Ideas for a brighter future for all

In this instalment of Griffith University's A better future for all series, in partnership with HOTA, Home of the Arts, Kerry O'Brien spoke to one of Australia's most prolific arts professionals Rachel Griffiths AM about her celebrated career.

Rachel is an Academy Award nominated and multi award-winning actress whose impressive career has spanned from the stage to the screen and everything in between. From her performance in films such as beloved classic Muriel’s WeddingHilary & Jackie and Saving Mr Banks, to her Golden Globe-winning role in HBO’s hit Six Feet Under, Rachel’s work has an impressive range that has won her fans the world over. Most recently, she co-created the political drama, Total Control for ABC Australia, in which she co-starred, winning both Best Television series 2019 and the Best Supporting Actress Award at the Australian AACTA Awards. Second season will premier later this year.

A passionate human rights activist, Rachel has used her public platform to call attention to human rights abuses across the world, including fronting a senate inquiry on modern day slavery. 

Rachel has since turned her attention behind the cameras, creating content with a focus on inclusivity and telling extraordinary stories. Her dedication to her craft and incredible breadth of work makes this A better future for all conversation a must-see event. 

Rachel Griffiths AM

One of Australia’s most prolific industry professionals across a range of mediums, Rachel Griffiths is an Academy Award Nominated and multi award-winning actress. After starting her career on the Australian stage, Rachel Griffiths burst onto the international scene in 1994 with P.J. Hogan’s much-loved feature film Muriel’s Wedding. Her film credits since then include My Best Friend’s Wedding, The Rookie, The Hard Word, Blow, Step Up, Burning Man, Mammal, Saving Mr. Banks, Beautiful Kate, and Hilary & Jackie in a performance which earned her an Academy Award Nomination, and hacksaw ridge for which Rachel won the best supporting actress award at the Australian AACTA’s Rachel has continued to work in the theatre with notable performances in PROOF for the MTC and Robbie Baitz” Other desert Cities on Broadway.  

Rachel moved into premium television drama starring as Brenda in the critically acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under for which she received a Golden Globe Award. The series earnt her a further two more nominations, two SAG awards and multiple season Emmy nominations. Her follow up series for ABC’s Brothers & Sisters earnt her further Golden Globe, Emmy and SAG nominations and ran for 5 years. Other television credits include the NBC series Camp; the Julian Assange biopic, Underground, Paper Giants: Magazine Wars, Dead Lucky for SBS, and Dustin Lance Black’s epic gay civil rights series When We Rise for ABC. Currently Rachel stars in the Amazon/ABC signature series, The Wilds which just completed its second season.  

In the last few years Rachel has moved into content creation with her company Magdalene media directing and producing the highest grossing Australian feature film of 2019, Ride like A Girl. She also co-created the political drama, Total Control for ABC Australia, in which she co-starred, winning both Best Television series2019 and the Best Supporting Actress Award at the Australian AACTA Awards. Second season will premier later this year. Rachel is excited to have recently delivered her first Factual Television series, Finding the Archibald for ABC and is currently developing other television projects for both local and international platforms. She sits on the board of the world’s leading museum of the moving image, ACMI Melbourne, is Patron of Bus Stop Films and an important generator for inclusive filmmaking fostering the participation of people with disabilities in our national storytelling and was awarded An Order of Australia for her contribution to the arts in 2021. 

 

Kerry O’Brien

Rachel, I must say I’m looking forward to talking with you about total control tonight because the idea for the series started with you. And to me, it nails so many aspects of contemporary politics in democracies like ours, which in some ways, is rather sad, but nonetheless true. But first, before we get to that, I do want to explore how your career has arrived at this point, and why you believe so passionately that actors too often underutilized in terms of their creativity. So, in terms of public profile, you came from nowhere when Muriel’s Wedding really launched your screen career, as you put it, like being shot out of a cannon. But I wonder whether you’ve thought about how many years of blood sweat and tears it has saved you the success of that film, and the almost instant entree it gave you to the world beyond Australia.

Rachel Griffiths

So much to unpack there. Before I start tonight, I do want to acknowledge that I am talking tonight on the lands of the Kulin nation in Melbourne, of the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung people and I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging and encourage everyone in Australia to know whose lands they walk upon. And the history of those lands, both before we arrived, and in the years that our peoples came. To answer that question, yeah, shot out of a cannon. Not, almost – no longer an ingenue. And I appreciate that. I’m kind of glad that I wasn’t gorgeous and fabulous at 19. And, you know, launched into the stratosphere at that moment. I had some kind of semblance of understanding who I was. But yeah, sheer luck really. I never imagined a career where I would have, you know, international offers within months of my first film. It was wonderful and, you know, exciting and dislocating and confusing and set me on a quite a long journey before I really returned home to tell our stories.

Kerry O’Brien

Yeah, and I mean, relatively speaking, in the blink of an eye, you’re in America. In another blink of an eye, you’re nominated for an Oscar with ‘Hillary and Jackie’. So 1994 was ‘Muriel’s Wedding’, 98 you’re nominated for the Oscar. In another blink of an eye you’re a central character and a huge multi award winning hit television series ‘Six Feet Under’ with your own Golden Globe on your shelf and then another successful series, another blink of the eye, ‘Brothers and Sisters’ so within a decade of Muriel’s Wedding, your career in America is absolutely flying.

Rachel Griffiths

Before I went to America I followed the perhaps, at that point, the more well-trodden path of Melbourne creatives looking to escape their suburbia, which was to go to England and I had three wonderful, wonderful years working in independent film in England culminating actually in ‘Hillary and Jackie.’ America always frightened me. I never imagined that I would feel really, a sense of place or home and because my study of drama had been probably more English centric, my understanding of British actors going back to Shakespeare’s own truth. I felt very at home when I went to England, kind of within the storytelling and the perhaps slightly socialist, independent filmmakers at the time. I felt very at home in British film. What was somewhat of a shock to me was that sense of being the colonial. I think we may imagine the deep embrace of ‘home and away’ and ‘Neighbours’ and various other Australian cultural products from the English that were always embraced. But I felt very much slightly gendered and very much ‘Oh, you’re from the colonies’ attitude that actually made me feel maybe I’ll never be quite comfortable in this class stratified society. My time since leaving England is probably only exaggerated that kind of feeling that when you grow up in an egalitarian, somewhat classless society, or one is not held to one’s class in this country, and then go to England and are reminded so constantly that you’re not of the right class or you’re not the right type of girl. I’m quite cynical. So, when I arrived in America I was shocked actually, and how comfortable I was. And just very privileged to be with the creatives that helped grow me so much.

Kerry O’Brien

And you know, at the same time when you reflect back on it, you gave that terrific lecture, the Hector Crawford lecture just two years ago, where you talked a great deal. You were talking to screen producers, and you were seriously focused on this whole business about actors being underutilized. That there is a great store of creative energy, creative force and imagination that sits unused. And you were talking in part, you drew quite extensively I think on your experiences with those television, that decade long virtually across two big television series, where you talked about because of the nature of your profession you took the money as long as it was coming. But essentially you were turning up to quote “elevate the material within the structure of the lines that have been approved by five layers of executives, and advertisers and studio heads. Not a very conducive space for creative input.” As you put it, you said you felt fantasized.

Rachel Griffiths

Wow. You’ve done your research. Um, I’d be as much inclined to say that that was my experience perhaps here at various times. Because parallel to perhaps experiencing that I was more than aware of you know, the Penelope Pitstop movies and the Lucille Ball, you know, who, by the way, was the producer and commissioning company on Star Trek. And it’s a great tradition from you know, Mary Pickford, that Hollywood was really founded by the energy of actors. And a great trust that actors are very audience focused. Because we are, you know, happiness, approval, love whores, actors don’t want to be on the stage if the audience are visibly leaving. We don’t want to go and watch our films in the cinema, and people are falling asleep. We don’t do things because they’re cool. Like, we really want our stories, or stories we attach ourselves to, to find an audience. And I think the American box office has always valued the actor instincts, you know. From George Clooney all the way back to Peter Fonda. The rise of, you know, in the 60s, independent spirits, they turned to the actors. The studios when we don’t know what people want anymore. Tell us, tell us what people want. So, America had that great tradition of respecting actors and of course, Canadians who went on to have their own daytime shows or have the night, you know, the night show, they weren’t comedians. Once upon a time dove level, like David Letterman is just a comedian. And then they become these, you know, businesses that are hugely reliable in delivering cutting edge and up to the minute material for audiences. But I do think in this country we’ve always had a slightly convict overseer nature. You know, I always felt that the producers on the show thought the actors were, you know, the people that fuck the extras and stole the cab charges, you know. There was not this turning to the actor saying, you know, who do you think’s the next hottest actor or what ideas do you have? But in America I did feel a weird disparity. When you’re on a television show and you’re being paid a lot of money. It is true. You’re not meant to have ideas or opinions about the writing on that show. You’re meant to take the money, not press third floor on the elevator, not go upstairs, not fight for your character or perhaps your daughter’s character. There is a kind of quid pro quo there. But outside that the rest of Hollywood I think has been, you know, genuinely interested in active content and Reese Witherspoon selling her company, I think for $900 million, just like a month ago is a stellar example of understanding that those business models understanding the sensitivity of actors to audiences desire. Because we are a kind of, you know, not sex workers, we’re kind of content workers. We seek to try to understand what people want, what stories they want, and how do they want them to be told now, in this moment. What do you need, and I will go away and cook up something to meet that need. Perhaps you don’t even know what you need, but I am going to ensure it from you what I think you need Mike on white.

Kerry O’Brien

In fact, one of your lines on this same theme, but you related to Australia, you said, I’d like us to think about how we in this country can throw off the residue of colonial corporate structures that you just mentioned. The actors being managed down sock puppets.

Rachel Griffiths

Yeah, I think there has been a lot of management of actors. I think we are, you know, to be controlled, and overseen. But as audiences love our actors very deeply, we adore the extraordinary depth that an actor like Russell Crowe can explore the male human condition, toxic, non-toxic, vulnerable. We do celebrate our actors audience, you know, audience wise. And I think producers when you’ve got to a certain point want to ride that wagon. But I just think there’s been just a kind of missteps, that actors or musicians or songwriters, people at the coalface who really… When you’re onstage you see the faces of people receiving the drama and we’re highly attuned when it’s not going well, when it’s not funny, when we’re flat. We are so so sensitive to what an audience responds to and I think this is why really. And I will also say Carrie, I have to own 100% that my own personal journey as somebody who was not very good with management. I think I was very bad management sensitive and I think it’s taken me a long time to seek to communicate to others that I am somebody who can play with others in a reliable, compassionate and process driven way. So, I can’t blame Australia for that. That’s been you know, my journey too.

Kerry O’Brien

Give me an example.

Rachel Griffiths

Like Claudia Karvan, you know, who really was making great content well over a decade ago and had the backing of powerful producers in this country for very good reason for her taste. So, I just want to own that. That maybe it’s me is what I’m saying.

Kerry O’Brien

Give me an example of why you might not have been so palatable in that sense.

Rachel Griffiths

Rebel Catholic and you know, asshole father who was quite volatile. So, I didn’t grow up with a business family where I was able to really kind of temper those business relationships and I’m just really sensitive to bad management. So, you know, I’ve had my own personal journey to just to be a better team player. To suffer fools on occasion, to use perhaps more positive language with others about how to come to common goals and processes to realise those goals. That’s a modest view.

I probably wouldn’t have said that before. I probably would have said that’s all them. They are all fucked. I would say that it’s probably me. I’m ADHD. It has taken me a very long time to kind of fully understand, diagnose and accept to what degree that may have also played on me not making my first television show until I was 50.

Kerry O’Brien

Well, let me quote quite yourself back to you from years ago. When you talk about the new Rachel, you’ve said you said in that interview that success has made you a nicer, more gracious, more thankful person. So, you’ve kind of described the Rachel you saw yourself as earlier you said “I needed a certain degree of success to fill whatever hole I had inside myself.” Did you ever define that hole?

Rachel Griffiths

I’ve filled a few holes? What can I say?

Kerry O’Brien

I think kind of gave us a hint a bit when you talked about the past.

Rachel Griffiths

I think I share something that you know, and I’m think we should move on to politics. But I think I share a certain pathology that you may recognize from the biographies of more than the occasional politician that in the abandonment of the father, one does, I think, carry somewhat of a brittle ego and sense of perhaps a worthlessness that one spends one’s life trying to disprove. And success can be somewhat of a balm to that gnawing feeling. Apparently, we women are not allowed to use the word imposter syndrome anymore. I’ve read that today. Stop telling us we have imposter syndrome.

Kerry O’Brien

I don’t really think that’s confined to women. I can speak from experience.

Rachel Griffiths

That is true.

Kerry O’Brien

As almost all of us can.

Rachel Griffiths

I read a headline ‘men stop telling us we have imposter syndrome.’ So yes, I think if one has a certain chip that one is trying to disprove one’s worthlessness by being successful, of course, the danger of that which I have fully confronted is that when truly faced with a moment of potential profound or actual failure, one’s response to that can be quite catastrophic. So, you know, I had a period of time while editing ‘Ride Like a Girl’ where I was truly convinced that the film was un-releasable, and that I had let down all these people that put their faith in me and I went to a very, very, very bad place. And coming out of that…

Kerry O’Brien

What stage was that at?

Rachel Griffiths

That was, you know, just in the edit. And I’d had a bad reaction from a couple of people that, you know, also kind of confirmed that film was maybe un-releasable. And I was saved by the fact that that film was fairly successful. I think we were the most successful Australian film of the year. But nonetheless, it was an interesting moment because I was really confronted (a) with the fact that one day I will utterly fail. And until that moment, I had not creatively failed, you know, since I was 21. That I will fail and moreover, if I don’t fail I haven’t actually been, you know, adventurous enough as an artist. And taking the kind of risk which good art really comes from.

Kerry O’Brien

You’re giving yourself very tough benchmarks aren’t you? I remember an interview with Cate Blanchett years ago now, in the 7.30 years, and I remember her talking about glorious failure and I wondered at the time whether that’s not in a way, perhaps romanticizing failure a little much. I failure as you say have said, failure can actually be quite devastating.

Rachel Griffiths

Truly devastating. But it’s interesting you cite Cate there. I remember sharing an audition actually for NIDA with Cate and Cate got in this audition and I was shortlisted and she did not. But I remember the kind of gob-smacking joyful audacity of this Cate Blanchett in this audition because she clearly gave herself permission to fail. And in doing that she was utterly free. And I wanted it so much. You know, as you said, that film Muriel’s Wedding saved me years and years. Well in my mind, you know, if I got into NIDA that would save me, you know, a decade of struggle because, you know, apparently if you get into NIDA you get straight out of the cannon. But I remember being in that audition, and I wanted it so much. And there was a, you know, just this kind of tension in me that was me carrying my desire to be where I wanted to be. And all I saw day in Cate was this extraordinary free beast that could laugh when she messed up and be silly, and be extraordinary. And I remember sitting in an audition, just thinking how can she not care about the outcome?

Kerry O’Brien

And yet she must have.

Rachel Griffiths

She must have, but I don’t think it would have affected her ego. And that is the difference. That had she not gotten in, I think she just, you know, would have found another way around it. I don’t think her self or soul would have been devastated. So that’s the trick about failure and successes to not attach one’s ego to it.

Kerry O’Brien

So, we’ll come back to ‘Ride like a Girl’ briefly there. So, when the Edit was finished, and all of the post production, and it was ready to screen ,and then it was screened, the critiques that I remember were very good. And the box office was terrific. So, I assumed that you allowed yourself to accept that it was actually of its type, a really nice, well-crafted film. We’ve lost Rachel there.

Rachel Griffiths

For the story, you know, for Michelle, and I think because I had somebody else’s life story in my hands. That gave me an enormous sense of responsibility. It wasn’t just kind of about me and a filmmaker, or me and my debut. You know, I had so much admiration for Michelle and so much love for her family. And I felt I needed to, you know, make a massively successful film because I wanted every girl in Australia to know his story. Yeah. It’s complicated.

Kerry O’Brien

For me, I have some inkling of what you’re talking about. And I think if you’re putting yourself out there you must feel often very exposed, very naked, and you’re kind of putting yourself on the line. But I don’t believe that you would still be where you are and have gotten to where you are if you didn’t have the required resilience.

Rachel Griffiths

Yes, I’m doggedly gritty.

Kerry O’Brien

You say doggedly gritty. I think that brings us to our discussion about total control.

Rachel Griffiths

Let’s get there.

Kerry O’Brien

So, your original pasting, more than passing idea I guess.

Rachel Griffiths

A deeply fermenting, deeply fermenting my own lonely caldron.

Kerry O’Brien

From your university days. And then, and I think you were 25 when you actually hit on ‘Black Bitch.’

Kerry Griffiths

It was an ongoing cook up. I discovered Anne Summers at my one year of Melbourne University before I bailed and my final thesis for first year politics was a comparative exploration of the foundation experience of colonial women in Australia and New Zealand, and how the difference of their arrival, if you like our origin stories, as women in these two countries has gone on to profoundly change how women are perceived in leadership. How I got there Kerry I don’t know. All I know is that they have had three female prime ministers from their both sides, and we’ve had one from one side. But I was deeply interested in this idea. And of course, I’d done politics at school. I was obsessed with handing out how to vote for the democrat cards. I had adolescent, as I say, narcissistic fantasies about being the youngest democrat senator ever and holding the balance of power. And then, you know, left there to go into drama school and watch Natasha Stott Despoja very closely and there’s a lot of rubbish language. I shouldn’t say rubbish language. You know, there’s a lot of, it’s not even woke language. There’s a specific kind of language that can be used to discuss, you know, the gendered experiences of women in politics or the media. You know, words like slack shaming. They’ve been incredibly illuminating for describing things. That growing up as a generation X girl, we just didn’t have words for. So, when I’m brewing this whole thing, watching Cheryl Kernot, watching that men could be successful, but watching how women were treated, and discarded. You know, the girls left holding the bag, and then she’s gone, just all seemed very apparent. And I didn’t really have the language for it. But it grew and grew. And I had another experience of a First Nations activists to I was privy to kind of understanding some of the racial vilification that she was carrying during a certain campaign on her Native Title lands. And so, then they intersected. Suddenly it was no longer just about being really interested in what happens to white women, and perhaps white younger women of sexual age in the political process in this country. But if you intersect a First Nations experience, or otherness by race, how it’s a double load. And of course, that played out when social media came up with some pretty horrendous examples of you know, the nice chiropractor from Coffs Harbour that was making the most appalling threats against Nova Peris, which was shocking in the day. And you know, now we live in a time where that’s happened a million times by 9:30am in the morning and on approved platforms. That’s where we are now.

Kerry O’Brien

So, the three things in particular that were in play for me, the cold, clinical, calculating, manipulative cynicism inherent in politics today. The treatment of women, and racism, particularly directed at Indigenous Australians, all important central things that you’re dealing with.

Rachel Griffiths

I will add to that, though, because I would be mortified if I made a show that said, politics is worse. They’re all cynical, no one gives a… The show at the heart of it Kerry is about the price of service. And is it too much? Are we asking the price? Are we asking particularly women to pay such a high price in order to enact policies for their community? That to me is the central kind of question of the show. And with Deb Mailman’s character it’s can a First Nations woman, with all that she’s carrying, and all the trauma she has experienced, can she hold it together long enough? While all this happens, the racial and gendered vilification? Can she hold on long enough to get into power to make things better? That that’s the dramatic question, you know, in the show and I think that’s really a question you could apply to so many women in politics. And I’ve spoken to so many women past and present both sides, both houses. And it’s something that they’re wrestling with all the time.

Kerry O’Brien

And I’m going to come back to that in a moment. But I do want to pursue this this thing. I mean, I do think that fundamentally democracy in Australia, and probably similarly in America and Britain and parts of Europe, has arrived at a point where I think the wear and tear of the very nature of democracy is very much a part of the problem. That the kind of endless compromise that is a fundamental part of the imperfect of nature, the imperfect nature of democracy, and the toll that that takes on the individual how they worn down and the cynicism creeps in and the deals that have to be done, and so on. And I think there is I mean, that is there very much as a part of your series, isn’t it?

Rachel Griffiths

Well I see it slightly differently Karry. I think politics, the compromise of politics is as old as you know, Socrates, if you like.

Kerry O’Brien

One thing about now compared to Socrates, or anytime in between really is that in the last 30 years and much more intensely in the last 10 to 20 years, with television, and now the Internet, and the various social platforms, the whole process is so much more exposed, so much more under scrutiny, and so much more intense. Don’t you think?

Rachel Griffiths

I think there’s, you know, no OFF button is there for them or us? I think it’s wearing I think exhausting. Recently, a Melbourne politician described social media as open media. Meaning it’s not really social, it’s just open, and it’s open for you to abuse me in the most terrific way. So yeah, I think absolutely. Both sides equally indictable on this. I don’t think the left is any more light footed than the right when it comes to these kind of level of responses that either we become so insensitive as humans were only the most thick skinned, narcissistic, and perhaps, you know, some other Asperger or something where you can just completely cut out an emotional response to these things. And that’s probably not true. I’ve actually got friends on the spectrum and be equally vulnerable to feeling the weight of online abuse. So, either we are going to end up with the worst reptiles still putting their hands up going, yep, yep, throw that at me. And my family and my children. Or we have to change it. And, you know, there’s not many things I probably agree with Barnaby Joyce on, but I am absolutely with him that a politician’s daughter shouldn’t wake up to find herself utterly slandered on the internet to serve someone else’s political purpose.

Kerry O’Brien

So, how many politicians and I imagine you’re focused a lot on female politicians? But how many female politicians did you speak to in your research phase? To help you fashion not just your character, but the others? 

Rachel Griffiths

Look, I already had ongoing relationships or, you know, friendships with women who were either in politics or had been in politics. So probably reached out to them. You know, I must say that although the original idea for this, you know, may have come from me, it became something completely that I could never have imagined because Blackfella Films and Darren Dale were open to doing business with me. In my original incarnation of this show, there was no female prime minister. I certainly wasn’t even in the show. I was kind of pitching an idea. So, it’s very much Darren and the deep work of Miranda Dear who was our first season producer, and Erin Bretherton this year that have taken the material to somewhere I could never have imagined and I must put that out there that this this show is far, far from being all me. So, I’ll be honest Kerry. I would pick up the phone, I would call anyone’s office in Parliament. Cold call and say hello, who am I speaking to? Oh, it’s Dan. Hi Dan. It’s Rachel Griffiths here. Just ringing because I’m making a political drama. And I really love to talk to abovesaid boss, just about being female being leading by female whatever. And almost across the board, I would get a Oh, yes. We’ll be right back. And then I’d get a call and you know, that’d be like she’d love to talk to you. So, look I think with me, I will never name names, and I will never quote. And I think we’re journalists, you know the difference between, you know, people like us, and particularly Darren and indigenous politicians that we reached out to, that unlike a journalist, I don’t want name you. I’m not going to name you. I just want to understand what it is to be you. That’s what we want. We want to understand what it is to feel like you when you wake up in the morning. You know what, what does it feel to wake up like Barnaby Joyce, after, you know, when it’s all gone to where it’s gone? I will say Barnaby never talked to me.

Kerry O’Brien

What was the answer to that?

Rachel Griffith

But I, as a content maker, want to know, you know. I don’t kind of think that politically just on a human level to see, you know, that all play out so horrifically. I want to know what it felt to be you that day, and how do you come back from it? Anyway, so yes, spoke to a couple of prime ministers. We’ve spoken to quite a few senators, quite a few independents, particularly for second season because the second season is all about the rise of independents. And it’s interesting to see how women’s journey changes, you know, from women who left politics perhaps 20 years ago and women who are there now.

Kerry O’Brien

So what are the fundamentals that came through for you? What do you isolate as the important fundamentals; the pattern that emerged from those conversations that then influenced your characters?

Rachel Griffiths

Well, I think the biggest thing is wrestling with this very question of if it’s so hard, and if the news cycle is so relentless, if the criticism is so gendered or racially informed, if there is a never kind of a turn off button, you know, why do you do it? It is so hard. And I think the most wonderful thing, actually, and I truly believe that many of the people we spoke to are not driven for power, they’re not driven for ego, they truly, truly are still driven to be part of the process of designing policies that will positively impact the lives of the people who vote for them. And Kerry, we’re in this incredible moment. Like, politics was like a game, honestly, until COVID happened. It was all like, you know, is there really a difference? Do these decisions really affect our lives? I think a lot of people have become quite complacent that leadership, what does it matter? You know, what is that really going to do? But what COVID I think has really reminded us all of deeply is the decisions that are made in Canberra, whether they’re from job keeper, whether or not they’re fair wages, equality of opportunity, whether or not it’s about hate speech, they affect our lives. And I think, well I hope if there’s one positive thing to have come out of COVID is to remind us and to remind this democracy that’s fragile, like all democracies are. Thankfully, we have compulsory voting, which keeps us mostly, I think, a fairly level headed voter group. I hope we have been reminded that policy matters, who we put into power can have profound implications on our life. And when I spoke to so many people in politics, I was actually really affirmed to find a lot of, you know, really good people. Really good people. Even people I spoke to very technically who were leaving politics so you know, was less personal. The speaker, just very good, very decent people, very decent people who have had careers based on the desire to serve.

Kerry O’Brien

And yet at the same time, if you look at the, it’s a powerful series and a series of powerful stories. But the central players, many of the central players do not end up being attractive characters. They might have become victims themselves of the remorseless process. But you’ve got the deal making. You’ve got the undermining. You’ve got the corruption. You’ve got the suppression, you’ve got the lies to Parliament. You’ve got the double dealing amongst colleagues. And those are all real things.

Kerry O’Brien

Well, I definitely think there is something wonderful about the party system that enforces compromise; that says that this is a broad church, and we’ve got it sorted out. But on the other side, there is a kind of tyranny within the party system. The thing that’s happening within the independence that I think is slightly worrisome, perhaps, is that I think women are finding they are more able to be their authentic self when being an independent, and they feel less conflict in how they’re representing their constituents. If they’ve got a direct line to the constituents. They’re voting in alignment with the constituents. They feel, I think, just a greater sense of kind of uncompromised integrity between the flow of that. But if we end up with a parliament with, you know, 350 independents, I mean, what’s that going to look like? It’s not government clearly.

Kerry O’Brien

There are other examples, every now and then around the rest of the world, you’ll find examples of reasonably successful forms of democratic governments with multi party systems and independence and so on, and the degree of sophistication. So, it’s entirely possible that we might end up better than we were.

Rachel Griffiths

The media have been so demeaning, in fact, of anything that sweeps of a minority government. So, while Julia Gillard, I think, should be credited with some brilliance to keeping crossbenchers happy, getting legislation through and actually doing deals, making compromises that are representative of all these little parts of Australia that elect a certain person, I think there’s a lot to be said for that. But the mainstream media has been… Actually, I’m going to take back that mainstream media. I can’t believe I said that. There have been elements in the media, that if you don’t get a resounding majority, you’re not, you know, you’re not a real leader, you don’t have a real right to be there. And I do think we need to kind of question that, because I think those majorities are going to be harder and harder to get. Having said that, I think there is a stability that the party system for all its dirt, for all its factions, for all its collegial boning and knifing, as we might say, there is somewhat of a stability that I think the Australian electorate likes.

Kerry O’Brien

Yeah, except at the same time, and I’m not going to bang on about this, I doubt that there has ever been a stronger sense of cynicism in the public towards our institutions generally. But in particular, the parliament and politicians and some of that might be a bad cop. But a lot of it, I believe, is deserved, because people feel their trust has been betrayed. And it seems to me that one of the biggest challenges that the Australian political system faces now is that the two major parties in particular have to shake themselves up and actually confront the real reforms they both have to make to become parties that are much more representative of the people who try to put their faith in them. And that’s why I find the independence a really interesting, relatively new phenomenon here. And it’s it hasn’t run its course yet. And it could go on for some time, because I don’t think the major parties have fully confronted that.

I think the party’s you know, to some degree, I think there’s been so much spin. And that period that I talked about, when I was in England with the rise of Tony Blair, and I feel like that was the kind of rise of the spin doctors. That the truth was much less important than the slogan and the catchphrase. And I think was millennials who I agree have lost a huge amount of respect for these institutions. And in a moment, like COVID, is where we really actually need to believe in kind of common truths. I think you have had generations that have become incredibly cynical to the messaging because they’ve been able to see the lie. Whether or not it was Saddam has weapons of mass destruction or various other lies are being told, like climate change isn’t real, by their elected leaders. You know the wonderful thing, I love content, but the whole kind of purpose and attraction of the television series ‘Chernobyl’ for that creator was he came from the line, that every lie incurs a debt that one day must be paid. And that loss of faith Kerry that you talk about is really the cost of the lie. When you lie to your electorate, you can think you’re pulling the wool over the eyes, you can think you’re getting away with it, you might get elected again. And that gives you kind of more room. You know, Australians aren’t dumb, the electorate aren’t dumb, they know when they’ve been lied to. But the cost of that is not just losing power, the cost is the loss of faith in our institutions.

Kerry O’Brien

Which once lost can be a very hard thing to recover. But I move on slightly. I wonder what you learned? Well, first of all, have you ever worked more intensively with Indigenous Australians before? And what did you learn from working with Blackfella Films, people like Rachel Perkins and Deborah and Darren and the others?

Kerry O’Brien

Well, it’s been such a massive journey for me, and I feel I’m actually just at the beginning of it. I grew up not knowing the lands that I went to school on. But, you know, in Melbourne, the loss of highly visible and respected indigenous knowledge happened very quickly and very early in our colony, and we weren’t taught it. The journey to understanding the First Nations story as being completely the opposite story to what I was taught is the first real kind of awakening, I guess you have. You kind of know it, but until you’re really in the storytelling, you don’t know it. So, I had an idea about something, but it was, you know, very, very up here. It was like, oh, what if a First Nations woman was helicoptered into the Senate, and she brings down the government, you know. It was kind of intellectual, and I just had really no idea the huge degree to which I would rethink my understanding of this country, and when I say it’s more critical, I don’t mean I hate it, you know. And I think that’s something that’s not said enough that when really looking at our colonial story, which was brutal, was racist. It was steeped in violence against the women who arrived in the colony, it was violent between class red coat British and often Irish poor, and it was a genocide against the people who were here and an outright robbery of the land. That doesn’t make me hate my country, but it really does make me want to be more truthful about who we are as a nation. And I don’t understand why we’ve been propping up, having lived in Britain and as I go back to one of those first stories, the brutality of the second and third sons of the British ruling class you know, cut out from their own estates looking to expand. Collect colonialization really is you know, rape and pillage what you’re not entitled to because your older brother got it. That’s what Australia is founded on. So why we’re upholding a British view of our foundational experience, I don’t know. So working with Blackfella Films and Rachel Perkins, you know, who is now doing frontier wars, has really just been a massive reeducation of this country. That makes me determined to really, truly reconcile with our First Nations people. To have treaty, to live with an acknowledgement of respect of who is here and whose lands we stand on.

Kerry O’Brien

I’m going to move on from ‘Total Control’ now with the time has left. You’ve been an activist across a number of fields. You’re on a task force on gender equality, on gender issues. I’ll ask you in a minute how that’s going. But you’ve talked about a number of issues related to sexism and insensitivities and treatment of women in your industry. This was what you said to that lecture that I referred to earlier at one point “I speak as a woman of unwanted opinions, who has navigated the business for 25 years, and have shared with female actors many challenges in the process. Things like wishing we had intimacy coaches to help handle confronting material that we felt we had no voice in and aching for the language we woke to now. To describe otherness, we feel when alienated by and imprisoned in poor representations of our human and our female experiences.” Can you just elaborate on that for a minute? 

Rachel Griffiths

I think I summed that up pretty well. I’m truly, truly thankful for the feminists who went before me, but also the young feminists now who, you know, are reinventing and using pithy language because I think my generation, a shewed really exploring you know, feminists language because we were really made to feel that it wasn’t nice, and it wasn’t sexy, and it wasn’t attractive, and we don’t want to be that. But, Kerry, I grew up watching Mildred Pierce and these great films of the 30s and 40s. In which Bette Davis and the Crawford’s they were the center of their own stories. They weren’t sex objects. I mean, there were films where that was true, but particularly the films that were through the war, British and American, women had such agency and dignity and these were heroic struggles. And then I grew up in the 80s. And the girl was really reduced to the kind of hottie, and it was a kind of shift in Hollywood. The nerds, the Zuckerberg of the day if you like, that really had a similar lack of deep understanding female experience. Suddenly, there was this very objective view. I didn’t have any of that language at the time. All I knew was that until I read the script from Muriel’s Wedding, I hadn’t read a single modern script that was in 1995 where I thought I recognised the female represented. I used to just go who are these people? Like, where did these women live? You know, ‘Lady in Red’ and women like Daryl Hand. A lot of the girls who I thought you know, had it all, also look at that time and just similarly feel that they had no agency. They were cast to be hot. Early Andie MacDowell, it’s like “all right honey, you look great. That’s enough.” So, there was the whiplash of growing up with all those black and white films in which women just had agency and complexity and inner lives and big heroic struggles, and then really, suddenly flattened out. And I kind of had a deep feeling that there was an aspect of women’s liberation that had not served us, that had just allowed us to be a more easily tradable slash discardable commodity. And I think Generation X, you know, really felt that in our representations. I’m doing a show at the moment called ‘The Wilds’ for Amazon, young adult show about a group of girls whose plane crashed on an island in a sociological experiment. And their representations and actors are so raw and true and real and messy, and say things that I could never have imagined reading in scripts were early 20s. So, we have come a long way.

Kerry O’Brien

And I’ve just gone.. Yeah, go on.

Rachel Griffiths

I was just going to talk about that sexuality thing you know. The hardest thing also, Kerry, this was happening with collaborators we loved. So, you might be working with someone you really respect you, you’re in awe of being able to have the privilege to work with. And yet things are being asked of you that you are deeply uncomfortable about doing and having no language to go, actually not okay. Being asked to do this today, and I don’t want to do it if I’m going to get fired. We have come quite a long way in five years in that conversation.

Kerry O’Brien

Gee, even just five years. There’s another quote. “I’ve also used lawyers, run from bad faith collaborators, had corporate coaches to help deal with sociopaths, used Valium as an anxiety crutch in conflict ridden meetings. And I’ve gotten out of hotel rooms just in time.” In the words of Helen Mirren “I wish I had said fuck off a lot more. Why fuck off? We are done is okay to say.”

Rachel Griffiths

That came up recently, I think someone else was quoting Helen Mirren. So, I’m not the only actress who wished we had a little bit more Helen Mirren in us. Yeah, I think you know, sometimes you can’t always make it work. You know, I’m Catholic, raised Catholic, I think you got to make everything work, no matter how bad it is, you know. You got to make it work. You got to sit down, you’re going to understand their perspective, you’re going to disagree, but you have to make it work. But we live in a time, don’t we, where we’re all confining that decision every day. Do I call it out and cancel? Or do I hang in a difficult conversation that’s incredibly emotionally exhausting, and try to make something work? And perhaps we will both grow from the experience? And I’m not sure the next generation will do that.

Kerry O’Brien

Really? You’re not sure the next generation will do that?

Rachel Griffiths

I’m not sure what the next generation are interested in doing the work to make it work.

Kerry O’Brien

That must have been very wearing on you at times. I mean, just the way you describe it. You sound, there’s a weariness in your voice.

Rachel Griffiths

Look, I’m in Melbourne Kerry.

Kerry O’Brien

That’s the weariness of lockdown.

Rachel Griffiths

We’re the longest lockdown. I’ve lost perspective. I have these interviews and I get them a little confused. Wait, was that my telehealth appointment? Oh, shit, I seriously thought. I was actually just, I mean, it’s all it’s all blurring together. And trying to make sense of the world from the bubble of, you know, our isolation. If I feel weary, you know, I’ve probably joined Melbournians since saying yeah, we’re, you know, we’re really we’re really tired. And, I think we are starting to lose a certain positivity and optimism that we’re going to be able to work this out.

Kerry O’Brien

Two questions in one. How much of a break, because in terms of this taskforce for promoting gender equality in the industry, how’s that going? And in that context, how much of a breakthrough is it for women in the industry to see the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and others are now you blazing these trails as producers and directors while keeping their acting careers well and truly alive?

Rachel Griffiths

Well, I think you know, one of the most interesting things about being on the Gender Matters Panel is that over the course of, and it has all been under COVID, really realising Kerry that if we get to 2022 where the industry is 50% you know, gender balanced and it’s all white girls, you know, we still have a problem Houston. Because ultimately, you know what, I think sometimes it’s really good to unpick, it’s very easy to kind of go you know, gender balanced or use these words. What we’re really trying to do is have our Australian stories reflect this Australian nation in its gender, in its multicultural authenticity and with its First Nations heart, and to have those stories told by the storytellers themselves because when men only tell women’s stories or white women only tell station stories we don’t (a) get great stories, we don’t get great content, but we don’t get closer to knowing who we are. So, that’s been the big journey. It’s like gender matters. But actually, what really matters is that the stories that are told in Australia reflect the wonder and the diversity of experience and feeling that really is the, the truth of this great nation.

Kerry O’Brien

And on that, here’s another message of yours that I’ll quote back to you on that issue of diversity. Your message to producers “die with your ageing wide audience or embrace diversity.”

Kerry O’Brien

Well, isn’t it interesting? So, we’re talking this week Kerry where, I can’t believe it, but all my children have watched in Korean nine hours of Korean drama in two days with subtitles, you know. And I think that’s just actually a great example is we’re not doing this to be woke. We’re not doing this, you know, to tick boxes. There’s two reasons why we do it. Because if we just make stories as white men, they just get really tired and repetitive. And, you know, the television and filmmaking machine is really a garbage bag, you know. It’s like feed and lots of stuff. But the more different things, you feed it, the more interesting things that will come under the bottom. So that’s number one. But number two, is to grow up and not see yourself represented is one of the foundational experiences of what’s, let’s not say inclusive, let’s say excluded. If you grew up in this country, and you don’t see your story on screen, you’ve been excluded. You’ve been told you don’t exist. Whether or not you’re a seek male boy child or a female First Nations girl, you just when you see your stories, when you see somebody that looks like you telling a story that feels authentic, you exist in this national conversation. So, sometimes I think when people go “why do we have to be so inclusive?” And I do have these conversations Kerry, I don’t cancel people that say, why do we have to be inclusive? I’ll say let me say that a different way to you. How would you feel if you were excluded, if your stories were told you can’t exist. You can’t exist in these screen worlds. And it’s interesting when you turn those words away, that become kind of woke tick boxes and actually go back to the truth, you know. To exclude people from existing in our manufactured narrative is a quite a violent act. Yes it’s discriminating, but it’s dismaying. It makes people feel they’re not a part of this country. And no one wants to feel excluded.

 

But also in terms of timing, in terms of where this nation finds itself. There is a sense of exclusion and alienation and isolation that is going on here and being reflected, not only in Australia, but it’s certainly happening here. And doesn’t that make your point that much more critical? The more people there are who feel excluded, the less healthy the society is.

Rachel Griffiths

I think you’re right Kerry. I think excluded people turn to turn to solutions and groups and go down the rabbit holes of further marginalisation because of often a traumatic event and I think, coming out of COVID It’s weird, isn’t it? Every state has had extremely different experiences and even some LGAs is within Sydney versus the eastern suburbs. We’ve broken down. I thought we were a marvelously strong Federation. And I think our federal structure is wondrous. You know, there wouldn’t be Brexit it had they had the kind of federal protections that acknowledge the rights of the little bits. But we are in a unique moment, I think, for the first time since Federation where perhaps our shared experience has never been so different. And I think coming out of COVID we’re going to need to hear everybody’s stories, so that we may come back to being one.

Kerry O’Brien

Rachel Griffiths, thanks very much for the spirit that you’ve entered into in this conversation.

Rachel Griffiths

It’s always a pleasure to speak to one of my favourite minds in this country, Kerry. Without you I may have given up.

Kerry O’Brien

And nor have you, Rachel. Thank you.

The details

DATE & TIME

Tuesday 12 October 2021

6 – 7.15 pm AEST

This recording may contain adult themes. Not recommended for people under 15 years of age.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Translate »