TAKE two attractive people, throw in some candlelight, a platter of oysters and a pair of white doves and what do you get? An actress who screams and hides under the table.
That was Rose Byrne’s reaction to shooting a key seduction scene in her new British comedy I Give It A Year. “I already knew I was allergic to shellfish – any kind makes me retch,” says Byrne, “but, I discovered I was phobic about birds too. They kept flapping around close to our heads and the whole scene became about trying to hide the fact I was petrified.”
Byrne is pretty nervous right now as well, because she loves interviews as much as she loves Lobster Thermidor. On the face of it, she’s polite and friendly, but while she waits on another question, she curls and uncurls in her hotel room chair like a cat’s tail. This lack of ease is at odds with her smooth brunette bob, flawless skin and immaculate Balenciaga couture – but then, Byrne is all about the anxiety bubbling just below an elegant surface.
In Bridesmaids she was the catty maid of honour determined not to be out-toasted by the bride’s flakey best mate; in the long-running legal drama Damages, her cool, waspy attorney realises her boss Glenn Close is trying to bump her off; and with I Give It A Year, she’s the anguished newlywed who realises her spouse Rafe Spall is embarking on a risky pun around “Dr Quinn Medicine Woman” during a stiff family game of charades.
According to her co-star, Byrne’s real internal fight is with supressed laughter. “I know what she looks like when she’s trying not to crack up,” says Spall. “I went to see Bridesmaids after we’d done I Give It A Year, and all through the film, there’s Rose Byrne and her Trying Not To Laugh Face.”
“Oh, that’s true,” says Byrne immediately. “Melissa McCarthy knew I couldn’t cope as soon as she started talking. I would get really red and try not to laugh, and then apologise to the director. In I Give It A Year, the problem was that I loved working with Rafe, and we became such good friends that the director had to keep reminding us not to look so comfortable together because the audience is supposed to hope we’ll split up.”
I Give It A Year is produced by Working Title, the people who brought you Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill and Four Weddings And A Funeral. In other words: a lot of movies with weddings and Hugh Grant. However, I Give It A Year is by Dan Mazer, whose other movie credits include Borat and Brüno, and who wrote this Britcom as a counterpoint to plummy romantic dashes up the aisle. Mazer’s movie begins with Byrne and Spall marrying on impulse, only to find the first year of their marriage complicated by hideous in-laws, inappropriate friends, and alternative romantic prospects (played by Anna Faris and the dove-procuring Simon Baker).
At 33, Byrne is a relatively new face in comedy, although she has been acting since the age of eight when she fell under the spell of Kylie Minogue on Neighbours. It was her sister Alice who suggested she enrol in the Australian Theatre for Young People, which also brought on Toni Collette and Nicole Kidman. Are you surprised to learn that Byrne is Australian?
“Americans usually think I’m British, which I don’t mind,” says Byrne. “I do love Britain. There’s a shorthand for comedy that we both share – and a drinking culture that feels like home. And my full name is Mary Rose Byrne, which sounds like an Irish ship coming into dock.”
When she was 18, Byrne left Sydney for Hollywood, winning a small role as Natalie Portman’s handmaiden in Star Wars Episode II: “I had maybe two lines, but about 90 per cent of my fan mail is still about Star Wars.”
Later she moved to London to live with her sister in Hackney, “which the British think is hilarious, but I loved it”. A career in the UK took off: she appeared as a crew member in Danny Boyle’s Armageddon space drama Sunshine, which she and the rest of the cast researched by going on a science fiction boot camp. For two weeks they shared a dorm, attended physics lectures from Brian Cox and Byrne learnt how to fly a 747 at Heathrow. She was also talent-spotted by Russell T Davies, who cast her as a maid to Peter O’Toole’s ageing Casanova in his BBC3 mini-series.
O’Toole was appreciative. “He was definitely a bit of a Casanova,” says Byrne, who also worked with O’Toole the following year on Troy (2004), although officially her role in the film was bedding Brad Pitt. “He was very nice,” she says dutifully of Pitt, but lights up when we get back to O’Toole. “On Troy, Peter threw this party with champagne and caviar for everybody. I thought we really went for it, but I think Peter found us a bit tame. He said to me at one point, ‘If Richard Harris was here, we’d wipe the floor with them!’ ”
Troy was supposed to launch her as international ingénue. Instead, she stayed home and drew unemployment benefit and fretted over some near misses. She was up for a role in Brokeback Mountain – but Anne Hathaway nabbed it instead – then came within a whisper of Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale only to get shot down by Eva Green. “Oh my god, I could have been a Bond Girl,” she says, but it’s hard to detect much regret there.
Maybe the reason she gets along with the likes of O’Toole and Spall is that she enjoys the war stories of movie survivors. O’Toole boozed and flirted his way through the decades, yet made movies up until his retirement last year, while Spall talks openly about shedding five stone in order to be considered leading man material. On the face of it Byrne has it all: movie star looks plus an understated knack for both comedy and drama, yet she jokes fearfully about the long dry period of unemployment where she “cried a lot and had panic attacks”. In this business, “there are always people coming up behind you, but you can count on one hand the number of actresses regularly working over the age of 45’’.
This sounds like a conversation she has had with Glenn Close, star of Damages. The American TV law series reignited interest in Close in her sixties, after movie offers dwindled away. The show also gave Byrne a new platform as Close’s protégé and later bitter rival. “Glenn is our leader and she’s amazing,” says Byrne. “She’s the reason we shot Damages in New York. They wanted to film elsewhere but she refused to relocate. I was amazed an actress could wield that kind of power.” The show finally wrapped last year after five series. “A good time to leave,” says Byrne. “I’d rather go out on a high than drag things out.”
After I Give It A Year, Byrne is not short on offers. She has been contracted for two more X-Men prequels as the love interest of James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier “so if they ask me back, I’m happy to do it. James is a lot of fun,” Next month she starts work on a second instalment of her horror movie Insidious. Offscreen, she is dating Boardwalk Empire actor Bobby Canavale. In the manner of I Give It A Year, I give her the chance to conjure up her own wedding: would she propose? “Yes, why not?”
A big wedding? “You know, I’ve never really thought much about what sort of wedding I’d have. Is that awful?”
But would there be lovebirds involved?
“Absolutely,” says Byrne with feeling. “Not.” «
I Give It A Year is on general release from Friday