Rose Byrne, whose acting career began in Sydney in the 1990s, has done it all in Hollywood. She spent years as the ambitious, idealistic Ellen Parsons in Damages (2007–2012), flexed her comedy muscles in Bridesmaids (2011) and Get Him to the Greek (2010), starred in the cinematic epic Troy (2004), worked with CGI co-stars in Peter Rabbit (2018 and 2021), and formed her own independent production company, Dollhouse Films, to make Seriously Red (2022).
Film journalist and podcaster Jenny Cooney caught up with Rose as she launched Seriously Red at the 4th Australian International Screen Forum in New York, September 2022. In this special podcast, they discuss Rose’s incredible career, including her inspirations, holding her own alongside Glenn Close and the pitfalls of grabbing a drink with a TV writer.
Listen to the full conversation and read an edited transcript below:
Jenny: Welcome everyone. I have a podcast called Aussies in Hollywood and now the podcast is going to be part of the National Film and Sound Archive in Australia. And in Canberra they already have an Australians & Hollywood exhibition if any of you haven't been.
Rose: That’s wonderful!
Jenny: So people are going to be listening to this hopefully for a long time. Okay. So, we should start at the beginning. I know you started when you were 8?
Rose: Yeah, at the Australian Theatre for Young People. I started going there really young. I was 8 years old and I grew up in Balmain and a bunch of kids used to go there and a friend of mine, Rosie Fisher, who is now a producer in the arts, she suggested that I go. She was a student there and it's a wonderful theatre program for young adults, ranging from ages 5 through to early 20s. And I'm still an ambassador for the company. And so I started going there really young and then got cast in a film when casting agents came around to look for a young kid for a film. And I got this part when I was 13 and kind of got bit by the bug. Yeah, very young.
Jenny: So prior to that, what were your early cinema memories? What were the things that made you think, ‘Oh, I could do this’?
Rose: My memories of Australian film are the classics. The Year My Voice Broke (1987) was a profound movie I remember seeing at a really young age. And, you know, having a profound crush on Ben Mendelsohn.
Jenny: Did you ever tell him that?
Rose: Oh yeah, for sure. Yeah, that was one of my earliest memories. And Malcolm (1986), I remember that great movie with Colin Friels, and obviously Gallipoli (1981) and, you know, all these sort of iconic Aussie movies that were very... they’re very vivid because they're such a reflection of our culture. I really remember the feelings of seeing those films.
Jenny: So what would you say is your favourite Australian movie, if you have one?
Rose: Probably The Year My Voice Broke. That's one of my favourites. The Cars that Ate Paris (1974) I think is beautiful. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), that was also so haunting and stunning. Yeah, some of those classics.
Jenny: So you started working in film when you were 13?
Rose: Yes, I was 13 when I was cast in Dallas Doll (1994).
Jenny: And how was your first experience on a set?
Rose: It was so wild and fun. I'd just done theatre programs, and this was like a proper set. But my parents were very, very grounded and down to earth and were constantly telling me, 'You're going to finish school and go to university. And this is just some fun.' And so they were very determined to sort of keep my feet on the ground, I suppose.
Jenny: Is it true that you auditioned for drama schools and got rejected?
Rose: Yeah, I auditioned for NIDA, WAAPA, VCA...
Jenny: And then you actually did end up studying acting, but in New York with people like William H Macy and David Mamet?
Rose: Yeah. Well, the Atlantic Theater Company was started by Macy and Mamet and Felicity Huffman and a bunch of actors and writers. And it's still here in Chelsea [in New York]. It's a wonderful theatre. And the technique they use – Practical Aesthetics – became this kind of cult hit in Australia. [This technique] is very Mamet, it's very nuts and bolts.It's very empowering to the actor. Character doesn't exist – it's just words on a page – so it's very demystifying. And it's a wonderful technique that I still go back to when I need to, when I feel like I need to decipher something properly and really break it down to its bare bones.
Jenny: So how long were you involved with them?
Rose: Well, I worked with Nico Lathouris on a show called Wildside on the ABC in . He's a wonderful, famous dramaturg in Australia who's very close with George Miller and has worked on all his movies and he worked on the show. And it was one of those moments of really falling in love with the way he worked. And that was kind of my way onto that path.
Jenny: And then you did Two Hands (1999). It really holds up well – I don't know if you've seen it recently?
Rose: I haven't, but I can't wait to show my children when they're older because it is such a classic and has such a special place in my heart, and obviously it was a real turning point in my career. So it's very beloved, which is really always a delight when people bring it up.
Jenny: So talk a little bit about the whole experience of that film.
Rose: Christine King was the casting director, who was an incredible casting director out of Sydney. And I went in and read. I didn't even read with Heath [Ledger] at that point because he was shooting his show at that time, I think in America or somewhere. But Gregor [Jordan] had tapped him already for the part of Jimmy. And we were just kids – I mean I was 18, he was 18. We were just like kids doing this dirty little Aussie movie in Sydney on Bondi Beach. I think that charm and innocence of it really shows through.
But Gregor has always been a really sophisticated filmmaker and very cinematic and has great taste in films and in music. And I think it has a really specific Australian sensibility about crime and humour and class. And I think that film really represents a particular sort of cultural snapshot that – tickles me, anyway, and I find really delightful and I feel like audiences still relate to it. And I know Heath really shines, he just popped. And he was such a big-hearted, generous person and friend for years and helped me a lot coming over here. And it's very, very sad, he was gone way too soon, obviously.
Jenny: Were you one of the many people that had a key to his house or that stayed with him? I've spoken to so many people that said that there were, like, 50 people who had to return a key when the house was sold!
Rose: Yeah, he was like that. He surrounded himself with his family and friends. You know, it's a strange life being an actor, you're on the road. And we were so young. We were 18, 19, and he was even younger, I think, when he left Perth. And so he had a crew of friends and family constantly in and out. And I was absolutely one of them in my early twenties.
Jenny: What did Two Hands do for your career? You came to LA on the back of it, is that part of the timing?
Rose: I did, yeah. We went to Sundance to the film festival, which was magical, I still remember. And I got an agent and started to come over [to LA] and, you know, it was back and forth for many years. I was working pretty consistently in Australia but I was still in university and trying to get my degree, which I never got. [laughter] I know!
But that was the beginning of coming over. And back then there wasn't as many Australians [in the US]. Now it's far more common to sort of leave Australia immediately if you finish school and just come straight to America to try to pursue work, or Europe or wherever you're trying to pursue it. Back then, it was still a smaller pond of us, I think.
Jenny: So tell us a little about your first epic Hollywood movie set and what your experience on Troy (2004) was like.
Rose: It was pretty overwhelming. Just the scale of it, it was so many people. And these wild locations and huge film stars and that kind of energy that can come with acting with people like that. Less so of them, and more the people around them. And then doing this incredibly historical epic – swords and sandals – dramatic piece. It was really very seminal and very much ingrained in my mind. It was a little bit disorienting I think at the time. I wish I'd enjoyed myself a little bit more. I think I was pretty nervous the whole time. Yeah, I was.
I will say that Wolfgang Petersen was a wonderful director, and very astute. And I had watched Das Boot (1981), his incredible epic masterpiece, and was completely overwhelmed that I was getting to work with him as well. So that was a real honour.
Jenny: I think the first time I met you was when you started on Damages (2007) with Glenn Close?
Rose: We came out the same year as Mad Men. And then shortly after us Breaking Bad came out. And Glenn [Close] was the lead in a basic cable TV show, which was kind of extraordinary. But it was at the beginning of the real sort of Golden Age of TV, which is now fully in swing, where there's so much content, you don't know what to watch.
I felt very intimidated by Glenn. But the writing was brilliant, and my character was also in over her head. And it was a tricky character to play because the audience was so much ahead of her, of Ellen, in the show. It's a high-concept, kind of legal, stylish thriller tone. And that was the trickiest part for me. And learning the fortitude you have to have doing television hours, which [are] long, 18-hour days sometimes. Doing a show that's an hour long and being in every other scene. So that took some stamina. And I realised I had to get fit for that in a way that I had never had before.
We were working in New York City because of Glenn, and she became a dear, dear friend. And we're still very close to this day. And I have incredibly fond memories of doing the show. And again, it was a real turning point in terms of career and personal life living here and being part of that.
Jenny: And the Kessler brothers who wrote it, did you find that they were changing their writing at all based on who the actors were, after it started?
Rose: Oh yeah. You never tell a TV writer anything because it will be in the show. Like, 5 minutes later! You'll be like, ‘Oh I know this story – I told you when we had a drink the other night!’ They're a sneaky bunch, any TV writer will put it in if they’re worth their salt. So I quickly learned that, but I loved it. Todd Kessler, who is the creator of the show – one of the creators, along with Daniel Zelman and Glenn Kessler – he had been one of the lead writers on Sopranos. So he was really interested in the idea of power, but power for a female and what does that look like? A character like Tony Soprano – [who was] so polarising and divisive but yet very watchable [so you were] still wanting to root for him as an audience, [he was] playing with those sorts of ideas with Glenn's character.
Jenny: And that was also the time when you made New York home, is that right?
Rose: Yeah, so I had studied here at the Atlantic Theater Company for 4 months, lived here, and then came back to shoot the show and ended up staying.
Jenny: During the time you were doing Damages you made these other films, like Insidious (2010) and Bridesmaids (2011) and Get Him to the Greek (2010). How did that fit in?
Rose: You know, I just wanted to work, I just love working. And those jobs were great and very different.
Jenny: And Get Him to the Greek brought you into [working with director] Nick Stoller too. You've done a lot of projects with him since then in comedy.
Rose: I know, I just finished a show with Nick Stoller and Seth Rogen and Francesca Delbanco, a show for Apple, a 10-part series called Platonic (2022). And it's about Seth and I and our friendship. And it's a very sweet, funny comedy. But we were reunited just recently, so it was great.
Jenny: And then of course you did Neighbors (2014) with Seth.
Rose: Yes, I did the Neighbors films with Seth too.
Jenny: There was always a lot of talk about – is she a comic actress, is she a dramatic actress? Did you see yourself as having a strength in one or the other?
Rose: Yeah, I mean one of my favourite shows ever is Fawlty Towers with John Cleese, and his performance as Basil Fawlty. That physical comedy was always such a huge influence on me. And then I'm a huge Julia Louis-Dreyfus fan: Elaine Benes in Seinfeld, and all her physical comedy. I think, as an actor, you’re terrified of getting pigeonholed into anything and you want to try other things. And I think it's that great Australian quality we have of not taking ourselves too seriously which is really what Seriously Red (2022) – the film that we're here for tonight – is about. So it was definitely something that I was actively trying to pursue.
I think the best drama – you know, it's the face. It's crying, and so it's the same place, so I approach it the exact same way. I think comedy is harder because it's exactly the same as a drama but on top of that, you're trying to get a laugh. So it's the most precious part of the scene.
Nick Stoller, who directed, and Judd Apatow who produced Get Him to the Greek were great like that. They're so open minded and they wanted to see me for Get Him to the Greek, which was the first time I'd done a really big, hard, broad comedy like that. But I mean, I personally love when you see a comic actor known for their comedy give a really dramatic performance, or a dramatic actor doing a comedic performance. Those are so exciting to me as a viewer, watching that, because I think it's a very fine balance, a fine line you're walking and those are the performances I'm always drawn to.
Jenny: So when Bridesmaids (2011) became this massive, massive hit, everybody was saying, ‘Oh my God, a comedy with women can be really, really successful!’
Rose: I know. I remember Maya Rudolph saying at one point on the press tour, ‘It's like, guys, we're not dolphins, you know!’. I was very naive about it, just naive. I didn't realise when we were doing it – it was so fun, and so fun to be with all of these actresses and you never... There's always just one actress on a job. And this was the opposite of that. And it was such a fun shoot. But I was incredibly naive about the amount of attention that would get.
I was [also] baffled by it. I was like, why is this such a topic of conversation? But it is. It was. And I can't imagine for those girls, too, who were all seasoned Saturday Night Live actors for years and graduates of Groundlings and UCB, these iconic improv comedy groups. And they're still having to talk about that. I was in a way the odd one out, because I was not from that background. And yeah, I found it baffling.
Jenny: And you've worked with people over and over again. Do you have a plan, in terms of telling your agents, look for this or for that?
Rose: I wish I had a plan; I mean, don't we all! But this business is so silly and such a silly kind of thing you're trying to navigate. And particularly now I have 2 young children, so it's even more of a chaotic experience. And I'm married to an actor, so it's even more like chaos, as I said. But the pleasure of working with the same people and collaborating again is just having a shorthand. Already having had a collaborative experience with them and knowing tonally where they're coming from and where you're coming from, and it's a pleasure – it's lovely to re-team with people.
Jenny: And I think it was 2015 you guys set up Dollhouse [which produced Seriously Red]. At what point did you decide that you wanted to have your own production company?
Rose: Well, my best friend, Krew Boylan, who's an actress and a writer, had written the script Seriously Red. And we were trying to get it made. And then another friend of ours, Jessica Carrera, who is a former publicist, sent [it to] Shannon Murphy, who is a writer and director, and Gracie Otto, who's an editor, writer, director, producer. We all were like, why don't we try to do something together and form a company and see if we can start to produce? And that was really the conversation.
I'm very close with Nash and Joel Edgerton, and I had always admired Blue-Tongue [Films] and how they had run their company and made their short films, and then their feature films and their documentaries and their TV shows. And I went to Nash and we had great conversations about it. And we decided to start this thing up, and that was in 2015. And it's been an incredible learning curve. And we've finally produced this script, which was the inspiration for the company, which will be on tonight. And we went to Austin to the film festival. We've been to South Korea to a festival, to Melbourne, and we just went to Cinefest in Australia. So it's been a very personal journey and I'm delighted with the movie. And Krew's performance is just heartbreaking and really emotional and charming, and I'm so thrilled finally people are seeing it.
Jenny: So what other dreams do you guys have as a company?
Rose: Well, to produce great stuff is the simplest answer. And it's a learning curve too, the way these things get made, and particularly in Australia. Understanding all the ins and outs of that has been a learning curve and something I've been really enjoying. And like all great performers who I admire, I think trying to source your own material is always exciting and that's been a fun part – reading, reading, reading, reading, reading and discovering things.
Jenny: Was Peter Rabbit (2018) something you wanted to do because you've become a mum?
Rose: I loved those books growing up, I think they were bigger in Australia than anywhere, certainly bigger than here in the States. It's obviously that kind of cultural link we have to England. And Will Gluck I had worked with on a film and he came to me and pitched me the idea and it went from there. And we decided they could shoot it in Australia, which was incredibly fortuitous and such a gift for me. And it was really fun to do this genre of a kids' film, which I had not done before, and to be able to show the kids one day. Although I tried and they didn't really want to watch me!
Jenny: Margot Robbie and Elizabeth Debicki contributed their voices to Peter Rabbit. Do you consider yourself part of some Aussie family of people that have made it outside the country?
Rose: There's something about being from a country like Australia. There's only 25 million people, and then from the business there's even less. And so when there is a fellow Australian, even if you don't know them that well, there is obviously a cultural branch that you have and it always tickles me when I meet Australians like that, whether it's Margot or Elizabeth or anyone. And you just do have that sense of your countrymen. Well, I do anyway. I don't know, maybe they don't, but I feel like because we're just so small, you know it's a very small country, but there's lots of us in the business it seems.
Jenny: Do you have any kind of a theory about why it's an extraordinary number, given that we are such a tiny country?
Rose: I don't know. It's interesting being married to an American [Bobby Cannavale] because you get the perspective of them coming to Australia and seeing the culture and so on and so forth. And that's been really fascinating to me. And his sort of appreciation of it and the qualities that we have there. That's been really eye-opening for me, I think. But that doesn't answer your question. And I don't know.
Jenny: You did answer – in some ways it's about the people. It's something about the attitude or the working ethic.
Rose: I wish I could be more articulate about it because it is an interesting conversation that is worthy of having because our country is complicated and has a really weird, dark, disturbing history that a lot of people also don't know about that is also part of the story. It's a very interesting path to go down.
Jenny: And I don't know if you've had anything to do with the National Film and Sound Archive before, but I'm just curious to know what your thoughts are about the idea of preserving and making sure that we protect all of these amazing things, [so] that Two Hands can be seen in 100 years.
Rose: As I get older, I'm so desperately sentimental and nostalgic about that stuff. So for me, it just taps into all of that and I adore that stuff. Like I'm more than ever going down the road of family history and film history or anyone's history; I become more and more interested in that as I get older. So it just taps right into that for me, which I think is delightful and really, really special.
Jenny: Were there any Aussie actors that really inspired you?
Rose: Oh, I mean, so many. Judy Davis is obviously iconic, you know, an incredible, iconic figure who I've always admired. Ben Mendelsohn, again, I think he's maybe one of the greatest actors we have, I think he's incredible. There's so many, the list could go on and on and on.
Jenny: Before I wrap up, it would be really remiss of me not to talk about Physical (2021–22) because it's been my new favourite show. How did that come to you?
Rose: I was shooting Mrs America (2020) in Toronto and Annie Weisman came over who is the writer-creator of [Physical]. And we met and I had read this incredible pilot and was just very compelled by it and drawn to it. And it was very dark and very specific and really funny and weird and all the things I love and and we just talked and just didn't stop talking. And I came on board and came onboard as a producer, which has been exciting just to have a seat at the table in terms of all the decisions down to, you know, casting and episodes and storyline and everything, and edits. So that's been really wonderful.
But it was a big deal to sign on to a show knowing how much work it is and being the lead and being in every scene. But it was such a great story that I had never really seen told like this. You know, eating disorders are often the punchline to a joke or they're not taken incredibly seriously. So this was dealing with it in a way that was, I think I felt was, pushing the story forward, but also exposing a real illness that a lot of women and men, but particularly women, have suffered and do suffer.
Jenny: So is TV the place you're returning to, because of the material?
Rose: Yeah. I mean, those 2 jobs... We've been trying to make Platonic for many, many years with Seth Rogen and I, but the schedule's been just too hard. But I'm about to do an independent film here in in New York with Bobby [Cannavale] actually, which will be really fun. And we start shooting that in a couple of weeks, so that'll be fun to do. I haven't done a film for a while, so it should be fun.
Jenny: Before I wrap up, any advice to anybody here that wants to ask, ‘How do I get started in the industry?’.
Rose: Oh gosh, that's a big question. I mean, it's such an internal temperature gauge of your own journey and where you're at and the business is a tricky business and a silly business and a great business and all the things. But for me, it's been a slower journey. And I think you just have to run your own race. You really do. You've got to run your own race because you get lost comparing yourself or competing or all that stuff. For me, I found that's just never been a productive way to approach the day-to-day of this business. So just keep your head down and keep shooting, keep shooting the baskets.
Jenny: Run your own race. I love that. That's great advice.
Rose: Thank you, guys. Thanks for coming.
Main image: Rose Byrne being interviewed by Jenny Cooney at the 4th Australian International Screen Forum in New York, September 2022.