The Tormented Rise of Rose Byrne – The Cut

Posted: June 23, 2021 at 6:57 am

Photo: Eric Guillemain / Trunk Archive/

Somewhere between Hillary Clintons first and second presidential bids, it became pass and utterly dull to ask women of note whether they were feminists. Any answer to the once-Zeitgeist-y question, foisted upon female actors, pop stars, and doctors, was the wrong one, and would make headlines in the days that followed. This is a good thing for Rose Byrne, who, given her recent track record, would almost certainly have been interrogated on the belief that people should be treated equally, every time she faced the press.

The one-two punch of her latest projects in particular would have really landed Byrne in the F-word hot seat: Last year, it was FX on Hulus Mrs. America, in which she portrayed the mother of white feminism herself, Gloria Steinem. And beginning June 18, its her AppleTV+ series Physical, which, incidentally, picks up in 1981, exactly where Mrs. America left off.

It strangely felt like a companion piece because Mrs. America ends in 1980, Byrne says, video-chatting while on holiday in her native Australia. And [my character] is a former hippie activist, coming from the movement of the Berkeley days, and shes disillusioned when we meet her. And its sort of about the next stage of America, I think, if I can be so lofty to say. It felt like that to me.

Set in sepia-hued Southern California, Physical, from creator Annie Weisman (a producer of the cult comedy Suburgatory and Desperate Housewives before that), follows Byrnes Sheila, a wife and mother who regains some agency over her life through the burgeoning aerobics craze. Its also kind of a reverse engineering of the wellness industry, Byrne says. Today, everybody is an entrepreneur online, whether its a parenting expert or a wellness expert or a makeup expert, everybody has their brand. And this is really the seeds of that, these sort of lifestyle gurus.

In other words, the series paints aerobics instructors as the original influencers. And though its a half hour and is billed as a comedy, it also features some of the most unrelenting depictions of female suffering ever shown on TV, even in this antihero-prone era.

I feel like sometimes women are seen as unraveling in very obvious ways, whether its outlandish behavior or theyre crazy or whatever, Byrne says. And often the destruction that women experience is on the inside: how we talk to ourselves or how we look at ourselves. All of that stuff, its all inside, and its secret, and its shameful. Thats a harder story to tell. And its rarely represented like that onscreen, that internal, destructive, terrible treatment of ourselves.

Because to externalize turmoil, Byrne ventures, is a privilege which women, still, are not often granted. Sheila is mentally ill she has bulimia, among other conditions, none of which are played for laughs. To the contrary, thanks to a near-constant voice-over that laps over Byrnes performance in front of the camera, Physical is an intimate portrayal of torment.

But Sheila is as cruel to other women as she is to herself, and even partakes in both blackmail and theft. You want to root for this character and shes complicated, and shes not an easy character to just [understand], Byrne says. Its not all black and white with Sheila. And that was my challenge, I felt, trying to understand that myself. You know, often these illnesses are a punch line or the butt of a joke Particularly back then, there wasnt a language around Sheilas illness at all. It was really new to sort of even acknowledge it and know what its called.

It can be taxing just for the audience to be inside Sheilas own caustic head, even as she flashes a smile onscreen. But Byrne is able to leave that anguish on set, along with her 80s wig and leotards, thanks to her two young children (with partner and fellow actor Bobby Cannavale). Her kids arent just grounding; they simply dont allow her to wallow. They couldnt care less if Ive, like, had a hard day and I feel a bit vulnerable, or like, Gosh, that was a tough scene, she says. Im sure back when I was a younger actress without as many responsibilities, I would sort of indulge that stuff.

That doesnt mean Byrne is an Etsy ideal of female self-empowerment. Despite her achievements and devoted fan base (lesbians may have manifested her role as Steinem), she nearly falls over herself to admit shes susceptible to hyperself-criticism. Yeah, of course, whatre you crazy? she says. Are you bloody insane? Its like any artist, right? Were all just struggling, whether its about your writing or your music or your painting. What I see obviously is so different from what someone else is experiencing.

Along with Physical and Mrs. America, factor in her other recent project, a modern adaptation of Medea, performed at Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, opposite Cannavale, in early 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic closed theaters, and Byrne is on a roll playing women in varying degrees of crisis. (The matriarch at the heart of Medea, famously, could have used some wellness.) This signals a watershed moment in Byrnes eyes. I look at Mrs. America and I look at Physical, and neither of those shows wouldve been made five years ago, or ten years ago, or even three years ago, maybe. Its timing, she says. And its a cultural shift and its a cultural reflection of storytelling. Look at [the success of] Nomadland. And obviously these projects are about a female story, a female narrative.

She has a point. Weisman wrote the Physical pilot eight or nine years ago, Byrne posits. And its only now that shes been able to find a home for it.

Doing what she could on her part to move the needle was certainly top of mind in Byrnes forming a production company, Dollhouse Pictures, founded with four other women, in order to prioritize female-driven storytelling. Its exciting to have women making decisions and being at the table, making choices about how a story unfolds and how it looks and how its told, she says of the venture. (The companys first project, a musical dramedy called Seriously Red, is currently in production with both Byrne and Cannavale in its cast.)

Though shes scaling new career heights, Byrnes rise in the industry has been far from meteoric. She starred opposite Glenn Close on FXs five-season legal drama Damages, and there was of course her role as stuck-up Helen in Kristen Wiigs brassy comedy Bridesmaids you know, the movie that proved with absolutely no precedent that women can be both funny and bankable at the box office. Bridesmaids also rendered Byrne a deft, sought-after comedic performer, leading to standout roles in Spy and the Neighbors franchise.

But Physical does mark Byrnes first time as the sole lead of a project. She recognizes the weight of the moment but not too much. Im Australian, so its hard for me to really talk about this because I feel like we cant take ourselves too seriously, she laughs. Im gonna just hide behind my cultural inability to reflect.

She adds: I couldnt think too much about being on the shoulders of myself. She doesnt have to, though; those who come after her will.

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The Tormented Rise of Rose Byrne - The Cut

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