Rachel Griffiths and Sam Neill

Interview: Rachel Griffiths

The multi-talented actor and director chats about her feature film directorial debut, Ride Like a Girl.

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Australia’s darling, Rachel Griffiths, has returned home, and is about to release her first feature film as director. She kindly took some time out of her frenetic schedule to chat to Glam about her new baby, Ride Like a Girl.

Griffiths has directed some television before, but her feature debut is the interesting choice of a sport’s film about Michelle Payne, the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup.

“I wouldn’t have taken three years out of my other career if I wasn’t doing something that I was absolutely obsessed by! I definitely came home to Australia hoping to make Australian stories.”

Although looking for a directorial project for some time, it was Payne’s historic win that inspired Griffiths to finally take the plunge.

“I had this other film which for eight years I was trying to get up, but also I just kept having babies,! I thought I had a great project- a girl’s coming-of-age story-and we just couldn’t finance it. Then [a colleague] said to me ‘If you want to make an Australian film, starring an Australian female, you have got to find someone the audience is going to root for.’ Then [Payne] won, and she told the world to get stuffed, and then I read about her big rural, Irish Catholic family. Those words of my colleague really rang in my ears. THIS is a girl that Australians will root for.”

Griffiths was very clear in her vision for the film.

“I wanted to deliver on the sports adrenaline package. I love sports films because they allow you to have very high stakes. I like to have my feelings stirred and sports films do that when they do it well. I thought the idea of a father raising ten kids on his own would really bring the male audience along for the ride. And I wanted to reclaim the term ‘ride like a girl’ from a pejorative. We were after a PG feminist film that was girl-powered but didn’t alienate men, and that also celebrated a lot of what is old-fashionedly brilliant about Australia. We are becoming a less egalitarian country, but on that day a bunch of blokes, not wealthy men from Ballarat, beat Lloyd Williams who had four horses running, a woman beat the best jockeys in the world, and her strapper, her brother, traditionally would have been seen as someone for whom full-time employment was not on the cards. But in our universe, all those things are possible. So I just thought it was the great Aussie battler film.”

The Melbourne Cup is a great Aussie tradition. ‘The race that stops a nation’ is watched by people who have no interest in racing, or even sports in general. Everyone gathers around the TV, even in the office, with hats on and sweep picks in hand. And Griffiths has certainly captured that national emotion in the film. The Melbourne Cup is unlike any other event of its kind.

“There are not many cities in the world that have a public holiday for a horse race! It is our celebration of spring, coming out with our new clothes on and our new hats. The girls look gorgeous and the boys make an effort. It’s a long race with so many horses in it. There are not many races in the world that are ridden that tight, with that kind of pack.”

One of the most interesting choices she has made in this work is to have Payne’s brother and strapper, Stevie Payne, (who incidentally has Down Syndrome) play himself.  

“There was another actor I had in mind who is extremely experienced, but he was never going to be able to display the equine skills that I really wanted to showcase. Stevie has two great abilities: he has great skill as a performer, which I think is plain for everyone to see, but on that day he was also the best strapper in the world. And I really wanted to show Stevie in his professional context. So when I heard that he wanted the opportunity to audition, we did a workshop with him and my fingers were crossed. It would certainly have made it easier to cut between all the footage if Stevie could play himself, but I also wondered how I could tell Stevie that I’d decided that another man could tell his story better than he could. I just couldn’t imagine having that conversation!”

Stevie’s acting work turned out to be so good that there was a last-minute rush to give him more footage.  

“At first Elise and Andrew [McCredie and Knight, screenwriters] underwrote him because they didn’t know what he would be capable of. But once they realised how talented he was and how comfortable he was with the camera, Elise came up with three more scenes: the barrier draw; getting ready on the morning of the race; and a moment with him and Teresa dancing. We used to call it ‘Stevie gold!’ He’s quietly stealing the picture away from everybody. I hope it will inspire our producers and directors to make our cinema and television more inclusive.”

Ride Like a Girl should keep Griffiths busy over the next few weeks as it opens and garners the praise it so clearly deserves. But she will not be taking a well-earned rest any time soon, with a packed schedule already lined up.

“I’m about to do my first Amazon television production as an actor, I co-created Total Control and co-star in it, and I’m attached to a beautiful television series as a director, so that’s kind of my next two and a half years!”

Ride Like a Girl opens nationally on September 26th.

There will be a special Q & A screening on September 23rd at Palace Nova Eastend, with one of the stars of the film, Genevieve Morris, and jockey Clare Lindop, the first Australian woman to ride in the Melbourne Cup.
Click here for details and to book.

There will also be a fundraiser showing of the film on September 29th at Wallis Mitcham, raising money for Girl Guide programs in India. Click here for details.

Total Control, which co-stars Deborah Mailman, premieres on ABC TV on October 13th at 8.30 pm. Click here for details.

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