Tag Archives: Rachel Griffiths

Conversation starter

Ahead of the world premiere of Black Bitch, star and executive producer Rachel Griffiths takes DQ inside the themes and issues behind the Australian political drama.

It might be considered pure folly to contemplate writing a political drama in today’s unpredictable and tempestuous climate. But in Australian series Black Bitch, issues of race and gender are placed front and centre in a show that has been more than 20 years in the making.

The story introduces Indigenous woman Alex Irving (played by Deborah Mailman), who becomes a national hero when she drags a woman to safety from a gunman. She quickly comes to the attention of embattled prime minister Rachel Anderson who, besieged by infighting, opposition attacks and bad press, overrides her party to draft Alex into the Senate.

However, the political novice soon finds herself at odds with the PM, who might have a hidden motive, the party and the entire government machine. Determined to be more than a political stunt and intent on making a difference, Alex realises she will have to bring down the system from the inside.

The ABC series was co-created by actor Rachel Griffiths (Muriel’s Wedding, Six Feet Under), who plays the prime minister. She says the idea – and the provocative title – first came to her when she was 27 and has been evolving ever since, inspired by two real-life events.

Black Bitch actor and executive producer Rachel Griffiths flanked by star Deborah Mailman (left) and director Rachel Perkins

The first concerned an Aboriginal woman she met while working on a documentary, who was involved in a native land title claim but received abuse for her cause and had ‘black bitch’ graffitied on her house. The second involved another Indigenous woman, an elite athlete called Nova Peris, who was encouraged to stand for election to the senate and similarly received torrents of racial abuse.

Griffiths describes herself as a “kind of big constitutional and parliamentary process wonk,” and she clearly has an extensive knowledge of and interest in politics in Australia and around the world. She has closely followed US politics since living and working there, and more recently she has been keeping an eye on the UK since the 2016 Brexit referendum. The actor also studied gender issues and representation at university and has examined the role of women in government.

“Back in the day when I first had these ideas, this was a parliamentary thriller with intrinsic themes of race and gender,” she says. “I had the title and it was about an Indigenous senator who is helicoptered into the senate and brings down a government. That was my pitch, and it’s only gotten more relative. Our Conservative party here has barely increased its female reach, particularly in pre-selection [of candidates], and when women have been helicoptered in – able women with life experience over the apparatchik machines – they’re not always welcome at the table. So that’s all where it came from.”

Griffiths initially thought Black Bitch might be a feature film and pitched it to various people with that in mind. Eventually it landed with Blackfella Films, Australia’s “key Indigenous content creators,” responsible for films and series including Redfern Now and Deep Water.

“When I pitched it to [Blackfella co-MD] Darren Dale, they had aspirations to do a show with Indigenous leads set in the political arena,” she recalls. “It’s not something they had done before. Australia generally hasn’t really done political shows that are quite biographical. But when I pitched it, it was very much on fertile ground. It has a female lead and the title gave it a tonal pitch that was very different. Darren just loved it and he pitched it to our national broadcaster and they loved it. And here we are.”

The series is inspired by two real-life events concerning racism against Indigenous women in Australia

Griffiths says her character is motivated by a genuine desire to see change and bring about a more diverse political party, rather than simply using Alex’s appointment as a cynical ploy to remove some of the heat from her own position.

“But she’s definitely embattled by a rising right flank and is trying to head that off and surround herself by allies she feels she can rely on,” the actor explains, noting that the series also explores some of the double standards women politicians are held to.

“We show that in the constant sense that she is not legitimate, and that entitled men who are intellectually inferior to her feel that she is doing their job,” she continues. “She doesn’t come from a place of self-promotion. Women often get there through the much harder work of building consensus and bringing people along with you.”

In contrast, Alex is fighting against a parliamentary system that she discovers is slow and often painful, with big changes taking a long time. Griffiths highlights this by recalling the Australian parliament’s decision not to legislate for marriage equality but instead hold a plebiscite in the form of a voluntary national postal survey that gave Australians a say on the issue. When 61.6% of respondents supported a change to the law, a cross-party bill was subsequently passed in December 2017.

Examples such as this, as well as the instability of having five prime ministers in less than a decade, are touched on throughout the series. “But underneath that, it’s quite an impassioned plea for democracies to become more reflective of the societies they represent, to be careful with fast change, to be careful of the power of the personality-driven outsider, and it’s a cautionary tale to people spitting out the dummy when they don’t get their way first time around,” says Griffiths, who last year starred in crime drama Dead Lucky.

Griffiths with producer Miranda Dear (left) and Blackfella Films’ Darren Dale

Viewers will walk in Alex’s shoes through the drama, witnessing the political experience from her perspective as Indigenous issues such as status and land rights are also explored. “I’m definitely the antagonist,” says Griffiths. “We observe the octopuses I’m wrestling with, but it’s [Alex’s] heart, her life, her journey from outsider to insider. That’s what makes it so powerful.

“I just think it’s so exciting and relevant and interesting and goes beyond any political tropes like a [Netflix series] House of Cards. Not that that wasn’t an absolutely wonderful show, but that was done so well – we’re not making our version. This is about the underrepresented, the historically disenfranchised and badly done-by.”

Playing Alex is Mailman, the award-winning actor whose credits include Offspring, The Sapphires, Jack Irish and Mystery Road.

“She has won more actor awards down here than any other actor next to Judy Davis [Husbands and Wives, Mystery Road] and has never had a lead,” says Griffiths. “It’s such a thrill that she finally had a role that illustrates not only her tremendous breadth of talent but also using the fact that she’s one of our most likeable actors. When you have an actor you just love, people are more prepared to emotionally go further and cross into worlds with that particular actor than they thought they would go though.

“She’s got an extraordinary range but also this intimate lovability. You just love her; you feel what she’s feeling and you go with her through all her mistakes and challenges. She’s pretty extraordinary.”

Director Rachel Perkins on set

Behind the camera is director Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae, Mystery Road, Redfern Now), co-MD of Blackfella Films, who Griffiths describes as one of Australia’s most important Indigenous storytellers. Her father, Charlie Perkins, is an Indigenous statesman, “a true legend and national treasure,” so she was able to bring her own experience of Australian politics to the six-part series, which is distributed by Keshet International worldwide and in partnership with Endeavor Content in the US.

“It’s a world she knows. I think it’s almost impossible to quantify that,” Griffiths explains. “There’s nobody else who would have understood the bridge between the worlds and the balancing act that you do as an Indigenous woman director in a very male and very white-dominated industry down here. Visually, she understands the landscape and the contrast between coming from the warmth of the country into these cool Canberra, putrid, mechanistic environments.”

Filming took place in Queensland and the capital Canberra, where scenes were shot in public areas around government buildings, while some studio sets were also built in Sydney.

Coming off the back of directing feature film Ride Like a Girl, Griffiths has immersed herself in making the series, both in front of and behind the camera in her dual role as actor and executive producer. “I’ve been very involved in breaking what the show would look like, character arcs and what we’re trying to say,” she says. “I had great access to members of parliament and senators. Many women were quite open about their stories. We had a wonderful early story room with a lot of different people coming in and talking, which was just fabulous. And now we’re just starting to do that again for season two.”

With the series premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, talk of a second season is premature, but Griffiths imagines a three-season arc to the story. “I’m sure it’ll start a conversation, or a few conversations,” she adds. “It hasn’t been designed to be a social-impact service. It’s just speaking to the zeitgeist as a conversation of the time. Democracy is never something we can take for granted, and people are really awakening to that.”

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Hunt for a killer

Cops and criminals collide in Dead Lucky, a four-part drama that weaves several storylines around the hunt for a dangerous murderer. Muriel’s Wedding and Six Feet Under star Rachel Griffiths tells DQ more about the series and her ambitions behind the camera.

Sometimes it seems like actors have the best jobs in the world. Spending months filming in exotic locations such as Caribbean island Guadeloupe (Death in Paradise), Corfu (The Durrells) or Sri Lanka (The Good Karma Hospital) surely can’t seem like working at all.

For Australian actor Rachel Griffiths, however, paradise was much closer to home. “Shooting October and November in Sydney is heaven, really,” she says. “I felt guilty getting a pay packet. It’s so gorgeous.”

The state capital of New South Wales serves as the location of SBS crime drama Dead Lucky, with iconic backdrops such as the Sydney Opera House on show from the very beginning of the four-part miniseries. Created by Ellie Beaumont and Drew Proffitt, the show follows a number of interlinked storylines, centred around two feuding detectives and their hunt for a killer.

Grace Gibbs (Griffiths) is obsessed with catching the armed robber who murdered her junior officer. But Charlie Fung (Yoson An), her new trainee, blames Grace for the death of his best friend. Meanwhile, a group of international students living in a shared house think they have found paradise and a couple of greedy convenience store owners resort to deadly measures to defend their business, all while a violent fugitive is hiding on the outskirts of the city. Set across one week, Dead Lucky sees the paths of these characters collide, leaving two people dead and one missing.

Rachel Griffiths as Grace Gibbs

Directed by David Caesar, it is a Subtext Pictures production and will air on SBS in July. DRG is handing international distribution.

With so many Australian dramas mining classic IP – including remakes and spin-offs of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Romper Stomper, Mystery Road, Wolf Creek and Wake in Fright – Dead Lucky stands out as an original tale packed full of contemporary issues.

“I have worked with these writers before and we had that thing where we went, ‘It would be really good to do something else together,’” Griffiths says. “Well, that’s what I thought and thankfully they felt the same. I like to play on old tropes – who doesn’t like a buddy cop film? And then I loved that it’s a bit new Australia, old Australia, but it’s also within the context that this woman [Gibbs] has had to break the same perceptions, misconceptions and prejudices that this young guy will, in the same profession. It’s a great, interesting common ground.

“I also loved the idea of this girl in a mid-life crisis point. Her career is not where she thought it was and she’s at a critical moment. Does she hang in there until she gets to retirement, or does she find her mojo again and find a way to keep believing in what she’s doing? I found that great.”

Gibbs is also very angry. Grieving the loss of her partner, both personally and professionally, she is forced to attend anger-management sessions that only serve to fuel the fire within her. “For people who work on the front line, like ambulance drivers or first responders, they can go for years and then, one day, something sticks and they can’t move on,” Griffith says. “I guess it’s that whole PTSD thing where it’s so trite to be sent to a counsellor who has no idea what’s required to do those jobs. The fact is you can’t get all internal and ‘snowflakey’ because you’ve got to go back out into the war zone. And yet, if you don’t do the interior work and acknowledge you have experienced trauma, you will get to a point where that work is no longer possible.

“But she’s also angry because the guy she needs to catch is out there. At that point, it’s her motivator, so to reduce your anger would be demotivating. From the cops I talk to, they have open cases where they know who’s out there and justice hasn’t been served. Anger is a motivator.”

With so many TV serial killers on the loose, it’s also notable that the murderer in Dead Lucky has no motivation or back story. Put simply, he is a senseless maniac with no apparent reason for his crimes. “We thought it was interesting following not the arch serial killers of The Bridge or the noir shows but the ordinary drugged-up psychopath who just ruins so many lives with no masterplan, just his random acts of inhumane violence,” Griffiths explains. The showrunners learned from police that such criminals “impact on society much more than these clever serial killers we’ve all been following,” she adds.

Caesar previously directed Griffiths in 1993 TV movie The Feds, about the police hunt for a couple suspected of fraud. She describes him as a “great stylist and a real Aussie bloke, who has lovely insight and compassion yet he’s very ballsy.” The director oversaw two weeks of rehearsals for Dead Lucky, during which Griffiths was put through cop training, while she and her on-screen partner An spent time together to build up their ‘buddy’ relationship.

Griffiths alongside her Dead Lucky co-star Yoson An

“My very first job with this director was also as a cop,” she says. “I’m not a natural street cop but the detective stuff, as I’ve become a more mature actor, felt much more right.”

Griffiths also praises the collaborative nature of making Dead Lucky, revealing that the creators brought her into the fold a year before shooting. “They wanted my input at that point,” she says. “It wasn’t huge but I kept trying to nail the thesis of the show, and that’s where we got to this female mid-life crisis, which is not explored very much. Often it’s the man at the middle of his career and his drinking.”

Drama characters are now more layered and complex than ever, but it was Griffiths’ experience starring in HBO’s Six Feet Under that opened her eyes to the possibilities television offers.

“In the early days of quality premium cable, it was really illuminating to discover the joy of finding layers and layers, and to do that over several seasons was a privilege I never expected,” she explains. “The two casts that I did five years on [Six Feet Under and ABC drama Brothers & Sisters], coming back for the next season was so wonderful because you start with fresh storylines and fresh momentum but your relationships are much deeper. I’m loving that on Game of Thrones and The Crown and Broadchurch. There’s a certain comfort that comes over time, which is really great. We were just hitting that at the end of episode four [of Dead Lucky].”

Griffiths is also stepping up behind the camera. Having directed three episodes of Nowhere Boy season two, she is now in pre-production for Ride Like a Girl, a movie about Michelle Payne, the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup.

Griffiths is also well known for starring in HBO drama Six Feet Under

“I love the problem-solving and I love telling stories,” the actor says about her approach to directing. “I’ve always seen myself as a storyteller as much as an actor and I think we’re in a really exciting moment for the stories that are being told and the perspectives they’re being told from. And I love working with the crafts people in my industry and harnessing their collective brilliance.

“I don’t come from an auteur place; I’m very much about listening to the best idea in the room and I love problem-solving in real time. I’m not one of those directors who just gathers this stuff and discusses it in the editing room and can’t wait for the shoot to be over. I like being out there in the mud and dealing with the advancing Russian army. One hour at a time at the moment.”

But for a certain generation, Griffiths is still best known for starring as Rhonda in comedy-drama movie Muriel’s Wedding. The 1994 film maintains a cult following, with Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical opening in Sydney in November 2017.

“I couldn’t stop crying the whole way through the show,” she reveals of watching the musical. “It was kind of embarrassing because the audience kept turning to watch me crying. It was very emotional but it’s a fantastic show, it’s sold out down here. I’m hoping that, like Priscilla [Queen of the Desert, the hit musical], it will go global and I think it delivers everything people are going to want from it.”

Now 24 years on from its original release, Muriel’s Wedding still stands out as a story about female friendship, principally between Rhonda and Toni Collette’s Muriel, who dreams of being a bride. Griffiths credits its success to creator and director PJ Hogan, who chose not to view women through the male gaze.

“It was so much about women finding themselves and friendship being at the core, rather than romantic love,” she notes. “A bit like My Best Friend’s Wedding, which he went on to make, it shifted the object within that romantic comedy genre. When coming-of-age films really capture the torture and the joie de vivre, the audience can relate to that moment and carry the film with them as a personal reference.”

For Griffiths, stories about female relationships are sorely lacking, except for recent Oscar nomineee Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, which focuses on the relationship between a mother and daughter.

“It truly is a woman’s most significant relationship and it can ruin you and it can make you, and to see that explored on film is incredibly rare,” Griffiths adds. “Whereas father-son relationships have been seen since The Godfather because men know how important that relationship is for men. It’s only now women are making films that they think, ‘Well this is the most interesting relationship to make a film about.’”

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