|Original caricature by Jeff York of Rose Byrne in SPY (copyright 2015)|
Who’s the most versatile actress working today? Meryl Streep? Of course, one can make a very strong argument for her as she is the greatest actress of all time and is still giving amazing performances. Or maybe it’s Amy Adams as she can do both comedy and drama with equal aplomb. And one could make a case for Glenn Close, Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jessica Chastain. I’d choose an actress who’s not quite on everyone’s A-list just yet. Nonetheless, she is exceedingly in demand and giving one stellar performance after another. She’s also one of Hollywood’s greatest chameleons. It’s Rose Byrne.
Compare actresses working today and there’s almost no one who has the range that she has. If you only know her from TV’s DAMAGES or the movie BRIDESMAIDS, you’ve barely scratched the surface of her talent. She looks like an ingenue and can play the pretty lead, but more often than not, she’s a character actor acing role after variant role.
DID YOU KNOW SHE’S AUSTRALIAN?
The 35-year-old actress hails from Sydney, Australia. That may come as a bit of a surprise because she usually plays Americans on film and she can do flawless American accents. Byrne’s been acting since she was 13, yet she still admits to being a typically insecure actress who finds watching herself on film to be “confronting.” Byrne fears she’s not going to like what she sees and be convinced she cannot act. The reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. And her broad range should scare other actresses who watch her onscreen.
WHAT KIND OF PART CAN’T SHE PLAY?
After 41 movies and counting, it is extraordinary to see the range of roles she’s played. Byrne has done drama (THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES), comedy (BRIDESMAIDS), horror (INSIDIOUS and 28 DAYS LATER), musicals (ANNIE), love stories (ADAM), indies (ADULT BEGINNERS), action-adventure (X-MEN FIRST CLASS), sci-fi (SUNSHINE), and farce (GET HIM TO THE GREEK). She’s not only versatile, but she can play the lead (NEIGHBORS) or take a good supporting role (THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU). Clearly, Byrne wants to be associated with worthy works and her ego doesn’t seem to be as much at play as with some actresses who only take “above the line” roles, or won’t stray from their comfort zone. Byrne should be at the top of Hollywood’s “It” list as she is capable of anything. Heck, she even can sing and dance like one of Broadway’s best.
SHE IS UTTERLY HILARIOUS
A lot of the Twitter-sphere this year has given way to a pointless argument about whether women are funny are not. (They are. End of argument.) For those still unconvinced, look at Byrne in her stand-out comedic roles. In GET HIM TO THE GREEK, she plays Russell Brand’s rock star girlfriend Jackie Q and she is 100 miles from refined. Jackie’s a drug-addled, vulgar floozy with a slurring Cockney accent and the body language of an open bottle of gin. And Byrne gets to showcase her character in a parody video from the film where Jackie Q combines the best and worst of every music diva from the last 30 years. Byrne is totally convincing as the rocker and she gets a laugh with every line she utters in the film.
In NEIGHBORS, the wife role was originally going to be the voice of reason to Seth Rogan’s immature husband, but when the actor/writer approached Byrne about playing it, she asked that the part be rewritten to be more of a match to his character’s naughty, childish schlub. Her reasoning was that she’d marry someone similar, not an exact opposite. By pushing back, and pushing the material, Byrne helped turn a decent comedy script into a truly memorable movie. She’s just as raucous, raunchy, and uncouth as Rogan is in the story, and together as “partners in crime”, they make their antics hilarious and even sexy. Byrne and Rogan had great chemistry together. It probably made James Franco green with envy.
And don’t forget how crucial Byrne is to the success of BRIDESMAIDS. Her “straight man” to Kristen Wiig’s clown would have turned out fine if Byrne had played the role of rich prig Helen as nothing more than that. Instead, her comic inventiveness turns the stiff into a mean girl with a hilarious sense of malice. Watch how Byrne’s Helen fakes wide-eyed innocence to push Wiig’s Annie to eat that candied almond when she’s on the verge of hurling. She’s vicious, malicious and hilarious. Melissa McCarthy may have gotten the Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars that year, but the best ally the movie had was Byrne. She took a rather obvious country club villain and turned her into a truly funny and fascinating foil.
MOVE OVER MERYL, BYRNE CAN DO ACCENTS TOO
Many actors have tried and failed to do American accents. (Laurence Olivier, despite his pedigree and accomplishments, couldn’t Lord it over the American rhythms of speech.) But Byrne does American accents so well and is asked to do it so often in movies, that she might be the best at it of any actor. Plus, it’s never that flat accent that so many foreign thespians end up doing when they attempt to talk like middle America types. Byrne’s are varied and spot on.
Byrne can also do a terrific British accent as well and has been called upon to do that a number of times (28 WEEKS LATER). She has a great ear and can play posh or lower stations too. Sometimes she blends them together with hilarious results, like her turn as the elegant but gauche villain in this summer’s hit comedy SPY.
SHE’S GORGEOUS, BUT RARELY FLAUNTS IT
Byrne isn’t just beautiful; she is gorgeous. She’s got cheekbones you could cut your hand on, wide and expressive doe eyes that can melt your heart, legs for days, and a trim little figure that could be showcased on the cover of every Shape magazine. Byrne could be a model, but interestingly, she’s always up for looking unattractive on camera. She can expertly downplay her physical beauty, and she does it without the crutch of showy makeup or prosthetics like some actresses do who show their willingness to slum it.
In this past spring’s indie comedy ADULT BEGINNERS, she played Justine, a modest mother with another child on the way. She graciously takes in her wayward brother Jake (Nick Kroll) who’s financially ruined, and his agitated presence challenges her complacent marriage and her modest sense of self. Justine is tired and overwhelmed by most of her life and Byrne lets herself look unkempt through the whole film. Motherhood has exhausted Justine, and Byrne ensures it goes beyond her ratty hair and rumpled clothing. Her gait is meek, her posture more than a little stooped, and you can see the lack of sleep in every move Byrne makes.
Yet, Byrne’s character nonetheless comes to life around her brother. She enjoys mixing it up with him and you can see the quicksilver wit of the law student Justine used to be when she banters with Jake. Byrne can play normal so well and create a person just as compelling as a character who’s larger-than-life. ADULT BEGINNERS is a small film, but it’s a major accomplishment in Byrne’s oeuvre.
Maybe too many of Byrne’s films have been smaller pictures like that and that’s why she hasn’t become a superstar just yet. Or perhaps some of the clunkers along the way haven’t helped elevate her game. (Despite acing the singing and dancing in the remake of ANNIE last year, the revamped movie musical did Byrne few favors.) Or maybe it’s just that this incredible talent is willing to take smaller roles in good movies even if it keeps her as a supporting player in the minds of some Hollywood filmmakers. She works constantly though, so I believe it’s just a matter of time before the rest of the world catches up with what a lot of us already know. Rose Byrne is the most interesting actress in Hollywood today.