Rose Byrne is standing in a darkened photo studio in Manhattan’s East Village. Her lips have been painted a dramatic shade of red, and her brown locks curl out at the ends in comely wisps. A fog machine sits next to an idling 1968 Firebird convertible, which the 31-year-old Australian actor leans against seductively. Paired with the exhaust coming out of the car’s tailpipe, the fog, while essential to the Lynchian vibe on set, makes it hard to breathe. A trooper, Byrne coughs into her cupped hands and returns to the art of being sexy. It’s only when Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In the World)” starts playing that she loses her grip. “Seriously, guys?” she snaps. “Can we please change the music?”
A few hours later, we’ve relocated to a bench in Tompkins Square Park for some fresh air. It’s the first warm afternoon in April, and we’re assessing her little outburst. “I didn’t know that was a Rihanna song,” she says, laughing. “I just couldn’t cope with it.” Perhaps that’s because Byrne, the star of TV’s Machiavellian law drama Damages (the fourth season of which premieres in July on DirecTV), leads a life that’s anathema to photo shoots—and fast cars, for that matter. “I wish I could tell you some thrilling stories about my adventures hobnobbing and hot air ballooning, but I’m usually very mundane,” she says. “I ride my bike. I go to yoga. I try to cook once a week, although I’m a terrible chef.” Recent dishes include roasted chicken and spaghetti Bolognese—“nothing fancy.” Byrne, a onetime student of literature who dropped out of the University of Sydney in her “second or third” year, enjoys escaping into a novel when she can, even posting mini-reviews on Goodreads, a “nerdy website that’s sort of like Facebook, but about actual books.” She’s currently part-way through an intense spring-cleaning marathon, which she’s quick to blame on her recently packed working schedule. “My apartment is overgrown with clutter,” she says, her Aussie accent muddled by the American and British inflections she’s adopted over time for various roles. “I tend to throw myself full bore into my job, and when I finally stop to breathe I sort of collapse for a while.”
If ever she’s earned the right to vegetate, it’s now. The two-time Golden Globe Award nominee, who’s appeared in such films as Troy, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and Marie Antoinette, recently co-starred with Patrick Wilson in Insidious, her first horror film. “I did a zombie movie, 28 Weeks Later, a few years ago, but I’d never done anything quite like this,” she says. “I used to make my mom rent Poltergeist and A Nightmare on Elm Street. I love a good horror flick, so it was a welcome challenge.” Byrne’s next challenge is the ensemble comedy Bridesmaids, a bawdy, estrogen-addled answer to The Hangover. In that film, out this month, she plays Helen, the most Type A of Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) six bridesmaids. While she tackled broad comedy last year as Jackie Q, the pop-tart girlfriend to Russell Brand’s live-wire rock star in Get Him to the Greek, this was her first opportunity to play a funny female lead. “I’m so unbelievably proud of that film,” she says of Bridesmaids. “No matter how it does at the box office, I just think there’s never been anything like it.”
Additionally, Byrne will star this summer as Moira MacTaggert, a CIA operative who liaises between the American government and her mutant friends in X-Men: First Class. Although director Matthew Vaughn reinterpreted Marvel’s beloved comic book character for his film (the original MacTaggert was a geneticist and mutation expert), Byrne isn’t losing any sleep over the possible wrath of purists. “I’m sure there are people out there who will be fundamentally disappointed by my interpretation, but hopefully some people will like it, too,” she says. “There’s really nothing I can do about it either way.” This isn’t to say that Byrne took lightly the responsibility of bringing her character to life. “I met with an X-Men expert on set a few times. He came prepared with a folder this thick,” she says, stretching out her slim arms as if reenacting the most fruitful fishing trip of her life. “He wasn’t sent from Marvel, but he was a wonderfully learned fanboy nonetheless.”
X-Men: First Class is likely to break box-office records, but Byrne is trying her best to avoid the hype. “You always want a winner,” she says, “But I’m not necessarily after the fame that kind of success often breeds. Obviously I want people to see the films I make, otherwise I’d be doing a play right now on the side of the road, but I’m not chasing fame in the way that someone like Paris Hilton chases fame.” Or the way Charlie Sheen, perhaps a more topical example, chases fame. “That looks more like a case of mental illness, but you never know,” she says of Sheen. “Maybe he’s the architect of it all—and if he is, fantastic, but if he’s not, then the whole thing seems terribly exploitative. I’m so thankful for my absolute anonymity outside of the acting world.” Late to meet a friend for dinner, Byrne says goodbye and disappears into the crowds of drifters trafficking St. Mark’s Place. True to her word, no one seems to notice.
Photography by David Field. Styling by Christopher Campbell.
First photo: Dress and Earrings by Chanel. Second photo: Sweater by Louis Vuitton. Necklace by Salvatore Ferragamo. Third photo: Dress by Proenza Schouler. Shoes By Gucci. Hair by Thomas Dunkin @ The Wall Group using Sebastian Professional. Makeup by Hung Vanngo @ The Wall Group. Manicurist: Julie Kandalec @ Artists by Timothy Priano. Photo Assistants: Ryan Burke and Sasha Maslov. Stylist’s Assistant: Gina Zuniga-Baldwin. Digital Tech: Blake Ribbey. 1968 Firebird 400 convertible provided by Classic Car Club Manhattan. Location Bathhouse Studios, New York City.