This originally appeared on Capital New York.
Australian actress Rose Byrne, currently appearing in both Bridesmaids and X-Men: First Class in the theatres has said that she feels more like “a character actress than a celebrity”: many actors make such a claim, but few deliver the goods.
I wasn’t all that familiar with her work, although I had seen and loved 28 Weeks Later and Sunshine, but 30 seconds into her first entrance in Bridesmaids, I felt a telltale rush of excitement, a sensation that comes all too rarely, where I realize, suddenly, “Damn. That girl is good.” Her “good”-ness was instantly apparent. In Bridesmaids, surrounded by comedy heavy-hitters such as Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph, Byrne (with an impeccable American accent) not only makes an impression but is one of the reasons why the movie works so well. It would be far too easy to play a generic “mean girl”, and a lazier less curious actress would have gone that route. But Byrne saw an opportunity in the role of Helen, the main rival to Annie (Kristen Wiig) for Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) friendship.
Byrne’s Helen is a scarily accurate (and very funny) depiction of the perfect woman who knows “how to do things” like plan a shower, organize a bachelorette party in Vegas, and pick out bridesmaids dresses, and, in her gentle passive-aggressive way, manages to make all other women feel like sloppy morons. She is first seen at the engagement party wearing a black ballgown that manages to be both over-the-top and hilarious at the same time, the gown being a clear signal to all of the other bridesmaids that Helen’s friendship to Lillian is deeper than anyone else’s. She loves Lillian so much that she wears a gown in her honor. Helen’s competitive nature (and also her discomfort with being perceived as competitive) is one of the many complexities in Byrne’s entertaining performance. Helen is a smiling smooth operator, gracious at all times, and overly emotional about her friendship to Lillian, suggesting something deeply neurotic going on in the perfect woman’s heart. Annie (Wiig) sees right through it. However, there’s a problem with people like Helen: around them hovers a palpable cloud of plausible deniability. Overt confrontation is nearly impossible. You just end up seeming crazy, which, of course, is exactly what happens in Bridesmaids.
Rose Byrne’s beauty is almost distracting, which Annie acknowledges in her first moment meeting her at the engagement party, blurting out, “You’re so pretty.” Helen, flattered but not at all surprised, starts laughing, with a strange gleam in her eyes, the gleam of a natural predator, and says to Annie, “You’re so cute!” That’s when I felt the rush of excitement, when I realized I was watching an original and specific performance. It borders on mimicry, but that is a compliment in my book. Mimics are uncanny creatures, and those who nail such accuracies as a look in the eye, a flutter of an eyelash, a breath, a pause, come close to what Shirley Maclaine would call “channeling”.
That’s what Rose Byrne does with Helen. I can imagine people sitting in the audience thinking, “God, I know that woman!” I certainly felt that way. Helen is so unlikable, and yet so pathetic (watch how she reacts to her stepchildrens’ contempt for her: with a manic laugh, desperation flickering in her eyes), that you can’t help but feel sorry for the woman. She’s the type of woman who pouts, “I don’t have female friends”, not realizing that her friendlessness is directly related to her language compulsively made up of veiled insults and her insistence on getting her own way. If Helen had been played as a straight-up Cruella deVille villain, it would have missed the mark. As it is, it’s a breakout performance by an actress with an uncanny gift.
Byrne has been around for some time, having gotten her start in her native Australia, before moving to Los Angeles. She appeared as Natalie Portman’s handmaiden in Attack of the Clones, and then got a major break in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy. Although the film was panned, Troy served to up Byrne’s profile as an actress to watch. Instead of moving on to other summer blockbusters, Byrne instead started appearing in smaller critical darlings, such as Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, and 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to Danny Boyle’s zombie apocalypse hit 28 Days Later, this time helmed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. These were smaller films, and she had small parts, but in retrospect it seems as though Byrne was working by stealth. She preserved her reputation by not working too much in second-tier films, she created relationships with directors, and she was good in these films, even when she didn’t have much to do.
Byrne has a recurring role on Damages, as Ellen Parsons, the childlike innocent young attorney learning harsh life lessons through her job. Byrne had already done numerous television series in Australia, and found the idea of working with Glenn Close intriguing, if not intimidating, and seemed to like the challenge of developing a character over the length of the season, something that film actors don’t get a chance to do. In an interview with the L.A. Times, Byrne said of her decision to do Damages, “I was also at a point when I wasn’t in my early 20s anymore and I wasn’t into my 30s yet. I was at a funny age for an actor.” That “funny age” has probably saved her from having to play bimbo-in-short-shorts-running-from-CGI-monster roles, a rite of passage for any young starlet in Hollywood.
This summer, you can also see her as Moira McTaggart, the lone CIA operative sympathetic to the mutants’ point of view in X-Men: First Class. In her first scene, McTaggart infiltrates an exclusive party by posing as a go-go dancer/sex worker, stripping down unceremoniously to her black underwear and strolling through the party looking like she knows what she’s doing. It’s a funny and tense scene, a great introduction to the character. McTaggart actually tries to do right by the mutants, and in the end she is congratulated for her efforts by the top brass saying to her face that “The CIA is no place for a woman.” Because Rose Byrne has chops as an actress, she underplays her role, keeping it simple and open and expressive. Unlike so many other young actresses who play similar parts, Byrne actually seems like she would fit in to that world of high-end surveillance and realpolitik machinations. She is a force to be reckoned with. Moira McTaggart is a nothing part, as they say, but Byrne gives it some soul, some depth.
But after you see X-Men, walk right next door into the theatre showing Bridesmaids to see what this Aussie actress can really do. The sky’s the limit for Rose Byrne. Damn. That girl is good.