To some, 35-year-old Rose Byrne may still be most recognisable from the five years she spent till 2012 playing Ellen Parsons alongside Glenn Close’s ruthless Patty Hewes in the American legal thriller Damages. But in recent years she has shown some serious comedy chops, in films such as Bridesmaids and Bad Neighbours, and now, her latest, Spy.
The Bond-inspired spoof features her Bridesmaids co-star Melissa McCarthy as a back-office CIA agent working undercover in the field for the first time, and Byrne as her nemesis, Raina Boyanov, the Oxford-educated daughter of a Bulgarian arms dealer.
“It was a conscious decision,” Byrne says of her move into lighter material. “I’m Australian — we don’t take ourselves too seriously — but I really didn’t know if I would have any luck,” she shrugs. “Just because you’re funny in real life doesn’t mean you are necessarily a funny actor; and if you’re funny on screen it does not mean you’re bound to be funny in real life,” she notes.
Her first foray into comedy was five years ago, with Get Him to the Greek — in which she played Russell Brand’s sweary, sex-obsessed girlfriend, Jackie Q, an Essex-born model turned pop star — and has continued through 2013’s The Internship and I Give It a Year.
She kept up the tirade of foul-mouthed filth in last year’s Bad Neighbours — a riot of a film. In it she played Kelly, a former party fiend saddled with a young baby and struggling to adapt to suburban family life, alongside her husband, Mac (Seth Rogen). “We wanted to avoid making her a traditional female character in a male comedy, who are often nagging killjoys,” Byrne says. “It’s a shame that it was such a revelation that Mac and Kelly had a different dynamic; women can be just as diverse and as irresponsible as men.”
In person, she is poised, polite and self-contained, with more of a dry wit than the broad, sometimes slapstick comedy she has been bringing to life on screen. Committed to “doing things that terrify me”, last year Byrne also made her Broadway debut to great reviews, as Alice Sycamore in the 1930s comedy You Can’t Take It With You. “That was such a different experience, because it was a classical text,” she says. “It is sort of the first sitcom, and we didn’t know how that would translate to a modern audience.”
Spy is written and directed by Paul Feig, who also directed Byrne and McCarthy in the hit comedy Bridesmaids. “Paul loves women to be funny and cool, to be smarter than the guys, and to kick ass,” Byrne says. “He’s so interested in breaking all of those gender conventions, and it’s really refreshing.”
Her character in Spy, Raina, is a magnificent comedy creation, an icy, highly-educated psychopath with a huge thatch of bird’s-nest hair and a wardrobe of gaudy, flashy fashions, as if Helena Bonham Carter had been dressed by Donatella Versace, by way of Cruella De Vil. “She could be a prostitute, even though she’s wearing about $700,000 on her body,” Byrne deadpans. “And the hair deserves its own interview.”
Byrne grew up in the Sydney suburb of Balmain, where her father, Robin, was a statistician who also performed as a clown at children’s parties, and her mother, Jane, taught at an aboriginal primary school.
The youngest of four children, Byrne was incredibly shy, she says, and when she was eight years old, a family friend suggested she might enjoy drama classes at the Australian Theatre for Young People. “And I just loved it, loved it, loved it,” she gushes. “When you are shy, it’s a great way to integrate with other people, use your imagination, play and socialise.”
Byrne applied to drama school, but didn’t get in, despite her professional portfolio. “I was devastated,” she says, honestly. “For a while, I didn’t know what to do.” Instead, she studied English literature and gender studies at Sydney University.
Byrne moved to LA for a few years in her early 20s, where she won small roles in large films such as Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones, and bigger parts in Australian and British films, including The Rage in Lake Placid and I Capture the Castle. She is now based out of New York.
In the meantime, she is about to begin filming The Meddler, a comedy-drama about the dysfunctional relationship between a mother and daughter, with Susan Sarandon and JK Simmons. And her character in the X-Men franchise, Moira MacTaggert, who has been absent from the last couple of films, is set for a return in the next instalment, X-Men: Apocalypse.
“I don’t know where she went for a while, but hopefully we’ll find out,” Byrne quips. “Her memory was wiped, so maybe she decided she was going to work in advertising. Or maybe she’ll come back with an Irish accent.”