Fiona Dourif talks ABC’s WHEN WE RISE

(ABC/Tyler Golden)

ABC’s inspirational miniseries WHEN WE RISE, written and created by Academy Award winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, “chronicles the real-life personal and political struggles, set-backs and triumphs of a diverse family of LGBT men and women who helped pioneer one of the last legs of the US Civil Rights movement from its turbulent infancy in the 20th centruy to the once unfathomable successes of today.”  Fiona Dourif plays one of those pioneers, Diane Jones, founder of The Women’s Building, an HIV/AIDS nurse who retired recently after 33 years of service.

When we spoke this week about the series as a whole, Dourif told me that Jones, also portrayed in the series by Rachel Griffiths, is “a pretty phenomenal figure. I look up to her in real life. She is very open but very hesitant to take credit sometimes for things that she’s done.” 

Fiona and I chatted about playing a real life hero and why this is a series everyone should be watching – “I hope it will elicit compassion for people that may not seem like us, and I think that it may surprise a few people.”

Check out the rest of the interview!

Everyone I talk to, everyone that knows about it, that has heard about it is as excited as I am.
Yeah, I was pretty blown away when I finally thought about it. We felt kind of surreal.

How did you get involved? Was it just like your normal script that came across that you read and went out for, or was this something you actively sought out? How was the getting involved process?
Yeah, I wish that you can just actively seek out A-list projects like that. It doesn’t quite work like that for me. [laughs] No, once in a while I’ll get something that’s really special. I auditioned a monologue and another scene, and they didn’t release the whole script, but I could tell right away kind of what it was and how good it was, the writing. I don’t even think they even told me it was Dustin Lance Black, actually, but I could tell that it was good. I could tell this was quality, so I put a little bit more effort in than I usually have time to do. And I watched HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE, I think the night before, going in for the audition and just did my best and crossed my fingers. I really wanted it, you know?

Talk a little bit about what WHEN WE RISE is, and for people who aren’t sure what it is, how are you describing it to people and telling them what it is?
What it is is a story of three activists that are still alive today in their journeys through the gay civil rights movement from the 1970s until, I think it might have been ’08? So it’s a modern day civil rights story and one that I hope feels like the story of three people, like their flaws and the heroic aspects of them? And I believe beautifully told. I mean, I’m a huge fan of it.

(ABC/Tyler Golden)

And it is based on true stories though it is an original work, right?
It is, yeah. It’s based on three people’s real lives. Those three people were very much involved in the project. I play a woman named Diane Jones who I spent real time with, who was one of the founding members of The Women’s Building. She was a member of the second-wave feminist movement in the 70s and then became and AIDS hospice nurse during the outbreak of AIDS in the 80s. She was just on the ground floor at San Francisco General.

It was interesting because when I read about her and then talked to her about her life it was clear to me kind of what impact she had on the movement so that women could get loans to buy property. I mean I didn’t understand that that just didn’t happen before the 70s. You know there’s like real relevance to the work that she did, and I’d never heard her name before. You know?

I had never heard Roma Guy before, and these are people that are still working for various civil rights movements today, so.

I think it’s important that they’re shedding light on these names we might not be familiar with. What was it like, then, to interact with someone, playing this real-life character? What was that conversation like with her?
It was interesting. I think it kind of hurried us towards an intimacy a little bit because I ended up having to talk to her about not just the plot of her life but the emotional value of intimate moments. It was kind of like, “Well really what did it feel like when your heart was broken?” [laughs]

She’s a pretty phenomenal figure. I look up to her in real life. She is very open but very hesitant to take credit sometimes for things that she’s done. She feels like she was part of a movement and a group of people that accomplished things and that she was just a cog in the wheel. And so it was … I tried to bring that into the performance in as much as I could. She’s remarkably selfless. It’s hard to talk about this. Sorry. Because I don’t want to speak for her either. You know?

But I found her … She’s someone who’s in her 60s now and has really put working for things, principles that she cares about, above money and stature and all of these things. It was just impressive to see. And there’s a freedom to that, actually.

Did you get a chance to work with Rachel Griffiths? Was there a lot of conversation about kind of mimicking each other or was it just kind of natural? How did two people playing that role come together?
That was not encouraged, and we didn’t do it. I ended up meeting Rachel twice after I wrapped because I ended up back in Vancouver for another project. And then I ran into her at this hotel that everybody stays at, and I was like, “Wait a minute, you’re me, and I’m you. Hello.” And then we ended up going out to dinner. But I think that Lance really wanted it to be, and I know this because he said it in a few interviews, he wanted it to be emotionally true to each actor that he auditioned and for it to not … It’s sort of like they did it in en route.

So for there not to be a mimicking, but I think there was a quality to my audition that he felt was right for the younger Diane, and then Rachel Griffiths can kind of do anything, so he thought that she was right for the older. So we didn’t work in tandem. I know that they created a wig of hair that looks like mine for her to wear.

And at one point [laughs] I recorded my voice doing her lines so that she could match accents.

What was it like working with this cast? This really varied and diverse cast that we get to see?
Yeah. The younger cast worked … We shot it almost in order, so for the first six weeks or seven weeks it was the younger cast, and then the older cast took over. So there wasn’t … I was never on set with any of the older cast.

I’ll tell you there was an excitement and like an energy in the air in the younger cast. We … There was a real … There was just like an electricity even with the crew too. Everybody just felt like they were making something really good, and it’s exciting when that happens. And so it was really fun, even the difficult days of all of the stuff at San Francisco General, it still felt kind of important for that story, sort of exhilarating.

(ABC/Tyler Golden)

What’s it like working with Lance?
He is so polite and well-mannered. He says that he’s a Mormon boy, and you can tell it. There’s a warmth to him, and he also … He makes it a point to be encouraging in moments when I really felt like I needed it. And so, it was great. I also, you know you can tell when someone really believes in what they’re doing, and he’s got a passion to him that you want to be around.

And I think you can really even sense that from some of the promos he’s been doing, and you can sense that there’s this deep connection to what he’s made for people. That kind of makes the work even stand up more because he’s so passionate about it.
Yeah, I think that Lance is a real activist, and this is a way to try to communicate with people and maybe start the conversation that will help in understanding and change. I mean, especially now. This is divisive, scary time. I think regardless of whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, the two sides don’t seem to be talking to each other.

And I think that you can start to listen to somebody else if you feel kind of compassion for them, and I hope that that’s what WHEN WE RISE can do is to portray people that may not be like you on a network like ABC. And you can see them in their struggle and fear and pain and love as people, that you could feel compassion for them and say, “Oh, that could be me.” So it’s less of the other, and I think that’s an important contribution.

And I think that Lance, though I hate … I don’t want to talk for Lance. I imagine that that’s what Lance is trying to do. And that’s certainly what I was trying to do. I think that Diane is a passionate, caring, flawed, interesting woman who also happens to be gay.

We’ve come so far but a movie or a miniseries like this is so important because we’re nowhere near where we need to be!
Yeah. Yeah, I agree. I agree. I thought we were further than we are, certainly.

And did participating in this kind of open your eyes to things that you were surprised about or anything like that as you were getting to know these characters?
Oh dear God, yes. I was given a lot of feminist literature to read and a lot of the history of the feminist movement, and I had no idea how recent it was. I had no idea that they were the first women to buy a building, and it happened in the 70s.

That just seems so insane.
Yeah, it’s almost unfathomable. You could not get a loan without a male co-sign.

I know. I’m letting it sit with me for a minute. That just kind of blows my mind.
Yeah, it’s shocking. It’s shocking. And I think that it feels even more relevant now. My opinions of what happened last year in America are hopefully evolving and changing constantly, but I felt like there was a bigger reaction to having a candidate as a woman than I had even expected.

And that we’re not as far as sometimes it feels for me. And I hope this wasn’t my shock at where the country is was kind of a demonstration of my privilege?

That I live in this bubble. I am a straight white woman from a middle-class family, and I just don’t live in the same reality as the white people who’ve been left behind by globalization and minorities. I just had no idea. I had no idea.

Are people saying, “Why is this a show or a series I should be watching?” Why do you think this is something everybody can and should really sit down and watch with each other?
Because it is relevant. It is a modern day happening … modern day civil rights story that is happening now, the timeline of which was very surprising for me. And I hope it will elicit compassion for people that may not seem like us, and I think that it may surprise a few people.

Night II airs Wednesday, March 1, on ABC at 9/8c.