I remember meeting Rose Byrne on a photo shoot in Sydney, Australia, when she was 18. She was beautiful (still is) and self-effacing (still is), and I was curious where her nascent career would lead her. We encountered each other on and off over the years, finally reconnecting in New York around a decade ago.
Byrne’s career has indeed led her to interesting places. After breaking out in the 1999 comedy Two Hands with the late Heath Ledger, she eventually fell into Brad Pitt’s arms in Troy (poor sod). Years later, she landed in the courtroom, starring opposite Glenn Close on the heralded legal drama Damages. Byrne was so convincing as young lawyer Ellen Parsons, viewers couldn’t see her in anything but serious roles (her melancholy features also seemed built for them).
But eventually she flipped the script to comedy, first co-starring as a tacky British pop tart with Russell Brand in Get Him to the Greek. The unforgettable Bridesmaids soon followed, with her “ugly cry” scene eliciting guffaws all over the globe. Now Byrne toggles between the two genres, most recently playing author Rebecca Skloot in the HBO original movie The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, alongside Oprah Winfrey. Soon she heads back to London to film the adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel Juliet, Naked with Ethan Hawke.
Despite this multilevel success, or perhaps because of it, Byrne remains resolutely curious and deferential. She lives a quiet life in New York with her fiancé, actor Bobby Cannavale, and their 18-month-old son, Rocco, and she notes that paparazzi aren’t much interested in her “unless I’m pregnant.” Instead of listing her résumé, she’d rather ask how you are. Basically, she’s crap at entitlement, but here I try to get her to talk about herself.
LAURA BROWN: I haven’t done an actual interview with you since the first one we did when you were 18, is that right?
Rose Byrne: Yes! So going on 20 years now.
LB: But who’s counting? Did you think then that you’d be living in New York with a son, having just finished a movie with Oprah, about to get married?
RB: No way!
LB: That’s when you were just starting to Hollywood it, right?
RB: Yes. I had just done Two Hands with Heath and was starting to go out to L.A. And now I’m here, with this American man, and I have a family and everything.
LB: How’s 38 feeling, Rose?
RB: I haven’t thought about it. The good thing about having a kid is you don’t think about that as much. Like when I turned 30, for instance, that was much more momentous. Forty is particularly great for a woman. It’s a big thing.
LB: What has surprised you most about being a celebrity?
RB: The fascination with pregnant women. After I had Rocco, the paparazzi came and sought me out. I never had that before. There’s a whole industry, literally, based on people having children. I guess because you’re changing, putting on weight. It makes me very uncomfortable. I didn’t enjoy that much at all.
LB: Why aren’t you publicly on Instagram?
RB: I’m too shy, but I enjoy it! I never did Facebook, or any of the precursors to that. Instagram was my first foray into social media. It’s nice to see people, friends, doing their thing. Bobby really likes Twitter.
LB: I enjoy a Cannavale Twitter rant, because I can just see him doing it.
RB: Right? And you get it, because it is a platform that you can control. But I’m just not inclined.
LB: During your career you have been seen as deeply serious, and now you are viewed as resoundingly hilarious. How does that affect what you’re getting offered?
RB: Resoundingly! I think it’s up to your own motivation and drive, but it’s such a gamble, the whole thing. What’s weird about this business is that you have to have a thick skin while remaining vulnerable as an artist. It comes with time. You get dumped, your heart gets broken.
LB: What was the first time that you got a professional slap?
RB: I auditioned for the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Australia. Their alumni include Cate Blanchett, Judy Davis, Mel Gibson, incredible actors. I got an emphatic “No, thank you very much.” I was 18. This was my plan, my path, drama school, NIDA. And it was, “No, thank you very much. See you later.”
LB: That’s squashing, especially at that age. You’d been doing movies by then too.
RB: Yeah, I’d already started working professionally. So that was like, “OK, wow. What do I do now?” It was very upsetting and emotional.
LB: Did you ever consider doing anything else?
RB: I always gravitated toward reading and writing. I’m the opposite of Rebecca Skloot, who’s a genius science writer, but I think maybe something like that—journalism, humanities.
LB: How do you prioritize work now?
RB: Scripts are important, but I really decide based on the directors. I also like to shake it up, which is why I did a Broadway show [You Can’t Take It with You] and Speed-the-Plow in Australia. They were the best choices I’ve made in the last five years. Theater is such a different discipline—it’s so rigorous; it’s hard but also really rewarding.
LB: Which character has been the most difficult to play, and which was the easiest fit?
RB: That’s a good question! It was fun doing Neighbors because I had an Australian accent, and it was a very relaxed atmosphere on that set because we were improvising a lot. Seth [Rogen] works from a place of having fun, and so does [director] Nick Stoller. Comedy is very hard, but it was fun to use my natural voice. Some people make comedy look really effortless, like [Kristen] Wiig, or the fantastic women from Bridesmaids.
LB: That film was a stroke of lightning, wasn’t it? What’s been challenging since for you?
RB: Definitely doing the Henrietta Lacks movie because that involved playing a real person, who is, obviously, truly alive and has dedicated her life to this book. That was nerve-racking, but at a certain point you have to let go.
LB: Do you get restless if you’re in one place too long? Just say it darkly: the actor’s life.
RB: Yes, the actor’s life, but also the Australian’s life. We’re wanderers. We like to walk about—we’re curious people. I have felt that since I was a teenager.
LB: How ambitious are you?
RB: I have drive, for sure. You have to. It’s a tough business; there are a lot of actresses and not a lot of great roles. I don’t want to complain because I’m so grateful.
LB: How competitive are you?
RB: A healthy amount. I have four siblings. It was competitive just eating dinner, like, “Everyone, get what you want from the chicken.” Plus competing for your parents’ attention.
LB: In what ways is it good to be competitive with women, and in what ways is it good to have solidarity?
RB: Healthy aggression is good, but I think social media can perpetuate that in the worst way. You have to be careful about comparing yourself to others. You can never be somebody else. You will only be yourself, and that’s what’s great.
LB: Do you find yourself falling for that much?
RB: I’m absolutely as vulnerable as the next person in terms of being swept up in aspirational Instagrams. You just have to know what is fantasy and what is real. It’s always good to have a diverse feed in your life and in your social media.
LB: Not only should it be a diverse one, but people shouldn’t think life is a red carpet without realizing how long it takes …
RB: True! A month of fittings, seven hours of makeup … I love that stuff, but you can’t think that life is exactly like a red carpet.
LB: It’s important to me that readers know you just don’t pop out like that.
RB: Right, or your hair looks terrible, or you can’t get out of bed, or you had a big fight with your mum, or whatever. But it’s important to have a diverse feed, so while you read your InStyle, you also read—
LB: Nothing else—you don’t read anything else.
RB: A great novel.
LB: A great novel will do. You work with Bobby on a lot of projects. Is that intentional, or is it just a happy coincidence?
RB: A little bit of both. A happy coincidence in some ways, and also, “Let’s really try to get these parts so we can be together and working.” We did, like, three projects in a row, and I enjoy collaborating with him. So if there are any two-handed comedies out there—
RB: Yes! In New York, for an Aussie girl and a Latin guy.
LB: What’s so great about Bobby Cannavale?
RB: He is one of a kind, man! He’s endlessly interesting and entertaining. When something is special, it’s hard to articulate it, but I feel really lucky. We couldn’t be from more different parts of the world, you know?
LB: You’re like a U.N. program.
RB: We are! We should be studied.
LB: What do you think is the biggest misconception about you?
RB: That I know about wildlife.
LB: How many times have you been asked about Aussie wildlife on a talk show?
RB: Every time! I grew up in Sydney; I’m not from the rural part where there’s more wildlife.
LB: You haven’t even held a wombat! You’re a fraudulent wildlife expert.
RB: I’ve got to do fewer talk shows and more wildlife research.
LB: What’s the last thing you bought for yourself, fashionwise?
RB: I bought a Rosie Assouline dress online. I’m going to a wedding, and I was like, “You know what?” And I splurged.
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LB: What is your wardrobe full of? Florals, florals, and florals?
RB: Highbrow, lowbrow, vintage. Ones I’ve had for 20 years, since we met. I’ve embraced the flowy dress and white sneakers thing—it’s very ’90s. It’s as far ’90s as I’ll go. I can’t do Doc Martens, nope. Can’t do a crop top but can do a white sneaker.
LB: What’s your favorite red-carpet outfit?
LB: The pink one! And then he gave the speech, and he said, “Rose, you’re the love of my life.” And your face went the same color.
RB: Matched the dress!
Photographed by Phil Poynter of Serlin Associates. Fashion editor: James Valerihair. Hair by Teddy Charles/Nioxin/The Wall Group. Makeup by Mélanie Inglessis of Forward Artists. Manicure by Marisa Carmichael of Lowe & Co. Worldwide. Set design by Daniel Graff of MHS Artists. Production by Kelsey Stevens Productions.