Rose Byrne receives a hearty cheer both times I watch her bounce on stage for You Can’t Take It With You, her wonderful Broadway debut at New York’s Longacre Theatre. “I’m always pretty shocked when they do that, it takes me a minute to recover. It’s incredibly flattering,” the demure actress later tells me, via a crackly phoneline from her Manhattan apartment.
The Sydney-raised Bridesmaids star has been a memorable screen presence around the world since the 1999 Australian film Two Hands, where she played Alex, romancing Heath Ledger’s Jimmy.
Fifteen years later Hollywood finally let her speak in her winning Aussie accent as Bad Neighbours’ lead Kelly, alongside Seth Rogen. “There was something about the character that was really wild and a bit irresponsible, and I could relate to the Australian sensibility; that wild streak.”
But it was as Bridesmaids’ Helen, sparring with Kristen Wiig, that Byrne sealed her status and learnt some unusual facts about Hollywood’s media. She thought it was silly that journalists seemed relentlessly surprised women could be so amusing, so she took to quoting Irish co-star Chris O’Dowd: “Everyone’s making such a fuss about it like we’re a group of dolphins, it’s not that weird”. It put Byrne off interviews. “It was just so repetitive, it’s hardly like we were a group of talking porpoises … It’s just boring. It’s like, ‘what do you mean, women are funny?’ Of course. I’m sure the guys from The Hangover didn’t get asked ‘How did a group of guys get together and be so funny?’ So truly, it’s just dull.”
Living in New York, Byrne notes the tameness of Americans compared to many Australians’ partying. “America is far more [restrained], I think overall, very different. They certainly don’t drink quite like the English or the Irish or the Australians do. Not that I do anymore!” she laughs endearingly. “But yeah, it was fun with that character, to tap into that.”
Like Jemaine Clement, is she something of an Antipodean wallflower? “Oh gosh, that sounds dull doesn’t it? I don’t have the stamina. I’m 35. I had my wildest days in my youth, for sure, but not now. You’re actually doing a play, you know, you’ve got to giddy up and do the next night.”
Despite Flight of the Conchords’ unflattering portrayal of Australian women, Byrne relates to the New York creative experience they explore. “Oh, I love that show so much, I related to that for sure. Back when I was 18, 19 and over in New York, studying here at Atlantic Theatre Company, I lived in student dorms, and [had] no money and all that stuff. It was such fun.”
The star still gets people accosting her with that Conchords’ line, “Oh my God, you’re from England!” “People really, really do think I’m from there … I may as well just say I am, because I’m kind of sick of telling them I’m not.”
At the Toronto Film Festival, Melissa McCarthy told me she was delighted to be working with Byrne on 2015 release Spy, reuniting the Bridesmaids’ duo with that film’s director Paul Feig, in Budapest. “I certainly feel like I got hit with the lucky stick. I feel like it’s my Willy Wonka, I feel like I got the factory,” McCarthy said. Byrne laughs when I pass this on. “Oh my gosh. Well, how do you respond to that? Melissa, she’s really a delight, that one.”
She also praises Get Him to the Greek colleague Russell Brand for his addiction advocacy, for his opening up about personal battles: “Very empowering for other people.”
You Can’t Take It With You capped a busy 2014 for Byrne, who relishes playing Alice, the least eccentric member of the Sycamore family. The play has that grand energy of classic screwball films like Hail The Conquering Hero and romantic charm like Punch-Drunk Love.
The eminent James Earl Jones plays Alice’s grandfather Martin Vanderhof with grace and charisma. “He’s effortless and he really brings the whole piece together, particularly in that final act. We’re a little solar system revolving around his sun. He’s very much the beating heart of it.”
Byrne is learning from Jones’ commitment. “James is the most unassuming man. He draws no attention to his legacy or his talent or anything. He doesn’t like any fuss. He just loves the work, loves the text, loves to discover. He’s 83, he’s such an incredible workhorse – I’ve taken more shows off than him. Learning his work ethic is really remarkable.”
The heart-warming 1936 classic is, as the title suggests, about how you can’t take your money with you when you die; that life is to be lived, doing things you find meaningful. Byrne thinks the messages are great. “At the end of the play, James Earl’s character and Byron Jennings’ character, Grandpa and Mr Kirby, debate powerfully about how to live one’s life.”
This reminds Byrne of her hit TV series Damages. “You have this workaholic who didn’t have a life and everyone around her abandoned her. The show was discussing that, do you live to work or do you work to live? I think it’s a balance, and I’m lucky enough to be doing something that I really love, but it’s an eternal question of humans, that sort of balance and why we work?”
She enjoys the play’s take on family eccentricities. Her father Robin, a retired statistician, clowned at kids’ parties. “Yes, yes,” Byrne laughs appreciably, recalling her Balmain upbringing. “I’m from a very big family. Not unlike the Sycamores, living in a big old rambling house and people coming in and out and lots of strange guests. We had a very open door policy growing up in Sydney, and I was really grounded by that growing up. Both my parents had jobs, unfortunately, they couldn’t just stay home and make fireworks.”
Byrne’s parents have now retired to a Tasmanian garlic farm, relaxing despite lethal brown snakes. “You see little ‘roos jumping around and echidnas. It’s like Jurassic Park. Well, not quite like Jurassic Park,” she laughs.
She misses her nephews, and Australian humour. “I cherish that sense of not taking ourselves too seriously, and our sense of irreverence and always looking for the joke. I love the Australian sensibility — the sense of humour — I think it’s unique and wonderful.”
Byrne became passionate about acting and humour aged eight, when an older sister put a bucket on her head. “Being the youngest of four, you’re the brunt of everyone’s jokes pretty early on.”
She recently returned to Australia for The Turning, a 2013 short film collection. Byrne impressed as battered Perth woman Raelene, her beautiful face as the “bad job from the panel beater” of writer Tim Winton’s short story.
Now, Rose Byrne is living the New York dream. Her new film Annie taps into that vein. Byrne is Grace Farrell, maternal figure to Annie, played by Beasts of the Southern Wild’s extraordinary Quvenzhané Wallis. “She’s very unique; she’s got that thing on camera that’s really compelling. Her eyes are very worldly. She’s a very old soul I think, and she’s gorgeous … We had a good time. It was shot in the city and we got to sing and dance and that’s very liberating.”
Jamie Foxx plays William Stacks, Grace’s boss, running for mayor of New York. Byrne’s boyfriend Bobby Cannavale plays Guy, Stacks’ campaign manager.
How does Cannavale (Blue Jasmine), who describes her as “the love of his life”, influence her creatively, I press? “He’s a fantastic actor. He’s just really unpredictable too, I think, with his choices he’s made in his career … It’s been really fun to be able to work together a few times.” Like Byrne, Cannavale tackled Broadway to acclaim; 2011’s The Motherfucker with the Hat, co-starring Chris Rock. “Broadway really is a pulsing heart, such an attraction for people all over the world. I still pinch myself every night going to the Longacre,” Byrne confides. “There’s nothing quite like the thrill of live theatre. It’s really sacred.”
Many actors treasure their time away from that buzz, but Byrne says she’s tough to take to the beach. “[I’m] like, ‘so, and?’ Although, there are a lot of secret little New York getaways which I’ve discovered over the years, whether it’s Montauk or Fire Island or little places on Long Island, which are really charming and sweet. But yeah, come on, let’s face it, it’s not like you’re going to Byron Bay.”
What’s next? Byrne laughs deprecatingly. “I don’t know about other people who have a sense of security with this, but I certainly don’t.”
Byrne remains excited by the Big Apple’s possibilities. “I lived in London for a while and I think it’s brilliant, but I found the city itself harder to navigate, whereas New York, I feel more myself here … I’m a town mouse.”
Even the worst day working in New York is better than those she spent serving at Sydney’s Curry World? “You could not have put it better,” Byrne concludes, that laugh again.
Featured image by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images