With a string of scene-stealing roles, actress Rose Byrne has blossomed into Hollywood’s next leading lady.
Rose Byrne is having an out-of-body moment over breakfast at Santa Monica’s Shutters on the Beach hotel. “Every now and then I get flashes of my 25-year-old self: This memory or feeling of a place—I go back there,” says the New York-based Australian actress, now 35. Over scrambled eggs, the doe-eyed star is reliving her Hollywood past: She called Los Angeles home for a tumultuous year in her mid-20s, after shooting the 2004 epic Troy. “I found it hard. It was 10 years ago, so the trauma has evaporated slowly,” she confides with a laugh. “I love coming back now—my brother lives here and some of my best friends—but at the time I didn’t have much work and it got me down. A working actor is a happy actor; I was unhappy.”
Times have changed: This week she’s spending her days holed up in a house in Laurel Canyon with Susan Sarandon filming the movie The Meddler, a dramedy about a recent widow, Marnie (Sarandon), who goes to Hollywood to be closer to her daughter (Byrne), and the unexpected reawakening she finds there. Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, the film also stars newly minted Oscar winner J.K. Simmons. The experience, as described by Byrne, has a halcyon, Ladies of the Canyon ring about it. “Every day it’s like, ‘Wow, I just did another day of acting with Susan Sarandon; what a privilege,’ ” she says. “Those are the moments that you’re doing it for, for the pleasure of telling a story.” She pauses, playing back the statement in her head: “Which sounds very lofty.”
A native of Balmain, a Sydney suburb, Byrne studied at New York’s Atlantic Theater Company, subsequently garnering small parts in Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, and lived in L.A. and London before returning to New York and landing her Emmy-winning role in FX’s thriller series “Damages” alongside Glenn Close. She won over a legion of new fans with a dead-on turn as glossy-maned, best friend-stealing, puppy-gifting perfectionist Helen in Bridesmaids, a 2011 film co-written by and starring Kristen Wiig and directed by Paul Feig. The surprise runaway hit proved, as many (patronizing) headlines attested, “women are funny,” and crucially, that female narratives can amass major earnings at the box office—a topic Byrne has plenty to say about.
“There is a market for female-driven projects, and a consumer—Insurgent and Cinderella are two recent examples, speaking purely on a monetary level—but it’s still totally unbalanced,” she says. “Eighty percent of the time I’m waiting to find out who’s got the male role before they’ll start discussing the female part. It’s hard to ignore because that’s what you’re hearing, and that’s unfortunately the reality.”
Partly guided by this disparity, Byrne is looking to branch out into optioning stories for the screen; helping to shepherd scripts with juicy female opportunities. She also aligns herself with forces for change—for example, Feig, whose forthcoming film will be an all-female take on Ghostbusters: “Talk about someone who’s done a lot for women,” she comments. She reunites with the director on next month’s counterintelligence comedy Spy, also starring Bridesmaids alum Melissa McCarthy and Byrne’s real-life paramour Bobby Cannavale (“Boardwalk Empire,” Blue Jasmine).
It’s one in a trio of features the couple, who live in the West Village, recently filmed together, including the Jamie Foxx-starring reboot of Annie and the just-released indie comedy Adult Beginners. “Not everybody is up to work with [their] other half,” she admits. “But making a movie is such a consuming experience; to share that is really great.”
Byrne recently took five months off, following the closing of the Broadway show You Can’t Take It With You, in which she co-starred with James Earl Jones, last fall. “By the end of a play, you feel it. You’re crashing from the adrenaline—it takes a minute,” she says. She traveled to Australia, Miami and upstate New York to decompress. (Cannavale’s Instagram documents the pair’s Down Under adventures with outdoorsy snaps from Tasmania’s Port Arthur and Cradle Mountain National Park.)
The break was a rare move for her: She has a habit of bookending projects, and speaks admiringly of colleagues who have the confidence to hold out for the right thing. “I think it’s really clever and patient and smart to not just launch yourself into something,” she says. “In the end it’s what you say no to. I’ve been more impulsive in my decision-making; hungry to learn and work and do as much as I can.”
The upshot of this is a resume that testifies to her range, which spans breastfeeding jokes with Seth Rogen in last year’s comedy Neighbors to a subtle, emotionally weighted performance opposite Bradley Cooper in the acclaimed 2012 drama The Place Beyond the Pines. “You have to keep reinventing things and showing different sides of yourself,” she says. “It’s not a foregone conclusion: like, you’ve arrived and you’re established!”
When she finishes shooting The Meddler, she will return to New York (on her list of anticipated homecoming events: reuniting with Cannavale) before shipping off to Montreal to reprise the character of CIA agent Moira MacTaggert in X-Men: Apocalypse. “I feel lucky they’ve asked me back,” she says. “They do a really sophisticated job with an extremely popular genre. And I’m excited—I didn’t expect it. Because, you know, I’m not a mutant.”
There’s an authentic “who me?” quality about her: a self-deprecating humility paired with an openness and general curiosity about the world that means she “still pinches herself” every time she goes home to her Downtown apartment; wants to know what you’re doing this weekend; and is forever exploring new terrain: “Australians are adaptable and curious people—I think because we live so far away,” she says. “But you know, actors also have the pioneer spirit: We go out seeking new land.”
By Melissa Goldstein.
Photographed by David Slijper.
Fashion Editor: Penny Lovell.