‘Madam’ Star Rachel Griffiths Calls for ‘Respect’ for Sex Workers: ‘What’s the Difference Between a Massage and a Blowjob?!’

Rachel Griffiths wants people to start respecting sex workers. Now.

“If we disrespect sex workers, we are disrespecting women. It’s the same thing,” she says.

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“In Australia, we are in the throes of terrible violence against women. We’ve had more of them die at the hands of their partners or ex-partners in the first three months of the year than in all of last year. People used to talk about what a woman was wearing if something bad happened to her. If she was a sex worker, nobody investigated these cases. I really hope we grow out of it.”

In her new show “Madam,” Griffiths – a “Six Feet Under” and “Brothers & Sisters” star, nominated for an Academy Award for “Hilary and Jackie” – plays Mack Leigh. The show had its world premiere Saturday at the Monte-Carlo Television Festival.

After discovering her husband has been hiring a sex worker, she decides to open a safe, “ethical brothel” herself. The show is set in New Zealand, which decriminalized sex work back in 2003.

“It became a feminist issue. Women couldn’t be incarcerated, penalized or fined for providing a service. What’s the difference between a massage and a blowjob?!”

“Madam” is inspired by the true story of Antonia Murphy, who wrote about her experience.

“She had an unpublished autobiography that was so helpful. As an actor, you dream of someone to go: ‘Here’s 200 pages of everything that has ever happened.’ I did have dinner with her once, but I didn’t want to do an impersonation. With every character I do, I meet them halfway. Well, not with Johnny Depp’s mother [in ‘Blow’]. I really went for that one,” she laughs during a roundtable interview at the fest.

Produced by Tavake and XYZ Films in association with Fifth Season, which distributes it globally, “Madam” stars Rima Te Wiata, Ariaña Osborne, Danielle Cormack, Robbie Magasiva and “Virgin River” heartthrob Martin Henderson.

“I thought: ‘We are not going to get him.’ But he was interested, because he’s never done comedy. He’s like Jason Bateman: he’s ‘douchebag funny’. You see exactly what he is doing but you still don’t want to kill him,” she jokes.

“In the first season, you can only set up so many characters. In the second, I think we will go more into the lives of the women that live in a brothel, so that it’s no longer all about the privileged white lady. It will open a whole lot of humor and a whole lot of scenarios.”

In May, “Anora” director Sean Baker dedicated his Palme d’Or win to “all sex workers – past, present and future.” Things are changing – but not quickly enough.

“What people do with their bodies should be their decision. We have some really big problems we are facing as a world. So why do legislators focus on the female body or try to stop people from getting laid? Come on,” observes Griffiths.

“I think the younger generation is more sex and body-positive, and maybe OnlyFans has normalized certain things. I know many women who are getting off dating apps. They say: ‘These guys are expecting sex, for free, after buying me a coffee.’ If that’s the dating culture at the moment, what’s the difference between getting paid? It’s still a transaction.”

Griffiths got to work with “fantastic” intimacy coordinator and actor Jennifer Ward-Lealand.

“She would turn up with this luggage, full of different bits, and she was very direct: ‘What are you happy with showing?’ Consent should always be explicit. We are teaching young people now: ‘If it’s not ‘hell yes,’ it’s a no.’”

Earlier on in her career, it hadn’t been that easy.

“I was lucky – apparently, I had the last nudity clause on HBO. But there wasn’t a language to talk about what I wanted to do with my body. One of the reasons why I moved into network television was that I felt it was the best protection. Before, there were many, many times when I wasn’t comfortable.”

“I have done shows where I ‘had’ a lot of sex: sometimes really unnecessary and not actually that sexy. Many actresses regret some of the things they were coerced into. ‘Last Tango in Paris’ – need we say more?”

Its late star Maria Schneider, cast opposite Marlo Brando, spoke against the infamous “butter scene.”

“If you are making a pervy show for people at home to get their rocks off, you want to make it ‘erotic.’ But I think humans fucking is very funny. Really. It’s fucking hilarious what we do to each other. It’s not that different from watching two dogs at a park. There is a fun female gaze in this one, because we’re not trying to turn on the audience.”

Some years back, Griffiths returned to Australia – “It was incredibly intentional. I couldn’t understand the American psyche” – and, since then, has pursued an additional career as a storyteller.

“I wanted to tell Australian stories,” she says.

She helmed “Ride Like a Girl” and episodes of “Nowhere Boys,” but she’s not planning to direct again any time soon.

“I just got my second child through school and I still have one that’s younger. I hate to say it, but there are many barriers for women to direct and not all of them are institutional. It’s about this 100% focus that’s required. Co-creating shows – we just wrapped three seasons of ‘Total Control’ – and taking on roles I have an input in, is my sweet spot at the moment. But that might change.”

During the Q&A after “Madam’s” screening – joined by exec producers Halaifonua Finau and Marci Wiseman – she opened up about the importance of making the show “ethically.”

“We’ve had actors who have a lot of modesty within their tradition. People don’t think about it, but not everyone is morally or religiously comfortable, being asked to do certain things. Australia and New Zealand really lead the work with inclusion in our filmmaking, also with the First Nations content.”

“Destigmatizing the industry and humanizing sex workers” was also part of the mission.

“All of us want connection, intimacy and everyone deserves a bit of love and cuddles. And laughter,” added Halaifonua Finau, with Wiseman quoting Antonia Murphy herself: “She said sex workers don’t sell sex – they treat loneliness. It became a creative touchdown for the series. It’s about being vulnerable, not just through transactional sex.”

Or about being angry, said Griffiths.

“Women over 50 are fucking tired. And people better be careful, because when they snap, crazy shit can happen.”

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