Rachel Griffiths on portraying a lesbian HIV-care nurse in When We Rise, breaking the mold with Six Feet Under and diversity on TV
Early in her career, she stole our queer hearts as Toni Collette’s freewheeling yang in 1994’s buddy comedy Muriel’s Wedding, but before long, Rachel Griffiths became one of our most passionate allies both on- and off-screen.
In 2001, the 48-year-old Aussie actress starred as Brenda Chenowith, the enigmatic, gender-subverting girlfriend-turned-wife of prodigal son Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) in HBO’s Emmy-winning landmark series, Six Feet Under, out creator Alan Ball’s gay-inclusive, darkly comic rumination on life and death. One of TV’s finest hours, the show was heralded for its character David (Michael C. Hall), who was praised for portraying the first authentic gay character on TV. A year after Six Feet Under concluded, in 2006, Griffiths made the leap from the Fishers to the Walkers, the family at the center of ABC’s Brothers and Sisters, also celebrated for its LGBT representation.
Now, Griffiths is taking her longtime queer advocacy to the next level with When We Rise, Dustin Lance Black’s moving and timely portrayal of the progressive post-Stonewall movement. The seven-part miniseries seeks to connect with the heart – not the politics – of Americans through real family stories, something Griffiths’ gay-affirming résumé certainly reflects.
In When We Rise, you play Diane, who’s raising a daughter with women’s rights activist Roma Guy, portrayed by Mary-Louise Parker. What are your thoughts on bringing the lesbian-led blended family dynamic to audiences on a mainstream network like ABC?
Brothers and Sisters was on ABC at the same time as Modern Family, and we had Will & Grace, so I didn’t have any kind of surprise it was on a network (like ABC), because ultimately it is about family – it’s about the “we” of gay, lesbian, transgender lives, not the “they” or the “others.” So, for me, to move these people’s lives away from the premium cable niche – I love that by not being on a niche network, there wasn’t a pressure to be noisy in a more sexual way. We’ve kind of moved past having to explore that.
That’s there in other shows if you want it, particularly with women’s lives. We’ve had The L Word, where the women are identified first off in the show by being lesbians. But Roma and Diane’s trouble was, first, (being) women – 51 percent of the population – then the gay/lesbian, then it was understanding the power of how those two movements can come together.
Your roles on both TV and in film suggest that you appreciate portrayals of social and political issues that are reflected through a personal lens.
I absolutely love that. I think if people aren’t living in a wider sociological space, they’re in a bubble. Growing up, my favorite movies actually were World War II movies – get motor bikes and outdo the Nazis. I was just really primed by seeing political moments intersecting with personal and moral choices, and the drama of that.
That certainly explains your career trajectory.
(Laughs) With a few exceptions!
How do you feel knowing that a half century after the liberation movement of the late ’60s and ’70s we’re still, to some extent, fighting the same fights that are being fought in When We Rise?
The last few years have definitely been a wakeup call of thinking that progression is always forward moving. I think we really thought progression was a simple, straightforward thing, so it’s definitely a shock that things go backward and forward. Millennials and the younger generation are very comfortable in the gay, lesbian and transgender space, and their comfort level is very high, so it’s a shock to see an older generation insist on moving back. I think for many within that younger generation, when they hear certain slogans about how great America used to be, we know that was true for white men, but not necessarily true for all other people.
Which is the crux of the Trump administration. But you’re right: The pendulum swings back and forth, and now we’ve entered a time when progressives are once again stepping up to the plate, and I think younger generations feel compelled to become activists and stand up against this pushback.
I think there are also periods where you have young presidents who are really representing a moment in time, and then we get an old president who is a status quo president. So, I think people are afraid of too much change too fast, and he’s the tipping point.
There’s been a lot to be afraid of these last 16 years, and if you just read the news or tune into the news cycle, you’re conditioned to think we live in the most vulnerable time in human history, which of course you and I know we don’t. And I will say, I’ve got two little American girls and they have their little anxious moments, and I still tell them that there’s never been a greater time to be born as an American female than now. Never has she had more opportunities. Never has she had a stronger voice. And never has she had more reasons to be confident. Gay or straight. I’d still say now is a better time to be gay anywhere in the world.
Growing up in Melbourne, Australia, what was your introduction to the LGBT community?
There were huge rumors at school that George Michael was gay. I was like, “No, no, really?!” (Laughs) And Freddie Mercury had AIDS. “No, he’s not gay, too!” It was kind of a mix of probably negative and controversial, I would say, in a Catholic backwater.
I remember there was a gorgeous, contemporary boy and the rumors in the parish: He wasn’t well, he was a drug addict and he died of a heroin overdose, and he was from a big Catholic family. I had only recently learned that he died of HIV/AIDS. So, the family would have rather said he was an addict and died, when he was actually living a very loved life with his partner and died very young. Died at 24, I think.
In 2012, you performed in the Australian production of Dustin Lance Black’s play 8, centered on California’s controversial Proposition 8. Was that your introduction to Dustin?
Apparently, we met in the Valley for a project. I was the hugest fan of Milk. As a history lover, what I loved about Milk, which I kind of sat down somewhat dutifully to be educated with, and I think the same holds true for this piece: how committed he is to elevating these heroes that are gay, lesbian and straight. And perhaps my first introduction to that topic and feeling the outrageous injustice of how they were treated in their own time was seeing the Alan Turing play (1986’s Breaking the Code) at the West End (in London). I was 19 – very young – and that was my introduction to probably the key hero of World War II, who was a gay man and died tortured and broken for his own sexuality. I recall the wrongfulness, and I think had that not been made (into a movie), Lance would’ve made that story as well.
In When We Rise, you say, “Gay dads – I wonder if that will ever be a thing.” It’s kind of hysterical, but also true.
Not very long ago I really remember thinking, “Gay marriage – that’ll never be a thing.” Even being gay and lesbian supportive, the actual idea… there were just enormous strides being made very quickly. And in my country, Australia, gay and lesbians still cannot marry and are denied fundamental rights to celebrate their unions.
But it’s a wonderful thing, the Bill of Rights. It can be used in other countries very much as a political football, and it’s just the most inspiring document that human beings have ever come up with as a model and ideal to which we should move forward. And I still believe that that document is going at its strongest and most triumphant when all “men” includes all people: men and women, gay and straight, white and colored, Christian and non-Christians.
How did you end up playing Diane?
I knew the project was on, and I read the material and just fell in love with it. I was in LA and got to meet with him… and I just got really lucky, I think! (Laughs) With Diane, just holding the heads of dying men, having no answers, and then going home feeling helpless and yet finding the mettle to get up and return and do it all again and handle all the bodily fluids in a plague that had no known source was just heroic bravery. I love that balance – it takes many different styles of work to fight these battles. Hers is through duty and service, not the megaphone.
In addition to When We Rise, you’ve been a part of many landmark moments in LGBT programming over the last 15-plus years. Is there a project that stands out to you as being particularly groundbreaking?
I think they all have been in their own way. Of course Six Feet Under was massively groundbreaking in that that was the first time I recall there being a gay member of a family not defined by his otherness or his trouble in reconciling it all. And I think this is groundbreaking in its lesbian characters. (Laughs) I love the article somebody wrote “Why Is TV Killing Its Queer Women?” It was really interesting. So, I think there are fewer lesbian characters than gay characters probably because they’re not as fabulous with fashion and cute, funny quips.
I think this is groundbreaking for its representation of gay women on network TV and really exploring the day-to-day life of many lesbians, which is not looking hot, or picking up girls in bars, or talking about sex. It’s talking about picking up the kids and, “Oh my god, how can I possibly pay for my family and get better gender equity and pay?”
Six Feet Under is still my favorite show to have ever aired on TV.
I think it’s mine too, next to M*A*S*H. My “straight” show is M*A*S*H (laughs), which really defined me and half of Brenda Chenowith. I was always like, “Why can’t a woman be a guy on screen?” Just that kind of badly behaved and morally righteous person, but absolutely incorrigible.
What kind of mark did Six Feet Under leave on you?
I think it definitely has left a career mark, not just because it was an enormous success, but pushing the boundaries of women in television and unpredictable modules of likability. I think (Alan) really explored a depth and a breadth of key archetypes. I was really on that show as the girlfriend – then there was the mom, the bratty teen daughter, the Latino wife. He blew the female stereotypes out, and the legacy of that is for all women in television to enjoy on that level.
I was also so proud to be a part of a show that could speak to death and dying and serious themes of human struggle at a time when no other show was doing that. That was a big draw for me, and that (pilot) script that I read, to this day is possibly the best script that’s ever been sent to me with my name actually on it. And the feedback we had from people in the wake of September 11 about how that show nurtured and comforted and enabled them to have conversations they didn’t know how to have – that was really incredible.
(Alan) just kind of found a common space, and said the American family is all these things. It is gay. It is straight. It is lesbian. It is unsure. It is an artist. It is a mother whose personal dreams are not being met. It is a young woman trying to find her identity in a postmodern world. It can be all these things.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).