[Note: This interview was conducted in 2016.]
When acclaimed Aussie actor Rachel Griffiths set out to track down her family tree on Who Do You Think You Are? she was already familiar with her mother’s ancestry, but knew little about her deceased father Edward’s lineage. The episode sees her travel to the other side of the world, discovering a link to famous and great historical figures... and some shady ones too.
SBS caught up with her after her journey to ask her how she was feeling about what she learnt along the way...
What was the most interesting thing you learned about yourself during the series?
How impossible it is that each one of us exists.
Was your journey an emotional one? What triggered the strongest feelings along the way?
It was thrilling and exciting and very very eye opening. The most wonderful thing was it connected me to some of my favourite places in the world in a very visceral way. As I walk the streets of those cities I love to be able to connect my children to their history will be very satisfying. To connect them to the fact we too were immigrants is a resonant notion that I feel will help them navigate many contemporary conversations.
How does knowing about your family history change how you see yourself and your family?
It has definitely connected me to my father's story which through circumstances was never perhaps passed to him and to us. I think it will be a thrilling reclamation.
What was the hardest thing for you to learn or accept about your family?
That I had connections to the African slave trade brought home how reliably profitable it was and how widespread society's engagement was. To see that from being the patron of an organisation that promotes awareness and deals with the consequences of slavery - that was confronting.
Do you see a connection between any of your own traits that could be attributed to your ancestors?
Perhaps the propensity for pompous and long winded prose and an affinity for Jewish culture.
Do you have any advice for anyone hoping to seek out their own family tree?
It's a wonderful way to explore the world.
What was the best thing about the experience?
I now have amazing stories to share with my children.
Are there any lessons that contemporary Australians could draw from your own family history and experience?
We are ALL immigrants and our ancestors either chased opportunities (economic migrants) or fled trouble (refugees).
To disparage the noble journeys of either group optimistic about making a better life for their children is to misunderstand the core instinct of our human race since we first left the jungles to walk on two legs. It is the most wonderful and admirable aspect of our humanity.
Watch Rachel's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? at SBS On Demand:
As it happens, Rachel is also the star of Dead Lucky (Wednesdays at 8:00pm on SBS), the first episode of which is available at SBS On Demand: