Rachel Griffiths is best known for her long-running roles as masseuse Brenda Chenowith in HBO’s Six Feet Under and Sarah Walker Laurent in ABC’s Brothers & Sisters. But now, the Australian actor and director is swapping Disney-owned ABC to Australian public broadcaster ABC with controversial political drama Black Bitch.
Deadline spoke to Griffiths about the show she co-created and the way that a shift in Australian politics has informed the drama, as well as the rise of populism around the world. She also discusses stepping out from in front of the camera as she lines up a raft of projects set down under.
Black Bitch follows Alex Irving, played by Cleverman star Deborah Mailman, a charismatic and contradictory Indigenous woman who is thrust into the national limelight after a horrific shooting and is quickly chosen by Australia’s embattled Prime Minister Rachel Anderson, played by Griffiths, for a senate role. But Alex wants to be more than just a political stunt: she wants to make a difference. So, when the Prime Minister’s cynical calculations betray her, Alex sets out for revenge that will send the political establishment into meltdown.
Griffiths originally came up with the controversial title twenty years ago, when she was making a film about a woman who had ‘black bitch’ scrawled on her house. “I was working on a documentary that was covering an Indigenous land rights guy that was in a controversial mining lease in wealthy mining state and was narrating that and just became aware of the issue,” she said.
The story deals with gender and race and representation as well as how women of color have an extra barrier to deal with in a patriarchal society. “That title seems to encapsulate the vilification attempts to delegitimize and the extra barriers faced by woman of color participating in public life. It sort of feels like nothing has necessarily changed or certainly hasn’t changed too much in that time,” she added.
“We haven’t had a show in Australia that was quite serious political satire. It was not born of being particularly cynical. I mean it’s a true drama and it’s not a cynical look,” she added.
While the story is particularly Australian, the rise of populism around the world – from Donald Trump in the U.S. to Boris Johnson in the UK and beyond, means that the series should be welcomed outside of its home market. “I think this is an interesting thing that’s happening around the world – the idea that I’m an outsider and I won’t buy in any of that bullshit,” she said. “This virulent strain of anti-parliamentarianism is at its peak, I think, in the post-war period. So it’s about the roles of the outsider and the populist. It asks who makes Parliament better, is it outsiders or is it better insiders and what happens when Parliament gets hijacked by people refusing to play by regular law. I think in the context we’re in, it’s an assault on our parliamentary democracy.”
Griffiths added that all over the world the ruling elite are under attack and political norms are being dismantled and even outsiders such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and The Squad in the U.S. can represent the people better than traditional politicians.
She said that Alex serves as the voice of her people, reinstating what democracy is supposed to be about rather than what it evolved to become, a system run on personal interests and driven by thirst for power. She believes that Mailman, who is one of Australia’s most decorated local actors, is perfect for the role and that hopes that it will help her break out internationally. The two previously worked together on 1997 feature Radiance.
The title is controversial but Griffiths says that it is a deliberate reclamation of the derogatory racial slur, an act of empowerment for the central character Alex. In Australia, public broadcaster ABC is going to call it Total Control locally, but Keshet International is marketing it with its original title.
It is directed by Mystery Road director Rachel Perkins, who was raised in an activist household with her father being a very active player in progressing Indigenous rights in Australia. It is produced by Indigenous production company Blackfella Films, which previously produced Jimmy McGovern’s Redfern Now for ABC.
Griffiths moved back to Australia in 2012, wanting to escape the 80-hour weeks of shows such as Six Feet Under and Brothers & Sisters. She admitted that the budget for the show was much lower than what she was used to in the States, but there were many positives. “The commissioning execs and executive producers have been extraordinary and supportive and you know you hear about getting vast amounts of kind of stupid notes from and I’ve never been a co-creator and never read those notes before but they’ve been fantastic and it’s been a fruitful collaboration,” she said. “If one doesn’t have that EP title, the television protocol is that you get the script and are told to shut up and say the line so I’m a girl who had a lot of thoughts and feelings and it’s nice to have somewhere for them to end up.”
She hopes that she can bring some of the norms of the U.S. television system – such as the writers’ room – back to Australia and wants to encourage producers to give writers and talent more “agency” to prevent losing them entirely to the Hollywood system.
Having said that, she is willing to go back to the States for work and in 2016 starred alongside Guy Pearce and Mary-Louise Parker in ABC miniseries When We Rise, which focused on LGBT rights. She also starred in Hacksaw Ridge.
“I continue to do work overseas such When We Rise and for me coming back, I’ve worked really hard to try and get my own content up. I have several other projects in development and I’m attached to direct other shows and as an exec producer so that’s been exciting – just to be part of telling stories that I have a connection to.”
She believes now is the right time to tell local stories, particularly as they have more chance of traveling around the world than ever before. “Particularly now you know with streaming platforms, where we hope that the content we make will go back to the world. You know having a high-level attachment cut through somewhat.”
In terms of Black Bitch, Griffiths is already starting to break stories for a second season and has plotted out a third season. She now hopes that the rest of the world will get to see it.