Somewhere between Hillary Clinton’s first and second presidential bids, it became passé — and utterly dull — to ask women of note whether they were feminists. Any answer to the once-Zeitgeist-y question, foisted upon female actors, pop stars, and doctors, was the wrong one, and would make headlines in the days that followed. This is a good thing for Rose Byrne, who, given her recent track record, would almost certainly have been interrogated on the belief that people should be treated equally, every time she faced the press.
The one-two punch of her latest projects in particular would have really landed Byrne in the F-word hot seat: Last year, it was FX on Hulu’s Mrs. America, in which she portrayed the mother of white feminism herself, Gloria Steinem. And beginning June 18, it’s her AppleTV+ series Physical, which, incidentally, picks up in 1981, exactly where Mrs. America left off.
“It strangely felt like a companion piece because Mrs. America ends in 1980,” Byrne says, video-chatting while on holiday in her native Australia. “And [my character] is a former hippie activist, coming from the movement of the Berkeley days, and she’s disillusioned when we meet her. And it’s sort of about the next stage of America, I think, if I can be so lofty to say. It felt like that to me.”
Set in sepia-hued Southern California, Physical, from creator Annie Weisman (a producer of the cult comedy Suburgatory and Desperate Housewives before that), follows Byrne’s Sheila, a wife and mother who regains some agency over her life through the burgeoning aerobics craze. “It’s also kind of a reverse engineering of the wellness industry,” Byrne says. Today, “everybody is an entrepreneur online, whether it’s a parenting expert or a wellness expert or a makeup expert, everybody has their brand. And this is really the seeds of that, these sort of lifestyle gurus.”
In other words, the series paints aerobics instructors as the original influencers. And though it’s a half hour and is billed as a comedy, it also features some of the most unrelenting depictions of female suffering ever shown on TV, even in this antihero-prone era.
“I feel like sometimes women are seen as unraveling in very obvious ways, whether it’s outlandish behavior or they’re crazy or whatever,” Byrne says. “And often the destruction that women experience is on the inside: how we talk to ourselves or how we look at ourselves. All of that stuff, it’s all inside, and it’s secret, and it’s shameful. That’s a harder story to tell. And it’s rarely represented like that onscreen, that internal, destructive, terrible treatment of ourselves.”
Because to externalize turmoil, Byrne ventures, is a privilege which women, still, are not often granted. Sheila is mentally ill — she has bulimia, among other conditions, none of which are played for laughs. To the contrary, thanks to a near-constant voice-over that laps over Byrne’s performance in front of the camera, Physical is an intimate portrayal of torment.
But Sheila is as cruel to other women as she is to herself, and even partakes in both blackmail and theft. “You want to root for this character and she’s complicated, and she’s not an easy character to just [understand],” Byrne says. “It’s not all black and white with Sheila. And that was my challenge, I felt, trying to understand that myself. You know, often these illnesses are a punch line or the butt of a joke … Particularly back then, there wasn’t a language around Sheila’s illness at all. It was really new to sort of even acknowledge it and know what it’s called.”
It can be taxing just for the audience to be inside Sheila’s own caustic head, even as she flashes a smile onscreen. But Byrne is able to leave that anguish on set, along with her ’80s wig and leotards, thanks to her two young children (with partner and fellow actor Bobby Cannavale). Her kids aren’t just grounding; they simply don’t allow her to wallow. “They couldn’t care less if I’ve, like, had a hard day and I feel a bit vulnerable, or like, ‘Gosh, that was a tough scene,’” she says. “I’m sure back when I was a younger actress without as many responsibilities, I would sort of indulge that stuff.”
That doesn’t mean Byrne is an Etsy ideal of female self-empowerment. Despite her achievements and devoted fan base (lesbians may have manifested her role as Steinem), she nearly falls over herself to admit she’s susceptible to hyperself-criticism. “Yeah, of course, what’re you crazy?” she says. “Are you bloody insane? It’s like any artist, right? We’re all just struggling, whether it’s about your writing or your music or your painting. What I see obviously is so different from what someone else is experiencing.”
Along with Physical and Mrs. America, factor in her other recent project, a modern adaptation of Medea, performed at Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, opposite Cannavale, in early 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic closed theaters, and Byrne is on a roll playing women in varying degrees of crisis. (The matriarch at the heart of Medea, famously, could have used some wellness.) This signals a watershed moment in Byrne’s eyes. “I look at Mrs. America and I look at Physical, and neither of those shows would’ve been made five years ago, or ten years ago, or even three years ago, maybe. It’s timing,” she says. “And it’s a cultural shift and it’s a cultural reflection of storytelling. Look at [the success of] Nomadland. And obviously these projects are about a female story, a female narrative.”
She has a point. Weisman wrote the Physical pilot “eight or nine years ago,” Byrne posits. And it’s only now that she’s been able to find a home for it.
Doing what she could on her part to move the needle was certainly top of mind in Byrne’s forming a production company, Dollhouse Pictures, founded with four other women, in order to “prioritize female-driven storytelling.” “It’s exciting to have women making decisions and being at the table, making choices about how a story unfolds and how it looks and how it’s told,” she says of the venture. (The company’s first project, a musical dramedy called Seriously Red, is currently in production with both Byrne and Cannavale in its cast.)
Though she’s scaling new career heights, Byrne’s rise in the industry has been far from meteoric. She starred opposite Glenn Close on FX’s five-season legal drama Damages, and there was of course her role as stuck-up Helen in Kristen Wiig’s brassy comedy Bridesmaids — you know, the movie that proved with absolutely no precedent that women can be both funny and bankable at the box office. Bridesmaids also rendered Byrne a deft, sought-after comedic performer, leading to standout roles in Spy and the Neighbors franchise.
But Physical does mark Byrne’s first time as the sole lead of a project. She recognizes the weight of the moment — but not too much. “I’m Australian, so it’s hard for me to really talk about this because I feel like we can’t take ourselves too seriously,” she laughs. “I’m gonna just hide behind my cultural inability to reflect.”
She adds: “I couldn’t think too much about being on the shoulders of myself.” She doesn’t have to, though; those who come after her will.