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Rachel Griffths talks about what she looks for in a role

Published in IndiVision News May 2008.

Rachel Griffiths is an internationally recognised and respected actor who has appeared in over a dozen Australian, British, and American films. She received an Academy Award® nomination for her role in Hilary and Jackie and won the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Supporting Actor in Muriel's Wedding. In 2001 Rachel was cast in the highly acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under earning a number of award nominations, and most recently received another Golden Globe nomination for her role in Brothers and Sisters. She has also directed the award-winning short films Tulip and Roundabout.

Framing the script

Rachel Griffiths: What am I looking for in a role? Just time in my day to read it! [Laughs] I'm now a mother of two, doing a TV show - I get a script every week and our rewrites are such that I'm usually reading three scripts a week. I really do need [a new script] framed in some way by my agent. I need my agent to be excited about my reading it. Coverage is quite important for me because if that first page gets me excited or can put me in a brain frame, [I can] then set aside an hour and a half to read it. I just do not have that space to sit with an open mind on this fresh page. It's a bit like a novel - I need it to have a cover and a little blurb on the back and the cover's got to be attractive. And that's the really important framing, that's my agent saying, "I met them they were really interesting", or, "I read it, I think its great".

Character coverage

The other thing that historically has had an effect on me is character coverage. I will never forget reading the character coverage for Muriel's Wedding and the description of that character. I didn't help get that movie made because I was a nobody, but I read that coverage and felt for the first time in my whole life there was a role for me, that I wasn't trying to squeeze myself into some other voice that wasn't really right, where I was kind of reaching or pretending I was right for the movie. I read that and I thought, "Wow, this is me, no one will play this better than me". Character coverage tells me a lot about the texture of the movie and the filmmaker's voice, and whether the way a character is described can get me excited or not. I think it might be a way to find the right person if that touches an actor, and maybe when something's on offer to an actor you shape the description of the character a little more specifically knowing who's going to be reading that draft and as that changes or you're getting different people to read it you might shift that as you see that person more in the character. But that one thing can either alienate me from thinking that I'm right for the character and you're just wanting me in your film for the wrong reasons, or it can get me excited that I really have something to bring to your project and that we might have a kind of similar vision for it.

I'm writing a script at the moment where the surrounding cast are really fantastic characters - in some ways they're more interesting or colourful than our main character. We're being really careful to keep those characters juicy enough to attract really good actors that just might want four fantastic days. You know, there is a two-week role for Kate Winslet that's like nothing she's ever done before and she'd have a really good time playing it. So sometimes it also helps to say, "This is a two-week role" or "This is a one-week role".

Sending supporting material with the script

If I think retrospectively about the first filmmakers who excited me, there was a good to really good script and other material. Some of these movies I didn't have a crack at, but I got really excited. One was [Michel] Gondry - after seeing his video clips I was totally hooked, I would've read any incomprehensible tome he sent me after seeing his visual imagination. Another interesting example is Mark Romanek [One Hour Photo], whose commercials I saw 10 years ago. You know he's got a reputation as being quite difficult, and I met him and I thought he was fantastic. I was so excited by his commercials and his visual language made me think, "This is a filmmaker and I'll read whatever is in his imagination." The last one was a woman called Elisabeth Subrin who's a video professor at Harvard. When I saw her stuff, which is completely non-linear filmmaking, it showed an intense and really interesting cinematic mind. Her script was fantastic, she approached me, and it was a brilliant role. I was attached for two years and she couldn't get it off the ground.

Positive stories

I am now a mother and I work a lot in TV and I'm looking possibly at things to do in my hiatus. I read these films and I just think, "No one's going to want to see this". All these dramas in America from the last two years are not making money in America or internationally. I think at some point actors are going to balance out whether that role where they bare their soul and take themselves to the edge, for no money on the low-budget movie, is actually a breakthrough movie that's a Shine, or a movie which three people are going to see at Sundance that's never going to get a distributor. I'm quite tough on those films. I've never been cool, my taste in movies has never really been that bleak. I'm not really interested in bleak as a viewer and I'm not really excited by them as a filmmaker. From what I've been hearing in response to the fallout of the last two years of Hollywood dramas, they're not really dramas, they're just exercises in despair [Laughs], and I think the audience has voted with their feet. They're not American Beauty - they're not providing those laughs with that wild journey and some cathartic sense of what kind of human beings we are. We talked about The Proposition which I thought was amazing, but with a different ending that movie could have transcended the life it had and been an $80 to $100 million movie had it not been such a treaty in despair. I'm not saying sell out, but Australia has had this really weird schizophrenia between underdeveloped comedies that never really had a central voice and these very bleak dramas. I think dramas have become these small, contemplative, kind of bleak, ultimately unsatisfying movies where you don't tell your friend to go and see it but you say, "It was…ooh it was good…tough". That's not going to get your mum and dad there you know.

I think it's worth talking to your casting and your agents that this - where an audience will be at the end of a movie - is something we don't hear enough about. I'll read it and I'll think, "Good script, why is this being made?" I'm quite tough like that. It's a tremendous amount of resources used to make a movie that just doesn't have an audience. I just think it's crazy because there are well-written scripts or stories to be told that enough people want to see to make it viable. When you are talking to actors, I get the feeling they're getting sick of playing that intense breakthrough role if nobody is going to see it.

When I read the script for The People vs Larry Flint - well, that of course was Milos Forman, so it was already framed by that - had that been in the Indy pile I still think I would have said it was one of the greatest scripts I had ever read. That was an example of an immaculately written, intelligent, surprising, tight, brilliant script. That character [Althea Leasure] really spoke to me and I went after that role really hard. The funny story was that Courtney Love and I both went on tape for it, on film for it, and the President of Czechoslovakia was the final decider in the casting process and cast Courtney. [Laughs] I always thought that was actually a really big mistake for the movie because I understood it on a level of an interesting proto-porn feminist, as that movie was made before porn was really as mainstream as it is now. It was almost that time where you couldn't imagine that a rising starlet could have a sex tape out and it wouldn't end her career. It was a fascinating character and I know the casting people were really strong on me doing it. That's just one of those examples of a hot script. If you can get people excited because your script has that level of completeness - of voice and originality and surprise - it actually ignites fires in the agency because they're rare.

Overall, I think it's two things - the script being exciting and having a unique sense of voice, which I think is a huge hook. Competency is a magnet and anything that's competently shown on film, your shorts, video clips, it shows you know where to put a camera and you can make something that's interesting or exciting that has a point of view. I've had the best experiences of my life with first-time directors, and the worst. If I go back and separate the first-time directors that I've had the best time with, they have really had the competency on the table, in terms of stuff on film. I don't think that a script is enough to prove to really talented, established people that they should spend three months of their life subjected to your inability to step up to the plate. It's the most dismaying waste of emotion and energy and leaves you feeling like you had, you know, bad one-night sex for three months where you come out with a venereal disease. [Laughs] I honestly think that I could put up with Oliver Stone; I really think that I could put up with Michael Mann because ultimately their film competency and language just deeply excites me. You've got to prove your competency and really somehow get through to that actor. If you have your dream people that you think would be interested, really frame it appropriately for them and don't blow that chance on a draft that's not quite there, or a character synopsis that you gave to your friend to write. Really shape that and try to get into a position with them where you can demonstrate your competency face to face and excite them.

Rachel Griffiths talks to participants at the 2008 IndiVision Project Lab.

Rachel Griffiths and Toni Collette in Muriel's Wedding.

Rachel Griffiths and Peter Krause in Alan Ball's Six Feet Under.

Rachel Griffiths as Sarah Whedon in Brothers & Sisters.