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TORONTO - "I was in a little shop in Sydney the other day and a woman came up to me and said she had seen `Japanese Story,'" says Toni Collette, who starred in that 2004 film. It's a movie about a woman who has to deal with a lover's body, before she's even had time to consider whether or not it is love that connects them.
"This woman in the shop had recently lost her boyfriend in a car accident. Not the same circumstances as the movie. But grief is such an abstract, lonely thing to go through, and she said `I felt like I was watching myself.'
"We're standing in this shop, and we both started to cry."
Collette smiles and tugs a little on her knee.
"We make movies without an audience," she says. "Theater is that shared experience. But with a movie, you don't know how people are going to respond. That movie was intense for me, and to know that maybe, it helped people, in a way, is just overwhelming."
It's not just her movies. We respond to Collette. We approach her on the street, in shops in Sydney, because above all, she seems approachable. We connect with her.
She's "just likable," says Eleanor Ringel, film critic of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "She seems to get cast in roles where there's something there to act. She doesn't let herself get tied up in time-wasters."
From the very beginning of her career, this Australian actress - she's about to turn 33 and happily married, thank you - has been the dowdy girl who doesn't get asked to dance, the dateless single mom, the friend Jane Austen's Emma wants to fix up. We can't help it. We root for her.
And she knows it.
"People have this idea or perception of who you are, but I can't say why people root for me in my movies," she says. "I know I've had a theme of kind of working through my films where the character that I play comes into her own, sometimes in a pretty subtle way."
She's got it, of course. The ABBA-obsessed Muriel in "Muriel's Wedding," Harriet Smith in "Emma," even Carla in "Connie and Carla" - all women who learn to stick up for themselves.
"I myself find that sort of thing endearing and inspiring to watch."
In her latest, "In Her Shoes," she's Rose "the good sister," the practical, responsible, successful and yet lonely sibling to Cameron Diaz's Maggie, an irresponsible party girl. It is type casting, to be sure. But it works. The reviews for this "chic picture" have been downright ecstatic.
"I think it's just so beautiful that there's this woman who is so completely overlooked in life, that she even overlooks herself," Collette says. "That's why she throws herself into work. That's where she excels and has some control.
"She feels responsible for everybody else in her life, especially Maggie. They've lost their mother, so she's taken on this parental role, and had it for years.
"So she blossoms. And people who change for the positive inspire us, because a lot of us feel stuck in our lives. Even if you know that you're unhappy, um, it's safe just doing the same thing. You've got to be a brave person to do something, anything, to change your life. I think I subconsciously seek that out in roles to play."
"In Her Shoes," based on Jennifer Weiner's novel, has a metaphor in its title. Shoe size is the one thing Rose and Maggie have in common. But where Rose buys fancy shoes that she never feels good enough to wear, Maggie has no problem borrowing them. And ruining them. Each has to learn to stand in the other's shoes.
But Collette has her own spin on the shoe symbolism.
"It's also about learning to be comfortable in your own shoes, in your own skin. These girls are just starting to learn who they are. I love that Rose has this incredible collection that she keeps hidden away, that she's not gorgeous enough to wear.
"She opens her closet, and it's this glittering jewel box of opportunity and potential that she never engages. The shoes represent some small speck inside her that tells her that she's special."
(c) 2005, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.