Theater News

Rachel Griffiths’ Other Life

The popular Australian actress discusses her Broadway debut in Other Desert Cities.

Rachel Griffiths
(© Tristan Fuge)
Rachel Griffiths
(© Tristan Fuge)

Australian actress Rachel Griffiths first came to prominence in the film Muriel’s Wedding and has earned an Oscar nomination for her work in Hilary & Jackie. But she became famous worldwide for her portrayals of Brenda Chenowith on HBO’s Six Feet Under and Sarah Walker on ABC’s Brothers & Sisters (which earned her a total of four Emmy Award nominations). Now, she’s earned rave reviews for her Broadway debut as writer Brooke Wyeth in Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities at the Booth Theatre. TheaterMania recently visited Griffiths in her dressing room to talk about the show and her career.

THEATERMANIA: How did you first find out about the play?
RACHEL GRIFFITHS: I think from Ron Rifkin on the set of Brothers & Sisters. He and Robbie (author Jon Robin Baitz) are close friends. Then I went to see it in New York, because I heard it was superb, and it was a wondrous night. It was so much more spectacular than I expected. I expected all the depth, the layers and the humanity, but I didn’t think I expected it to have such an engine and this satisfying structure. So I texted Robbie and I said it was wonderful and thank you for the seats. And about four months later, I’m in the garden with the kids and I get this call from Robbie and he said, I’m calling to see if you’d do the Broadway transfer of the play. It was the most unexpected call ever.

TM: After working for so many years in television, had you thought about taking a break from acting?
I told all my agents I didn’t want to work this year. I think Robbie had even been told I was in Australia, which wasn’t true. I literally think this show was the only thing I would have done. Maybe I would have done that Lincoln film with Steven Spielberg, but Sally (Field) got that role. I bet she and Daniel Day-Lewis are texting in character.

TM: So, you thought taking this job was a good idea?
RG: Well, I think it was a very confident bet that having worked with Robbie on Brothers & Sisters that I would have no problem with his language. Having worked in television, where I’ve had to learn 10 pages a night very quickly, I knew I could step into a role with two weeks rehearsals. Given what I’ve done in the past, I told our director, Joe Mantello, that Brooke is totally in my range, and loved the idea of getting to do something I’ve never done before. That said, Elizabeth Marvel’s performance worked so well at Lincoln Center, and the production was so perfect, that when I agreed to do it, I didn’t really know what my take would be on Brooke. Fortunately, the more I get into the role, the more I’m finding the oscillation from humor and vulnerability, and I can actually open up more areas of myself for the role.

TM: You really had no idea how your Brooke would be different from Elizabeth’s?
RG: There was one little thing that I thought was slightly unexplored, which was the relationship between this girl and her father. I’ve sort of made my career exploring the kind of construct of the American family and the crack in the photo on the mantle or the undercurrents in the Hallmark card. And I had thought how the McCain daughters or the Cheney daughters feel about their big Republic strongman daddies. Obviously, they’re very close, they stand up for them, they worship them, and they’re not conflicted about the politics of that relationship. I thought Brooke would have written her book a long time ago if it wasn’t for the love of her father. She really doesn’t mind going to war with her mother, but to lose the love of a big alpha dad is a different story. When I mentioned this to Joe, he said “Look, you can’t reinvent the wheel in two weeks.” But he really loved the idea of me exploring that and didn’t think it would change the tone of the production. He felt that it would kind of fill it out in a way.

TM: What was your biggest challenge in getting Brooke right?
RG: There was one part of this role that I was really struggling with. Robbie and Joe kept saying “You’ve got the grief, you’ve got the emotion, but you don’t have this book.” And it’s true. I didn’t really understand what it meant to be a writer until the last two days before previews. Finally, I realized, when you have three children, like I do, it is harder to be that self-absorbed and that good an artist. So I had to kind put myself back into the mind of that younger person, which for me is my early thirties, when I was just trying to be an artist at the top of my game. So I had a week where I was just manically focused on the play and not trying to juggle as much. I had to be a bad mother for a week just to remember what that was like.

TM: Did it help in any way that Judith Light was stepping in to the cast as well?
RG: I think so. Even though we’re very different actors, on stage Judith and I seem to be more cut of the same cloth. People say “my God you have the same faces on stage.” You can see where I’ve been attracted to Silda my whole life rather than my perfect mother.

Rachel Griffiths and Stacy Keach in Other Desert Cities
(© Joan Marcus)
Rachel Griffiths and Stacy Keach in Other Desert Cities
(© Joan Marcus)

TM: Given the Wyeths are so different from your family, how did you relate to them?
RG: I think because they live in California and I’ve been there for so many years, I’ve seen families like them in restaurants, or on the front pages of The Los Angeles Times, or when they drive past the Reagan ranch to have weekend getaways in Orange County. And I’ve also discovered that there is this great optimism in America where a devoted family can come home for the holidays, sit down and eat their turkey, and a line can be drawn between Democrats and Republicans, and it’s okay. In Australia, we are way less passionate about our politics. Even the overall emphasis on the kind of family unit is probably slightly less back home. I mean we don’t send a picture postcard of ourselves out at Christmas. The first time my husband and I got one, we started laughing.

TM: Did you actually read any of your reviews?
RG: I have to admit, I did. I scanned a couple to make sure that I wasn’t awful and to make sure that the general gist was that this production wasn’t worse than Lincoln Center. I was prepared to take the blame, like “yes, unfortunately under the debut of Rachel Griffiths, Other Desert Cities doesn’t entirely make a comfortable transition to Broadway.” So once I relieved myself that the consensus wasn’t universal disappointment and condemnation, I was fine.

TM: Would you consider doing Other Desert Cities again once you’re finished on Broadway?
RG: I’d love to do it in London. Or maybe in Australia. Judy Davis could be Polly. She can be funny as hell. And scary. And brilliant. And Jacki Weaver would be great as Silda.

TM: Now that Brothers & Sisters is over, what kind of theater would you like to pursue?
RG: I think I suit modern writing, like August: Osage County. I have no desire to do 1950s melodrama — the Arthur Millers or the Tennessee Williams — because the humor isn’t there. I love a great production of Death of a Salesman as much as the next person, but I’m just really glad I’m not playing it eight times a week. And definitely not Ibsen. I did A Doll’s House in London, and it was the worst experience of my life. I was miserable because it’s so fucking humorless. It was the kind of play where I got too close to the fire and I started to get really depressed. I didn’t have any fun at all. I love the push and pull of drama that has comedy in it.

TM: Would you go back to series television?
I would in a few years. I just want my little girl, who is two, to start kindergarten. I mean, it’s hard being a working mother, even in television. She just started calling me Rachel, and I’m like “oh shit, that’s never a good sign.” I’ve realized it’s that I’m not around enough to be called “mommy.”

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Other Desert Cities

Closed: June 17, 2012