Rachel Griffiths made such an indelible impression as a world-class neurotic in the TV dramas Six Feet Under and Brothers & Sisters, it’s a jolt to discover that the Australian-born actress is ultra-friendly and laid-back in conversation. After relocating to L.A. in the wake of her Oscar nomination for Hilary & Jackie, Griffiths proceeded to pile up awards nods for her TV work, got married to artist and fellow Aussie Andrew Taylor and had three kids (Banjo, Adelaide and Clementine) in six years. A respected stage actress in her home country, she is finally making her Broadway debut in Other Desert Cities as (yes) the neurotic daughter of conservative parents played by Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach. Speaking to Broadway.com at the beginning of the rehearsal process, Griffiths shared the scoop on her real-life juggling act and explained why creating Brothers & Sisters helped Other Desert Cities scribe Jon Robin Baitz become a better playwright.
Other Desert Cities is the perfect play for your Broadway debut, don’t you think?
I do! I’ve wanted to do Broadway, but I’ve been nervous about what play it would be and how long the run would be. Australian actors are perhaps not well suited to long runs. We tend to do seven or eight weeks in Melbourne, have a week off and then do the same in Sydney. To do eight shows a week at a certain emotional pitch and stay sane is very difficult—but it’s exciting for an audience when actors are pushing that edge or getting a little closer to the fire. As an audience member, you know if you’re receiving a “comfortable” performance. In some plays that’s OK, but in others, it sells the dramatist short to hold back.
Nobody is holding back in Other Desert Cities!
I flew in to see [the original off-Broadway production] in February, and I was blown away. It was one of the best nights I’ve had at the theater in my life. You just felt that you were in the presence of a playwright at the top of his game. There was a kind of optimism that the audience seemed hungry for, but also sharp observations about family life and this last decade in America.
When you saw it, did you think about playing writer Brooke Wyeth on Broadway?
Not at all! It didn’t occur to me that Elizabeth [Marvel, who bowed out for a film role] wouldn’t do the transfer. I did have the thought of taking it to Australia, and when Robbie [Baitz] rang me, I said, “Are you ringing to give me the Australian rights to your play?” He said, “No, I’m ringing to see if you would be interested in the Broadway transfer,” and I went [strangled sound]. I hung up and said to my husband, “Honey, do we want to go to Broadway?” He said, “Hell, yeah!”
You worked with Robbie Baitz on Brothers & Sisters before doing this play. What’s special about his writing?
One of the reasons I wanted to do Brothers & Sisters was that I like where he hits on that scale of humanism and hopefulness, while still being able to deliver searing dialogue and observations. I don’t have a big appetite for bleak inter-human-relational outcomes, in the theater or on film. I think life is kind of hard and uncertain, and I’m more of a King’s Speech girl than The Road. I don’t want to be put through two hours of dense drama just to have a toilet lid banged on my head at the end, you know? I love drama, and I love being put through the wringer if the place I am left as an audience member has a certain exhilaration and hopefulness.
Baitz has a rare gift for writing complex women.
Women and men! He writes both with tremendous compassion. I think he writes men superbly, and I think he writes women very heroically. He’s just a genius, I guess!
And you get to be part of his Broadway debut, which has been a long time coming.
I know, I can’t believe it. He would probably disagree, but I think his experience in television, for all the good and bad, made him a sharper writer. In this play, he delivers to the audience a spectacularly satisfying night.
Both of your TV series have been written by playwrights [Six Feet Under was created by Alan Ball], and many of your co-stars in both shows are theater actors. Does that make a difference?
I never thought I would do television, but what I quickly realized is that television is really similar to the theater. The actors who thrive in television have an acute faculty with language—they can turn on a line, handle complicated and very specific cadences and find a character through that. That was quite a revelation for me.
You may be on Broadway the same time as your former Six Feet Under sister-in-law Lauren Ambrose [who will play Fanny Brice in Funny Girl].
Isn’t that funny? And I just heard that Michael C. Hall is doing something [the forthcoming musical Big Fish], and Matthew [Rhys, in an off-Broadway revival of Look Back in Anger], who is one of the finest theater actors you’ll ever see. It makes sense for TV actors to step effortlessly between the stage [and small screen]. I think it’s much harder for film actors.
Do you think Lauren will do well as the star of a big musical?
I think she’s going to be sensational. She is such a talent! When she was on Six Feet Under, I felt I had never met a woman of her age who had the fierceness and the heart and the emotional range she has. Her ability to drive [a scene] is quite remarkable.
That could describe you. Nobody does intensity like you.
Well, thank you. I do have to drive this play—it’s kind of my job. I think I drive it, and Stockard [Channing, as matriarch Polly Wyeth] steals it. And so she should! I just have to keep it moving and not fuck it up [laughs]. The last production was perfection, so hopefully we can keep the perfection whilst making it our own.
Have you ever done a play using an American accent?
This is the crazy thing: I’ve done so many American plays and had no idea what the hell I was doing. My stage debut was playing young Tess in The Sisters Rosensweig, and I remember saying to someone, “What the fuck is Filene’s Basement?” I had never been to New York, let alone knowing anything about these Upper West Side liberal Jewish sisters, what their shtick was. It was a copy of a copy of a copy. I also did an American accent in Proof and Sylvia—the dog play, not the goat play, which I did on rollerblades. It was quite a hoot.
So, in the past decade, you’ve starred in two hit TV shows, gotten married and had three kids. What’s your secret?
I have a fantastic nanny, and I’m very, very lucky to have family in New York, or else I would be not doing it quite as graciously as I think I am. I have been extraordinarily lucky, and I do count my blessings. It has been a phenomenal decade both work-wise and these three little nutjobs that my children are.
The entire family is here with you?
We’re all here. Everybody’s starting school and playgroups, and finding our way around the city. My boy [Banjo, who turns eight in November] is looking out the window right now. He is somewhat intimidated to go out into the busy street! It’s the most gorgeous time of year to be in Manhattan working on what I believe is the best American play of the decade.
How long will you be here?
I’m sure the play will get extended, but as it stands now, mid-January. We’ll see if they’re throwing tomatoes at me [laughs].
Do you have your eye on another TV series?
You know, when this play came up, I was so excited to have the freedom to do it. Although I had the most satisfying five years on Brothers & Sisters, not being signed to a series creates opportunities to work with other voices. For a couple of years, I’d rather do shorter-term projects and work with different actors. When my two-year-old is closer to school age, I’ll be up for something a bit more stable and regular again.
You can still pick up the family and go, at this point.
Yeah, my kids are trans-Pacific. We’re gypsies!
See Rachel Griffiths in Other Desert Cities at the Booth Theatre.