Inside Rose Byrne's summer of radical feminists, crazy conservatives, and homemade penicillins
Rose Byrne has had more surreal experiences than most of late — aside, perhaps, from the one we’re all collectively living.
She first felt it last spring when she arrived in a small rural town in Georgia to shoot Jon Stewart’s upcoming satire Irresistible, about D.C. politicians hijacking a local Wisconsin mayoral race. “We were a film crew coming in and taking over,” Byrne says. “There was an element of mirroring of what we were dealing with [in the movie].” She felt it again later that year in Toronto while filming Mrs. America, FX on Hulu’s ’70s-era limited series for which she transformed into feminist icon Gloria Steinem. (“There were things we were discussing in 2019 that we were discussing on the show, whether it was abortion rights or equal pay.”) And now, over the phone, confined to her Brooklyn home on an April afternoon, she realizes that Medea, the play she wrapped on March 8 at the Brooklyn-based BAM theater with partner Bobby Cannavale, was one of New York’s last stage productions to finish a full run before theaters shut down entirely in the wake of COVID-19. “It was kind of extraordinary. We had a few nights when we were sold out, but it was not full because I think people were starting to get nervous about the virus. We had a great final show that Sunday [March 8], we had a cast dinner, and then we actually went to a Broadway show on the Tuesday, Girl From North Country. On the Thursday, they closed Broadway. It was quite surreal. We managed to do this run right under the wire."
So, yes, this is as good a time for reflection as any. Between building LEGOs with her two young children and mixing Penicillins (a scotch cocktail she once tasted at the NoMad bar in Manhattan), Byrne reads scripts and takes meetings over Zoom. Her heart breaks for the theater, particularly, but she marvels at how we’ve transitioned to living life indoors: “It’s a testament to human beings, how we readjust to situations.”
Indeed, few are better able to readjust than Byrne. From chilling horror (the Insidious franchise) to intense drama (FX’s Damages) to studio comedy (Bridesmaids), the 40-year-old Australian remains one of the most versatile performers in the biz. Getting a compliment of that magnitude just makes her giggle. “There she is again! Oh no!” Byrne cracks. But shrugging it off doesn’t negate how expertly the actress can shift from the complexities of liberal Steinem, a role she tried backing out of over the “daunting ” task of shedding “fresh light on a person so iconic,” to the over-the-top right-wing theatrics of her Irresistible strategist. One skill she comfortably owns: “I’m quite good at leaving things at the gate when I’m done.”
Byrne wouldn’t ordinarily say she fits the acting cliché of chasing parts that scare her, but her most recent work fits that bill. "It’s what comes your way that you have control over, in a sense, and then what doesn’t come your way you try to fight for them," she explains. "Most of the time you don’t get it. Always the project as a whole is what interests me the most."
When Mrs. America came her way, she saw it as an “extraordinary tapestry of the second-wave feminist movement," despite her overwhelming anxiety. "[Gloria's] the most well known of the feminists," Byrne says. "She has so much agency in her voice. I was so nervous that I would stuff it up. Someone like that, too, people project so much onto [them]." Ultimately, she found the work and the character too enticing to pass up. “[Gloria] grew up in the Great Depression. She was the primary caregiver for her mother, who suffered from mental illness. Surviving such an unusual childhood brings out somebody’s true colors. She clearly had a huge well of ways to cope.” (Another convincing factor: the star-studded cast, led by Cate Blanchett.)
Irresistible, meanwhile, marked her return to comedy. “[Stewart is] such a singular comedic voice and can make a satire of the political system like nobody else in the world,” she says. “To play this really ruthless, smiling assassin was so fun.” In the span of a single scene, Byrne flaunts her range as Republican faith — taunting Gary (Steve Carell), her Democratic opponent, with nonchalant barbs before licking his face, then flashing pearly whites to the café barista. That, she says, is classic Stewart satire. "That was the first scene that we shot," she recalls. "It was just one of his crazy ideas. He met a thousand Faiths and a thousand Garys [in real life] so he knew this world of political adrenaline junkies, what they do, and why they do it."
Unlike the pressures of playing Steinem or modernizing Medea, Byrne says Irresistible was more whimsical. She remembers cracking up on set while improving with Carell, her "acting crush," and begging the former Daily Show host to return to television, even if he's been busy "rescuing animals" or "something terribly compassionate like that." The research phase, not so much. “I'm a news junkie already," she mentions. "I was watching a lot of news from both sides—a lot of Fox, MSNBC, and CNN—trying to look at both presentations, particularly in America." Byrne finds TV anchors in Europe and England "very sobering" with "no fanfare." In the U.S., "it’s like you’re watching the Academy Awards some times. It’s such a presentation. Nobody does entertainment better than America, including the news, which... maybe news shouldn't be entertainment."
She also mentions a certain documentary about the Clintons that helped inform her role, but she can't quite remember the title. There's silence on the phone as Byrne turns to Google for answers—since she's stuck at home these days, it's doable. "I want to get it right for you," she mumbles while scrolling through her history. "Is it The War Room?" It is The War Room, Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker's 1993 documentary about Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. "James Carville is the head campaign manager. He has this great combative relationship with Mary Matalin, who’s on the Republican side. But they also have a relationship, and that was a really good reference." Bryne says Irresistible isn't trying to present one side of the political aisle as good and the other as evil. "It’s very much the flaws of both sides as only [Stewart] can do because he’s just so incredibly savvy and funny," she notes. It's also a level of sharp, comedic timing that only Byrne can do.
In all this, Byrne feels quite lucky. “And now I’m talking to you about it—during a pandemic!” She laughs. "Medea? Tick. Pandemic? Tick..." All she can do is laugh sometimes. It’s one of the little things Byrne uses to get through these days, instead of the “heavy question” of what comes next, even though, as of now, she's still scheduled to fly to Australia for a reading of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge this November. "I think it’s gonna be very groundbreaking when we can go to a restaurant again or we can walk down the street without a mask," she muses. "Who knows how long that will be? We just have to stay safe and help this thing by continuing to social distance and to try to support people who need support." On that note, she suggests, “Try the Penicillin. It’ll put on a smile on your face."
Irresistible will be available for viewing on PVOD platforms starting June 26.
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