It has seemed, lately, that Rose Byrne is in every single movie. The Aussie actress knows it, too.
“Have I saturated everyone? Is it too much?” she laughs.
Since parlaying a revelatory comedic turn in Get Him to the Greek into the most complex (and hilarious) performance in Bridesmaids, Byrne’s career—which was already quite busy—accelerated into overdrive.
Her Emmy-nominated five years starring opposite Glenn Close in the detective thriller Damages led to an explosion of comedy roles: the rom-com I Give It a Year, the Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson comedy The Internship, a role in the ensemble of This Is Where I Leave You, and, most memorably, as Seth Rogen’s wife in the summer comedy blockbuster Neighbors.
A few franchise sequels came—Insidious: Chapter 2—and are on the way—X-Men: Apocalypse, and a song-and-dance turn in the musical remake of Annie, too. A rave reception for her new spy comedy opposite Melissa McCarthy at SXSW, aptly called Spy, has already cemented it at as one of the summer’s most promising films.
Then there’s the occasion for our meeting: her role in this weekend’s indie comedy Adult Beginners, as a woman whose life is upended when her estranged brother (Nick Kroll) moves in with her family after his entrepreneurial efforts go up in smoke and he’s forced to flee the Big City for a life reboot.
“It’s one of those things where you film these movies sporadically and then they all come out at the same time,” she says. “I’ve actually been doing a play for six months, so I’ve been out of this side of the business for a while. So it feels a little weird for it to all be coming back at once.”
Byrne wrapped a stint on Broadway in the comedy hit You Can’t Take It With You, opposite James Earl Jones, of all people, in January. “I hadn’t done a play for 12 years,” she says. “It was so scary and hard.”
Career transitions and life challenges are apropos conversation considering the film Byrne is currently promoting. Adult Beginners derives its name from a swim class Byrne’s character, Justine, and Kroll’s character, Jake, are encouraged to take by a child’s swim instructor when it’s discovered that neither sibling ever learned to swim.
The title is, of course, metaphorical. Jake and Justine’s mother is dead—Justine gave up law school to care for her—and dad has moved on, so Jake has no choice but to seek help from sis.
He agrees to take care of Justine and her husband’s (Bobby Cannavale) son, and predictably—yet adorably—finds a new joie de vivre outside of the corporate world in family life. Justine, for her part, is frustrated professionally (the law school sacrifice) and personally (she’s pregnant again and her husband is philandering). While Jake suffers from arrested development, Justine maybe signed up for too much adulthood before she was ready to commit to it.
In both Neighbors and Adult Beginners, Byrne plays a mother who misses her old, pre-family life. She doesn’t have children of her own, but there’s something on a broader level she finds absolutely relatable about being forced to commit to elements of adulthood before being fully prepared or even willing. It’s a mixture of nostalgia, regret, and acceptance that is universal.
“I miss being in my 20s, in that I was very, in a sense, more oblivious to things,” she says. “I think I was less concerned of what people thought of me, perhaps. Actually, I don’t know—because when you get older, too, you feel more in your skin. I think just in your 20s there’s less responsibility and less time has passed for you to feel pressure to achieve certain things, especially in this world which is more goal-oriented. In my 20s I was more relaxed about stuff, because I was young!”
Then, following a brief pause and a hearty laugh, “I also miss my skin from when I was 25. That might be what I miss the most.”
Perhaps Byrne’s surreptitious takeover in the decade since her skin’s peak moment is owed to the fact that she’s made remarkable business of keeping her private life very private over the years, expertly turning more intimate questions back to the project she’s promoting. It’s been a task made more difficult of late, however, since she started dating her Adult Beginners co-star Bobby Cannavale and worked with him on three films in a row. (The two also star opposite each other in Annie and the upcoming Spy.)
Particularly with Adult Beginners, in which they play a couple in marital crisis, Byrne has found herself fielding endless questions about what it’s like to work with a paramour, and in a film that finds their characters on the verge of a breakup, to boot.
The two aren’t exactly posing for Us Weekly covers promising tell-alls of their Hamptons weekend getaway. But the personal and professional lines are getting harder to keep parallel.
“To me, we’re very much both working actors,” she says. “We’re not throwing a parade, or that kind of thing. And there’s always a risk when you work together with your partner, but the films we’ve done are so wildly different—which is also kind of funny.”
She takes a pause to think about how strangely unique Annie, Adult Beginners, and Spy are from each other, and how she and Cannavale have wound up acting against each other in each one. “It’s all been so organic that I wonder if these projects’ would’ve happened even if we weren’t a couple,” she says. “Kind of like Sliding Doors.”
There’s no doubt that they would have. Consider Cannavale the omnipresent male counterpart to Byrnes. He, too, seems to be in every big Hollywood project. “Exactly!” Byrne laughs. “We are saturating the market.”
And especially when a project doesn’t go as expected, there’s certain value in weathering the storm with a partner who gets it. Case in point: Annie, which didn’t exactly open to the ravest of reviews last winter. “It didn’t? No? Is that what you heard” Byrne giggles. Both Byrne and Cannavale, unsurprisingly, came out unscathed even in the most vicious of reviews.
“I still stand by Annie, you know,” Byrne is quick to interject. “It’s a film with a great role model for young kids from all walks of life, who are able to see Annie and see someone who looks like themselves.” Then, with a shrug, “Like everything, it’s not for everyone.”
Byrne’s next film, at least if early reviews are to believed, might get awfully close to being for everyone, though. She’s reuniting with Bridesmaids director Paul Feig and co-star Melissa McCarthy for the comedy Spy.
Four years have passed since Bridesmaids, and the ensuing time has played host to the ever-evolving conversation about how the film did or didn’t change the way women in comedy are viewed in Hollywood. It’s been an odd experience for the cast, to carry the weight of changing the entire industry on their shoulders when they—or Byrne, at least—weren’t aware they’d be under such pressure.
“It’s such a strange thing,” she says. “When we were doing it, I was very naïve. I didn’t realize we would be talking about this not only at that time, but still four years later. I was naïve about that.”
As for any so-called progress that’s been made, she bows to the altar of the man whose film she’s about to open (and who had the creative cojones to revive Ghostbusters with an all-female cast). “Paul Feig has done so much,” she says. “He’s really broken so many conventions with women. He deserves such kudos for that. With every one of his films he’s prioritized that and I love him for it.”
Is it bothersome, then, to have to keep answering questions about the state of women in comedy, and the part she played as a cast member in Bridesmaids in changing things—or not? “There’s always going to be backlash and vitriol and haters,” she says. “But that’s just the Internet. You don’t really read much positive stuff. It’s really just for people to vent. It’s just noise.”