The ''Brothers & Sisters'' star is perfect at playing imperfect women

By Alynda Wheat
April 13, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Rachel Griffiths is offended. She’s just sailed into the trendy-crunchy Coral Tree Café L.A. and has paused to scan the restaurant’s magazine rack, when she spots a celeb ‘zine with a photo of Angelina Jolie and the headline ”Her Twisted Double Life.” Outrage bubbles to the surface, and soon Griffiths is hurling epithets like ”mean!” and ”cynical!” and ”hatchet job!” Frustrated, she says, ”You can’t just be a complicated person. You have to be a madonna or a whore.”

Griffiths, we will learn, is not an ”or.” Indeed, the 38-year-old, part of the star ensemble on ABC’s Sunday-night family drama Brothers & Sisters, is very much an ”and.” She’s a wife and mother, an actress and activist (having 10 years ago protested the opening of a Melbourne casino by showing up topless). She’s the kind of person who wears mom-size slouchy clothes topped by a rakish, leopard-print fedora. The kind of stranger who takes a drag off your hot chocolate when you tell her it tastes funny, but who’s so tidy she spends much of an hour picking crumbs off the table. Not that she’s weird about it — they are her crumbs, after all — but still.

She’s also the kind of actress who transitions fluidly from film — notably 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding, in which she costarred with friend and fellow Aussie Toni Collette, and 1998’s Hilary and Jackie, for which she got an Oscar nod — to television. In 2002, Griffiths was awarded a Golden Globe for her fearless portrayal of brilliant, sad, sexually voracious Brenda on HBO’s Six Feet Under.

And that’s what Griffiths is really known for — her facility for playing messy, flawed, ”complicated” people. People not unlike Brothers‘ eldest sibling, Sarah Walker Whedon, a role written with Griffiths in mind, says Brothers creator Jon Robin Baitz. ”[Executive producer] Ken Olin and I had a meeting with her,” recalls Baitz, ”in which she realized Ken was the guy from thirtysomething who she’d been in love with all those years. I think that was the thing that persuaded her to do it.” That and Sarah’s operatic sense of drama, which runs the gamut from overseeing the family’s fruit business, to nearly having an affair; from alienating her husband, stepson, and mother, to spitting venom at her dead dad’s mistress, to giving her new half sib one very cold shoulder.

”I just think that’s the truth. I think people…dig their heels in,” says Griffiths, waving away any notion that Sarah is a bitch. ”The idea that you just run off and embrace your father’s mistress who’s trying to f— your family’s company over just doesn’t ring true for me at all. Especially for a woman that has pretty high moral standards. She’s trying desperately hard not to have an affair. She’s trying desperately hard to commit to her relationship.”

If Griffiths seems to be nailing that struggle (Baitz terms her an ”emotional impressionist”), it’s because she came by it honestly — take your pick as to how. There’s the raised-by-a-single-mum thing, having grown up in a ”poor Catholic corner of a posh suburb” of Melbourne, with her mother and two brothers, and a dad who walked out when she was 11. There’s the fact that she’s juggling her career with a family of her own (husband Andrew Taylor, 39, is an artist, and they have a son, Banjo, 3, and a daughter, Adelaide, 1). Or (oops — is it and?) it might just come down to that frank, raw Aussietude. ”In Australia, we’re not that far from ‘Honey, can you help me pull the sheep out of the dam?”’ she says, laughing. ”We’re not really far from being settlers.”

She’ll rely on that frontier spirit for her next role, as a moneyed Southern belle in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove prequel Comanche Moon, a miniseries slated for CBS next season. In it, Griffiths plays — all together now — a complicated woman, who ”feels unbridled by contemporary conventions, just does whatever the f— she wants when she wants.” It’s also a chance for Griffiths, who tends to play working-class, to step out of her comfort zone. ”I’ve never played that caste before, that sense of entitlement. I’ve never played a queen.” Why not? ”I don’t think I’d know how to play Cleopatra. That takes an Elizabeth Taylor. It takes a diva.”

Wait — was that a moment of self-doubt, and/or does Griffiths just know herself really well? It’s a self-deprecating, brutal honesty that extends even to comparisons with her Brothers costars. ”I was watching [a recent episode], and Sally [Field] and Calista [Flockhart] are so charming!… They know how to play this thing that makes them incredibly enjoyable to watch. They’ve got their hands on an acting style that I don’t know how to do.”

Then again, what Griffiths knows how to do is a rarity on television: She makes her women feminine and forceful. ”I don’t really understand women who [aren’t]. Get someone small and blond to play that person. It’s not in my nature.”

Rachel Griffiths’ Must List

1, 2, 3… The Toddler Years (1993)
”I wish I’d read [more books] in the last three years! I haven’t. This is my bible.”

Blazing Saddles (1974)
”I’ve always love silliness as executes by very clever people. Mel Brooks is a master.”

Oleanna (Sydney, 1993)
”One of the greatest pieces of theater I ever saw. Cate Blanchett was just out of drama school. No one knew who Geoffrey Rush was. Amazing.”

The Crane Wife, The Decemberists (2006)
”[This album] is like listening to a Dickens novel sung by Pan.”

The Sopranos
”[This series] broke the idea that TV characters need to be nice for us to like them. Audiences now expect depth, surprise, and moral ambiguity. There is no going back.”