Gary Sweet as Lewis Crabb and Rachel Griffiths as Belle Lamont in HOUSE HUSBANDS.

Gary Sweet as Lewis Crabb and Rachel Griffiths as Belle Lamont in House Husbands.

The co-creators of House Husbands, Ellie Beaumont and Drew Proffitt, describe their series as “a story of modern life and modern parenting and juggling career and family”. Its titular quartet of dads met and bonded at the primary school gate during drop-off and pick-ups times for their children, and they’ve formed a firm friendship. 

Lewis (Gary Sweet), Mark (Rhys Muldoon), Justin (Firass Dirani) and Kane (Gyton Grantley) have supported each other through a range of trials, from Justin struggling to rebuild his life following the death of his wife to Kane establishing his baking business. Together, they deal with ballet recitals and school-event costumes, along with daughters’ requests for crop-tops and sons who are being bullied.

As the third season of the domestic comedy-drama continues, they’re uniting to buy a pub. But, as Beaumont notes with a laugh, “We sometimes wish that there could be a siege. The problem with writing relationship drama is that you sometimes sit around the table saying, ‘OK, someone can’t just make a ham sandwich’. Even though that’s the reality of being a house husband, there has to be something else happening.”

Rachel Griffiths in House Husbands

Disruptive presence: Rachel Griffiths' character "rattles everyone".

In a fictional world where a crisis could constitute incurring the wrath of the school’s forbidding deputy principal, Miss Looby (Louise Siversen), the producers might reasonably opt not to stage a siege. But they’ve certainly dropped a bombshell with the arrival of Belle, Lewis’s first wife, played by Rachel Griffiths. She’s also the mother of his eldest daughter, Lucy (Anna McGahan), and of Ned (Lincoln Lewis), who was adopted out at birth.

When Lucy was a teenager, Belle left the country to pursue a career in IT and, knowingly or not, she’s now a disruptive presence. “She rattles everyone,” observes Beaumont.

Profitt says that they were delighted when Griffiths agreed to join the show for a five-episode arc. For the actress, a mother of three, there was a range of appealing factors. “I wanted to work in Melbourne this year,” she says. “If it hadn’t been in Melbourne, I probably wouldn’t have done it.” She was also happy to be joining this cast: she knew Sweet and Muldoon, has been workshopping a project with Julia Morris, and had championed Dirani when he was a contender for the Heath Ledger Scholarship.

In addition, there was the character: “Belle’s a bright, innovative, interesting, unconventional woman who had a child extremely young, and I think she’s kind of doing things backwards,” says Griffiths. “It was an interesting proposition to play a woman who we would often judge. Her story is atypical of a traditional mother’s journey and it’s always great to see different forms of what a family looks like and how people balance family and career.”

Having worked on a number of TV series, including Six Feet Under, Brothers & Sisters and Camp, Griffiths also understood her function as a guest: “It can be fantastic when someone comes in from outside and brings something else. Things can get too cosy. You’re being paid to bring in something, to shake it up.”

Beaumont adds that, “Belle was fairly well formed by the time we cast Rachel, but she definitely brought a new level because she really didn’t want to play a victim. She didn’t want to play an ex-wife who was still love-struck and she was very interested in playing the career woman, which was great for us, because that’s a big thing that we explore in the show: obviously the counterpoint to the house husbands is the career woman.”

Proffitt notes that Griffiths also gave Belle “a kind of eccentricity. She didn’t want to make her the archetype of the successful businesswoman who’s mourning the family life that she never had. She has a career path, she’s a self-made person, a computer-engineer type person who’s more Bill Gates than Ally McBeal.”

In addition to the role on-screen, Griffiths’ time on House Husbands allowed her to pursue another aspect of her professional development, shadowing director Lynn-Maree Danzey, who had directed her on Camp and whom Griffiths describes with admiration and affection as “General Patton meets a Jack Russell. Her acting direction is so diligent and thoughtful: she always improves a performance.”

Griffiths has directed two short films, Tulip (2000) and Roundabout (2003), and was scheduled to direct episodes of Brothers & Sisters, but pregnancy disrupted the plans.

She observes that, in the US, it’s not uncommon for actors to hone their skills behind the camera. “I’ve been directed by a bunch of great women in Hollywood who move between acting work and directing work because they love the creative job, they love drama, they love actors, they love being on the team. Acting-wise, you don’t necessarily want to do everything that you’re offered. So rather than sit around ... ”

In Australia, though, it’s not as well-trodden a path and Griffiths says, “I think that, here, they won’t trust actors with the toys and the money because they think we might crash the car, steal the cab charges and not turn up. There’s an infantilisation, a perception that we’re flighty, that we don’t understand money, that we don’t understand what overtime actually means. I’m a mother of three and I run a tight ship on my budget with my 2000 Honda.”

Griffiths seems intent on trying to challenge any prevailing negative view. “I’ve done more than 200 hours of television. I’m pretty good at knowing what a good director smells, feels and sounds like on TV: who gets in the way, who drives the day. I’ve never been a film, TV, talking-book, theatre-for-schools snob. I’ve always taken the best job on the table. And I love telling stories, in whatever form they manifest.”

The future might see her in the director’s chair. But for now, she’s busy shaking up the house husbands and their wives.

House Husbands screens on Sundays on Channel Nine at 9pm.