Letter to My Younger Self: Rachel Griffiths

6 March 2017 Anastasia Safioleas

Letter to My Younger Self: Rachel Griffiths

The infamous 1997 cover.

In June, 1997, Rachel Griffiths was on the cover of The Big Issue – with no top on. She was emulating her nude protest at the launch of Melbourne’s Crown Casino, and wrote about how her action was a “public vomiting” and a “defiance” of the government’s approval of the development. Twenty years later, her activism has taken a bit of a different turn – now she is acting in When We Rise, an American miniseries about the personal and political struggles of the gay rights movement in the late 60s. The Australian star reflects on how she got here.

When I was 16 I was drinking too much and killing far too many brain cells. It’s so frightening as your own children approach that age, knowing what you got up to – the self-destructive behaviour, the self-loathing and the risk-taking behaviour. I think we understand now that at that age there are even more challenges and you take risks that aren’t great. But I think my 16-year-old self would now say I’m really awesome. I think she would be hugely relieved that things ended up pretty okay.

I went to Melbourne University and had a very unhappy year. I didn’t know that university would be three years of no collaboration – school was so much more collaborative than university, so that was kind of a revelation. I didn’t have any interesting or challenging tutors; the lectures had, you know, 2000 people, which is too much. I knew I wanted to study in a way where I would be more engaged and had a greater purpose. So I went to teacher’s college to do a degree in drama. At that stage I was more media-orientated. I was interested in communication beyond the essay form. It was smaller and more intense and I just fell in love with the acting while I was there.

Muriel’s Wedding was a huge opportunity. It also had international reach. I love telling Australian stories. And I love that I’ve been able to put myself in the shoes of a Yorkshire working-class lass from the 1860s, or a spoilt upper-middle-class product of two psychiatrists in Los Angeles. It’s just great to have that range. Without that I wouldn’t have been able to play a lesbian nurse who is critical at a devastating moment during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in America [Diane Guy in When We Rise] and the amazing impact she had by leading a life of courageous example.

The kind of Catholicism I was raised with was social justice. For me the core Christian message is to defend the weak against the powerful. When I sat down and watched [anti-slavery series] Roots – I’ve been calling When We Rise the gay Roots  – it made me see the impact storytelling can have, and how much stronger emotion is than facts. Emotion is what changes peoples lives. You can tell people a string of facts, but put them in someone’s shoes for an hour or a day, it changes how they view things. We are entering a time of fear in which we seem to be trying to marginalise those who are already lacking power, and that never sits well with me.

Growing up with the nuns within our own community, they were very strong authoritative figures. My first role models were my teachers growing up. I had extraordinary teachers, their love of communicating about their subject, and their authority and conviction. I discovered Joy Hester very young. I did a project on Nancy Wake at school and she was massively influential. Even Marie Curie, Helen Keller, Vida Goldstein, Enid Blyton and actors like Judi Dench and Sissy Spacek. You find these role models among artists, you find them in those with a political voice, as well as among women community leaders.

My speech at Breakthrough [the Victorian Women’s Trust gender-equality event] was about me being a bad feminist. I’ve coasted on the sacrifices made by my (metaphorically) older sisters and aunts for the kind of work-life balance that so many of my contemporaries require. I think we’ve taken certain things for granted and I think they are inevitable. It is very shocking to see a pullback in female representation in Cabinet and in parliament in the last few years. But at the same time I’m also really humbled by how we live in a time where Channing Tatum says he’s a feminist and Beyoncé says she’s a feminist and Taylor Swift says she’s a feminist and how very proud young women are about the ownership of that word. As for the misogynistic media, which was very male-dominated in the 70s and 80s, I think they were very afraid of the word and its power and did a great deal to discredit us from brandishing it more proudly. It means continuing to insist on women’s equality and women’s representation, and to laugh when people say they couldn’t find more women to do the job. You know when there are six men in a picture and they say, ‘we couldn’t find a woman’? We just have to laugh.

by Anastasia Safioleas, Contributing Editor

» When We Rise will be available on SBS On Demand from 1 March. The series will screen on SBS starting at 8.30pm on Saturday 11 March.

This article first appeared in Ed#531 of The Big Issue. For more great content about powerful and exciting women – including Meryl Streep, Clementine Ford and a Mongolian Eagle Huntress – grab a copy of the edition from your vendor today!