actually looked into shipping him here. This horse was so special and really, really listened. It was very sad to leave him in the end. And, I mean, it's not dissimilar to the film. Jan breeds this horse, but then it's almost like another child. And there's such care and such a bond that she develops with Dream.

SIMON: The horse racing and the steeplechase scenes are amazing. Do you have any idea how they were shot?

COLLETTE: We had an incredible cinematographer, Erik Wilson. He's just so clever. I remember Euros, our director, just calling him a visual poet. And yeah, they are. They're really super-exciting to watch. You can't help but kind of get drawn into the anxiety of it and the intensity of it. Interestingly, when we were shooting all the things where we're watching the races, obviously we're not watching anything, so it was kind of...

SIMON: Well, that's another question I had on - I mean, here we've got two great actors - more than that, but I'm thinking of you and Damian Lewis. And you have to pretend you're watching a race.

COLLETTE: Yeah, cheering on and getting emotional and, you know, getting involved. I mean, that's what you do as an actor, I suppose. But it was strange watching just like a quad bike wander around the field with a flag on the back of it.

SIMON: (Laughter).

COLLETTE: But I think having had all the time with Beau, it kind of, you know, was somehow infused into those scenes.

SIMON: Yeah. I've got to tell you, my favorite line, I think - because you talked about, you know, how difficult it is for regular folk to crack that hierarchy, you know, of racing - and it's when somebody in the small town of Wales comes back from the loo and says, I just had a pee next to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.

(LAUGHTER)

COLLETTE: Yep. Takes all kinds (laughter).

SIMON: The way I read about your life, you have been a professional - Sydney Theatre Company - since you were 16.

COLLETTE: Yeah. I think the first time I worked there - I don't know - I think a 17, to be honest. But yeah, I started in theater. I did a few shows for the Sydney Theatre Company. Then I did decide to go to drama school for a little while. It's a three-year course, and I left in the second year because I was offered to do another play with the Sydney Theatre Company. I shot "Muriel's Wedding" when I was 20. And since then, it's just really flowed. I've been so lucky. I really have.

SIMON: Yeah.

COLLETTE: I mean, I work very hard, but (laughter) because of "Muriel," when I first got to LA, I was being offered films kind of with similar characters, and I just somehow knew that would not take me far. The diversity of the scripts and characters that I've been offered has been ridiculous.

SIMON: "Dream Horse" made me cry more than once.

COLLETTE: Me, too. You're not alone.

SIMON: Well, it makes you wonder what is - and I wonder if you have some insight into this after inhabiting the world. Actors are performers, and so are great horses. Did you feel a kind of sense of affiliation after inhabiting that world for a while?

COLLETTE: Whichever character or whichever world I'm steeped in for a certain period of time, if I'm filming, you are obviously more curious about it and think about it much more than you would generally. I mean, I'm not particularly into race horsing. But for me, it was more about the relationship that she had with that horse. And I absolutely believe in equality, not just between humans, but all creatures. And it really - I say it surprised me, but it kind of in a way didn't that I was able to connect so deeply with that horse, Beau. I just think they are incredibly perceptive and sensitive and aware. They're also incredibly powerful, so you don't want to muck around (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah. It sounds like you were just the right person to try and bring that story to the screen. Thank you.

COLLETTE: Thanks for saying that. Yeah. Well, I mean, I knew from reading it that I had to do it. I just - I mean, I'm a sucker for stories about underdogs, but it's just - it has, as I said, so much heart. It's absolutely hilarious. I couldn't have had a better experience making it. It was pretty great.

SIMON: Toni Collette, who stars with Damian Lewis in "Dream Horse," thank you so much for being with us.

COLLETTE: Thanks for having me. So nice to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.