Rose Byrne has demonstrated fierce comedic timing in movies like Bridesmaids, Spy, the Neighbors franchise and this year’s Like a Boss. But the Australian native’s turn as feminist trailblazer and Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem in FX’s limited series Mrs. America reminds us of her chameleon-level expertise. Yes, the wig and the sunglasses are a big plus, but Byrne plunges into the complexities of the ERA proponent’s public image and personal life with a great subtlety, displaying not only Steinem’s inspirational attributes, but her flaws as well. Byrne was previously Emmy nominated in the supporting category for Damages in 2009 and 2010.
DEADLINE: When you were first approached with Mrs. America, did the creators always have you in mind for the part of Gloria Steinem?
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ROSE BYRNE: I was approached by Dahvi [Waller], and we had a couple of great conversations, and I was just intrigued by the project as a whole. The character, in a way, is almost the last port of entry, just because the pace itself was so fascinating and interesting, and the way a historical piece, to me, was so relevant to just sort of reverse-engineer where we are today, and how we have got to this place now in our politics, and how divisive it is, and how divided we are.
She’s very charming and really funny and eccentric, and you know, feminists often get the bad rap of being humorless, and Dahvi’s definitely not that, so I knew that this would be a really fresh, incredible period of history, which is actually largely almost forgotten and not known about. And you really realize, watching it and learning about it, how as a woman, we really stand on the shoulders of these women who came before us, the Second Wave movement. Without Shirley Chisholm, there is no Black Lives Matter. Without Gloria Steinem, there’s no #MeToo. All the work these women did really precipitated where we’re at today.
DEADLINE: On the show, Gloria has a fascinating means of negotiating with the men to get her agenda across, like when she’s dealing with George McGovern’s advisor to get the abortion platform presented at the Democratic Convention.
BYRNE: Well, I see it with not just Gloria, but with all of these women, whether it’s Gloria or Phyllis [Schlafly] or Shirley or Jill Ruckelshaus, and it’s because that’s how you had to get business done then. These women, you know, grew up and were in their 20s and 30s in the ’50s and ’60s, where there was such rampant sexism and such rampant discrimination, and they had to figure out a way to deflect and move onto getting what their end goal was. She was a defense expert. I feel like it’s more of a circumstantial thing that women have always, throughout history, had to figure out how to get their agenda in a patriarchal society. So, you see how they’ve become accustomed to it, and how they still achieve what they’re striving to achieve, and it still happens now, to a lesser degree, I think, because there are more people being held accountable, but I think the series really examines that from many different perspectives.
That’s a very-well documented moment when Gloria breaks down and screams at McGovern’s aide about how he, at the 11th hour, totally backtracks on the feminists and betrays them after saying that he will allow them on the convention floor. Nora Ephron wrote in her very famous essay about this, and that Gloria [was] the unflappable, very serene sort of face of the moment; you never could catch her having a moment, and then she has this moment where she screams at him on the floor and is very upset. So, it was really important for Dahvi to capture that, to see her finally crack, in a way, because she has always been presented as very stoic.
DEADLINE: One of the fascinating aspects of the series is how it shows Gloria’s vulnerabilities. There’s a moment when she learns that Brenda Feigen-Fasteau, during her marriage, had a relationship with another woman. Brenda makes a dig to Gloria like, “You’re not going to do a press release about this, right?”
BYRNE: That was always one of the more interesting aspects of this show to me, too, is I think any biopic of any person, whether it’s Gloria Steinem or Martin Luther King or Princess Diana, if it’s a puff piece, it’s just putting them on a pedestal and not analyzing them from any sort of complex, critical standpoint. It’s just not interesting if you don’t see anything fallible. I find it far more interesting to look at these people from a complex treatment, in a way, rather than just putting them on a pedestal. And it’s hard to do that. That’s why biopics are hard, particularly when you’re trying to present someone as iconic as Gloria Steinem, who has dedicated her life to activism for women and for minorities, but it’s trying to find that balance of honoring that legacy and also presenting a complex, complicated person.
DEADLINE: The series builds Gloria and Phyllis up as foes, but we don’t see them go at it. Rather it’s Phyllis and Betty Friedan who debate on stage. Gloria even remarks that she would never get in a public scuffle like that. It’s almost as though Gloria is very conscious of her brand. Is that how you found her?
BYRNE: Gloria had no interest in trying to highlight Phyllis’ message, and she knew with her power and the media behind her, and her being the face of the movement, whether she liked it or not—there’s that reluctance in her you see at the beginning—she knows the attention it will bring, and she’s very smart about it, and doesn’t feel like it needs to have any more light shined on it, because the media are already shining a lot of light onto Phyllis, and perhaps disproportionately. I feel like it’s less branding and more just a strategy of expanding one’s power.
DEADLINE: So, let’s talk about the glasses and the hair. Did you put them on and everything else just flowed?
BYRNE: It certainly was a big part. Trying to recreate her silhouette was essential. It took a little while, obviously, to fine-tune it, and never wanting to make it look retro, but to make her look authentic and part of the time, and to have it just seamlessly part of the whole look of the show, the whole vision of the show. And you know, she’s just so recognizable. She’s an iconic figure. There are not many people like that, that you instantly know from a silhouette. It’s very rare, so to have that, to really try to capture that without making it a caricature, was a fine line, and we worked very carefully to try to achieve that.
DEADLINE: Looking back at your career, which project did you feel shot you out of the cannon? Was it Bridesmaids? Damages? Star Wars: Attack of the Clones?
BYRNE: When you said “shot out of a cannon,” you know what really resonates with me, [with] that expression? I did a movie called Troy with Brad Pitt when I was 23, and for me, that was like being shot out of a cannon. Doing a film of that scale with these huge movie stars, coming from Australia, and having done plays and TV shows. That experience was quite unlike anything I could prepare for. It was a long shoot. It was this epic budget, this historical film, and then the press tour that went with it and having been such a young age, you know? That to me was such a feeling of being, like you say, shot out of a cannon. Like, whoa, this is really a surreal experience.
DEADLINE: And then all the greats you’ve worked with—Dennis Hopper, Glenn Close, Judd Apatow—what was some great takeaway advice you received that still resonates with you today?
BYRNE: That’s a good question. I remember working with Janet McTeer, and she made a great… it was sort of a passing comment more than advice, but she just made this comment, “You have your good years, and you have your bad years,” and I took such solace in that. It was just like a one-year-at-a-time approach, but I quite liked that. For me, my temperament, I really appreciated that. You have your good years, you have your bad years, and some years it really works out, and you have a couple winners, and other years, you don’t, and I love that sentiment and I took a lot away from that.