After a brilliantly successful run on the TV drama Damages, actress Rose Byrne—equal parts sweet and steely—shows a lighter side to her multifaceted talent in the new summer comedy The Internship.
Rose Byrne, carefully navigating the screen of her brand-new iPhone 5, sleek in its lipstick-pink case, is about to do the unthinkable: a Google search on herself.
“This way madness lies,” says the 33-year-old actress, whose diverse range of projects has included Bridesmaids, the smash 2011 ensemble comedy in which she dazzled as an ultracompetitive bridesmaid-zilla; Damages, the acclaimed TV series that ran for five seasons (2007-2012) and featured Byrne as a junior lawyer caught in the web of her mentor-nemesis, played by Glenn Close; 2011’s hit horror film Insidious, with Byrne as a terrified mom; and last month’s The Place Beyond the Pines, in which she clocked another noteworthy performance, this time as Bradley Cooper’s long-suffering wife.
In June, Byrne stars in the Owen Wilson/Vince Vaughn buddy comedy The Internship, about two aging salesmen who, their careers made obsolete by technology, compete for training posts at the headquarters of Google. As Dana Simms, a hardworking boss who eventually falls for Wilson, Byrne has the chance to expand her comedic repertoire while testing her digital-age acumen.
“I’m not a tech-y person,” she declares in her native Australian accent, her forthright wit shining through. “I had a basic cellphone for years, but then it broke, and I just got an iPhone. I’m a little bit obsessive-compulsive—I can get on the computer and just not get off.” As for vanity Google searches, she says, “I make a concerted effort not to do them, but of course, I have to—I’m human. We all Google ourselves.”
With an air of trepidation that might have come straight out of Insidious Chapter 2, her hit horror sequel due this Halloween, Byrne begins to type. “OK, there’s my name…right before Rose Bowl… and Rosetta Stone… and Roseland Ballroom!... and Roseanne!... and Rose McGowan…”
The first item that pops up in the Google search is an Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) photo and link that immediately highlights the difference between Rose Byrne the star and Rose Byrne the real-life person. The Rose displayed on the IMDb page is polished to a sheen, while today’s Rose is pared down, in a black and white vintage dress, tweed Urban Outfitters blazer, black tights and Aldo ankle boots, with nails unpolished and short, and hair swept to the side (in a style she jokingly refers to as “bed head”). Elegant, but accessible.
“That was a Damages premiere, season four, in New York,” she says, studying a screen grab. “That was a very pretty Valentino dress… Harry Josh did my hair… he always turns me out. I’ve got quite a strong lipstick on, don’t I? I kind of like that.” She scrolls past links to her Wikipedia page, a fan’s tribute website and several recent interviews. “It’s hard to get humor and tone across,” she says about her press. “I think if you read too much about yourself on the Internet, you can just descend into a negative spiral.”
In contrast to today’s gray skies and blustery weather, the early-afternoon atmosphere at Café Mogador in the East Village is convivial. Minutes before, Byrne had blown in from the cold wearing a long navy overcoat, looking for a moment like Cosette in the Les Misérables poster. But she quickly settled in, set her oversize sunglasses on the table and ordered a fruit salad, then changed that to Middle Eastern eggs and a cappuccino and declared: “A bit more lunch!”
While Byrne is surprisingly down-to-earth, her journey through film has been full of fantastical experiences, from blockbusters like 2002’s Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones (her first big feature) and 2011’s X-Men: First Class (in which she starred as an unflappable CIA agent), to period pieces like Marie Antoinette (as Marie’s boozy lady-in-waiting), to outrageous hits like Get Him to the Greek (she played Jackie Q, Pop-Tart girlfriend to Russell Brand’s washed-up rock star).
Based on her resume, Byrne could name-drop for days: Her first film, Dallas Doll, is a curiosity about an Australian family—father, mother and son—who become seduced by a sexually omnivorous golf star played by Sandra Bernhard; the 14-year-old daughter, played by Byrne, was spared the lecherous overtures: “It would have made a different kind of movie,” she says drolly. In the ’90s, she struck up a friendship with fellow Australian Heath Ledger on the set of Two Hands. In 2004, in Troy, she filmed a naked on-screen embrace with Brad Pitt—a scene that came back to haunt her on the set of Damages when co-star Glenn Close xeroxed the image and plastered it all over the makeup room. “Glenn is so sweet,” Byrne says of one of cinema’s most revered actresses and terrifying villainesses. “She’s really goofy and kooky. She’s a character, a real card. She’s more eccentric than you’d think.”
In general, Damages was more somber in mood than most of her acting gigs, says Byrne; yet it also had glamour going for it—her wardrobe included dresses by Givenchy and Narciso Rodriguez: “That world was very stylized and slightly heightened. Nothing like my life day-to-day. I always appreciated getting out of the heels.”
Recalling the years when Close was known for wholesome, motherly roles in films like The World According to Garp and The Big Chill, Byrne says of her former co-star and current good friend: “She’s so wildly diverse, a true chameleon.”
The same can be said for Byrne. Notes Shawn Levy, who directed her in The Internship: “Rose is unique in her combination of grace, beauty and straight-up badass comedy chops. Working with heavyweight comedians Owen [Wilson] and Vince [Vaughn], she was such a pro. She adds so much to every scene she’s in, whether scripted, improvised or, as is often the case with this film, a combination of the two. Rose brings such intelligence and poise to the screen; she can somehow carry off amazing grace yet be willing in the blink of an eye to make an utter fool of herself. That’s rare indeed.”
Byrne’s path to greatness has been a long one, beginning with a childhood in Sydney that was characterized by such crippling introversion that her classmates gave her the nickname “Mute.” “I was very, very shy when I was little,” says Byrne, the youngest of four children born to Robin, a now-retired market researcher, and his wife, Jane, who works in the office of an Aboriginal primary school. “Acting lets you access all those different parts of yourself to make the character authentic,” says Byrne, who joined the Australian Theatre for Young People at the age of 8. “I hate saying it’s tough, because it’s not like I’m living in the Congo, in some war-torn country, but it’s competitive. You have to be driven, and you have to work hard, but then you have to be very vulnerable, to access your character. It’s a strange thing the industry asks of you: On one hand, you have to be really vulnerable and really available, and on the other, you have to be very tough. That’s OK. It is what it is.”
Flexibility has become Byrne’s specialty. Her acting pendulum will often swing between the strong moral anchor within a drama (Damages, or the coroner she played in The Dead Girl, in 2006) to woo-hoo! party girl (Marie Antoinette, Get Him to the Greek), or go somewhere altogether different, like the manipulative psychopath she played in Wicker Park opposite Josh Hartnett in 2004. In fact, sitting with her today, it’s almost impossible to imagine this delicately pretty person singing raunchy praises to her sexual prowess, as she did in Get Him to the Greek (Byrne’s two videos as pop singer Jackie Q, featured on Greek’s DVD extras, have each attracted nearly 1 million YouTube views, along with the inevitable salacious commentary).
“I love that wild streak in people,” Byrne says thoughtfully, as though for her, that reality were a million miles away. “I think I had that when I was younger, in my teenage years, sneaking out, going out, but I got it out of my system. I’ve been working pretty steadily since high school. That teaches you a lot of discipline.”
The conflicting sides of Byrne will be represented in her next two films: In Townies, currently shooting in New York, she plays the sensible wife of man-child Seth Rogen, who longs to be part of a frat house down the street (where Zac Efron rules the roost). After Townies wraps, she’ll head to L.A. to team up again with Shawn Levy, who, fresh from his work with Byrne on The Internship, has cast her as the former wild-child girlfriend of Jason Bateman, who plays a man reuniting with his dysfunctional family in This Is Where I Leave You.
“When Rose read for the part of Penny in This Is Where I Leave You,” recalls Levy, “I was uncertain about her prospects, given that this role is completely different from her character in The Internship. Penny is a bit of a hot mess, slightly—beautifully—on the brink of coming undone at all times. Rose came in and did a reading with Bateman, and their timing, not to mention the poignance they created, and the humor between them, was amazing. Literally dozens of actresses wanted that part. I personally auditioned more than 50 people. Rose came in late in the game and just totally claimed the part as her own. Her range as an actress is ridiculously amazing.”
Shining more light on the many sides of Byrne are her posts at goodreads.com, a forum for book reviews. Byrne is a tough critic. The Iliad? Homer’s ancient Greek epic poem gets three stars out of five. Wuthering Heights? Great Expectations? Four each. Her five-star picks include Lolita, Atonement, The Great Gatsby and Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Fellow thespian Ethan Hawke gets two stars for his novel, The Hottest State: “It’s kind of like a Ryan Adams song, but not as good,” she says.
Though Byrne hasn’t visited the literary site in months, she says she is constantly reading, and proves it by whipping out from her crimson Reed Krakoff leather bag her current paperback (one she hasn’t yet listed on goodreads), The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. “This is quite old,” she says. “It’s good—really good.”
When it comes to her own love history, Byrne is loath to comment, having chatted perhaps too freely in the past about life on the rebound from a seven-year relationship with Australian actor-writer Brendan Cowell, her candor resulting in stories with headlines like “Rose: I’ve Been on Some Really Bad Dates,” and reassurances that she enjoys being single.
But her life in New York, where she rents a two-bedroom apartment in the East Village (“It’s got high ceilings, nice light… it’s not super-fancy, but it feels like home”), is far from lonely. The previous night, she had dinner with friends at Café Select. “They went to a comedy club afterward, and I went home and passed out. I’ve been going back and forth to L.A. these past few weeks, and my body clock is a bit off. So I slept late—till 10am—which was, ah, cheeky.” And midlunch today, she’s greeted by a couple of fellow Australians, one of whom she’s known since they were both 14.
Having moved to Manhattan in 2007 for Damages, Byrne, who still owns apartments in London and Sydney, is enjoying life in the Big Apple enough to consider staying for the long haul. “Australia is my emotional home, but New York is my second home,” she says. “I feel like myself in the city, and that’s all you want from a place. It’s an achievement to have found that. But we Australians are wandering people, aren’t we?”