Australian actress Rachel Griffiths is the first to admit she’s not the poster girl people would expect for Catholicism (“It surprises people I still call myself a Catholic”), but her first turn as a feature film director with the Michelle Payne biopic, Ride Like a Girl, has given her a chance to clear things up.
Raised primarily in Melbourne by her mum with two older brothers, Rachel fell in love with acting at an early age. Her uncle was a Jesuit theologian and her aunty an English teacher, and while academia was in her sights for a while, the loneliness of researching forced a change in direction.
“I’m much more collaborative,” said Rachel, “I wanted to explore interesting people and ideas but academia wasn’t for me.”
Rachel gave herself until she was 30 to pursue acting, ending up with what she calls a “surprise career” as a film and TV actor when her breakout role in 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding shot her to global fame. Rachel went on to became one of our ‘A-list exports’ with roles in the American series Six Feet Under and Brothers and Sisters among others, before coming home in 2012 to raise her family in Australia.
Rachel wanted to tell “Australian stories”, leading to the development of the ABC series Total Control, a political drama about an indigenous women thrust into parliament who overthrows it, and the sporting epic Ride Like a Girl.
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“I was so inspired by Michelle and her family,” said Rachel, “How faith sits with them – they lost a mother, a sister and a daughter – [offers] so much to explore about what it takes to keep hope, and what it takes to keep faith in our dreams, and what it takes to keep a family together in difficult times.”
What viewers may notice too, is that the Catholic faith of Michelle and her family isn’t ‘cheesy’ or overly evangelistic, but real.
“My experience [of church] is being in a mass with my brothers having a fart contest,” Rachel laughs, “So as a Catholic, you know, I’m not going to try and ‘upsell’ how pious children are in church…”
Rachel also has a very sober view of the church, after witnessing the effects of its sexual abuse scandal first hand.
“I’ve had my own crises with the church,” said Rachel. “Our parish was one of the worst ground-zeroes for priest abuse, and it was devastating to our community and my brother’s generation. We had a major suicide cluster, and I’m very grateful now for the work done with survivors and for survivors. The conversations that we have now are compassion-led responses. It’s taken a long time for the Catholic church to wake up to a compassion-led and not a legal-led response.”
As a result of the scandal though, Rachel says church leaders have lost their credibility as cultural influencers.
“It breaks my heart that the Catholic Church, which can and should be a moral leader… in a world that faces huge ethical issues… has lost moral authority. It’s a great tragedy,” Rachel said.
“If I can drag anyone somewhere where they didn’t expect to go, if I can open up their ‘fixed certainty’ I think I’ve done my job.”
It’s not the first time she’s shared her views on social concerns. In 1997 Rachel famously raced topless through Melbourne’s newly built Crown Casino saying it stole the state’s “dignity, compassion and sense of community”, and recently championed girls for “wagging school” and protesting during an ABC talkback segment on Federal Budget cuts and women’s education.
Being outspoken has given her a reputation for stirring controversy, but Rachel’s quest to have difficult conversations and play interesting characters, is all about their effect on the audience.
“I think people who are ‘certain’ are the least interesting people,” said Rachel. “If I can drag anyone somewhere where they didn’t expect to go, if I can open up their ‘fixed certainty’ I think I’ve done my job.
“One of my pet peeves in life is when people are blamed for changing their minds; we should all be open, our opinions should not be fixed, because otherwise we’re not allowing ourselves to be changed by the people we meet or the stories we hear.”
Ride Like a Girl is available on DVD and Digital now.