After conquering Hollywood, Rose Byrne returns to Australia to take on Mamet for the STC. By Steve Dow.

Rose Byrne in David Mamet’s ‘Speed-the-Plow’

Rose Byrne in rehearsals for Speed-the-Plow.
Rose Byrne in rehearsals for Speed-the-Plow.

Funny woman, Rose Byrne. There she is, imperious and cold-blooded as Bulgarian billionaire arms dealer Rayna Boyanov on her private jet, opposite a CIA spy played by Melissa McCarthy in Paul Feig’s 2015 spy spoof titled, well, Spy. Byrne has long tresses, her hair scroll fastened with jewels. 

Having dissolved a man’s throat with poison, Byrne holds a flute of champagne aloft in the jet’s blood-red interior and toasts McCarthy, who recalls being upgraded once on a commercial airline. “Premium economy?” says Byrne with clipped distaste. “Sounds like a pen for dirty animals.”

Naughty, too, Rose Byrne. There she is, a tiny bowler hat affixed to her hair, playing cockney rock star Jackie Q, girlfriend to drug-addled British music idol Aldous Snow, played by Russell Brand, in Nicholas Stoller’s 2010 film Get Him to the Greek. Jackie is wielding her cello rod like a whip, singing “Supertight”, one upload of the full mock music clip attracting 1.4 million real views: “It’s gonna get precarious / I’m a motherfucking Stradivarius.” 

In another Jackie Q clip, “Ring ’Round” (2.2 million YouTube views) Byrne wears a Marie Antoinette powder wig, and sings to a dance beat about her “posy”: “Some blokes say that one hole is more than enough / Then why did God give me two / Not including my muff”. Was Madonna ever so explicit? Later, Jackie rejects the raunch and turns to the kabbalah for spiritual succour.

Playing a rude rock star came as sweet release for Byrne, in the midst of playing buttoned-up lawyer Ellen Parsons, opposite Glenn Close, in the high-stakes legal drama Damages. I belatedly got hooked, bingeing last year on all five seasons via local streaming service Stan. Ellen’s long-running battle with her evil tutor, Patty Hewes (Close), earned Byrne two nominations for Golden Globes and two for Emmys.

She has proved her dramatic bona fides at home,  too, of course: consider her performance as domestic violence victim Rae in The Turning, in 2013, a short-film compendium based on Tim Winton’s short story collection of the same name. As a comedian, she has a gut instinct: tangible evidence of which engorges the sex scene with Seth Rogen that opens Bad Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising (2016), during which she vomits on his face. 

The singing sideline remains intriguing: in horror film Insidious (2010), Byrne sings while playing piano. In Will Gluck’s movie remake of the musical Annie (2014), she sings, too, and dances a bit, while also giving an uppercut to co-star Bobby Cannavale (Boardwalk Empire, Blue Jasmine, Vinyl), her partner in real life, and father of her child, Rocco Robin, born in February this year. (Previously, Byrne had a long-term relationship with the Australian actor and writer Brendan Cowell.) 

Byrne, 37, and Cannavale, 46, who have been an item since 2012, have made three films together, including the charmingly low-key comedy Adult Beginners (2014). They live in New York, Byrne’s base for more than a decade now. Cannavale has helped shape her outlook on life.

But growing up in Balmain in Sydney’s inner west in the 1980s and ’90s, and attending Hunters Hill High and later Bradfield College in Crows Nest, Byrne dreamed of being Kylie Minogue. 

Sitting now on the balcony of Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf bar between rehearsals for a new production of the 1988 David Mamet play Speed-the-Plow, wearing a light blue denim jacket and a floral-print skirt, her hair tied back, Byrne says she never sang publicly at school, nor while attending the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP), then based at the Rocks and now here on the same Walsh Bay pier. 

“I can’t really sing,” Byrne demurs, “I didn’t do any musicals.” She corrects herself. “Actually, when I was a little girl I played Mary Poppins, at nine years old, something like that, and we had to sing. But I’m sure there’s some subconscious reverence for Kylie in there that is driving me.”

Byrne dragged her father, Robin, a statistician, to four Minogue concerts. “Kylie is such an appealing performer and entertainer. I was right at that age when she blew up: I was eight, nine, 10 years old at the time. I’ve been lucky enough to meet her, and she couldn’t be more charming.”

The youngest of four children, Byrne thinks performing was a way of trying to get the attention of Robin and her mother, Jane, a primary school administrator, her older brother, George, now a photographer, and her elder sisters, Alice and Lucy, who became a painter and publisher respectively. “There’s something about being the youngest that makes you slightly goofy,” she says.

Byrne only half completed a bachelor of arts at Sydney University, the absent qualification a regret. “The sense of accomplishment would have been good,” she says now. ATYP, however, encouraged her comedy and clowning – a boon for Byrne, who was both a natural mimic and a wallflower, and who only in recent years has learnt  to be aggressive in Hollywood, to get the good female roles that are thin on the ground. 

A New York magazine profile earlier this year was headlined: “Prim and Improper: Rose Byrne’s ascent to comedy stardom has been a surprise to everyone but herself.” What bollocks, I thought: as early as 1999, Byrne was playing opposite Heath Ledger in Gregor Jordan’s Sydney comedy crime film Two Hands. How dare this august publication not know, furthermore, about Take Away, a 2003 Melbourne comedy written by Dave O’Neil about duelling fish-and-chip shop owners (Vince Colosimo and Stephen Curry) who join forces against an imperialist hamburger chain? 

Okay, so those were films in which the blokes got all the good lines. Comedy-wise, that began to change for Byrne when she was cast in Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids (2011), playing Kristen Wiig’s snooty rival. 

Now, The Hollywood Reporter calls Byrne “the most in-demand supporting actress for comedies”, the comical specificity of which is not lost on Byrne.

1 . Character-driven comedy

There is no doubt Rose Byrne is the heart of her next comedy. Her return to the stage after a long hiatus, with the classic Kaufman and Hart screwball comedy You Can’t Take It With You on Broadway in 2014-15, continues this month with Speed-the-Plow, a wordy character-driven comedy. 

It’s a three-hander featuring two Hollywood studio hucksters, Bobby Gould (Damon Herriman) and Charlie Fox (Lachy Hulme), and temporary secretary Karen (Byrne), who begins in act one as an ingenue but by the second act becomes an agent of change, after she’s assigned to read a worthy movie script the men have no intention of producing.

The playwright, David Mamet, has written elsewhere that the entry-level position at motion picture studios is a script reader, “nuzzling the earth for truffles for their master”, and that “young folks fresh from the rigour of the academy are permitted to beg for a job summarising screenplays … higher-ups rarely (some, indeed, breathe the word ‘never’) read the actual screenplay … neophytes get the two options pretty quickly – conform or die.”

Even though Karen, whom Byrne describes as “frank to a fault”, has fewer lines than the men, it’s the hardest role to get right, director Andrew Upton told me. So he cast Karen first. Byrne has the “ability to land on incredible truth and incredible daffiness … in spades”, says Upton. 

Curiously, Madonna debuted the role of Karen on Broadway, in 1988, and got a reasonable review from The New York Times. “Phew,” responds Upton, and laughs. “Who’d want to do that [with her] for 12 weeks otherwise?”

“It’s like lightning in a bottle, comedy,” says Byrne. “When the writing is good, like in Speed-the-Plow, each day in rehearsal we’re finding moments that will be innately comic. As an actor, it’s such a gift.”

Mamet leaves open the door to performers’ interpretations, his scripts mostly consisting of dialogue, but starkly bare in terms of suggested action. 

“I’ve got a long relationship with [Mamet], he just doesn’t know about it,” says Byrne. “I met him in a hallway once. My man, Bobby, did [Mamet’s] Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway [in 2012] with an incredible cast, and Mamet was there. I was incredibly intimidated.” 

Cannavale recently tweeted that the second United States presidential election debate was “David Mamet’s best play in YEARS!”. Byrne admits to a Mamet obsession: in 1999, she studied at the off-Broadway Atlantic Theatre Company for three months, which Mamet co-founded in 1985 with William H. Macy. 

Byrne had by then already employed Mamet and Macy’s popular technique of “practical aesthetics” here in Australia, on the TV series Wildside: a “very reactionary” but popular means of acting, and the opposite of “method”, says Byrne: “There’s no such thing as character, you just say the words.”

Mamet’s ideas about Hollywood are provocative and absolutely true, says Byrne. In Speed-the-Plow, the two studio hucksters bet that one of them can have sex with Karen. These mid-level producers believe in ditching scripts that challenge an audience; they’d rather remake last year’s hit.

“It’s funny, in this play,” Byrne says, “some of the lines or the moments, it absolutely rings true, to certain experiences I’ve had in America, in Hollywood. That’s why it’s funny.” 

Do you mean double-talk? “The behaviour of the producers. These executives, and the panic and the pressure that they’re under. The bitterness, I think, that the character Charlie Fox has, and he’s such a destructive character. That all very much exists in the business.”

In her earliest days trying to break into the US screen industry, Byrne lived in Los Angeles. She reminisced in a 2003 interview with The Sydney Morning Herald: “The worst was the time I spent in Los Angeles, which runs on bullshit and clichés. But then, it’s really easy to diss the place…” 

At the time of that interview, however, Byrne was on the verge of her Hollywood breakthrough, having filmed a smallish role opposite Brad Pitt in the movie Troy

Byrne laughs now. “I did find it difficult, in my early 20s living there. It can be a lonely place, and I think that’s what I took away from it. Now, I have a much better relationship with Los Angeles. My brother [George] lives there and we’re very close, and one of my best friends lives there. I enjoy LA now; I’ve come full circle. There’s a 1950s romanticism in the air, which I appreciate now.”

Byrne has just wrapped filming a role as author Rebecca Skloot in the HBO drama film The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, opposite Oprah Winfrey and Renée Elise Goldsberry, in Baltimore and Atlanta. In January and February here in Australia, she’ll play Beatrix Potter in Peter Rabbit, opposite James Corden, directed by Will Gluck, who directed Byrne and Cannavale in Annie

“It’s one for Rocco,” she beams.

Cannavale, who is also currently in Sydney looking after Rocco, is a devotee of the theatre. “It’s his church, his first love,” Byrne says of her New Jersey-born partner. “Being with him definitely made me want to do a play again, because I hadn’t done a play for 12 years, until I did You Can’t Take It With You on Broadway. When this came up, he was like, ‘You absolutely have to do it.’ ”

She says she gets shy talking about what draws her to Cannavale. “But I will say a great quality he has is enthusiasm. Not that Australians aren’t enthusiastic, but there’s that real American kind of…” she stumbles for the word, “it’s like, bigger than enthusiasm, and bigger than encouragement: celebrating that, in a way, which I really like.”

Has having a child changed her view of the world? “I think it’s pretty hard not to change everything; it’s such a fundamental shift. Really for the better; I’m really enjoying it.” 

She once said she’s agnostic: has having a child changed that view? “It’s a beautiful thing, because your spirit lives on and your family’s spirit lives on in your kids. [But] I didn’t have a religious upbringing, so I would [still] say I am agnostic, yeah.” 

Can Byrne imagine raising Rocco with Cannavale here in Sydney? 

“I would like to keep an open mind. The education is fantastic here, and the lifestyle. It’s my emotional home, Australia, so I will always be drawn to it. Being here will always be a part of my life. You never know, in this business.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 12, 2016 as "Byrne identity".

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Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.

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