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Rachel Griffiths

Sunday Herald (October 2002)

Rachel Griffiths would like to start with a formal apology. The 34-year-old Australian actress, who won a Golden Globe for her performance as Brenda in the gloriously macabre TV series “Six Feet Under” and shone as a supporting actress in “Muriel’s Wedding” and “Hilary And Jackie”, has finally met her theatrical Waterloo.

As Brenda, she adopted a syllable perfect Californian accent. In her latest movie, a square-jawed feelgood Disney feature about hopes, dreams and baseball called “The Rookie”, her Texan drawl is convincingly oil rich. But when she was asked to adopt a Scottish accent for a film about Australian folk hero Ned Kelly, her vocal talents completely deserted her.

“I’m going to start apologising now,” she laughs infectiously, sprawling on a couch in her room in a neat hotel on Leicester Square. “It’s really hard doing an accent if you’re not in the location. Scottish is the hardest accent and to have taken on Scottish while being in my home town in Australia was probably a really crap idea. For ‘The Rookie’, I was in Texas. But with this, I only did two days on it and they couldn’t afford to fly me to Scotland to make sure I had my accent right. So I had a voice coach.”

So, essentially, she just watched a couple of episodes of “Star Trek” and thought “that’ll do”?

“Hahahahahahahaha! I should have done that!” she howls. “Anyway, yes, I’m apologising in advance.”

In this age of moaning Gwynnies and stroppy J-Los, the appearance of a strong Hollywood actress with a fiercesome sense of humour is a cause for great celebration. In “Six Feet Under”, Griffiths pitched Brenda halfway between constant smirk and no nonsense determination and much of the actress’s popularity stems from the hope that her real self isn’t much different. We need a few intelligent everywomen to tear through Tinseltown, knocking heads together and breaking every unwritten social rule going. Griffiths is one of us, you feel, a “civilian” deep behind enemy lines.

In person, inevitably, she’s a lot more complex. One moment Griffiths will be teasingly reeling off the list of leading men she’d like to get up close and personal with and laughing that the interview process is like “playing psychiatrist. I’m just lying on the coach while you try and extract information out of my brain”. The next she’ll have pulled the shutters down hard, refusing to talk <I>at all<I> about her upbringing, beyond the fact it was “in Melbourne” and was “good”. Clearly Brenda isn’t the only one with a troubled past.

The facts, then, are these. Her mother, Anna, is an art consultant. Her uncle is a Jesuit priest. She has two older brothers. Attended the Star Of The Sea Catholic Girls College where she learned ballet. When she was 11, her father walked out for an 18 year old girl. She hasn’t seen him for years. Her mother raised the children alone. Griffiths now divides her time between Sydney and Hollywood with her fiancé, Australian artist Andrew Taylor.

It is, as she says, “all on public record”. And, tellingly, after an intense period recording “Six Feet Under”, she’d like a break from being immersed in the dysfunctionalities of the family.

“After I finished recording the first series of ‘Six Feet Under’, my psyche was a little bit overtaxed,” Griffiths giggles, slightly hysterically, when asked why she took the role of dutiful wife in “The Rookie”. “I liked the idea of playing someone much less encumbered, much less damaged. And I quite liked the idea of (co star) Dennis Quaid. Didn’t mind that at all. Mmmm.”

Has she got a list of desirable co-stars she’s ticking off?

“Yes!”

So she can say “snogged Dennis Quaid.”

“Snogged Guy Pierce. Yeah, definitely. Hahahahaha!”

One of the things…

“Gabriel Byrne.”

One of the…

“Russell Crowe.”

One of…

“Mel Gibson.”

One of the interesting things about “The Rookie” is that Dennis Quaid’s character has to make a choice between staying with his family or going off to realise his ambition. Did that have any particular resonance for Griffiths, considering what she’d been through with her own father?

“If only my father left to pursue his dreams,” she says. “There might have been rhyme or reason to it. No, I didn’t make that correlation.” What’s important about “The Rookie” for Griffiths is the moral struggle involved. “I don’t think any person has a right to make four people’s lives difficult because they want to pursue their dreams,” she declares. “Unless the four people are prepared to do that and it’s acknowledged that there is a cost.”

Griffiths reached a minor crossroads of her own when she was 16. Back then her dreams lay in the political rather than theatrical field.

“I did want to be a Democrat Senator. For about a minute. It’s where I was at the time. The Democrats held the balance of power in the Senate and were doing really good things and I thought it would be a worthwhile thing to do with your life.”

Does she still feel political?

“No, I’ve become much more…I was very social justice driven as a young person. I went to a girl’s Catholic school, where the religious curriculum was communicated through social justice issues. I still have that sensitivity to wrong in the world and I’m not cynical enough to go ‘wrong’s going to happen, there’s no point in trying to make it right’. Fortunately, I can use my celebrity a bit to help people who are fighting their little causes all over the world.”

How has she done that?

“I’m involved in a street mission called Sacred Heart in my home town in St Kilda. And I’ve lent my name to the anti-gaming lobby, again in my home town. I don’t take on the global thing. I think you just work in your community that you care about and on local issues.”

One issue that Griffiths felt very passionately about was the building of the Crown Casino in Melbourne. Strictly anti-gambling because of “the impact it has on the community”, she and some friends staged a topless protest at its opening in 1997.

“I didn’t think of it so much as topless,” she says. “It was this whole performance art thing of Jesus goes mad in the temple. The casino had been thrust on the city as the new civic centre, the new temple. So for me, it was cutting through a certain kind of hypocrisy. It was very tasteful and very beautiful and it was a desperate act because they’d changed the laws so that no one was able to protest within a 1.5 km radius. Me and my friends were like ‘how do we get a voice of dissent?’”

The solution was for Griffiths to turn up covered in glitter, wearing a crown of thorns. “I was very proud of myself the next day,” she grins. “You look back at events in history and you hope you’re the kind of person that hid a Jew in Berlin. You never really know. It’s not like I was risking life or death. But I did wake up the next morning and I was more certain I might have been one of those people. It made me feel like maybe I would have had the balls.”

As the first series of “Six Feet Under” progressed, it became clear that it was as much about this type of personal strength as the dysfunctions of the characters involved. Griffiths says that it was “the best script I’d ever read”, nodding thoughtfully at the notion that the show embraces eccentricity.

“It does embrace eccentricity. I think it also embraces vulnerability. So really it’s people’s secret hopes and dreams. It gets deeper and deeper and as you come to know them the things you thought were eccentric actually aren’t. Is it eccentric that a gay closeted funeral director just wants to be a leader in his church? So I don’t think it’s quirky, like ‘Ally McBeal’, ‘ooh, aren’t we kooky?’, because it’s like layers of an onion. Just when you think you know a character. It’s like a person. You’ll know them twenty years and they can still surprise you.”

I often think that human beings are the sum of their eccentricities. That we’re all weird.

“Yeah, exactly. Which means we’re not really eccentric, we’re just forced to present a less interesting face to the world than perhaps we are.”

What would Griffiths’ eccentricities be?

“Well, no one thinks they have eccentricities, do they? I don’t think I’m eccentric at all. But people tell me I am. I like orange juice on my cornflakes. Is that weird? You don’t think so until someone else points it out.”

What, then, apart from anything to do with her profession, are her obsessions? The reply is instant, as if she’s long ago come to terms with who she is and what defines her.

“Architecture, mid century design, mid century furniture. And surfing.” Do surfing and architecture go together? “No,” she smiles. “They’re not in opposition, you just do them at different times. One is about the head and ideas and one is about not thinking and just being in the water and being at one with the giant blue ocean.”

It’s tempting to conclude that Griffiths embodies a similar dichotomy. Intellectually, she’s concerned with political ideals and the mechanics of art and film direction (she’s directed two short films and clearly relishes the challenge of creativity). Emotionally, meanwhile, she works on instinct, her personality and acting being fired by a straightforward sense of self that led one female friend to describe her as a “woman’s woman”.

“I don’t know what that means,” Griffiths muses, “but I guess it’s because I’m not Lara Flynt Boil. I’m not competitive with women for men. I value female company as much as I value men.”

The same friend also wanted to know why Griffiths had played so many sexually upfront characters.

“Hilary certainly wasn’t,” she protests. “I’ll have to look at my filmography. I’m not coy or coquettish. I’m a direct person and I relate to men in a direct way, sexual or intellectual. Not particularly interested in the game of ‘I’ll play the princess and you play the prince’. Other people do that very well and I like watching them do it. But it’s just not in my nature.”

What kind of characters do appeal to her then?

“I’m interested in people’s humanity. I’ve only played one character that didn’t
seek from the audience a desire to be understood and that was in ‘Blow’. She was a disappointed alcoholic woman and they exist and some people exist without redemption and that character was never redeemed. Mostly, I’m interested in a humanity and in redemption.”

Why redemption?

“I just think it’s the biggest thing in life, isn’t it? That notion that we all do our best but we all sin. Maybe we don’t. Maybe some people are just evil bastards and don’t. Maybe I’m naïve, but I like to think that human beings are basically good and it comes from that.”

Griffiths’ latest self penned and directed short film deals partly with these themes and touches obliquely on her own family history. She says simply that the story the movie’s based on stayed with her, but it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see why.

“It’s about a man who had a nervous breakdown and it’s about anxiety and it’s
very cinematic. It’s based on a true story about a very successful businessman who kisses his wife and kids goodbye, gets in his car and drives to work and doesn’t make it. He gets stuck on the roundabout all day until he runs out of petrol. How does that happen? How does the wife not know? All these questions. So the film is a way to solve the questions that get raised from that event.”

And perhaps solving a few other questions along the way as well.
Griffiths apparently once said that she wanted to make art because she wanted to be in control. Is that true?

“It’s not why I make art, it’s what I love about art. It’s just the opposite of life. Life is this chaotic thing that we’re searching as it’s happening. There’s this mad chaos that’s always in front of us and what art does is allows us to step back and gives us a clarity to see ourselves more clearly. Someone like Alan Ball and ‘American Beauty’, you just come out with this clarity about modern American life. You don’t get that with reality TV, you don’t get that experience on ‘Big Brother’, because there’s no control. There’s chaos and you take what you want, but you’re not getting anyone’s deeply worked out, resolved, thought about, felt about idea. You’re just getting a mess.”

How long would she last on “Big Brother”?

“I wouldn’t be in the door! It would be how long could my fingernails hold out on the concrete as you’re pulling me towards the front door.”

And if there’s a better reason to love an actress and a person than those last two sentences, then the world really is a far sicker place than we all first thought.





Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London


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