With her head-turning good looks, Melbourne actress/producer Hanna Griffiths arrived in Los Angeles almost ten years ago, quickly being offered a slew of lead roles as “the babe” or “the girl”.
Best known for her angel-like character Jodie in award-winning Australian TV series Underbelly, she had planned to capitalise on her success before quickly learning there was a price to be paid in this pre-Time’s Up era of Hollywood.
“When I first went on the audition circuit in LA, I found it really tough with the men. I was very strong and stuck to my ethics but there was a lot of, ‘Oh, if you really want the role you have to wine and dine with us…’ I was horrified by the system of power and just couldn’t do it.
“I loved acting but didn’t like all the other stuff that went with it. I found that really hard. I had a couple of experiences where I almost signed on to major productions and then had to deal with these situations with the men. I decided that I was not going to let this happen to me and would make my own movies. So, instead of me having to deal with these male producers, that were sort of putting this bar up in front of me before I could do what I wanted to do, I just thought I would reverse the situation and be the producer,” she tells STACK.
After reaching that conclusion, her epiphany was instant, turning down a lucrative US burger commercial in exchange for a low-paid job working for a prominent LA production company where she discovered unexpected joy in working behind the scenes, learning the craft of film production from the ground up.
Earning research credits on major films including All the Money in the World, Alien: Covenant, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Prometheus, Robin Hood and The Martian, she was able to utilise that knowledge to ultimately produce her own films.
“Working behind the scenes in production, I got to learn everything from research to storyboards to development, how TV shows and films get made. I moved from department to department just learning and sucking everything in,” says Griffiths, who figured out how she could produce her own projects after a few years on the job.
“I also wanted to help young women. After all the MeToo stuff, I felt I could really start supporting young female directors, because I realised I hadn’t been on a single set with a young female director for anything. Ever. So, I made this my priority.”
Today, her dream of producing her own films culminates in horror-thriller The Sinners, involving seven religious high school girls who start a cult where each must embody one of the Seven Deadly Sins. As the girls go missing, one by one, viewers discover the mysteries behind this religious town.
Marking the feature film debut of director and co-writer Courtney Paige, Griffiths hopes the film inspires young women.
“What’s really special to me is that The Sinners has seven female leads, and that’s really unusual because in all these films it’s usually the popular girl and then the boyfriend, but this is really a girl power project. Seven female actors, written and directed by a woman and supported by a lot of female producers.
“I think the best thing that came from it is for other young girls to see that they can make a movie and they can write a script about girls and it can sell and go places. It doesn’t have to be an Oscar-winning film, but you can actually be a young female writer-director and get something made and get your project up and running and make it all the way.
“I think if I had seen that as a young girl then my own path would be very different. When you don’t have that many people to look up to, or it’s all men, you can’t really believe that you can do that,” she argues.
Certainly, Griffiths wishes she had similar female role models in the industry when she was coming up, imagining that her experience in Hollywood might be as positive as her time working in Australia on Underbelly.
“I think because of doing Underbelly and because of the way I looked, I was never really reading for small roles in Los Angeles – it was mostly for ‘the girl’ or ‘the babe’ or the romantic lead and I found that really tough and found it hard to navigate with the power dynamics of the way that Hollywood was at the time.
“It was only a little while later that I figured I could make my own movies, deciding not to take the path where I did not have any power or control; where my career would hang in the hands of these men who are just so corruptive. I couldn’t deal with it.
“And I think that any actress who has had to go up for major projects in Hollywood – and this only changed a few years ago and it’s still working its way through; it’s not completely better – but before that, it just was very difficult for me to put all my power in the hands of other people because I didn’t like that feeling and I had so many more skills that I could use. So, I just thought I would use them.
“I always wanted to make movies; I didn’t have to be the star. The star part of it was nothing to me and that’s a very empty existence anyway. So, for me, it’s all about the story and the making of movies. I love post-production as well and I’m a full-blown editor now, by the way,” says Griffiths, who first fell in love with drama, attending Victoria’s Penleigh and Essendon grammar school and The Academy of Mary Immaculate.
“When you’re a woman in showbusiness and it’s really dominated 99 per cent by men, I think the more skills you have, the better, and there’s so much more to making films than being the actor who might be there for five weeks. Whereas, as a producer, we’re on these films for maybe three years and there’s so much more to it. I still do want to act, but it has to be the right project.”
For Griffiths, co-producing The Sinners is the culmination of a desire to tell female stories, having long been inspired by Australian producer Bruna Papandrea, responsible for producing award-winning films Wild, Gone Girl, The Dry and Penguin Bloom, as well as TV series Big Little Lies and The Undoing.
“I’d like to work with [Bruna] and we’ve been circling each other for future projects. I really respect her and what she’s done, and all the intellectual properties that she’s bought, optioned and then developed. I’m definitely doing that at the moment. I’m all over the Australian agencies and reading constantly to find really good intellectual properties with strong female characters that I can develop with Screen Australia,” she says.
Setting her bar high, she would love to work with Nicole Kidman. “What I love about Nicole is how she’s still kept her hand in the theatre community and still develops projects from plays and does big studio movies to satisfy her agents and then goes off and does something totally random and indie. She’s so creative and always stretching herself. I like her choices and she has really good taste.”
Ask Griffiths if she relates to the girl click in The Sinners, and she laughs. “There was definitely the ‘Popular Girl’ group at my school, but I was actually not popular at all. I was the nerd inside the theatre club doing Shakespeare monologues with my drama teacher. I was not cool at all and didn’t really care what the other kids were doing.
“So, it’s actually fun to revisit some of these things and be making them as movies because now I’m the popular kid because I make movies, and everybody thinks that’s cool. It’s funny how it all comes full circle.”