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GRIFFITHS, RACHEL: HILARY AND JACKIE

Rachel Griffiths’ performance in Hilary and Jackie has earned her a coveted Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. While promoting that film in Los Angeles, PAUL FISCHER spoke to Griffiths about her road to success, and her avoidance of Hollywood.

The Chateau Marmont Hotel is one of Los Angeles' most exclusive hotels. Beautifully perched amidst the Hollywood Hills on trendy Sunset Boulevard, it's the temporary home for the visiting cast and crew of the British film, Hilary and Jackie. The film's US distributor, October Films, has a lot riding on this much discussed true story about musician siblings, and the film's premiere confirmed how much interest there was in the movie.

"It's nice to be associated with a film that everyone is so genuinely excited about"

Rachel Griffiths, who plays flautist Hilary Du Pré in the movie, is savouring the moment. "It was a great night. It's nice to be associated with a film that everyone is so genuinely excited about", she says, flopping down on a nearby settee. Griffiths hasn't been out of work since Muriel's Wedding took the world by storm. During this year's Palm Springs Film Festival, the 31-year old Melbourne-raised actor was being seen in four films - Amy, Divorcing Jack, My Son the Fanatic and Among Giants. Not to mention the general release of Hilary and Jackie.

When we spoke, well before the Oscar nominations, Rachel thought, "Emily might score a nomination which would help the film in other territories, and Cate [Blanchett] battles a so-so script to deliver a performance that is Oscar worthy." (Ironically both she and Blanchett auditioned for NIDA in the same year - Cate was accepted, Griffiths was not.) She was less sure of her own chances. "Come on, there's no way they'd give me a nomination", she says laughingly. That was before they did, indeed, ‘give’ her a nomination.

Until she made Muriel’s Wedding, Griffiths truly believed that she was completely unsuitable for this glam medium. "I grew up so sort of gangly and tomboyish; I was such an awkward adolescent. I'd always thought that beautiful people made the movies. So I always thought that maybe once I'd hit 50 I'll start popping up in old movie roles."

"PJ's humour is very universal, as are his observations"

Then along came Muriel. "I was shocked to get a script in which the two leads were female, weren't beautiful chicks, but were more questioning, wild and they were outsiders." Interestingly, that's how the actress sees herself. "More so than the kind of Gwyneths, I think. So when I got Muriel's Wedding, I just kept on thinking: Oh my God, this is the most fantastic script, I could really identify with it and I even grew up in a similar town."

She also knew "that it was a good film. I think it also changed people's perceptions of the so-called 'chick flick', and those kinds of films now make money." Despite its very Australian style, the film travelled very well and introduced Griffiths to an international audience, "because PJ's humour is very universal, as are his observations. The reason why it did so well in America was because it's full of idealistic people who have left that small-minded place, that didn't allow them to become everything they could be; LA is full of those people."

For Griffiths, whose mother was once against her giving up uni for acting, her own dreams became an unexpected reality. Muriel's Wedding was her launch pad to an extraordinary career that began very quickly after Muriel's Australian release. In 1996 alone, she co-starred in "Cosi", as the law-student girlfriend of a drifter working as a therapist in a mental hospital, made her international debut in Michael Winterbottom's "Jude", as the sexy first wife who eventually abandons Christopher Eccleston's title character, "To Have and to Hold", as a romance writer wooed by a mysterious Frenchman (Tcheky Karyo) and "Children of the Revolution", as the leather-clad policewoman who romances the alleged son of Josef Stalin.

"That's not the kind of actress I am,"

The busy actress continued to solidify her position as a promising talent. She was a hard-bitten English prostitute who falls for an older Pakistani cab driver in My Son the Fanatic (1997), yet to be seen here. That same year, Griffiths reteamed with P J Hogan as Cameron Diaz's Southern belle cousin in My Best Friend's Wedding. She followed with a striking cameo at the start of Stephan Elliott's Welcome to Woop Woop, before coming into her own with her superb portrayal of flautist Hilary du Pre in Hilary and Jackie (both 1998).

Hilary and Jackie revolves around the often tempestuous relationship between two unique sisters. Jacqueline du Pre (Emily Watson) was one of the most gifted cellists of her time, and her brilliant marriage to the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim (now music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) was a celebrated musical and romantic liaison. Hilary du Pre (Griffiths), her older sister, played the flute and might perhaps have been as gifted as her sister. But that we will never know, because a music teacher beat down her talent and crushed her spirit. Perhaps she had a happier life as a result. On the surface, Jackie is the toughest, showier character, but Griffiths' beautifully subtle rendition of Hilary, is the movie's emotional centre.

The actress loved the opportunity to play Hilary; "It was a character I felt more comfortable doing than that of Jackie. I think Emily's amazing, and I can't imagine being able to play that role, nor would I want to, because that's not the kind of actress I am," Griffiths explains.

"incredibly powerful and poetic"

One can understand her genuine passion about this movie, a movie she says, "is incredibly powerful and poetic. It really gives you something to think about." Playing a real-life character, who is still alive, didn't deter the actress. "I came to the film stone cold because I didn't know about Jacqueline du Pre. Being Australian, I didn't grow up with a kind of icon of this woman, and I'm often suspicious of biopics. When I heard about the idea of the picture, I was initially nonplussed. Just because this woman is extraordinary, that's not a good enough reason for me. A film must resonate for me. The reason for making this film is the kind of complex themes of family and forgiveness, and love and the complexity of love in a family - - it's not like lovers, you can't break up and leave to never see each other again, or if you do it is a great pain that you take to your grave. I loved the idea of what happens in a family when someone takes up more room because they've either got extraordinary ability or disability, and how things are rearranged in a dynamic to support or protect that person."

Griffiths avoided meeting the real Hilary because she didn't want to feel "like I was just depicting some literal truth. To me, I felt I knew the truth of this story that we were telling, which comes from the true recollection and memory of Hilary, but I didn't feel like I was representing a definitive version of her. I would have been horrified if she had hated me, mind you -- I think I even protected myself by not meeting her, so that if she hated me, I wouldn't have to kill myself! I was relieved that she loved the film. But I knew that she would, that we were being true to the spirit of her, and that I was being true to where she places herself in her family, and a particular notion of love that she has and which others may find difficult to understand."

Griffiths' unexpected (but highly deserved) Oscar nomination is destined to bring her bigger and better things, though not necessarily in Hollywood. "It better suits people like Toni, but for me, given how I look and the kind of acting I enjoy, the UK is the place for me. I love London, and I love the kinds of characters I can get away with playing there." Characters such as an Irish gun-toting nun, in the cynical comedy Divorcing Jack, which she laughingly describes "as my first attempt at an action flick."

"I'd hate to be pigeonholed."

There's the bittersweet comedy Among Giants, from the writer of The Full Monty, in which she plays another outsider - an Australian hitchhiker in northern England. "It's a sweet little film which I'm really proud of." And following in the tradition of stars such as Mel Gibson, Griffiths will be heard, but not seen, in Miramax's animated Tom Thumb and Thumbelina, which also features Jennifer Love Hewitt and Elijah Wood, and she's about to make her directorial debut on the film, Tulip.

"I just want to do some exciting things in the future, great roles and learn how to direct. I'd hate to be pigeonholed."

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