You know there’s something amiss in the ether, a corner piece in reality’s puzzle just askew or a wire crossed between daily life and some dream you had once, when, on a Thursday morning in early spring, you find yourself sitting cross-legged on your bed wearing last night’s pajamas, glugging echinacea tea, and talking on the phone with Emmy-nominated actress Rose Byrne about… bidets?
“I’m just so glad we bought one, with all the hoarding,” I very sincerely disclose to the Australian screen star, whom I’ve watched my whole adult life in iconic projects from Bridesmaids to Damages to, most recently, Mrs. America, FX’s new feminist miniseries in which Byrne portrays a young Gloria Steinem. Because that distinctive Steinem look, the long ’70s hair with the middle part and the tucked-in aviators, is so fresh in my memory for a second my own wires get crossed and it feels like I’m telling the legendary activist herself about my COVID-19 derrière maintenance plan. Which would only be mildly less absurd. “A bidet! That’s brilliant,” Byrne responds with a generous laugh, her Aussie accent bringing me back to the (admittedly surreal) present moment. It’s March 12, 2020, a global pandemic is now swarming the U.S., and Rose Byrne and I are on opposite coasts, deciding whether or not to panic.
Photo:Eric Guillemain/Trunk Archive
At the precise hour of our call, 40-year-old Byrne is headed out to run an errand in Manhattan, where she lives with her husband, fellow actor Bobby Cannavale, and their two small children. Errands. Remember those? They’re unthinkable now, even just two weeks later with New York under mandatory lockdown and case counts doubling every three days. “Bobby was saying it feels a bit like 9/11. To me, it feels like the calm before a storm. Or are we in the storm? It’s hard to tell,” Byrne offers, evenly. I bet Rose Byrne is good in a crisis is a thought I never predicted I’d have.
Though the internet has definitively “canceled” 2020, under less cataclysmic circumstances, I might be calling it Byrne’s year. “I’ve been incredibly lucky,” the actress confesses, referencing her career in general but also this oddly timed season when so many of her major projects are either coming out or just wrapped. This winter, Byrne and her husband performed in a play together for the first time, starring off-Broadway as a murderous wife and adulterous husband in a modern retelling of the Greek tragedy Medea. “It was the highlight of my career,” Byrne effuses.
Just a week before Medea opened in January, Byrne attended the premiere for her latest big-budget comedy, Like a Boss (co-starring Tiffany Haddish and Salma Hayek), donning a showstopping flamingo-pink gown by Alexis Mabille and a platinum bob, like Elle Woods gone couture. As Byrne enters her 40s, her style has taken a turn for the eccentric, thanks in part to her new stylist, Beth Fenton, who’s brought out the whimsical power-clasher in Byrne. She’s graced recent carpets wearing vibrant suiting, audacious patterns, and unexpected fabrics by New York designers like Veronica Beard and Ulla Johnson. (The other week in New York, she sported head-to-toe orange leather. She’ll no doubt be wearing sweats for a while now, but at least she went out with a bang.) “The clothes have been really fun,” says Byrne. “I take myself a lot less seriously as I’ve gotten older, and that’s been a relief. I take my work seriously, but not myself, which is a very Australian trait.”
Photo:Eric Guillemain/Trunk Archive
In her next big-screen turn, Byrne will play opposite Steve Carell as an icy Kellyanne Conway–esque character in the political satire Irresistible (slated for a May release, which might happen digitally given the circumstances). It’s a character Byrne’s other political on-screen alter ego, Gloria Steinem, would certainly hold in contempt. Though, traversing type and genre has always been Byrne’s specialty. Looking back, most of her characters probably wouldn’t get along.
Growing up in a Sydney suburb, Byrne says she was “a very shy kid, not an extrovert in any sense.” She started performing as a teenager in Australia and over the next six or seven years made the transition to Hollywood. In the two decades since, Byrne has been able to nimbly evade pigeonholing, transitioning from war dramas like Troy to sci-fi thrillers and superhero flicks like 28 Weeks Later and X-Men to raunchy Apatow comedies like Neighbors and Spy. She does so with a curious grace that even the industry’s biggest A-listers don’t typically pull off. “How Did Rose Byrne Become One of Our Best Comedic Actresses?” remarked a 2016 Decider.com headline.
Byrne credits her creative agility to those early years she spent acting in Australia. “It’s such a small industry there. You really have to flit between film, TV, and theater to sustain a career, and I think that’s helped,” she explains. “Most Australian actors have done it all because there’s only so much work to go around.” With earnest humility, she adds, “But I’m so lucky. Plenty of actors are just as talented as I am, or much better, who haven’t been able to have this career.”
Photo:Eric Guillemain/Trunk Archive
At this point in her filmography, and with two young sons at home, Byrne is enjoying the luxury of choosing her projects more critically than ever. Medea and Mrs. America are evidence of her most recent career pivot: realistic dramas. Gloria Steinem was easily “the most intimidating role” she’s ever played, Byrne tells me, and not only because Steinem is still alive (and thank goodness for that). A historical depiction of the 1970s second-wave feminist movement, Mrs. America follows the era’s key political players, including the first black woman elected to Congress, Shirley Chisholm; the author of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan; and their opponent, anti-feminist conservative Phyllis Schlafly. These figures are portrayed by a prodigious ensemble: Cate Blanchett, Uzo Aduba, Tracey Ullman, Elizabeth Banks, and Sarah Paulson. “It meant so much to me, getting to work with these incredible actresses, and to be a part of this story about how hard women fought to get reproductive rights and healthcare rights, what they achieved and didn’t achieve, and how it led to feminism now,” Byrne reveals, breathless. “I’m gushing, but only because it’s deserved.”
During shooting in Toronto, the nearly all-female cast bonded closely. Byrne hosted her Oscar- and Emmy-winning co-stars for weekend pizza parties and kid playdates. “It was a thrill,” she smiles through the phone. “I mean, just getting to play Gloria was such an honor. So I hope I didn’t screw it up!” I reassure Byrne that she’s fantastic in the show, my favorite character, actually, and I can’t wait until April 15 when it comes out so everyone can have something new to fall in love with as they sit at home in quarantine. I gushed, admittedly, but only because it was deserved.
Of course, the second half of 2020 will be up in the air for Byrne, like the rest of us. She and her husband were supposed to team up for another play in Sydney at the end of the year, Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge. And she’s attached to a pilot, a dark comedy called Physical about a woman who discovers aerobics in the 1980s. “Hopefully we start that in the summer, but I don’t know. Everything’s been canceled. We’re just like everyone else, waiting to see what our next move is,” Byrne says with a sense of calm I find heartening. “The world is crazy! There’s not much we can do, obviously, except for look out for ourselves and each other.” One more thing to add to Byrne’s résumé: decidedly good in a crisis.
Watch Rose Byrne in FX's Mrs. America on Hulu April 15 and Irresistible in theaters May 29.