From the rich, cocky Helen in Bridesmaids to the hilariously villainous arms dealer in the wacky film Spy (both directed by Paul Feig) to the vengeful nutbag in Nicholas Stoller’s Neighbors, Rose Byrne has proven she’s ridiculously deft at comedy.
Her latest film is Jon Stewart’s incisive and bracing new satire, Irresistible, set in a small Wisconsin town. The film details the political insanities that ensue when retired Marine colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) is roped into challenging the mayoral position by Democrat political consultant Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell). The Republican National Committee immediately sends over his nemesis, the delightfully ruthless Faith Brewster (Byrne), who will stop at nothing to take Zimmer down. This tiny campaign escalates into a major political battle with millions of dollars raised and the future of America potentially at stake.
Byrne’s screen time is sadly limited, but whenever she appears, she absconds with each scene–each moment–like a cinematic Road Runner-burglar, leaving alarmingly good Steve Carell in her dust. Sophomore writer/director Stewart would have been smart to balance out the roles, not just for parity purposes but because Byrne so damned riveting.
Hulu viewers get to binge Mrs. America where she miraculously embodies Gloria Steinem, creating a nuanced, fully-realized person from the larger-than-life figure we’ve come to know–a performance worthy of Emmy attention.
Australian-born Byrne came to prominence in the film epic Troy opposite Brad Pitt in 2004. Co-star legend Peter O’Toole remarked that Byrne was a “beautiful, uncomplicated, simple, pure actress.” But it was the TV series Damages where she held her own against Glenn Close. That role brought her two Emmy and two Golden Globe nominations and led to a remarkably eclectic career that crosses mediums and genres. In addition to her comedy roles, Bryne’s resume includes memorable performances in the horror movie Insidious, the intense drama The Place Beyond the Pines with Bradley Cooper and Ryan Gosling and the dramedy This is Where I Leave You alongside Jane Fonda.
Byrne is also a theater actor appearing on Broadway in 2014 in the all-star revival of You Can’t Take It with You. And just a few months ago, she delivered a stunning turn as Medea, opposite real-life partner Bobby Cannavale at BAM in Brooklyn. Medea closed March 8, shortly before NYC theatres shuddered.
Awards Daily spoke with Byrne about both Irresistible and Mrs. America.
Awards Daily: Did you base Faith in Irresistible on any particular figure? Kellyanne Conway comes immediately to mind…
Rose Byrne: Yes. [I had] a lot of fun researching it. I looked at Kellyanne and a lot of the pundits on Fox, a lot of the strategists. I also referenced that fantastic ‘90s documentary, The War Room, about the Clinton campaign. That was a big reference point that Jon wanted me to watch, particularly the relationship between Mary Matalin and James Carville.
AD: How did the project come to you?
RB: Jon reached out pretty early on and we had a good conversation. I’m such a fan of his. And I’ve had an acting crush on Steve Carell forever. And I’ve always had a secret desire to play someone in the newsroom. It’s such a great stage for drama. Broadcast News is one of my favorite [films]. And I really love The Newsroom. I just bleached my hair a fresh blonde color and I was like; I think this is meant to be.
AD: Tell me about working with writer/director Jon Stewart on his second outing as a director.
RB: It was great. It was a fast shoot. No frills. Down in rural Georgia. Jon’s terrific…He doesn’t claim to have all the answers. He’s just incredibly effortless and skilled and knowledgeable and brilliant at making points everybody can understand. And communicating with humor, which is so powerful, so both sides can appreciate the other in terms of the political spectrum and the political divide…I saw that up close. And I was disarmed by how down to earth he was. It was pretty extraordinary. For someone whose been in the public eye for so long and is so beloved and so revered, he’s definitely not driven by anything egotistical—from my perspective, anyway.
AD: My one complaint about the film is that I wanted more of you! (She laughs) Were there any of your scenes that didn’t make the final cut.
RB: …I don’t think so. Maybe some technical ones, expository scenes, perhaps. But I think everything was there.
AD: Do you approach comedy the same way you approach drama, craft-wise?
RB: Yes. Oh, yes! From the same place. It’s just as hard as drama, except on top of that, you have to get a laugh. And that’s a direct quote from the brilliant Catherine O’Hara. I couldn’t agree more. I think she perfectly explained it. The more comedy I do the more I rely on that.
AD: You and Carell had great chemistry.
RB: He’s such a pro. There are no airs and graces. He’s very nice, also very down to earth. And very private. He’s a very sweet guy. And very professional in the best possible way. We just dived in! And I tried to keep up. The characters are so specific in what they’re doing and the tone of the film is pretty specific so I just kind of followed his lead.
AD: I love what the film has to say about the mess Washington has become. This project and Mrs. America both have a lot to say about our current chaotic condition. Do you find yourself leaning towards projects that are socially relevant now?
RB: It’s funny, I feel it’s always a collective consciousness, whether it’s in Hollywood or the literary world, subjects are all bubbling underneath the surface in all forms and they all seem to come out at the same time. So when I was approached for Mrs. America after Irresistible, it was a really lovely companion piece almost. A reverse engineering about how we got to where we are in Irresistible, in a way. So it was a very fortuitous experience for me. The project as a whole is what always interests me, ultimately, rather than just the role….And both of them were very appealing and projects that I’d never done before.
AD: In Mrs. America you give us a very complex character beyond what we think we know about Gloria Steinem. How did you get involved with the miniseries?
RB: Dahvi Waller (the show’s creator) approached me and we started talking, months in advance. It was a really fascinating look at why—as I said sort of reverse engineering history to see why we are where we are today in terms of the divisiveness of politics. And how we got there and the rhetoric around it. And these cult personalities in the world of news. Playing Gloria was the hardest—maybe not the hardest but she’s the face of the movement so how do you bring that to life? How do you create a character when you have so many preconceived ideas about somebody that well known, whether it’s Gloria Steinem or Ray Charles or Princess Diana, whomever the biopic is about? I’d never done anything that intimate before about someone who’s obviously still very much here and very much active. It was definitely a process of figuring it out. The show in and of itself was too hard to resist. It was such an incredible tapestry and what a Murderer’s Row of actors! Such brilliant women.
AD: Such a formidable group of female artists working together…
RB: Yeah. We were really lucky. It was as good an experience off screen as it was on, which is so cheesy to say but it doesn’t always happen and we really did have a special time. I’m sad that it’s over. I’m sad we couldn’t get to celebrate the show in person. Obviously, there are far bigger things going on in the world but it still was a shame.
AD: I get a feeling you will reunite at the Emmys.
RB: (Laughs) We’ll all be on Zoom, anyway. (Laughs) The Emmys won’t be taking place anytime soon. We’ll all be beaming in from Mars by that point.
AD: Steinem recently commented that the series, “misrepresented the equal rights movement.” Do you have any comments on her comment?
RB: Well, she’s entitled to her opinion. Obviously, I’m disappointed. I would have loved to have had her enjoy the show but she’s entitled to her opinion.
AD: I wanted to ask about Medea, which I saw at BAM.
RB: You go to the theatre as well!…That might have been the last play you’ll ever see. (Laughs) For like twenty years! We were literally the last play to finish it’s run! It’s so weird.
AD: You ended on March 8, and a few days later we were all on lockdown! What was that like for you?
RB: Surreal! Like everybody. We all were just living in the very strange descent. You could feel it. You could feel it in the show as audiences dwindled a bit. We were sold out the last few weeks and you could tell that the virus was starting to weigh on people’s minds and slowly more restrictions were coming in and you could feel the city slowly sliding into a very strange state. It was bizarre… What’s happening? Where is our city going? (It was) just terrifying, this pandemic and people are dying! And then the rest is history at this point.
AD: When we’re allowed to again, I hope you give us more theatre.
RB: Yes! Oh, I loved working at BAM! Yes, I know! I miss the theatre. I miss it dreadfully. Bobby and I, we see more theatre than anything. We’re avid theatregoers. But it’s been around for thousands of years and will be around for thousands of years more. It’s just what we have to do at the moment. We’ve got to think long term.
Irresistible opens/drops Friday, June 26. Mrs. America can be streamed on Hulu.