STAGE TO SCREENS: Rachel Griffiths, the Raging Sibling of Other Desert Cities

By Christopher Wallenberg
22 Dec 2011

Rachel Griffiths
Rachel Griffiths

Following her roles in TV's "Six Feet Under" and "Brothers and Sisters," Australian actress Rachel Griffiths relishes solving the puzzle of Brooke Wyeth in Broadway's Other Desert Cities.


After spending the past five years working in the formulaic, often stultifying world of network television on the ABC family melodrama "Brothers and Sisters," Rachel Griffiths worried she'd been forming some bad acting habits.

Sure, the Aussie actress was acclaimed for bringing to life the outspoken, temperamental Brenda Chenowith (girlfriend-turned-wife of prodigal son Nate) on the trailblazing HBO drama "Six Feet Under," a role that garnered her a Golden Globe Award, two Emmy nominations, and a legion of fervent admirers.

But while playing Brenda from 2001 to 2005 on "Six Feet Under" was a high water mark of Griffiths' career, for the past five years she's been best known as the headstrong eldest sibling Sarah Walker, a focused and frank businesswoman, on the (some critics say) frustratingly uneven ABC television series "Brothers and Sisters." So when that network decided not to pick up the large ensemble show for a sixth season, Griffiths says she knew it was high time to challenge herself as an actress and reinvigorate skills that she felt had atrophied. She began thinking about returning to her stage roots, which led to her making her Broadway debut last month (to March 4) in Jon Robin Baitz's politically-potent family drama Other Desert Cities, a play that's become one of the biggest hits of the fall Broadway season.

"I have been overpaid and underworked for too long," says Griffiths, during an interview in the basement green room at the Booth Theatre, on a recent Wednesday afternoon between matinee and evening performances of the play. "And I needed to be underpaid and overworked…So I just felt it was time. It was time to go get my chop-chops back. You kind of get habitual, and you kind of fake it and wing it. You have to. I mean, you can't work a 14-hour day making television at a certain level of truthfulness. But you do your best to be present in the moment."

Griffiths, who turned 43 on Dec. 18, says she didn't even realize how much time had passed since she was last on stage — in 2002 in an Australian production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof for the Melbourne Theatre Company, a performance for which she captured the Green Room Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.

"I said to my husband, 'God, I haven't done theatre for like five years!' And he goes, 'Honey, I got some bad news for you. It was eight,'" she says, bitingly, punctuated with a sly smile.

Not that the actress is showing any signs of rust from her time away from the stage, having earned solid reviews for her performance in the Baitz play. "A beautifully modulated Broadway debut," praised the New York Times' Ben Brantley. While The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney gushed that the play had "acquired a riveting center in the raw performance of Griffiths, who makes a knockout New York stage debut."

In this dysfunctional family drama, Griffiths plays Brooke Wyeth, a liberal New York literary star and daughter of conservative Reaganite parents, who returns home for the holidays brandishing a bombshell revelation. After a period of dormancy in which she battled depression, Brooke has written an explosive roman à clef memoir that pulls back the curtain on a troubled chapter in the family's history, involving her dead brother who committed a horrific crime in his rebellious youth.


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