The 2020 miniseries was based on the true story of the attempt in the 1970s to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in all 50 states of the USA, and Steinem’s unsuccessful battle against the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett), who led the backlash against it. “It’s a fascinating era that’s largely undiscussed and undocumented,” Byrne explains.
“Events like the women’s conference in Houston in 1977 had a huge influence on politics and administrations. The fact [the Equal Rights Amendment] was never ratified, meaning it’s actually not in the US constitution that women have equal rights as men. What’s so scary about being equal? Why’s that such a dangerous and terrifying thing for people to embrace?”
What’s more, the actor – who shares sons Rocco, 5, and Rafa, 3, with partner Bobby Cannavale – practices what she preaches when it comes to raising her sons to know about gender equality. “For a start, I teach them [about women’s rights] by being a working parent,” she says emphatically. “We’re an example of a household that balances both parents going out to work. But I also totally respect mothers who stay home. It’s really hard work and recognising that is what Gloria Steinem fought so much for. Why is [raising a family] not working? What goes on in the home is the most beneficial contribution to children and [society].”
Byrne and Cannavale have been together since 2012, and she tells marie claire the experience of working with him on the 2020 Brooklyn Academy of Music production of Medea epitomised what makes him special. “He was very much a supporting character in Medea,” she says. “I’ve been around a long time, and there’s not a lot of male actors of Bobby’s calibre who are willing to do that [play support to a female lead].
“He’s one of the few fantastic actors who will, so he’s had some incredible parts in great films, where the protagonist happens to be a woman, like Blue Jasmine [starring Cate Blanchett] and Homecoming with Julia Roberts.”
Byrne has long championed female-led stories, chiefly through her work with Dollhouse. Co-founded in 2015 by Byrne, her childhood best friend, actor Krew Boylan, producer Jessica Carrera and directors Shannon Murphy and Gracie Otto, the Sydney-based production company is officially committed to prioritising female-driven storytelling, maverick collaborators and inclusivity and diversity on-screen.
Her latest role, in the Apple TV+ series Physical, is a continuation of this work. Created by Annie Weisman, it tells the story of a tortured Californian housewife, Sheila Rubin (played by Byrne), who finds her power through exercise and eventually becomes a lifestyle guru with her workout videos. “Shows like Physical probably wouldn’t have been made five years ago,” concedes Byrne. “Stories about women are finally ready to be told and seen through a real female lens.”
The July issue of marie claire is on sale Thursday.