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Rachel Griffiths Relishes Playing the Villain

by Michel Ghanem

Rachel Griffiths wearing black shirt and blazer
Courtesy of Prime Video

Before Showtime’s Yellowjackets dominated the cultural conversation with its weekly twists and turns, Prime Video’s The Wilds had already kickstarted the plane crash survival genre. Both shows follow a group of high school girls as they survive life in the wilderness and unravel each other’s mysteries in their unlikely situation. Whereas Yellowjackets focuses on their adult futures and an inclination toward the supernatural, The Wilds is more concerned about how these teens ended up on the plane in the first place—and the orchestration of their predicament. Following a format popularized by Lost, the seminal plane crash series, most episodes of The Wilds focus on a singular character through compelling flashbacks.

The second season of The Wilds, available now to watch in its entirety, picks up immediately where the first season left off, but with significant additions to the original cast. As teased last season, the next phase of Gretchen Klein’s (Rachel Griffiths) research project is a control group. In order to demonstrate the self-sufficiency and superior team-building of girls in the wild, Klein sends a similarly balanced group of teen boys to survive in the same conditions, with the hopes that their potential failure to thrive will prove her original hypothesis: that teen girls have more grit and survival chops than their male counterparts.

Griffiths embodies Klein’s flawed feminist politics with villainous delight. In the 1990s, the actress played a supporting role in a handful of popular films including Muriel’s Wedding, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and Hilary and Jackie. But Griffiths may be best known as Brenda on Six Feet Under, an iconic character that broke open the archetypal conventions of the girlfriend supporting character and garnered her two Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe award. Zooming with W, the actress discusses her mentorship style on the set of The Wilds, the show’s resonance with Six Feet Under, and the possibilities of joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a villain.

You have a very impressive and varied television resume. What was it about The Wilds that stood out to you as a project you wanted to be involved in?

I can only do work that I love. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever been offered enough money to do something I didn’t love. It was one of those magical pilots that really touched me in a way that I hadn’t really experienced since maybe Six Feet Under, where you really know that you’re in an incredibly brilliant, original, singular voice of Sarah Streicher’s pilot. Similar to Six Feet Under, I only had three scenes. The three scenes set up a demanding level of investigation and sinking deeply into the human condition. I just thought it was brilliant.

It’s this weird tone that I don’t know if I’ve done before? I was excited that they thought I could kind of go a bit…off. She’s off in this particular way. When a showrunner sees you in a role that you’re not really sure you can play, but they know you can play it—it gives you that reassurance.

Have you enjoyed the experience of playing a more villainous character? Six Feet Under’s Brenda had a sort of intensity to her, but I wouldn’t say she was a villain.

No, I don’t think she was [a villain]. I think some straight men thought she was because she so cracked the mold of what a girlfriend was meant to feel and be. She broke through a male gaze, I think. Certainly, complicated women who were struggling to thrive in Generation X and modern America. Brenda is a grown up version of that great line of Sarah Pidgeon—one of the girls says in season one [of The Wilds], “You think the island was hard, you think starving was hard, you think drowning was hard? Try to be a young woman in America.” I think that was Brenda.

Gretchen is more the villain that you want people to have fun with. You want to enjoy it. It’s walking that line, and showing, especially for young people, the madness that adults can become when they believe in something that’s so flawed that they will follow these dreadful means to promote themselves or have their ideology to be proven true. I’m not saying grown-ups shouldn’t be trusted, but a lot of us shouldn’t be trusted. That’s a great place for the villain character in this—how reliable is this person’s worldview and moral compass?

Is signing on to a third season something you’re interested in?

I love the third season. I love second seasons, I love coming back and you’ve created the character and sense of family and found joy in your working relationships. But I think three… nothing’s been announced. I can only hope, especially because the boys were such new additions. I’d love those young male actors also to have that experience of a third season. I know the girls coming back had gained so much confidence from going on the journey from the opportunity to work with giant monologues—I haven’t had a monologue like that in my life! And they get three an episode, you know, so spoiled! They came in with a little swag in the second season, which was absolutely deserved. It’d be nice for the boys to have that.

Is there a mentorship that happens with you and the younger cast?

I don’t work with them enough, which kind of breaks my heart because they’re amazing. I think I just try to provide a stable hand so that they can do what they do. I always tell them that the shittiest thing about being an actor is that you can have been an actor for 30 years and some little fuck who’s never done anything before can absolutely blow you off the screen, and I think that’s what’s happening right now. That’s what I’d ever say to any of them who are nervous with me, I’m like, you’re going to blow me off the screen, go fuck yourself.

Do you have any insight into why Gretchen wore turtlenecks exclusively through the first season?

I love turtlenecks because I think I have a really long neck. There’s something very luxurious about turtleneck cashmeres. There was a little bit of that Theranos influence, she sees herself as Steve Jobs for sure. It’s also her academic feminism, a contemporary equivalent to a bluestocking look, maybe.

But it’s funny, in Australia we call them polo necks. I remember having my first phone call on Six Feet Under with the costume designer, I told her I saw the character in polo necks because [Brenda] would be kinda hiding, you know. Now she’d have really luxe, Gucci hoodies or something. I turned up to the first fitting and she had a whole rack of polo t-shirts! [Screams.] I don’t think she’d wear those.

What TV shows are you watching lately and enjoying?

I’m obsessed with Winning Time. Obsessed. I think it’s the most superb cast of a show I’ve seen in the last five years. To see my national compatriot Jason Clarke break into such an extraordinary character...he’s always been a really good actor, but he jumps the shark into this explosive, unpredictable territory. I just started watching the show [Old Enough] about two-year-olds running errands, which is really adorable and makes me rethink how I parent—shit, I should’ve just let them cook and do all the washing. I also just finished The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which next to Winning Time is probably also the most extraordinarily cast show.

You’ve mentioned Six Feet Under a few times in our conversation. There were rumors of a reboot a few months ago, is that something you would ever consider?

No. I think [Alan Ball] would go back, if it was done. He would have to go back to the young Frances Conroy, writing back in time into a different L.A. and a different time. I mean if he called me, would I say no? Probably not. But I just doubt that’s what Alan would do. He’d take the funeral home back a hundred years.

Six Feet Under is so emotional to watch.

Alan was talking about death before anyone was. He made that first season before 9/11, it was almost like we were post-death as a culture, we had a kind of life of ease, so in control and nothing bad ever happens. He was like…actually, shit can still happen. I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me on social media who discovered it during the pandemic and found it incredibly meaningful. Of course, as soon as you talk about death, you’re talking about life, right? What meaning you’re finding, what life you’re living.

Are there any kinds of roles you haven’t played that you’d like to in the future? Marvel might be looking for a villain.

I would love to do a big [Marvel] film, and I probably would be the villain. I’d like a suit, I’d like to fly, I’d like to have Shakespearean-esque evil monologues. That would be fun.

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