“Why is she here?” That’s what director Nicholas Stoller remembers thinking when Rose Byrne came to audition for the part of a raunchy pop star in his 2010 comedy Get Him to the Greek. The director knew the 35-year-old Australian actress primarily as an Emmy-nominated actress from the TV legal thriller Damages, and she looked to him more like “a model…a lead.” But after Byrne got the part, the filmmaker quickly saw a much different side of the “serious” thespian. “She would improv stuff that was so gross and so inappropriate,” Stoller recalls, “that [Greek star] Russell Brand — who isn’t someone who breaks, ever — finally cracked. I would go, ‘Where is this coming from?!?'”
A stealth raunch-com all-star and, per Stoller, “secretly one of the most brilliant comedians working right now,” Byrne deploys her particular set of skills in the new James Bond spoof Spy, giving a delightfully cruel performance as a haughty Eastern European arms dealer opposite Melissa McCarthy. “We have a weird kind of chemistry,” she says of her blustery, headlining co-star. “And my character…to her, everyone’s a servant. I really wanted to push that degree of entitlement.” The result means we get cringe-comic gems like Byrne’s ice-queen reading of line in which her villainess recalls her first glimpse of McCarthy’s undercover agent — “standing there in that abortion of a dress, as if to say, ‘This is what I’ve got, world. It’s hideous, but it’s mine.'” And that’s the character’s version of compliment.
Director Paul Feig, who’d also worked with the duo in the surprise 2011 blockbuster Bridesmaids, collaborated with Byrne to shape a role originally written as a “19-year-old snotty rich kid” and compares her talent to that of Steve Carrell: “They’re such good actors that they become that character. It’s never like they’re looking for the joke.”
Byrne’s transformation from ingénue to comedy’s secret weapon was more than 15 years in the making. She made her film debut in 1994 in a small Aussie movie titled Dallas Doll, working her way up to more mainstream fare like 2004’s Brad Pitt epic Troy. Craving more diversity in her career, the actress let her agents know she was interested in broader, more comic material — a strategy that’s the exact opposite of how things typically work in Hollywood. “Nobody does that,” Feig says with admiration. “Comedy doesn’t get the respect that drama does, and so many [funny] actresses I know want be dramatic actresses. People get so caught up in getting awards.”
“As a woman, I get a little more scrutiny. How often does Ben Stiller get, ‘Wow, you did a really gross-out scene when you got your junk caught in your pants?'”
Stoller recounts an example from Get Her to the Greek that demonstrated her willingness to go to great lengths to make a fool of herself. “There’s a music video in the film where she was doing this ridiculous dance, wearing these incredibly tall stiletto heels,” he says. “She fell really hard — later I found out she bruised her tailbone, I think — and I was like, ‘Oh my God, cut! Are you OK?’ Any other actor would be like, ‘I need an hour to see the medic,’ but Rose said, ‘No, let’s keep going,’ and went back to shooting this ridiculous music video…which was basically a lot of butt puns.”
Or take Stoller’s 2014 frat-next-door flick, Neighbors, in which the Byrne’s character falls victim to a hilarious breast-pump malfunction. “That was probably the furthest I’ve gone,” she says. “I don’t know what else they can throw at me.” The actress is quick to add that, when it comes to bodily humor, there’s a divide in the way male and female performers are perceived. “[As] a woman, I get a little more scrutiny on that stuff,” she says. “How often does Ben Stiller get, ‘Wow, you did a really gross-out scene when you got your junk caught in your pants?'”
Byrne, meanwhile, plans to keep moving between comedy and drama. She recently starred in the indie dramedy Adult Beginners (alongside real-life boyfriend Bobby Cannavale, who’s also in Spy), and she’ll return as non-mutant Moira MacTaggert in next spring’s X-Men: Apocalypse. Later this year she starts filming a Neighbors sequel, tentatively titled Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. “With drama, you’re vulnerable and raw and exposing yourself, but with comedy it’s even worse,” says Byrne. “It’s funny what you do for a laugh…I even surprise myself. Sometimes it’s only afterward that you think, ‘Oh dear…maybe Dad shouldn’t see that one.'”