Funny girl: Rose Byrne has been a late convert to comedy, after many years in more serious roles. Photo: Boo GeorgeRose Byrne and her boyfriend are walking towards me hand in hand. Bobby Cannavale is wearing a scarf and a beanie but there’s no mistaking the American actor’s solid frame and pugilistic good looks. She’s petite, her fine-boned face framed by a well-cut sweep of chestnut hair and a pale yellow scarf knotted around her neck.
It’s a paparazzi moment: the Australian star of the 2011 hit Bridesmaids with the actor who won an Emmy for playing a psychopathic gangster in HBO’s acclaimed series Boardwalk Empire. But in this self-consciously hip photographic studio in North London, where Madonna and Lady Gaga are regulars and even the guy at reception looks like a pop star, no one gives them a second glance.
Byrne and Cannavale are grabbing a few precious minutes together, she explains. He’s on his way to catch a flight to New York; she’s preparing to shoot a campaign that will launch her as the face of the Australian luxury brand, Oroton. “I won’t be long,” she says and true to her word she reappears 10 minutes later, having dispatched Cannavale to the airport.
“In this business you have to grab your moments,” she explains. “You have to organise your life or the time apart can stretch into weeks and weeks and that’s no good for any relationship.”
At 35, Byrne knows all about the perks and pitfalls of life as a successful actor. It would be easy to assume her determination to schedule time with Cannavale is informed by her break-up with the Australian playwright and actor Brendan Cowell. When they split up in 2010 after seven years together, it was speculated that her relocation to New York to film the drama series Damages, was one of the reasons they grew apart.
She and 44-year-old Cannavale are clearly very much in love – he called her “the love of my life” during his Emmy acceptance speech – and they’re displaying a talent for snatching time together in the face of hectic schedules.
Both appear in a new film version of the musical Annie, starring Jamie Foxx, and both have parts in Spy, the espionage spoof starring Melissa McCarthy, Jude Law and Jason Statham which Byrne has been shooting in Budapest. “That was really just a stroke of luck,” she insists. “We’re not a couple in either of them. But it is great, because with these shooting schedules you can go months without seeing each other.”
Byrne started acting young. She was 15 and still living with her parents in Balmain when she appeared in the 1994 Australian feature, Dallas Doll. Audiences really sat up and took notice when she appeared with Heath Ledger in the 1999 indie thriller Two Hands. But it wasn’t until 2007 that her role in Damages – the TV drama about a team of New York lawyers led by the terrifying Patty Hewes, played by Glenn Close – began to give her an international reputation.
In 2009, Byrne had a lucky break when she was cast as Jackie Q, a foul-mouthed, narcissistic pop star in the comedy Get Him to the Greek. She admits she wasn’t an obvious choice for the role; Ellen Parsons, the young lawyer she played in Damages, is a professional sad sack, a woman who seems physically incapable of smiling. But director Paul Fieg was so impressed by Byrne’s performance as Jackie Q he cast her as Helen, the too-perfect-to-be-true friend of the bride in Bridesmaids. All of a sudden the actress renowned for her melancholy beauty was being touted as a Hollywood funny woman.
I put it to Byrne that she’s an unlikely comedienne and she doesn’t disagree. As a notorious “breaker” – an actor who struggles to keep a straight face when filming comedy – she’s more likely to be laughing at jokes than cracking them. The natural humour of actors like McCarthy, a woman Byrne describes as “the funniest person in the world”, fascinates her. Byrne’s approach to comedy is the same as her approach to any drama: she tries to find the truth in the character and “play it as reality”.
“Comedy is a bit of a mystery to me because you can meet comedians and they’re not necessarily very funny,” she says. “And then you can meet a funny person who’s not a funny actor. So it’s, um, ephemeral.”
Byrne is a bit of an enigma herself. She’s polite and friendly, but somewhat guarded, too. She’s genuinely shy, something you don’t expect from the actress who humped Seth Rogen in a hilariously awkward scene in Bad Neighbours. She has a self-effacing habit of apologising – “Sorry, was that boring? I’m sure you’ve heard that a thousand times before” – more often than is necessary and admits she’s a “quiet presence on set”. Ask her if she likes being interviewed and she laughs. “I don’t want to put you off,” she says. So, that’s a no, then? “It’s, ah, part of the gig,” she replies.
Since Bridesmaids shot her up the Hollywood rankings, the gig has been spectacular. She spent three months in Budapest making Spy, adding a few action scenes to her repertoire despite a tendency to “bruise easily”. Today, she’s in London and it’s all about fashion.
We’re sitting in a big, white-walled room crammed with enough designer frocks, handbags and sunglasses to fill a Kardashian-sized wardrobe. “It’s a bit of a departure for them,” she says of her new role as Oroton ambassador. “They’ve used [Australian actress] Emma Booth in a past campaign, but they haven’t used anyone for a few seasons. It’s exciting to bring a face to the brand.”
Byrne is a favourite with the fashion crowd. Whether it’s the midriff-baring Calvin Klein gown she wore to last year’s Emmys, her “ever-changing” hairstyles or her make-up – “Did Rose Byrne just find a grown-up way to wear sparkly purple eyeshadow!” – the fashionistas appear obsessed with her. “Believe me I’ve had a lot of bad reviews as well,” she says, though she struggles to name one.
Byrne insists she was a bit of a dag in her late teens and 20s, when she rocked crochet dresses and Dr Martens. The origins of today’s immaculate A-Lister can be traced back about five years, to the moment she met British “power stylist” Penny Lovell. Lovell’s sure-fire taste and Byrne’s own blossoming confidence have turned her into a regular on the best-dressed lists.
“I know what suits me nowadays,” she says. “As you get older you get a lot more confident.” Does she pinch herself when famous designers give her clothes? “It’s a perk of the job. But it’s a bit like Cinderella, because you have to put it all back into a bag at midnight before you turn into a pumpkin. It’s part of the whole, um, charade.”
Charade is an interesting choice of word: the dictionary defines it as an absurd act or travesty. I suspect it also sums up the way Byrne feels about the scrutiny and unwanted attention that come with her job. Byrne firmly believes it’s a blessing that she didn’t become really famous until she was in her late 20s, and that she didn’t have to grow up under the kind of scrutiny directed at the young cast of Twilight or The Hunger Games, for example.
“I see myself as a character actor more than anything,” she says. “I’ve never been a tabloid favourite. I can’t imagine having all that scrutiny at a really young age. Everything is photographed and videoed now – you can’t just go out and screw up and be a normal teenager.”
Byrne has often spoken about her insecurity – “I know! I’m like a broken record,” she laughs – and her phenomenal run of success has done little to assuage her doubts. “I don’t think actors ever lose their insecurity – how could we?” she says. “It’s a freelance job and there are so many actors out there.”
It would be easy to accuse Byrne of being disingenuous, but she points out she still misses out on parts that she’s fallen in love with and has to “campaign” to get the next good role. At times, her fears about work have taken a darker turn: she’s suffered from anxiety attacks and feelings of losing control and “going insane”.
It’s a paradox, she says. Actors need a thick skin to handle rejection, but they have to maintain a certain vulnerability to expose the truth in a character. “That’s a funny thing to ask of yourself. But I’m getting better as I get older. I’m getting more comfortable in my skin.”
When the Oroton shoot is over, Byrne’s heading back to New York. She feels at home there, although she still visits Australia, her “emotional home”, at least twice a year. “I found London a bit overwhelming when I lived here – I felt a bit lost,” she says. “New York feels more compact. I’ve lived there eight years, but they say it takes 20 years to become a real New Yorker so I’m not there yet.”This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.