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Rachel Griffiths at a 2014 event in Sydney. Photo/Getty Images

Actress Rachel Griffiths on her 'PG feminist sports film to make men cry'

Fresh from her directorial-debut movie about the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup, Rachel Griffiths is getting back in the saddle.

Rachel Griffiths has a withering way with words. The renowned Australian actress’ career can be catalogued via her memorable on-screen burns. There’s Muriel’s Wedding. As loyal best friend Rhonda, Griffiths deals to the mean girls with one of the classic lines – “Stick your drink up your arse, Tania” – of Australian cinema.

Her spiky charisma has enlivened a lot of damaged women. As Grace Gibbs, in Australian miniseries Dead Lucky, she’s the kind of detective who finds herself packed off to anger-management sessions. “Some people think I’m angry,” Grace explains unrepentantly, “and they happen to be in management.”

There was her role as polarising train wreck Brenda Chenowith, sometime lover of mortician Nate Fisher, in 90s television masterpiece Six Feet Under.

Nate: “Why do you treat me like shit all the time, Brenda?”

Brenda: “Because I’ve had a really f---ed-up life and I need sarcasm to hide how ridiculously miserable I am.”

As Brenda in Six Feet Under. Photo/Alamy

You feel a little intimidated. Yet we’ve barely met before I find myself blurting that I’m not a fan of the sort of film she’s in Auckland to promote. Ride Like a Girl is Griffiths’ debut as a feature-film director. It’s the story of Michelle Payne, the young jockey who rode Prince of Penzance to victory in the 2015 Melbourne Cup. It’s family-friendly, heart-warming, inspirational – the dreaded biopic.

Dressed more like a lawyer than a luvvie, Griffiths raises an eyebrow and fixes me with an expectant, forensic gaze. Fortunately, I can report that the film is a pleasant surprise: as warm, unsentimental and hard-working as family life in Ballarat, where Paddy Payne, a New Zealand-born jockey-turned-horse trainer, raised 10 children after his wife died in a car accident. Eight became jockeys. One made history. It’s a story.

“Well, if it worked beyond your genre preference …”, Griffiths says serenely. As it turns out, this was her aim: target the unconvinced. “It’s like when you sneak vegetables into the muffin. My ambition was to make a PG feminist sports film to make men cry.”

Job done, probably. She hastens to add that she doesn’t feel she needs to sneak PG feminism in for a New Zealand audience. “You had the first suffrage, the first female jockeys. You’ve got your third female prime minister and you’ve had them on both sides of the aisle, unlike any other Western democracy. It’s preaching to the converted.”

Nice of her to say. But there’s plenty of work to do, here and everywhere, to get women’s stories told. Before Ride Like a Girl, Griffiths had been working to get another project green-lit. “It was also a coming-of-age film, about teen models.”

No one was buying. She got advice from an industry friend. “He goes, ‘Look, Rach, if you’re going to have a female protagonist, it has to be someone you root for. Audiences are just not going to get behind this model.’ There hasn’t really been a model-ly movie, except for Zoolander, that has worked.”

Michelle Payne after her winning Melbourne Cup ride. Photo/Getty Images

You don’t have to be in her bracing company for long to see that rejection only spurs her on. “As a woman, you’ve got to be twice as good, twice as hard-working, twice as prepared. I was like, okay, for me to get a young female story up, she has to be unbelievably, compellingly rootable.” Small, startled pause. “When I say rootable, I mean rooting for her.” Then came the Melbourne Cup, 2015. “At that moment, when Michelle crossed the line, I was, like, that’s my heroine. I picked up the phone five minutes later.”

Making contact proved tricky. “My friend told me Michelle was doing a photo call at Randwick [racecourse], so I flew up and stood in this long snaking line, mostly of girls getting their photos with Michelle. I said, ‘I’m Rachel Griffiths. I want to make your story. I want to make an absolutely beautiful family film that you can watch with your family and they won’t want to kill you.’”

It helped that Payne’s manager had seen Griffiths’ first short film, Tulip. “It’s about a man whose wife dies. He ends up having to get dressed up as his wife in order to milk the cow, because the cow won’t be milked by him. It’s very beautiful.” The manager clearly thought so.

The family took a chance on another Aussie girl made good. “Handing it over to the Americans or less collaborative processes would make the family vulnerable, and Michelle was very cognisant of that. I couldn’t think of anything worse than someone going, ‘I’m going to make your life story and we don’t need to talk to you.’”

Australian actress Teresa Palmer plays Michelle Payne with considerable chutzpah. Michelle’s brother Stevie Payne, her strapper that winning day who has Down syndrome, plays himself, brilliantly. “Ten years ago, [actor] Dan Wyllie would have been playing him, pretending to be Down syndrome, which, now, we say is not acceptable.”

Sam Neill plays Paddy Payne in the movie. Photo/Supplied

Griffiths used to work with a theatre company for all intellectual abilities. “The two stars both had Down syndrome and I learnt two things: they are compelling and authentic performers and you never want to be on screen with them because no one will look at you.” The bond between Stevie and Paddy Payne (Sam Neill) is a delight. “Actors with an intellectual disability often completely disarm us international stars of stage and screen because you drop your bullshit and start acting in a very different way.”

Racing is risky. At 18, Payne fractured her skull in a fall (there were more injuries in 2016). The film also deals with the death of her older sister Brigid, who was killed aged 36 when thrown from a horse.

Griffiths is also a parent. “So, I make a PG feminist sports film and then I’ve just stopped my daughter playing NFL, completely on the dangers. Would I put my girl on a horse in a pack of men? I don’t know. You’re torn.”

For the Paynes, it’s a way of life. “Paddy doesn’t stop those girls doing anything. The expectations are that they contribute.” Michelle is the youngest, six months old when her mother died. “It’s not surprising that it’s the last of the litter that gets the Melbourne Cup because she’s literally standing on her sisters’ shoulders and the women that came before – of which quite a few were New Zealand jockeys.”

Inspiring. But life can have a way of running away on you like a spooked horse when you are making art. In the lead-up to the release of Ride Like a Girl came headlines that Darren Weir, trainer of Prince of Penzance, was charged and disqualified from racing for four years after electric-shock “jiggers” were found in his bedroom. There was talk that his character should be edited out. Griffiths wasn’t having that. “I will not back down from the fact that my film is about a woman [jockey] and a man with Down syndrome breaking the ceilings of their fields. To do that, you need men who champion them. In my film, Darren is the guy who gives a girl a ride and keeps her on the horse at exactly the moment where girls often lost rides, when they’re getting to the pointy end. He was responsible for a girl winning the Melbourne Cup being strapped by a man with an intellectual disability. Which is extraordinary.” That race is not in question, she says. “It would be a tragedy if their achievement was overshadowed by the distraction of a conversation about what a man chose to do several years after the events that we’re depicting.”

There were physical challenges, too. Palmer didn’t ride in the stunning racing sequences but she trained intensively. “She was on the Equicizer mechanical horse. She was not winging it. So she was able to ride in a lot of the training sequences.” Jamie Dolan directed the racing. “We were doing a lot of stuff that’s never been done before, with jockeys rigged with cameras between legs and holding cameras.” The results are visceral. “We wanted it to feel like you went from a Disney film to a war film.”

Payne on Prince of Penzance is led in by brother Stevie. Photo/Getty Images

The credits include one of those “No horses were hurt in the making” statements. Whew. But Griffiths has her war stories, including one terrifying day at Flemington racecourse. “Teresa’s horse remembered that it had been at Flemington in a race, got spooked by another horse and took off. Teresa ended up riding probably 1800-2200m on the rail in the high-riding position, and we lost sight of her. And we’re listening to her as she goes around and just hearing her breathing. That would probably be one of the worst days of my life.” When the horse slowed coming into the straight, Palmer acted. “She was, like, ‘I am not riding this horse across the line’, and made an organised dismount. There were 18 jockeys there and they practically gave her a guard of honour. I’m not proud of that day but I’m proud of her. It’s that girl thing. She’d done the work. Had she not, I don’t know if we’d be here having this conversation.”

Ride Like a Girl has plenty of drama and tragedy, delivered with charming Antipodean restraint. Neill is at his most South Island – a performance that’s moving even when he’s barely moving. “That was Sam understanding a certain kind of Kiwi man. Paddy is so far from effusive.” Palmer lends a stoic edge to her portrayal of Michelle, as she cocoons herself in plastic wrap to get her weight down, or bats off sexism and injury.

The Paynes are a Catholic family. The movie is suffused with faith, never pious. “No. Being raised Irish Catholic, there’s nothing pious about it. One is not born again, one is born into. One wrestles with the good and bad of it.” Griffiths and her husband, Australian painter Andrew Taylor, are both Catholic. They have three children – Banjo, Adelaide and Clementine.

“I’m of the generation whose male peers were perhaps the key generation that was targeted in the 70s and 80s in that sexual abuse. But beyond that, Catholicism was such an anchor point. It marked the most significant rites of passage for us as a family. My uncle is a Jesuit theologian, my great-uncle was the Archbishop of Melbourne and I adored my nuns.”

Faith brings her great joy. “And moments of a very strong alienation as a female. But in my single-sex Presentation Sisters school, I felt we could do anything. The nuns were absolute leaders in their community, deferring to no man.” There was a parish priest who was … suspect. “My principal drew chalk across the convent gates. She said, ‘You may not speak to my girls. Your parish stops there.’ She put, literally, the line in the sand.”

Teresa Palmer plays Michelle Payne. Photo/Supplied

In the movie, the local priest announces happy news from the pulpit: “A miracle last Saturday, running 50 to one!” God works in mysterious ways.

“Michelle Payne prays before a race that her mother and sister are watching over her,” says Griffiths, “[and] every time she does something, that is really a defiance of death.”

The desire to bring up her children close to their relatives was part of the decision to leave Los Angeles. Home is now Melbourne, in a house filled with art and good design. “I bought my husband one of these for our first wedding anniversary,” Griffiths says, dropping into a Hans Wegner Papa Bear chair at Hoyts Sylvia Park, where we meet.

Coming home wasn’t a difficult decision. “It came out of not wanting to be under contract.” She’d been under two, for Six Feet Under and ABC family drama Brothers and Sisters, with Sally Field – both good gigs, but she wanted freedom. “That meant I could be working anywhere in the world as a freelancer and I didn’t want to be anywhere in the world and have my family in LA.”

After almost seven years, she’s signed a new seven-year contract. “Actually, it feels good.” The series is for Amazon and is called The Wilds. “It’s a kind of Truman Show with adolescent girls, an experiment in how young women would organise themselves in a world without men. I’m a narcissistic crazed-feminist sociologist who sets up the experiment.” She sounds scarier than Brenda. “I’m sure it won’t go according to plan.”

Is she happy, after directing, to be going back to the day job? “It feels very transformed to me. Having the opportunity to direct Teresa and Sam and Stevie – I don’t want to get braggy, but I think they all do the best performances of their careers.”

So now she’s qualified, she’s giving herself acting notes. “I’m hoping to do a late-career Meryl. She makes these shifts. She’s got funnier and more playful.”

Invoking late-career Streep, like the directing experience, seems to have a liberating effect. She’s ready to have a laugh, take on the world. Well, New Zealand, for now – she’s shooting here for The Wilds. “It’s just across the pond. I’m not having to leave my family to go to Nova Scotia or South Carolina. So, that will be my next year. I’ll be back. I’ll be a native.”

She has also co-created and just finished shooting her first series for ABC in Australia, Black Bitch. “It’s about our first conservative female prime minister, who helicopters in an aboriginal senator who ends up bringing down the government. So, it’s my year of female content.”

No let up, then. She’s jockeying for position, the winning post always in mind. “I’m very ambitious, actually,” she says, unnecessarily. “Rather than thinking [I’m] going back to the day job, I’m reimagining, reinventing. My work as an actor is just beginning.”

Ride Like a Girl opens in cinemas on October 24.

This article was first published in the October 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.