Toni Collette relishes juggling four personalities in ‘Tara’

The heroine of “United States of Tara” is not your average wife and mother. Living with dissociative identity disorder (DID), Tara has four alternate identities that pop up in times of great stress, which invariably mess with her life and the lives of her family members. Fortunately for all involved, she’s played by Toni Collette, who’s not average at anything. (The show’s executive producers, Steven Spielberg and Diablo Cody, are no slouches either.)

When the Showtime series began last January, Tara had gone off her medication in the hopes of learning the source of the disorder. As a result, her other identities, or “alters,” resurfaced. There’s Alice, a housewife out of the Eisenhower era; T, a teenage vixen who’s hot for anything but responsibility; Buck, an Army veteran who lost his man parts but not his machismo in ‘Nam; and Gimme, a feral creature that makes its presence known scatalogically. Collette plays all four characters, and the benighted woman who contains them, with an honesty and fearlessness that have become her calling card.

The actress first made a splash as the lead in the 1995 Australian film “Muriel’s Wedding” and is well known now for roles in films such as “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Sixth Sense,” the latter of which earned her a 2000 Oscar nomination for supporting actress. But the move to television has only increased the accolades. Her performance -- make that performances -- already won her a 2009 Emmy for lead actress in a comedy series and has garnered nominations for the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Collette corresponded by e-mail from her home in Sydney about the move to series television and the role(s) that drew her there.

With all your success in film, what made you decide to take a role in a series?

I loved the premise and the writing. And it gave me “the feeling.” I didn’t plan to work in TV or seek it out. It came to me out of the blue, and I felt I had to do it. Also, as far as series go, this one has real potential to last. I find most don’t. They get boring. I know that this won’t.

How did the creators approach you about the role?

I got a call from my agent in L.A. I live in Sydney, and he told me that he knew I wasn’t particularly keen on working in TV but something really interesting had been offered. He told me about Diablo Cody and “Juno,” which was yet to premiere. And I was told it was Steven Spielberg’s idea.

I liked the title of the show and read it immediately. I adored it and knew it was for me and said yes the same day. I can only listen to my gut. I said yes without a conversation with any of the producers. It was all about the material.

I thought, surely they’re not going to get a bunch of idiots involved when the material is this good. They can’t ruin it. I trusted it.

This seems like an actor’s dream, getting to play four such disparate characters.

It is a dream role. Yes, to be able to play with such diversity within the one story. But also to simply go for it. I was very comfortable, too comfortable with playing supporting roles. Tara allows me to gallop instead of trot.

On the flip side, what are the challenges of portraying so many characters each episode?

They’re all positive challenges. The biggest challenge was a personal one. Trying to be completely available for my new daughter, whom I was still breast feeding at the time. It was exhausting, and yet I never begrudged getting out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to go off and tell this story.

The role looks like it would be a huge emotional and physical commitment.

Not really. At first it was a slight brain strain. But, you know, you get used to your character(s), and you get a flow on. It becomes second nature.

What, if any, was the appeal of doing it for cable rather than as a network show?

It seems that cable represents reality, whereas network TV perpetuates the fantasy, plastic world. I prefer the former. It is riskier and therefore more challenging. In a positive way. Not only for those of us working on the show but for the audience also.

For all its dysfunction, Tara’s family is really kind of lovely. Does it strike you as odd that one of the more realistic families on television has a mom with DID?

It didn’t strike me as odd. It was just exciting because it felt real and tangible. And it is lovely. People see themselves in this family and connect. This show has a special quality. Something you can’t articulate or put your finger on. People respond to that feeling.

Do you have a favorite character?

Tara. They’re all Tara.