Rachel Griffiths Hopes to Make Lesbians Proud With “When We Rise”

“Gay/straight or gay/gay has nothing to do with it—it’s just male/female and our experience in the world is very different.”

Rachel Griffiths has been on several LGBT-themed shows, including “Six Feet Under” and “Brothers and Sisters,” but in “When We Rise,” she’s playing her first-ever lesbian character, and she did her research. As Diane Jones, Griffiths portrays a real-life activist and nurse who now serves as the Executive Director of the Lesbian Health and Research Center, Associate Director for the National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health and was the co-founder of 100 Lesbians and Our Friends, a lesbian philanthropic community initiative. Much of Jones’ integral work in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis is featured in “When We Rise,” and Griffiths wanted to make sure she got it right.  

“I had a little access to her which was fabulous,” Griffiths said of Jones. “I spoke to a lot of nurses. I spoke to quite a few people who worked on the AIDS ward at a comparable time and had had that experience of working through the plague and having people die without knowing what the fuck was going on, and the kind of residue of that.”

Photo by ABC/Phil Bray

Griffiths said she also consulted friends who were nurses and noted that what was key to accessing Jones, for her, was finding the certain quality that nurses need to have.

“That’s a particular kind of capacity that is quite unique to that kind of cold-faced service, ” Griffiths said. “There has to be an absolute centeredness in I think one’s self in order to be able to cope with that trauma constantly swirling around and not getting off key.”

The same could be said for long-time activists like Jones, and the others featured in “When We Rise,” including Roma Guy, Jones’ real-life partner who is portrayed by Mary-Louise Parker. But Griffiths was particularly focused on nailing the lesbian thing, too.

“I spoke to a couple of highfaluting like Ph.D. lesbians and got the full reading list,” she told GO at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena. “I got into interesting conversations on lesbian love life—lesbian life.”

The Golden Globe-winning actress (who joked that her only fans are “gay and middle-aged Jewish women”) has long been an ally and self-identified feminist, but was surprised to learn about the early struggle women faced in choosing between women’s rights and the largely male gay rights movement before it became unified, a struggle well-documented in “When We Rise.”

“They actually had very different agendas, which makes perfect sense,” Griffiths said. “I’ve worked with a lot of gay men and gay creatives and sometimes there is a chasm that is ultimately about women. Gay/straight or gay/gay has nothing to do with it—it’s just male/female and our experience in the world is very different.”

It was disappointing, Griffiths said, to see the “hatchet job” feminism received from detractors who ultimately wanted to dissuade women from fighting for equity.

“I think that awareness of how as a young feminist back in the ‘80s, it was already very cleverly made kind of dirty and unappealing, and by connecting it with lesbians, made straight women—straight young women feel—like it wasn’t as much their cause,” Griffiths said. “And I really kind of look back on that now, and I look at how language is being used now, like political correctness, which has gone made apparently, which is just a way to dismiss civility, kindness, not being an asshole. So I kind of have really bought much more into the theories, the linguistic theories, the hijacking aspirations of very noble causes and the appropriation of their language and the theft of its righteousness. And this piece really made me understand that on a level that was quite shocking and surprising.”

Photo by ABC/Image Group LA

One thing Griffiths credited Jones for sharing with her was how queer women were forced to absorb both misogyny and homophobia and internalize them.

“She talked about her generation of women doing that, internalizing the homophobia,” Griffiths said. “Those are very powerful things.”

Some more comical aspects of the role were some of the lesbian aesthetics Griffiths hadn’t previously considered.

“I had a girl explain to me that hands are a sex organ,” she said. “She explained how women look at other women’s hands when they’re talking. I’m like ‘OK, I have big hands, and they move around a lot. Is that why I attract a little bit of attention?’ And then my nails are short. The other thing that was really about the whole clip—the clip on the key ring. That’s just really smart. I really think I must be half lesbian because I remember I was always losing my keys. I’m like ‘What if I got a clip like my dad?’ I think I did try that for a while.”

What “When We Rise” accomplishes better than most other on-screen depiction of the AIDS crisis is how women like Diane Jones, one of the first HIV/AIDS nurses, were involved. 

“I read a lot about the plague and all the plague shows, the plague books, which were pretty much all written by men, understandably,” Griffiths said. “So I had balance those two things out. But she’s witness to that.”

Photo by ABC

Griffiths said being a part of “When We Rise” has been a “really wonderful journey intellectually and emotionally” for her, and that the “research and conversations that it afforded [her]” has “been a privilege.”

“I think what’s different this time—I don’t really care if I get negative feedback or blowback,” Griffiths said. “Unless it’s from lesbians who are just hugely disappointed by the lack of veracity in my portrayal. That will upset me. If I get it from angry lesbians, I find it heartbreaking. ‘By the way, there is nothing gay about your performance. Fakest lesbian I’ve ever seen depicted on television,'” she joked of a possible comment she’d be sad to receive. “That would depress me.”

But after all of that research, she knows what to expect: “There will be some disgruntled lesbian.”

When We Rise” continues airing on ABC tonight and tomorrow 9pm ET/PT.