Yet fast forward a few decades and the transformation from timid Aussie teen to Hollywood heavyweight is apparent – even down to the empowered female characters she chooses to immerse herself in.
In 2020, Byrne played iconic feminist Gloria Steinem in Mrs. America. The mini-series is 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.
At first glance, Byrne’s new gig – Physical, a 10-part, whip-smart comedy set against the backdrop of the aerobics craze of the ’80s – seems a far cry from Mrs. America’s serious historic bones, but both tell a story of society in flux, with feminism at the fore.
In Physical, Byrne plays a tortured Californian housewife, Sheila Rubin, who finds her power through exercise and eventually becomes a lifestyle guru with her workout videos, paving the way for the dime-a-dozen fitness influencers of today. “The show’s all about that whole generation of discovery – going from the ‘We’ generation [in the ’70s] to the ‘Me’ generation of today,” Byrne explains. “Now everybody’s an entrepreneur. Everyone’s got a clothing line or a candle line or a parenting blog or whatever. The ’80s was the beginning of that and this show is examining how it started.”
Airing on streaming platform Apple TV+, Physical is funny and fast-paced with throwback costumes that are beyond fabulous, but be warned, this is no family show. Sheila battles serious demons, including bulimia, as she Reebok-steps her way to the top of the fitness industry. “I just found everything about it fascinating,” says Byrne. “Physical is the first full-time series I signed on for since Damages [2007-12], because I knew what it takes in terms of time shooting, the hours, the commitment, especially when you have a family.”
We’re chatting in Sydney, where Byrne and her partner of almost a decade, two-time Emmy Award-winning actor Bobby Cannavale (Will & Grace and Boardwalk Empire), and their young sons, Rocco, five, and Rafa, three, are settling back into life after a turbulent period in COVID-ravaged Los Angeles. “It’s really nice to be here after filming in California,” reflects the actor, whose family is usually based in the brownstone-lined borough of Brooklyn, New York. “It’s still quite full on back in America, so we’re happy to enjoy the safety of being in Australia until at least the beginning of summer.”
It’s the second stint in Byrne’s home state of New South Wales the family have undertaken in recent times – in 2020 Cannavale starred in Nine Perfect Strangers, based on Liane Moriarty’s best-selling book, which was filmed in Byron Bay. “We lived up there for a good part of the year,” recalls Byrne, who relished the opportunity to be close to friends and family. “Australia’s always going to be my emotional home,” she explains. “My children were born in America, and I’ve been based there for many years, but I will always have a feeling, a little bit, of being an outsider. Australia is where my family and earliest memories and friendships are – all the grounding things in my life are here.”
And of course there is her professional passion, Dollhouse Pictures. 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.
It’s already delivered six short films, including the ACCTA-nominated Chlorine, and Phoebe Tonkin’s directorial debut, Furlough, which opened Flickerfest 2021. The company’s first feature film, Seriously Red, is slated for release later this year, marking a career milestone for Byrne, who executive produced the project. It’s a musical comedy about a Dolly Parton impersonator, played by Boylan, who also wrote the script.
Both Byrne and Cannavale appear in supporting roles, led by Otto as director. “It was definitely a big turning point for our company, a huge learning curve, and working with my best friend and our incredible colleagues was amazing,” says Byrne.
In a separate conversation, Carrera is glowing about Byrne’s producer instincts. “It’s a tough journey putting a film together, but Rose was always hands-on and committed to the process, the story and the team – sometimes with kids in arm. She is a great leader, a great friend, and really present with everyone.”
Mercifully, Dollhouse isn’t the only beacon of hope when it comes to female-led content on the film and television landscape. The industry’s changing, along with audience appetite for women’s stories. “Shows like Physical or Mrs. America probably wouldn’t have been made five years ago,” concedes Byrne. “In fact, Annie Weisman wrote the script [for Physical] more than eight years ago. Stories about women are finally ready to be told and seen through a real female lens, literally – Physical’s cinematographer is a woman.”
As proud as she is of her career and the incredible women she’s crossed paths with along the way – including Glenn Close in Damages, the series that helped her crack America – Byrne’s biggest pinch-me moment was Mrs. America, purely for the homage it paid a movement much bigger than any individual woman. “I thought I knew about feminist history before that,” she says. “I’d read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, so I thought I knew. And then I realised I know nothing. It was incredible and inspiring and challenging … it’s a fascinating era that’s largely undiscussed and undocumented. 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?”
Suddenly, talk of civil rights and flawed politics stops. “I’m so sorry – can you hear one of the children screaming? Oh my God, what’s happening downstairs? Hang on, it’s OK, they’re with Bobby. I’ve got another five minutes.” But three-year-old Rafa, who’s just wandered into the room to find Mama, begs to differ and implores her (in the cutest baby New Yorker drawl) to come “downstewas” and play hide-and-seek. “It’s all good, Babe,” quips Byrne to Cannavale, who followed Rafa in to apologise for the intrusion. “I’ve got him.”
The sweet interruption seems a nice segue to ask Byrne how she intends to teach her sons about equality. “Sorry about that,” she says. “As a parent, it’s always pretty chaotic … For a start, I teach them by being a working parent,” she answers 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].
While Byrne’s star has ascended dramatically in the past decade, she and Cannavale have refreshingly had little issue overlapping their unique Hollywood brands. In fact, they’ve collaborated at least eight times on various creative projects. The most mesmerising of these home/work collisions happened onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in January 2020 in a contemporary version of the Greek classic Medea, long before COVID or “capital uprising” became American household buzzwords, and when New York’s theatre district still hummed.
The play about a straying husband and murderous wife, modernised by Australian writer and director Simon Stone from the 431BC Euripides original, was a risky departure for Byrne, best known and loved for mainstream comedies such as Get Him to the Greek (2010), Bridesmaids (2011), and Like a Boss (2020). But the applause from audiences and critics spoke volumes. “Saw Medea last night,” posted the Emmy award winning actor Ethan Hawke. “I’ve known that Bobby Cannavale was the real thing for years – he has turned in some of the finest stage performances of my lifetime – but nothing prepared me for Rose Byrne. She takes the roof off the theatre. Funny, incendiary, pure high-octane madness.”
Byrne lights up when she recalls the experience, one that surely will stay vivid in her memory forever. “I don’t often get approached for those sorts of incredibly dramatic roles, so I absolutely loved it,” she says. “Theatre is rigorous and terrifying and draining, but it really is an actor’s medium.
Doing a play together was a big decision, particularly because you miss a lot of bedtimes. But [Bobby] was relaxed about us working together, so I thought, you know what, I should just throw caution to the wind and try this instead of being so church and state [about work and family]. And he was very much a supporting character in Medea, too. 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.”
Sure, he may be supportive, talented and woke, but does he change nappies, I ask. “Not anymore,” she replies, with a laugh. “We don’t have to, thank God. But yeah, he’s all in [with fatherhood]. He’s all in.”
While her work is increasingly female-focused, living in a household of boys is second nature to Byrne. “All my sisters have had boys and Bobby has Jake [his first son from a previous relationship], who’s 26, so in a way it’s all I’ve known,” she says. “It’s just so wild seeing those little personalities grow. Being a parent is just a life-changer. It reframes everything. Kids are so grounding, they couldn’t care less if you’ve had a hard day. They keep you in the moment.”
They also build resilience, and Byrne is candid about how much she’s toughened up through her journey as a mother, and an actor. The shy, self-conscious young woman is long gone. “I absolutely have thicker skin now. I read old articles with myself and I just cringe and think, ‘Oh my God, lighten up, don’t take yourself so seriously,’” she says with a chuckle. It’s a notion Sheila Rubin would appreciate.
This story originally appeared in the July issue of marie claire, on stands now.