Going ''Under'' the surface with Rachel Griffiths. Emmy nominee often finds herself in disturbing territory. Funny thing is, she rather likes it there.

By Helen Martin
Updated September 13, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT
Rachel Griffiths Photograph by Karin Catt

Don’t tell the ”National Enquirer,” but somewhere in Melbourne, Australia, there are nude drawings of Rachel Griffiths. During her drama-school days at Victoria College, Griffiths supported herself by posing naked as a life model for would-be Rembrandts. ”It was delightful,” she says. ”I used to just go and sit in front of the heater. I was really good at it! From the age of 13 my mother would take me to life classes and I’d be drawing some old guy with a shriveled willie one week and some big fat pregnant 30-year-old the next. So I had a very non-puritan attitude to that.”

If you had to pick one valuable asset for playing ”Six Feet Under”’s Mensa-level masseuse Brenda Chenowith, not being puritanical would certainly rank right up there. After all, this is a character who — while engaged to soul-searching undertaker Nate Fisher (Peter Krause), whom she screwed in an airport broom closet minutes after meeting him — has had assorted anonymous romps at, let’s see here, a swingers party, a high-end clothing store, and at home with two random teenage boys, to name just a few. And since she apparently decided to leave town after all her dirty little secrets came out in a screaming blowup with Nate at the end of last season, it looks like the only ”happy ending” in Brenda’s future is the kind she’s not opposed to giving after administering a deep Swedish massage.

”The thing that you just have to know about Brenda is that her good intention is there,” says Griffiths. ”She actually has a clear and apparent humanity, you know? She’d jump in and pull out the drowning child, while the nicer people sitting around would go, ‘Oh my God, there’s a child in the river! Do something!”’

The other thing you should know about Brenda is that she’s earned the woman who brings her to life the Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe and has her perfectly positioned to walk away with a Best Actress Emmy on Sept. 22 as well (the show nabbed 23 nominations overall).

”Brenda is brilliant but helpless at controlling her fear and compulsion,” says series creator Alan Ball. ”We needed somebody sexy and smart and unapologetic but appealing, very confident in her own skin. We had a hard time casting Brenda, but when we heard Rachel was interested we were thrilled.” Same goes for Krause, who loved Griffiths’ audition so much he immediately tried to influence the vote among HBO executives: ”I actually held my thumb up behind my back as I walked out of the boardroom,” he says.

Once Griffiths joined the cast of HBO’s mortuary melodrama, her fondness for experimenting while the camera rolls also went over big with Krause. ”We like to surprise each other,” he says. ”I’ve found an acting soul mate in Rachel — I don’t mind it when people try to throw me a curve.” Adds Ball: ”She’s fearless. She’s not afraid of going to dark places.” You got that right. Take, for instance, her turn in this year’s Aussie heist flick ”The Hard Word,” in which her slutty character draws on a glass prison divider using something a tad less hygienic (and way more intimate) than ink. Or her Oscar-nominated ”Hilary and Jackie” role as Hilary du Pre, who granted her needy sister the horizontal use of her own husband.

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