“I think anyone who watches this will understand by the end why it’s not democratic to have a population vote on whether a part of that population gets to have things that everybody else has, and to just know it’s wrong,” she says, referencing Australia’s now dead plebiscite.
Stephanie Marie Anderson

3 Mar 2017 - 1:09 PM  UPDATED 3 Mar 2017 - 2:15 PM

Rachel Griffiths has choice words regarding former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

“I can’t speak for how Tony Abbott can have a gay sister and want to deny her what I would say is one of the crowning achievements and most successful parts of his life—a long and loving and fruitful marriage,” she says. “I don’t know how you can deny someone you love that same thing.”

In Australia to promote the widely acclaimed new mini-series, When We Rise, Griffiths believes that by putting viewers into the shoes of real life LGBT+ activists, the show has the ability to open people’s minds and hearts to the struggles of the LGBT+ community.

“You kind of know these people by the end of the show, and I think when you know people and you know their journey you want for them what you have for yourself,” she says, calling Abbott “a little bit of an anomaly” to her theory.

Recalling her childhood as a “little white Catholic girl who’d never left Melbourne”, Griffiths tells SBS how her world was “absolutely rocked” when she watched Roots in 1977.

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Episode one is streaming on SBS On Demand right now!

“It changed me,” she says, describing it as a “seminal primer for [her] sensitivity to human rights and civil rights”. She believes When We Rise can be as powerful for others.

“I think anyone who watches this will understand by the end why it’s not democratic to have a population vote on whether a part of that population gets to have things that everybody else has, and to just know it’s wrong,” she says, referencing Australia’s now dead plebiscite.

Disappointed that Australia has yet to legalise marriage equality - a climactic moment for the characters in When We Rise as it portrays the United States 2015 Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage - Griffiths feels that “it would make Australia closer to being the fair and lucky country for all that it should be,” noting that “we’ve led the way in some of the most important democratic reforms of the last century”.

“We were one of the first countries to give women the vote, one of the first countries to have a female representative. I think we’ve been at the forefront of this progress and I think it’s very unfortunate that our sense of inclusion has fallen behind our aspirations,” she says.

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Noting that “arguments that have been well disproven with evidence in other parts of the world” are still being used here, Griffiths doesn’t believe that the argument against marriage equality has been explained well.

“I think [marriage equality has] been held hostage a bit by interest groups that are mostly religiously driven and I don’t think that’s fair in a democracy,” she says, adding: “and it’s lacking in critical thought”.

Still she remains hopeful that things will change, encouraging young people to use their voices and speak up.

Watch episode one of When We Rise right now:

“I think the young need to keep speaking to the old and explaining why it’s okay, because I think when you’re old and you’ve been raised a certain way, change can be difficult to accept,” she says.

The characters we see in When We Rise are certainly no strangers to using their voices. Based on real-life activists, the miniseries begins with the 1969 Stonewall riots, and chronicles the fight for LGBT+ equality and is a timely reminder of the need for queer activism to be intersectional.

Brought to life by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and executive producer Gus Van Sant - who also directed the pilot - When We Rise is also a reunion of the team who brought us 2009’s Academy Award-winning Harvey Milk biopic, Milk.

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Griffiths assures us that we’re in good hands with this creative team as she sings Black’s praises.

“He’s such a fabulous writer, the characters are so beautifully drawn, and his research is just insane!” she exclaims. “It’s epic, you know, you do feel like you’ve read one of those epic Italian novels, where you just come out transformed.”

Playing Diane Jones - a nurse in a relationship with Roma Guy (played by Mary-Louise Parker) - Griffiths describes her character as one with “quiet courage, of just insisting on living your life authentically and then fighting the battles that you’re forced to fight”.

“She’s not really looking for those battles, but if she has to engage in order to live with dignity and not have her choices curtailed by governments, she will,” she says.

That quiet courage is evident throughout, but no more so than as the mini-series takes us through the AIDS crisis of the 80s.

“To be delivering health care and palliative care for a very good part of the AIDS plague, of just being at the centre and watching thousands and thousands of young men, mostly, in their prime, be taken and to hold the hand of someone you can’t ultimately help, is a kind of courage and heroicism [sic] I was excited to embody,” Griffiths says.

And hopefully, it’s a heroism we’ll see more of on our screens.

“We’re very slowly coming around to telling these stories and I think there’s a huge appetite for it and a huge hunger in young women to have a more diverse female heroine,” Griffiths says.

For more with Rachel Griffiths, listen to SBS' new podcast The Playlist, with Fiona Williams and Nick Bhasin:


When We Rise is a part of SBS’s 2017 Mardi Gras season and is streaming now on SBS On Demand. The series will then make its TV premiere on Saturday 11 March at 8.30pm on SBS. 

SBS will be streaming the 2017 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade live on Saturday, March 4 on SBS On Demand, and will then air our Mardi Gras special event - with commentary from our hosts, behind-the-scenes action and exclusive interviews - on Sunday March 5. In the meantime, you can keep up with all our Mardi Gras content here.