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BSS 2015: liberating ourselves from archetypes

Opening the session, moderator Brita McVeigh outlined Rachel Griffiths’ impressive CV: 33 films; six television series, three television mini-series, a voice over on a video game, a talking book and, since the previous day, one keynote address.

The strong element of self-deprecation in Griffiths’ humour, evident in her keynote address, was again to the fore as she reiterated her tongue-in-cheek advice to actors, “keep drinking the Kool-Aid” and made fun of her road to becoming an actor – studying for a teaching degree in drama and dance because she couldn’t get into a drama school, then joining Woolly Jumpers, a community theatre group. Cast in her first film role in Muriel’s Wedding she “had no technique” but was encouraged by a colleague’s assurance “they never find out you can’t act.” Griffiths still believes she is “very limited as an actor” but since her first roles she has learned the value of giving yourself permission to fail and of not waiting for validation.

Maintaining that “intrinsically, actors have three or four roles they can inhabit”, Griffiths turns down a role if she thinks she can’t do it, especially when “some may want me attached for financial reasons, not because I’m best for it.” The roles she believes she can do are: the outsider, someone who understands freakiness, sometimes faking being an insider; the clown; the bitter resentful character, perennially unhappy and self-loathing (she draws on family members for this one); the animated and brave risk taker and boundary breaker.

Having come a long way from commedia delle’arte, where roles were archetypal and actors wrote their own speeches, we depend on writers to liberate us from archetypes, Griffiths thinks, leading her to the notion that “maybe writers are the answer.” Case in point – a teacher who becomes a bad ass drug dealer (Breaking Bad).

She has no time for actors who “coast or cruise”, admiring those who “turn up with their full selves ready to work”, fabulous people like Sally Field (Brothers & Sisters) and Judith Light (Other Desert Cities). “My career’s nothing without troopers like this. These people are kind, attentive to their own processes, diligent, good at imaginating, committed and open.”

To prepare for a role she does a lot of work on getting the precise accent right.

For Griffiths the most liberating roles are those, like her role as Johnny Depp’s mother in Blow, where there is nothing left of yourself. She greatly admires Johnny Depp, who completely transforms himself to become each character he plays. She also admires Eddie Redmayne. Bored with “these frog-mouthed Etonian wannabes” she was cynical when he landed the role of Stephen Hawking “and then the film came out!”

Disliking controlling directors who create an environment of fear or chaos, Griffiths finds the cheerleader director liberating, citing her roles in Six Feet Under and Brothers & Sisters as being great parts that broke out of archetypes.

After we watched a compilation of clips demonstrating Griffiths’s many and varied screen roles, she maintained she was better in her first roles, when she was so close to the passion and the dream. Future plans include not getting bad and lazy and not becoming an old actor “who just turns up and whines about the catering and talks about the good old days.”

Developing her own projects as a director, one of which is a “single quadrant” coming of age story in the world of girl modelling, she’s enjoying being reminded that struggle makes work meaningful.

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