“Don’t you have a lock?” Rose Byrne asks, her forehead under her bathing cap creasing with concern. We’re in the women’s locker room at the YMCA on 14th Street, steps away from the pool — the only pool, Byrne has informed me, that she has found in her decade-plus of living in New York that even comes close to replicating the spacious outdoor ones in her native Sydney, Australia. Byrne hasn’t been here in six weeks, ever since she gave birth to her first child — Rocco, with Vinyl star Bobby Cannavale — which might be why she looks so dismayed that I’m now holding up the works by forgetting something as obvious as a padlock. Or maybe it’s just that Byrne’s face — while very pretty, even in a bathing cap — is naturally melancholic, with its downturned pout and wounded Bambi eyes. Nonetheless, I feel a flash of guilt that I’ve delayed what might well be an innate Australian need to plunge into water by failing to predict that this YMCA, one of the seeming last bastions of middle-class decency in all of Manhattan, might be rife with pool-locker thieves.
A metallic clang sounds out behind us, and an elderly woman in a skort shuffles by with a walker. Byrne gives me a wry look, like: See? There’s an element here.
Which is a small but telling example of the comedic sensibility that has made Byrne, 36, “the most in-demand supporting actress for comedies,” as The Hollywood Reporter rather specifically put it.
“That’s so specific!” Byrne laughs when I quote this to her. “Well, I guess you take what you can get, don’t you?!” she says, with a faux-indignant sniff. Byrne is too modest to point out that she has also, in the past five years, anchored a horror franchise (the first two Insidious films) and made appearances in the categories of musical (Annie) and action (she reprises her role as Moira MacTaggert in X-Men: Apocalypse, out May 27). But it’s true that she followed her breakthrough performances as louche pop star Jackie Q opposite Russell Brand in 2010’s Get Him to the Greek and Kristen Wiig’s frenemy in the following year’s Bridesmaids with a slew of those kinds of roles, including Seth Rogen’s partner in battle in the frat-house comedy Neighbors and Melissa McCarthy’s villainous foil in Spy. Currently, she’s continuing her funny streak with the recent release of The Meddler, a rom-com starring Susan Sarandon, and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, in theaters May 20, in which she and Rogen return as married couple Mac and Kelly, whose attempt to sell their house is threatened by the rowdy sorority next door.
“The idea of doing a second Neighbors was mostly appealing because I would get to be funny with Rose,” says Rogen, who points out that one of the keys to Byrne’s brand of humor, which I saw at the YMCA, is that you don’t see it coming. “She’s very sweet and delicate and dainty-seeming, with this doe-eyed porcelain quality,” he says. “But then— ” He starts to giggle recollecting a scene, improvised by Byrne, from the new movie: “It’s hard to verbalize, but let’s say it starts with our toddler playing with our vibrator, and it ends with Rose blurting out the words black cock.”
It is hard to imagine that from Byrne, who comes across as impeccably polite. At the YMCA, after offering to store my valuables in her locker — she’d brought her own padlock — she shyly asks if I’d like a chunk of the wax she uses to prevent swimmer’s ear, and waits patiently for the swimmers lapping up and down the fast lane to give the signal to allow us in. “Pool etiquette,” she whispers, slipping into the pool. “It’s very important.”
And cock jokes aren’t really her style, she explains later, sitting damp-haired in a coffee shop near her apartment in the West Village. “Australians have a specific sense of humor, and my family is very witty and dry,” says Byrne, who grew up one of four in a middle-class suburb of Sydney, where she took classes at the Australian Theatre for Young People and got her first serious acting job at 13, in a Sandra Bernhard movie. Soon she was doing well enough that she had to interrupt that great Australian rite of passage — a walkabout through Europe — for roles like Heath Ledger’s alterna-girl love interest in the 1999 caper Two Hands.
Further variations on the part of the Girl followed: She was a beautiful cipher in the Josh Hartnett vehicle Wicker Park, one of Natalie Portman’s handmaidens in Star Wars: Episode II, and Briseis, the captured priestess presented to “amuse” Brad Pitt’s Achilles, in Troy.
Back then, Byrne says, she wasn’t being strategic about her choices. “You gravitate to where you want to go, but so much is out of your control,” she tells me. But she knew she didn’t want to remain an amusement, at least not in the Homeric sense. After the success of Damages — which saw her nominated for two Emmys and two Golden Globes — she asked her agents to send her out for comedies. “I was doing all of this really heavy, dramatic stuff, and I just needed a break,” she says.
Her request was met with, if not outright resistance, then some confusion. “When I saw her at the audition for Get Him to the Greek,” says Nick Stoller, the director, “I was like, Why is she here? Because, you know, very good actress, but very serious.”
People who are perceived to be in the wrong lanes are often given the side-eye — this is true at the YMCA, where a lifeguard sounds his whistle and tells me and Byrne, who has been chatting with me between laps, to move to a slower lane — and it’s definitely true in Hollywood, where it often feels like the only formula is tried-and-true.
“The industry wants to put you in things that you were successful in, so they keep doing it,” says Byrne’s Meddler co-star Susan Sarandon. And while it’s a little too Zoolander to suggest that actors might be penalized for their beauty, some do succumb to a kind of inertia. “It’s just that it’s so easy for women, and actors also, who are as undeniably beautiful as Rose to build their career on that,” says Sarandon. “If you want to do something more interesting, you have to create those opportunities.”
To Byrne, the idea of being “boxed in” was insufferable. “You have to be aggressive in this business,” Byrne says at the café, between bites of ricotta toast. “You have always got to push for what you want. Working with Glenn [Close, on Damages], she was the hardest worker ever. She was constantly pushing.”
At the Get Him to the Greek audition, “She just destroyed,” says Stoller. “Like, destroyed in the way that someone from Saturday Night Live would. And that was that.”
Stoller likes to tell a story about how Byrne was so funny on that set, she even caused Russell Brand to break. “She did something that was so gross — I can’t remember what it was — there was like phone sex, talking about how wet her pussy was, something in that arena,” says Stoller. “It was so unexpected, and it just shocked him and he lost it.”
The pretty or otherwise adorable person who shocks by saying something outlandish can be another kind of box. But Byrne hasn’t stopped pushing for her characters to be interesting — whether it’s insisting that the cartoonish villain she plays in Spy have outlandishly huge baked-Alaska hair, or making her character in Neighbors, her second film with Stoller, less of a downer. The director had asked Byrne to keep her Australian accent, which went some way toward making the character realistic (“It made it seem more believable that she would be with me,” says Rogen, “like she almost wouldn’t know any better.”), but she was still, Byrne noticed, “kind of a buzzkill.”
“She pointed out that it was always the woman trying to stop the man from doing what he wanted to be doing,” says Rogen, who offered to trade dialogue with Byrne. “The idea that her character is just as dumb is something Rose really pushed.”
“It’s a stereotype, you know?” says Byrne, of the Nagging Wife character she wanted to avoid. “These subtle sort of slights of women are the things you have to be careful about.”
The experience occasioned some soul-searching on the part of the male writer-producers, who have done one better for the sequel, hiring a team of female writers to help them craft the script, the plot of which has a feminist bent: Sorority sisters rebel against archaic rules that keep them from partying as hard as the frat boys.
“Seth and Nick are really championing getting rid of those stereotypes,” says Byrne, who mourns that the rest of Hollywood has not quite achieved this level of enlightenment. “Most things I read, I still would much rather play the guy,” she says. “There have been some changes, but I wish there was more.” To that end, she started a production company, the Dollhouse Collective, last year with four friends from Australia, which will make female-oriented films a priority. “It’s been a different kind of year; having a child, you sort of reprioritize. All of the clichés are true,” Byrne muses. “But I definitely want to lean in more.” She laughs at having made an accidental Sheryl Sandberg reference. “Freudian slip.”
Styling by Rebecca Ramsey; Hair by Harry Josh using Harry Josh ProTools; Makeup by Ana Marie Rizzieri at the Wall Group using Dior; Dress by Calvin Klein Collection
*A version of this article appears in the May 2, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.