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Two Feet on the Ground

Rachel Griffiths is making her mark with distinctly American roles, but the Australian actress has her heart set on an eclectic career.

April 03, 2002|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Rachel Griffiths barrels around a sharp curve in the Hollywood Hills and pulls up the driveway of her home, apologizing for being late. There was more traffic than usual at the farmers market in Hollywood on this Oscar Sunday, she explains. Helping unload the fruits and veggies from her American-make SUV is a man she introduces as "my husband."

Like her character Brenda on the HBO series "Six Feet Under," the Australian-born actress maintains her cool composure even as she drops little bombshells, whether they're true or not. No, she isn't actually married, but the man, Andrew by name, is definitely her beau. Though they've only been seeing each other for a short time, she says, "Andrew and I are well matched, intellectually and creatively equal--he's a painter. The best part of each of us is as an artist."

Unlike many American actors, Griffiths doesn't bother to be perpetually camera-ready. She's dressed down, no makeup, and the house has a lived-in disorder. Her conversation is similarly unadorned and uncensored. She wanders about from subject to subject, refreshingly opinionated about a variety of subjects from baring her breasts in public to the rowdiness of Russell Crowe.

Her wide-ranging career started on the stage in her native Melbourne, where she will return in May to star in the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Proof."

"I've always worked," says Griffiths, 33, though as with every actor there have been disappointments along the way and, even with her sudden popularity on "Six Feet Under," there are disappointments still. "I can't get seen for some things I would love to do or it goes to other girls. But I've learned to make disappointment my friend because if you do, it allows different opportunities to arise. I plan to have a long, rich career. I still want to be surprising people when I'm in my 50s."

Griffiths is off to a good start. Since coming to the attention of international audiences as Toni Collette's freewheeling friend in the 1994 Australian comedy "Muriel's Wedding," Griffiths has turned in a number of eclectic and surprising performances in mostly art-house-type films, most prominently 1998's "Hilary and Jackie," which brought her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.

Griffiths stars in two new films that demonstrate how wide-flung her choices (and talents) are: In the Disney baseball saga "The Rookie," she plays Dennis Quaid's wife (and sports a spot-on Texas accent); in "Very Annie Mary," a small Welsh musical comedy, she plays the daughter of a self-centered father (Jonathan Pryce) who discourages her character from pursuing her passion--singing. She is pleased with how both films turned out, particularly the smaller Welsh film, in which she plays a dowdy, repressed spinster. "I'm madly proud of that. I play a character as far from Brenda as anything I've ever done."

As for "The Rookie," the true story of a high school coach who makes it to the major leagues, Griffiths related to the story "about real struggle and complex ethics, the kind of movie I grew up with, like 'The Yearling' and 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' that really taught you something about life."

She bemoans the fact that such realistic coming-of-age fare aimed at kids ("Rookie" is G-rated) has lately been relegated to the small screen, while motion pictures are mostly about affluent middle-class children. "They're all about accessibility to material goods and comforts. 'The Rookie,' is about the cost of chasing a dream, and my character realizes she has to let her son see his father try and fail, rather than saying it's better to be comfortable and not reach your spiritual aspirations."

The quest for spirituality, she says, links "The Rookie" with the more frank "Six Feet Under," about the loves and lives of a family of undertakers.

Now in its second season, the series introduced Griffiths into American living rooms and recently won her a Golden Globe for her performance as the wildly intelligent, deliciously libidinous and emotionally tempest-tossed Brenda, the girlfriend of reforming Lothario Nate Fisher, played by Peter Krause. She finds it curious, she says, that for all the media coverage on the series, "no one much talks about the fact that we deal with theological questions on a weekly basis through the characters' spiritual yearnings. God is a constant, which is amazing on a TV show."

That said, Griffiths' personal assessment of her work on "Six Feet Under" is not as flattering as that of mainstream television critics who have singled her out for praise. Playing Brenda has been "very different, for sure," she says--and that's not always a good thing.

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