Rose Byrne on Bridesmaids, X-Men: First Class Sequels, and the Films That Made Her Career
How did Rose Byrne become the most unexpected comedic actress of her generation? After 15 years of acting, the Aussie native broke out of her dramatic shell with a fearless turn as Aldous Snow's pop star ex in Get Him to the Greek, and this week's Bridesmaids continues the streak: Byrne plays Helen, the rich and beautiful new BFF who tries to steal Maya Rudolph away from maid of honor Kristen Wiig. As director Paul Feig insisted to Movieline, "That woman should always be doing comedy."
Indeed, as the straight woman to a cast of outsized comic personalities in Bridesmaids (improv alums Wiig, Rudolph, Wendi McClendon-Covey, Melissa McCarthy and Ellie Kemper), Byrne is the film's surprise revelation. Her Helen is an exercise in controlled, ambiguous passive-aggression, a mistress of the subtle backhanded compliment, and a far cry from her next big role this summer -- the idealistic Moira McTaggert in Matthew Vaughn's period superhero flick, X-Men: First Class.
Byrne spoke with Movieline after a day filming for the fourth season of her TV series Damages, and discussed the motivation behind her foray into comedy, cracking up on the Bridesmaids set, how her relationship with James McAvoy's Charles Xavier will blossom over the course of multiple X-Men sequels, and how the uncertainty of Damages' longevity made it possible to film her 2011 cinematic triple-threat.
You've emerged as this surprise comedic talent in the past few years, between Get Him to the Greek and Bridesmaids. Paul Feig said he thought you should only do comedy because you're such a natural. What was the appeal of crossing over into comedy in the first place?
I'd done just so much drama, and, you know, I'm Australian -- I don't think that I'm an especially funny person but I enjoy comedies, they're my favorite films and shows to watch. And Damages is very serious, too, so I thought I would just love to try to do it. I had been talking with my agents for a while about it, at least a few years, and so I started to get auditions here and there. I think every actor wants to show diversity -- that they can do other things. So you don't get easily pigeonholed, because that's the natural thing that happens in Hollywood.
You've really done quite a variety of projects, from drama to now comedy, and TV to film. How did you balance your Damages shooting schedule with Insidious, Bridesmaids, and X-Men: First Class, all 2011 releases?
It's been lucky, really, because last year Damages was canceled from FX and there was a very long period of time when we thought the show was over, but then it got picked up by Direct TV. But it ended up that we had about a nine month hiatus, so I was available. I was really lucky and got to do three really diverse projects back to back. It was wonderful to have such a creative year.
Now that Damages is back on, are you looking at fewer films or will you continue the parallel tracks at this pace?
Probably not. This year, we have Season 4 and Season 5 and beyond that we don't know. I'm shooting Season 4 at the moment and then we have a hiatus, but I don't have anything booked over that period of time.
Was it easy to jump back into your character after that long, uncertain break?
It was and it wasn't. I always just get nervous that I'll forget who the character is. So I met with a young female lawyer in New York to refresh my memory about what it's really like to do that job.
Talking about your character in Bridesmaids, Helen -- she's such a mysterious villainess at first, because we're not sure if Kristen Wiig's character Annie is just imagining the rivalry between them. It's so subtle on Helen's part. Was that a tricky balance to find?
Well that's a testament, I think, to Judd Apatow and Paul Feig, who really refined Helen to make her not so arch that she alienates the audience, and not so much of a cliché that she becomes... I think it's much more exciting if you like the villain, rather than they're just horrible. There's got to be something interesting about watching them, I think. So I think that they got that tone right, because with Judd he does a lot of improvising and there are lots of different versions of the characters in there. It could have easily been very...
One-dimensional! But she turns out to be complex and actually sympathetic in her own right.
Yes! And to have empathy from the audience as a villain is a huge achievement.
Now, many of your cast mates in Bridesmaids had come up together through the Groundlings, and yet here you were thrust into these heavily improvised scenes with them. Was it easy to strike up an immediate, loose chemistry with Kristen and Maya and everyone else?
Well, all the girls really knew each other, outside of Ellie Kemper and myself. Ellie is also from an improv background -- she was at UCB -- but all the other girls had known each other for over a decade. So they all had a history and I think that really reads on screen, because there's an intimacy with Maya and Wiig which is really lovely, and obviously Wendi is brilliant and a total scene-stealer, as is most of the cast. Melissa McCarthy is also excellent -- she's a real fire in the film. And for me, I guess there had to have more tension between me and Wiig more than anything, and that was discovered through rehearsal, and through improv, and through the script, and through discussing the characters. That's something we figured out -- how antagonizing and patronizing Helen should be. Because Annie's actually quite similar, in a way. I think they're as dysfunctional as each other, and Annie is as stubborn as Helen is. That's where the tension comes from; they're both pretending it's OK, and it's not OK! Then it becomes this awkward, weird, sort of explosion.
I caught a behind the scenes segment of the dress shop scene, in which you couldn't stop cracking up at what Melissa McCarthy was doing.
[Laughs] She -- oh my goodness. She knew she could make me laugh, too. But I couldn't cope when she started talking, she was so funny! [Pause] Oh my goodness. I would get really red and try not to laugh, and then I'd give these endless apologies to Paul -- 'I'm so sorry, I can't stop laughing' -- but I really had to get it together at a certain point.
I imagine Bridesmaids is the kind of comedy in which many takes are ruined by unexpected laughs.
That's the thing, it's the spontaneity of the improv that can really throw you. Because you know what's going to happen to an extent, and you can prepare. But when there's something you're unprepared for, there's nothing you can do. I'm a good audience, too -- I'm from a family that laughs a lot -- but those guys are really good at keeping it together. Maya Rudolph never breaks. She's very good. And neither does Wiig, she's pretty steady. And Wendi. Those girls are pretty good, they don't give it up easily, whereas Melissa would have a giggle occasionally. And I was just toast.
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