In Praise of Rose Byrne

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.

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18 Responses to In Praise of Rose Byrne

  1. Todd Restler says:

    Great write up Sheila. It’s funny when you can find great acting in a movie like Bridesmaids, which just by the title sounds like something with Kate Hudson that I wouldn’t want to see. Instead I find it has wonderful reviews, and also happens to be Jill Clayburgh’s last film. I will get to it for sure.

    Nice to bring attention to Byrne. I strangely haven’t seen any of her big screen films (except I suppose for the small role in Attack of the Clones).

    But if you haven’t seen Damages, especially season 1, she is is absolutely terrific in it. For some reason, Close’s over the top sociopath gets all the attention (well, I guess it is attention getting), but it’s Byrne’s nuanced, smart, subtle work that makes the show.\

    The first season was great TV, and she more then held her own against experienced actors like Close, Tate Donovan, and Ted Danson. The role was written for her to be sort of the damsel in distress, with confusing events swirling around her.

    It was a helpless role by definition. Yet she never played it that way. She always acted smart and confident, and displayed a “pluck” that earned great rooting interest that wasn’t anywhere in the script. She also held her emotions close to her vest, so that even in obvious emotional situations you never quite knew what she was thinking. Great, wildly overlooked work.

    And Danson’s Frobisher is a great creation, part Donald Trump, part Charlie Sheen. He’s awesome in this as well.

  2. sheila says:

    Todd – thank you for your thoughts on Damages. I have only seen a couple of episodes but now that I have researched her I am very curious to see more. Like I said, I love Rose Byrne’s career trajectory so far. She’s been very smart. And she has a true comedic gift – something she has not been called upon to show so far (Get Him to the Greek being an exception). She’s hilarious – a really kooky dame, with a tight-lipped crazy going on that reminds me of the best of Catherine O’Hara or Madeline Kahn. Let’s hear it for funny ladies! So much of Bridesmaids was improvised and the entire cast is made up of masters of the craft – people who came up through UCB or the Groundlings – and Byrne more than holds her own. She is often the funniest thing going on in any given scene.

    Loved the movie! Have a couple of complaints about how it LOOKS – the camera frames and shot sequences are too boring, not funny enough – unimaginative. But it’s a really fun ensemble piece that also has some oomph. I definitely watched it identifying, in turn, with every single person – recognizing myself – wincing at times – because it’s so true to life. Very very funny!

  3. sheila says:

    And Jon Hamm is HYSTERICAL. Small part, but very very funny.

  4. Todd Restler says:

    Bridesmaids sounds great.

    The thing that shocked me about your piece is that she’s Australian. I had no idea. Her Ellen Parsons is so American on Damages, it’s a shock to learn that she’s not from, like, Dayton, Ohio or something.

  5. sheila says:

    She made an interesting comment in some interview about her facility with accents (and how terrible Americans usually are with other accents) – people in other countries grow up watching American television, American movies – so the accent is something people hear on an everyday basis in Australia/England, whatever. Whereas for Americans it’s still a bit challenging. We have Crocodile Dundee to imitate. We don’t hear Australian accents filling up our television screens every day.

    I still think Russell Crowe’s American accents stink. Good actor, terrible accents!

  6. sheila says:

    And Jill Clayburgh is wonderful, it was great to see her again. She plays this weird character – so specific – a woman who goes to AA constantly even though she is not an alcoholic. She sponsors people, she leads meetings, she’s never taken a drink in her life. Kirsten Wiig is like, “Mom, you’re not an alcoholic.” Jill Clayburgh raves, with stars in her eyes, “But the stories these people tell!”

    • Todd Restler says:

      That’s a great line! The concept of eavesdropping on 12 steppers is pretty fascinating, and was explored in Fight Club as well. Just seems wrong though, interesting as it might be.

  7. Mary L says:

    A friend dragged me to see Bridesmaids and I’m glad. The scene at the engagement party where Rose Bryne’s and Kristen Wiig’s characters compete for bride’s best friend in a toasting war is the most hysterical bit I have seen in years. Your analysis of Bryne’s comedic genius is totally right. I hope we get to see much more of her.

  8. sheila says:

    Oh that toasting war! Agony to watch. When she gave the blessing in Thai? I almost fell out of my seat.

  9. Jake Cole says:

    I’m so glad someone is promoting Byrne, and ridiculously happy that it’s you. People seem to write her off as a pretty face, but she’s been different in everything she’s been featured in so far. In the (surprisingly solid, if obvious) Get Him to the Greek, she takes a fatuous, self-absorbed pop starlet and finds a pain under her bitchy, flighty cliché. She is simply wonderful in Bridesmaids (that toasting scene made me sink lower into my chair in discomfort even as I honestly could not stop laughing; I missed whole chunks of the lines in it). At the same time, she also has to deal with as much emotional baggage as Wiig and Rudolph, revealing a loneliness and sense of isolation from the friends she clings to like driftwood in a shipwreck and a step-family who hate the transparent trophy nature of her relationship with her husband but take it out on her. There’s an awkward chuckle when her stepchildren tell her to go fuck herself, but it’s such a brutal moment she has to play off with tra-la-la carelessness.

    I think part of the reason I really didn’t like anything in X-Men other than Fassbender and, when he could iron out the inconsistent character, McAvoy was how Byrne is just thrown up there to be ridiculed by everyone—the film, about tolerance for genetic differences, doesn’t even try to talk about race even in the early ’60s, but it can lazily appropriate sexism for giggles. That “women should not be allowed in the CIA” line made me want to scream. Seeing the movie a second time made me swing from not caring about its mediocrity to disdain, and I especially honed in on how Byrne is wasted.

  10. sheila says:

    Jake – Oh, X-Men was terrible – I could barely focus on the final third of it I was so tremendously bored. I loved Final Girl’s take on it. Pretty definitive. Yup – the black guy dies? And he’s the first to die? Are you kidding me? Are you not aware of the cliche? The Hispanic girl is the first to desert? The race factor was horrible, and the treatment of women was horrible and sexist. So much for equality among mutants. It’s same ol’ same ol’. The training montage was all about the boys – as poor talented Jennifer Lawrence mooned about the mansion in her blue nude suit. Disgusting, retro. But yeah, Fassbender was great. And Byrne emerged unscathed.

    But yes, Bridesmaids: she got so much depth into that character. In some interviews she mentioned that in some of the edits Helen was much more mean – so much of the film was improvised so obviously it was a choice which way to go with Helen, picking the less openly mean takes – and I think that was a really smart choice.

    I loved the moment at the very end, during the wedding, when Wilson Phillips comes out – and Wiig glances at Byrne and says, “There’s nothing else, right?” Like – she’s HAD it. And Byrne quickly nods, knowing how outrageous she’s been, “No, that’s it. There’s nothing else.”

    So funny!!!

  11. sheila says:

    Oh and Jake – my friend Jessica R. put a link up to Rose Byrne’s audition tape for Get Him to the Greek – it’s probably easily find-able on Youtube. I love audition tapes. You can hear the casting directors behind the camera roaring with laughter as she reads from her script. Then – when she goes off script? It’s even better. “You’re green … you need to live near the ocean …. Have you tried Kabbalah? Madonna does it ….”

  12. Jake Cole says:

    You can see that side of Helen lurking behind the edits: I would suspect that she ultimately ended up in the same place at the end, but the transition is so much smoother for ironing out the bitchiness into something a lot more recognizably human. I’m so glad they did that; my issue with most of the Apatow movies (directed or produced), is that they just sort of dude around and then foist an unearned emotional climax that makes some people go gaga but always strikes me as forced. Like, just sit back and let Kevin Smith handle that, fellas. But Bridesmaids, like a good Smith film, feels developed throughout, not just throwing up stereotypes and then hugging it out at the end. Helen is one of those characters who instantly throws up warning flags that she will just be a target for Annie’s loathing, but she’s given dimension so quickly that Annie’s hatred of her is, while funny, more a means of bringing out Annie’s faults than cheap humor at the expense of Helen. It’s such a subtle, wonderful performance, and it’s among my favorite performances of the year so far.

  13. Jaquandor says:

    As a “Star Wars” geek in good standing, I’m proud to report that the first time I noticed Ms. Byrne was in a bit part she had in “Attack of the Clones”! She had all of two lines, but I remember thinking, “Huh, that’s a good actress.”

  14. Michael Grelis says:

    Rose Byrne’s trajectory has been one of constant interest for me since I first saw her in “Two Hands”-an Australian flick with Brian Brown and Heath Ledger-a good movie-in the vein of “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” .
    She plays an ingenue photographer, who befriends the Heath Ledger character, and plays the role with such a sweet innocence, at once fragile and steely.
    If you can get a DVD copy in the USA, I would urge you to do so, not only to see Rose’s early work, but also for the film as a whole-Brian Brown has rarely been so good, and an actor by the name of Tom Long-one of the many in support who seemed to be in constant competition with each other to see who could stal any scene they were in.

  15. sheila says:

    Michael – thank you so much for the recommendation! I will see if I can find a copy!

  16. Michael Grelis says:

    G’day Sheila.
    Since posting my bit on Rose Byrne, I read your epistle/euolgy/treatise on Heath Ledger-you really “got” him, dinya? Now I am more than ever anxious for you to see his performance in “Two Hands”-if you can’t get it where you are, I’d be happy to send you my copy.
    I recall that in an interview on the road for “Brokeback Mountain” Heath said that he pictured Ennis Del Mar as a closed fist. And I think that’s what you see on the screen, his face screwed up like a tight fist, holding everything in, ready to punch anyone who might seek to see into his soul, for the man inside was not someone he was able to show to himself,let alone anyone else. I too, read the story long before I saw the film, in an anthology of E.Annie Proulx stories. She moves me to tears at the best of times, leaving me in awe of her talent, and realise for the millionth time, that any pretensions to write that I might harbour, are just that, pretence. His scene in Jack’s boyhood room, was shattering, as was the final scenes, when he opened the closet in his caravan to reveal Jack’s shirt hanging there, with the sleeves rolled just so, as if Jack’s body was still inside it. Ennis’ face fights against giving in to his grief, yearning and loss, the fist almost, almost, becoming unclenched-heartbreaking.

    If he had lived, he might have been interviewed at the Actors Studio. I could see him stumbling and mumbling away trying to put words into what made him the actor he was. I’m sure he would not have been an entertaining interviewee. Too closed, too tight-like a fist.

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