ROSE BYRNE IN NEW YORK, MAY 2016. DRESS: CHRISTOPHER KANE. PORTRAIT: THOMAS WHITESIDE. STYLING: BRITT MCCAMEY/HONEY ARTISTS. HAIR: BRIAN BUENAVENTURA/MANAGEMENT ARTISTS FOR CUTLER/REDKEN. MAKEUP: FREDRIK STAMBRO/JED ROOT. SET DESIGN: BETTE ADAMS/MARY HOWARD STUDIO.
Rose Byrne is in the midst of May madness. On Friday, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising comes out in theaters across the U.S. Both joyously silly and surprisingly on-the-nose, the film is a follow up to Nicholas Stoller’s 2014 comedy Neighbors. The entire cast is reunited, from Byrne and Seth Rogan, who star as Kelly and Mac Radner, suburban spouses coming to terms with parenthood; to Zac Efron as former fraternity bro extraordinaire Teddy Saunders; Ike Barinholtz and Carla Gallo as Mac and Kelly’s misguided best friends; and Lisa Kudrow as the publicity-conscious university dean. Even Elise and Zoey Vargas, who played Mac and Kelly’s baby daughter Stella in the first film, have reprised their role. Two years ago the Radners entered into a prank-filled rivalry with a neighboring fraternity, while this time their enemy is a little more relatable: a sorority created by a group of young women (Chloë Grace Moretz, Kiersey Clemons, and Beanie Fieldstein) who just want to party on their own terms.
If that isn’t enough, next week Byrne will celebrate the release of X-Men: Apocalypse, another blockbuster sequel with an impressive ensemble cast. “X-Men is more the emotional and intelligent end of the superhero spectrum for my taste,” she comments over the phone. “They always bring something operatic to the pictures.”
Raised in a suburb of Sydney, Australia, and currently based in New York, Byrne grew up watching the British sitcom Fawlty Towers with her family. “John Cleese was one of my acting idols,” she recalls. At 13, she made her film debut in Dallas Doll (1994). In her early 20s, she dropped out of university in Sydney to work on her second film, Two Hands (2009), with Heath Ledger.
Recent roles in Get Him to the Greek (2010), Bridesmaids (2011), Spy (2015), and the Broadway play You Can’t Take It With You (2014) have cemented Byrne’s status as a comedian, but she is by no means a one-note actor. Over the course of her career, she’s worked with noted directors such as Sofia Coppola, Peter Weir, George Lucas, Danny Boyle, Paul Feig, and Derek Cianfrance, and held her own against seasoned thespians like her Damages co-star Glenn Close.
“I think comedy is very hard,” says Byrne. “It’s very scientific getting the beats of it. Comedy and drama are challenging in different ways, but they come from the same place,” she continues. “The stakes are very high when something’s funny and the stakes also have to be high for something to be dramatic.”
EMMA BROWN: I heard you just got back from L.A. Were you doing lots of press?
ROSE BYRNE: We had the premiere last night. I got to see the movie, which was super fun.
BROWN: Had you seen the movie before?
BYRNE: No, I hadn’t. I wanted to wait until the premiere. With a comedy, it’s so important to see it with an audience and an audience who really wants to be there and is enthusiastic, otherwise it can be quite a traumatizing experience. I went to a screening of Bridesmaids where it was just publicists and journalists, and everybody was on their phone the whole time and no one was really laughing except for a couple of guys down the front. I walked away going, “Okay. No one likes this movie.” So ever since then, I’ve been like, “I’m not going to see a comedy except for at the premiere.”
BROWN: Is there one particular joke at the beginning of the film where you feel like, if the audience laughs, the whole film will go down well?
BYRNE: It’s such a blur when you’re watching it. It’s a very strange experience anyway, confronting your head that large on the screen, etcetera. But Neighbors is a very hard and fast comedy, so there’s a joke within the first 30 seconds of the movie. I knew if they were laughing at that, then we were in good hands, and they were. It’s a very good sequel. It’s so challenging to make a good sequel, but Nick really did a great job.
BROWN: I didn’t realize that the twins who play Stella in this film also played her in the original Neighbors.
BYRNE: Elise and Zoey! Nick Stoller, our director, was looking at older girls and then was like, “I can’t do it without them.” They’re fantastic and their father who’s on set with them all the time is fantastic. We totally lucked out. I think Nick didn’t want to risk it. He was a little superstitious about it.
BROWN: Did they recognize you?
BYRNE: No. [laughs] They had no idea who I was. But they were lovely.
BROWN: When did you first hear about a potential Neighbors sequel and when did you know it was going to involve a sorority?
BYRNE: I think it was late 2014 that we started talking about it. There were many different incarnations of the script. That was what we were all waiting on, getting the story right and the script down before we all signed on. But I trust Nick implicitly. I’ve worked with him three times now. The characters are really what made that movie so special. People really delighted in this marriage between Mac and Kelly, which I think you hadn’t really seen before. And Zac is so great as Teddy Saunders. He’s very funny and slightly making fun of his own persona too, in the press anyway.
BROWN: I’ve heard a lot of stories about actors having BB gun fights on the set of the X-Men films. Is that something you’ve experience?
BYRNE: Yeah, there’s a lot of that. There’s a lot of ping pong backstage, building cans and shooting them off with a BB guns. A lot of games going on. It’s a team experience on X-Men. [laughs] I was so tickled to be asked back. I had kept in touch with some of the cast, so it was really lovely.
BROWN: I wanted to go back to the beginning of your career, was Dallas Doll your first professional audition?
BYRNE: Yes, it was. I was at the Australian Theatre for Young People, which is a theater school in Sydney for extra curricular classes. A casting agent came in from a Sydney casting company and got me in to audition for this film that Sandra Bernhard was coming in to do in Australia. I went in and I got a few callbacks and then got the part.
BROWN: Do you remember what being on set for the first time was like? Was it nerve-wracking?
BYRNE: I wasn’t that nervous at that age. It was really exciting and fascinating—all these people and cameras and boxes and cords. It felt very adult, I suppose. It was an eye-opening experience at that age. I was just 13 and I was realizing that I could do this for a job.
BROWN: When you came back to school after the film, were people nice and excited about it? Or were you the “acting kid”?
BYRNE: When I was that little, they were fine. No one really noticed I’d been gone. I did a soap in Australia called Echo Point when I was 15 or 16, and when I came back from that I was more self-conscious. People would make fun of me and throw things at me and whatever teenagers do.
BROWN: Did you grow up in quite a creative household?
BYRNE: My parents weren’t in the arts, but we grew up in Balmain, which at that time was an artistic, bohemian suburb of Sydney. It’s a lot more gentrified now. It was very working class, pubs on every corner because it’s right by the water so a lot of the guys on the ships and the boats used to go and drink there. It’s very posh now. I definitely had creative people around me, but my parents were more just very encouraging.
BROWN: Was your first big American movie Star Wars?
BYRNE: Yes. I had a very small part. I played a handmaiden, but that was definitely my first experience doing a big film. It is nuts being on that kind of film—just the scale of it and the people. There’s such money behind it, and obviously, Star Wars is the biggest thing in the world. It was funny—all these crazy aliens and things that people were dressed as.
BROWN: Is there any one particular role that you feel really opened doors for you and changed your career?
BYRNE: Yeah, Damages. We never really got the best ratings; we had a really good following.
BROWN: I started watching Damages after it had already aired for a few seasons, so I didn’t realize how early it was in terms of the modern “golden age” of television.
BYRNE: We came out the same year as Mad Men. HBO had already set the bar with The Sopranos and Six Feet Under and all of those brilliant shows, and then this whole new wave of shows came out, so we were very much part of that renaissance, that second wave. It’s special to me that we were part of that. I love TV as a viewer; I’m a big fan of Vinyl and I’ve been fanatic about Girls. The writing is so great on TV now; it’s such a pleasure to watch. I feel very lucky to have been a part of it in the earlier stages.
BROWN: When you first heard about Damages, was there a still a stigma attached to doing television as a film actor?
BYRNE: I reached out to my agent about [doing television]. I had put it on the radar, because I had watched a lot of stuff. Then Damages came my way and I knew Glenn was attached. The pilot was just so tight and so thrilling and exciting, and the potential for what would happen to these characters, so I went in for it. I’m so thrilled it worked out because it was a fantastic role and it just got better and better as the season went on.
BROWN: You were also in You Can’t Take It With You on Broadway. Was that your stage debut?
BYRNE: I had done theater in Australia for the Sydney Theatre Company, but the last show I’d done was about 12 years before You Can’t Take It Without You.
BROWN: Did it feel like you were out of practice?
BYRNE: Yes, it did. I was extremely grateful for the five weeks of previews you get on Broadway before opening night, and the ensemble cast was so nurturing and kind to me. I had a really beautiful experience. Half the fun is being in this group and presenting something every night as a team. It’s a very sacred experience. It’s very cohesive and everybody is there together to bring this thing to life. There’s a riskiness to it, and the risk factor in theater is quite exciting. Anything could happen, someone could just not show up and what are you going to do?
BROWN: When you get recognized in the street, is it usually for a particular project? X-Men or Damages or Bridesmaids?
BYRNE: Half the time it’s because they think I’m someone else. [laughs] I’ve gotten everyone from Emmy Rossum to Emma Watson.
NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING COMES OUT THIS FRIDAY, MAY 20. X-MEN: APOCALYPSE COMES OUT NEXT FRIDAY, MAY 27.