Actress and director Rachel Griffiths
In her hotel room overlooking Sydney’s Double Bay wharf, Rachel Griffiths pours cups of tea, fighting an asthma-inducing cold before a private screening of her debut feature film, Ride Like a Girl. The biopic of Michelle Payne, the only female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup, is about coming of age, resilience, sweetness, toughness and leaping the obstacles laid across a woman’s path.
It’s also about faith. Payne – the youngest of 10 children, eight of whom became jockeys – is, like Griffiths, part of a Catholic family. Both their families say grace before meals, and Payne’s travels to church each Sunday in a converted ambulance. Griffiths went to school at Star of the Sea College in Melbourne’s Brighton, and Ride Like a Girl has a notably fond portrayal of the nuns who taught Payne, jauntily setting out in habits to lay a wager at the TAB on their protégée’s trailblazing Cup ride in 2015.
Griffiths scrapped her earlier proposal to direct a coming-of-age film set in the modelling world. A male mentor had advised: “Look, if you want to make a film in this country, particularly with this budget, with a female centre like this, it has to be someone you can root for.” She was soon instead chasing Payne’s story, after seeing her ride Prince of Penzance as a 100-1 outsider at Flemington to a half-length win. Cup in hand, Payne thanked her supporters but told chauvinistic elements to “get stuffed, because women can do anything and we can beat the world”.
Andrew Knight and Elise McCredie’s screenplay only briefly deals with the death of Payne’s mother, Mary, in a car accident. Griffiths, the youngest of three, was raised by a single parent as well, after her father, Edward, left the family when she was 11.
Ride Like a Girl is a “very Catholic film”, says Griffiths, “in terms of redemption and wrestling with moral implications”, identifying a scene where Payne’s strapper brother, Stevie, who has Down syndrome and is played by himself, asks, “What happens if Dad dies?” Payne, played by Teresa Palmer, answers, “I’ll look after you.” Stevie responds: “What happens if you die?”
“That’s a very Catholic moment,” says Griffiths. “She can’t answer him because she’s not going to stop riding, and her conscience takes her into the selfishness of the choice she’s making, and I say that without judgement, that as humans we do make selfish decisions.” She laughs. “The difference with being raised Catholic is you feel guilty about them.”
Griffiths reflects that her film is “probably the most positive movie that reflects the best of the Catholic Church that Australia’s put out for a very long time, if ever”. But then she pulls focus to the church’s “child rape crisis” borne out by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The Christian Brothers schooled her husband, visual artist Andrew Taylor, who told me in a 2009 interview that the order harboured “wolves” responsible for an “evil beyond words” who did “appalling things to friends of mine”. Griffiths says now of the Christian Brothers: “That order should just shut down. Their failure to educate and protect young boys is catastrophic and as a brand they’re fatally damaged.”
Did the church’s covering up of abuse make her question her faith? “I think my faith is aesthetically Catholic, not through any allegiance to Rome. I have no faith in the Catholic structure or any structure that doesn’t include women and is designed to entrench power using secrecy and threat. Any organisation that looks like that has got no job educating children. Had I gone to a Christian Brothers school, I’m sure I would have no faith, no God at all.
“Julia Gillard’s call for the royal commission was so important because the lessons to be learnt are not about faith; they’re about organisational behaviour … The most tragic thing we came to understand is how enduring childhood trauma is and how shame has no place in the healing process.”
For Griffiths and Taylor, Catholicism has been a positive influence in their home life. He spoke to me of the couple having an “extraordinarily strong moral compass at home”, raising their three children, now aged between 10 and 15. Griffiths’ maternal uncle Andrew Hamilton, a priest and a consulting editor for progressive Jesuit publication Eureka Street, has been a lifelong influence.
Griffiths and Taylor met at 17 but only got together as a couple in their 30s. “My husband and I were married in a Mass. The idea that the church and the community around the church at their best are there for you at these times in your life is very real and meaningful to me. Going to the Jesuit communities with my uncle, maybe I was getting the best of the best.”
Griffiths has previously credited her “adventurous” streak to her late father, while also acknowledging he “chose to leave us … in a very catastrophic, careless way”. She says now: “Maybe if I’d had an absolutely adorable father who made me feel safe and secure and loved, I wouldn’t be so bolshie. I’ll never know the answer to that.”
Her concerns for strugglers have manifested in remarkable activism, from publicly baring her breasts in protest at the 1997 opening of Melbourne’s Crown Casino to recent work as patron of Hagar Australia, a human rights group that aims to end people trafficking and slavery. She successfully lobbied former senator Derryn Hinch to have child sex offenders banned from receiving passports, to crack down on paedophile sex tourism.
Kate Kennedy, Griffiths’ best friend and a former chief executive of Hagar, says: “I still very much recognise my plait-wearing primary school friend. She has some kind of motor that rarely stops, especially if she has been ignited by an idea or a project. She has always sought deep connections and a sense of belonging, which I think was so hard and lonely for her when she worked overseas.”
Ten days after our interview, Griffiths is on the phone, concerned that being unwell the previous week she had not sufficiently articulated her faith and motivations: “Behind the idea of Catholic guilt, within a sound Catholic education, one is developing a sense of conscience,” she explains. “That word ‘conscience’ is so much more critical than ‘obligation’. One does not always measure up to one’s conscience. So to grow as a Catholic in my generation was [to understand that] the self and the soul responds to conscience. The guilt is the reminder that one is not living up to one’s conscience, which,” she laugh-sighs, “is most of the time.”
Conscience, she says, has made her speak out about child rape in the Catholic Church, from funding shortfalls in the Melbourne Response to the “legal fraternity protecting rapists”. In 2015, fire razed the 123-year-old St James Church in Brighton, her local parish, and Griffiths told the ABC she felt “elated”.
“St James was ground central to one of the worst offenders,” she says now. “I have many male peers in a major suicide cluster.”
Griffiths reflects how some German Catholic politicians leading up to Hitler were apologists for human rights violations “because they were power-focused, and not acting according to their conscience, whereas many priests and bishops of the time were extraordinary in their defiance of the power”.
She discovered her eight-times paternal grandfather, Benjamin Levy, was a founder of London’s Ashkenazi Jews, in a Who Do You Think You Are? episode that aired in 2016: “The Catholic in me has always been deeply bothered by the fact the Holocaust could happen in a largely Catholic country. It was a great joy to discover my entrepreneurial Jewish ancestors.”
Is she attracted to acting roles with a moral viewpoint? After all, she has played psychologist Joy Conolly in child abuse film Don’t Tell; Julian Assange’s fiercely loyal mother, Christine, in Underground; strongly religious Bertha Doss, who becomes her pacifist son’s moral compass in Hacksaw Ridge; and Etty Hillesum, standing her ground against Nazi oppressors, in the dramatised documentary Strangers to the World.
“The thing is the wrestling of the conscience,” she says. “I find that fascinating, because we’re challenged by it within temporal power and how you interact with others.
“Ultimately we’re only accountable to ourselves and our god if we believe that day is coming. But there seems to be a great move away from that; a shamelessness which is curious … but also a really strange dichotomy at the moment where there’s mass public shaming and no room for people to say, ‘I fucked up; I’m sorry; can we move on?’”
Griffiths is formidably articulate in both our interviews. I’m learning why Toni Collette, Griffiths’ co-star in Muriel’s Wedding, the 1994 film that made them overnight stars, has said she always looked up to her, despite being close in age. Griffiths went on to score an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of flautist Hilary du Pré in the 1998 film Hilary and Jackie, before earning Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards, as well as two Emmy nominations, for playing Brenda Chenowith in Alan Ball’s HBO drama Six Feet Under.
She has long held ambition to make films, directing the shorts Tulip (1998) and Roundabout (2002), but a decade in the United States, including her ongoing role in the series Brothers and Sisters – after which she and Taylor decided to return to Melbourne to raise their children – meant her feature debut was a long time coming.
Was gender a barrier? “I was very fortunate to come into the industry at a time where, even if the data was incredibly depressing in terms of how many females were showrunners or were directors, we were very fortunate here with Gillian Armstrong, Jane Campion, Jocelyn Moorhouse and Nadia Tass, to have highly visible women directing.
“Where gender was the obstacle was partly having a family and … lucrative providing opportunities that didn’t necessarily grow me as a content-maker. I was at peace with those very clear decisions; that those 10 years was not the time for me to be moving up the food chain.”
Griffiths ponders, though, whether actors in Australia are “trusted” to take charge as storytellers. “We have a quite closed, colonialistic, infantilised view of actors … that we steal the Cabcharges; that we’re these unreliable, wild things that need to be managed.”
On October 13, the ABC will premiere a new six-part drama, which had the working title Black Bitch, starring Deborah Mailman as an Indigenous senator, Alex Irving, and Griffiths as Prime Minister Rachel Anderson. Rachel Perkins is directing. “I had the title and the plot for Black Bitch [the show’s international title] from my mid-20s,” says Griffiths. “It was one of the projects that I came back from America hoping to make. It was born of a moment of trying to make sense of how female politicians and women in power in Australia were treated – seeing responses to Cheryl Kernot, and Joan Kirner in Victoria.”
Griffiths then became aware of a young Indigenous woman in the 1990s who was called a “black bitch” for pursuing a land rights claim, and noted misogyny directed at Julia Gillard as prime minister and abuse against former senator Nova Peris. She pitched this “meditation on women and women of colour in power” to Blackfella Films producer Darren Dale one night, realising an Indigenous woman’s experience was not her story to tell. The working title Black Bitch had been intended as a reclamation of a racial slur, but after social media criticism by some Indigenous people, the ABC announced the series would be called Total Control for its local airing, although director Rachel Perkins says the show was “always going to be called” this latter title in Australia.
Beyond racism and women in power, Total Control will also examine populism and the political outsider. We rake over the day’s political news. Griffiths mentions British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suspending parliament “for the sake of a Brexit referendum that had no clear question”.
“It’s just an appallingly cavalier approach to democracy,” she says, and in her outrage one can almost hear Griffiths brainstorming for a second season of Total Control, testing for populist fault lines in Australia’s own body politic. Something powerful has only just begun.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 28, 2019 as "Acts of faith". Subscribe here.