She played a good girl lawyer in Damages and was perfectly, poisonously hilarious in Bridesmaids. Now Rose Byrne is a Bond-esque villain in Spy. We meet the good girl gone baddie

It’s three o’clock on a warm weekday afternoon, Rose Byrne and I are in a genteel Italian restaurant in New York’s West Village, and our waitress – with an entirely straight face – has just asked if we’re interested in today’s special, a 20 oz pork chop. “Let’s start with that; one each,” suggests a laughing Byrne. “It’s almost worth it, just so you could write about it.” In the event, sadly, the slender Australian actress chooses minestrone soup. “We’ll get the chop next time, I promise,” she tells our waitress, apologetically.  

 To some, 35-year-old Byrne may still be most recognisable from the five years she spent till 2012 playing Ellen Parsons alongside Glenn Close’s ruthless Patty Hewes in the American legal thriller Damages. But in recent years she has shown some serious comedy chops, in films such as Bridesmaids and Bad Neighbours, and now, her latest, Spy. 

The Bond-inspired spoof features her Bridesmaids co-star Melissa McCarthy as a back-office CIA agent working undercover in the field for the first time, and Byrne as her nemesis, Raina Boyanov, the Oxford-educated daughter of a Bulgarian arms dealer.  

“It was a very conscious decision,” Byrne says of her move into lighter material. “I’m Australian – we don’t take ourselves too seriously – but I really didn’t know if I would have any luck,” she shrugs. “Just because you’re funny in real life doesn’t mean you are necessarily a funny actor; and if you’re funny on screen it does not mean you’re bound to be funny in real life,” she notes. 

Her first foray into comedy was five years ago, with Get Him to the Greek – in which she played Russell Brand’s sweary, sex-obsessed girlfriend, Jackie Q, an Essex-born model turned pop star – and has continued through 2013’s The Internship and I Give It a Year.

She kept up the tirade of foul-mouthed filth in last year’s Bad Neighbours – a riot of a film, filled with booze, bongs and penis gags. In it she played Kelly, a former party fiend saddled with a young baby and struggling to adapt to suburban family life, alongside her husband, Mac (Seth Rogen). “We wanted to avoid making her a traditional female character in a male comedy, who are very often nagging killjoys,” Byrne says. “It’s a shame that it was such a revelation that Mac and Kelly had a different dynamic; women can be just as diverse and as irresponsible as men.”

In person, she is poised, polite and self-contained, with more of a dry wit than the broad, sometimes slapstick comedy she has been bringing to life on screen. Committed to “doing things that terrify me”, last year Byrne also made her Broadway debut to great reviews, as Alice Sycamore in the 1930s comedy You Can’t Take It With You, alongside James Earl Jones. “That was such a different experience, because it was a very classical text,” she says. “It is sort of the first sitcom, and we didn’t know how that would translate to a modern audience.”  

We meet at the restaurant, where Byrne is a regular, a few days ahead of Spy’s premiere at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. Set between Paris, Prague and London, but filmed almost entirely in Budapest, it is written and directed by Paul Feig, who also directed Byrne and McCarthy in the hit comedy Bridesmaids – the 2011 film widely credited with persuading detractors that female-led comedies could be commercially successful (it made almost $300 million at box offices worldwide). “He loves women to be funny and cool, to be smarter than the guys, and to kick ass,” Byrne says. “He’s so interested in breaking all of those gender conventions, and it’s really refreshing.” 

 Byrne, however, was taken aback that people were surprised by its success. “I was probably very naive,” she admits. “I hadn’t done that much comedy, and I honestly didn’t realise we were somehow breaking new ground.“It was a little disappointing,” she continues, candidly. “I’m sure the guys from The Hangover didn’t get asked, 'Hey guys, how about this group of men who are all really funny – isn’t that amazing?’ It gets boring. You wish it wasn’t even part of the conversation.”

Her character in Spy, Raina, is a magnificent comedy creation, an icy, highly educated psychopath with a huge thatch of bird’s-nest hair and a wardrobe of gaudy, flashy fashions, as if Helena Bonham Carter had been dressed by Donatella Versace, by way of Cruella De Vil. “She could be a prostitute, even though she’s wearing about $700,000 on her body,” Byrne deadpans. “And the hair deserves its own interview.”

Byrne, by contrast, has a neat blunt bob (“It was fried from everything we did to it for Raina, so I had to chop it off”), is fresh-faced and wearing a stylishly simple outfit of jeans and a dove-grey sweater. 

Bryne leading the charge for female-led comedy in Bridesmaids Credit: REX

While Spy is another firmly female-led film, with Allison Janney as the head of the CIA, and Miranda Hart as one of McCarthy’s colleagues, it also features Jude Law and Jason Statham as somewhat hapless operatives. “It’s very clever casting; they are hilarious,” Byrne says. Both actors impressively send up the public’s perception of themselves with the roles: Law as a suave, vain pin-up, reliant on McCarthy’s direction, while Statham is an over-confident, intense hardman, obsessed with proving his supposedly superior spying abilities. The latter, in particular, is a comedic revelation.

Byrne grew up in the Sydney suburb of Balmain (“which used to be bohemian and full of artists, but is now very gentrified”), where her father, Robin, was a statistician who also performed as a clown at children’s parties, and her mother, Jane, taught at an aboriginal primary school. “My parents are Luddites,” she has said. “I grew up in a house full of great antique furniture, and they don’t have things such as mobile phones and microwaves.”

The youngest of four children, Byrne was incredibly shy, she says, and when she was eight years old, a family friend suggested she might enjoy drama classes at the Australian Theatre for Young People. “And I just loved it, loved it, loved it,” she gushes. “When you are shy, it’s a great way to integrate with other people, use your imagination, play and socialise.”  

She was cast in her first film role, Dallas Doll, at 13, and appeared in several Australian television series, such as Heartbreak High, in her teens. “My parents were adamant about us all going to university, though – they considered it a privilege to be able to get an education, and our duty to use our brains.” Byrne applied to drama school, but didn’t get in, despite her professional portfolio. “I was devastated,” she says, honestly. “For a while, I didn’t know what to do.” 

Byrne in the twisted legal drama Damages Credit: REX

Instead, she studied English literature and gender studies at Sydney University – “lots of Foucault, I found it really fascinating” – but dropped out to make Two Hands, an Australian crime comedy-drama with Heath Ledger.

Byrne moved to LA for a few years in her early 20s, where she won small roles in large films such as Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, and bigger parts in Australian and British films, including The Rage in Lake Placid and I Capture the Castle. “LA’s not for everyone; I found it pretty hard, I was very homesick,” she says. “I enjoy it more now – there’s an incredible art scene there these days.” 

At 25, Byrne moved to London and bought a house in Hackney, where she lived for two years with her sister, Lucy, who was working for Penguin Books. While filming Spy, Byrne went back to visit her old stamping ground. “When I was there it was becoming gentrified, but now it’s in a different league,” she says. “Broadway Market is so fashionable and intense now – it’s like a catwalk.” 

Byrne herself can often be found on celebrity best-dressed lists and is frequently praised by the fashion press for taking sartorial risks, particularly on the red carpet. “It’s hard not to look too cheesy,” she grimaces. “And it’s fashion, so it should be fun. To me, getting on the worst-dressed list is just as good as getting on the best-dressed list. You are never going to please everybody, so it’s more important to please yourself.” 

Byrne and boyfriend of three years Bobby Cannavale front row at Chanel in 2013 Credit: Michel Dufour/WireImage

She misses the edginess of London, though. “There’s a wildness about it, it’s more underground. The art and music and fashion that comes out of London is the most interesting in the world. New York can be a little mainstream.” 

New York, however, is home these days. “Australia is my emotional home, and always will be, I think, but New York is where all my stuff is,” she reasons. 

Byrne moved here in 2007 for Damages, and lived for several years in a converted funeral parlour in the East Village. Now she and her boyfriend of three years, the actor Bobby Cannavale, have a home nearby in the picturesque West Village. 

The life of an actor is notoriously itinerant, and Byrne appreciated being largely based in the city for the duration of Damages. “I like to create a community where I am, and I think that probably suits my temperament. Making films can be disruptive to your life.” And, notoriously, to one’s relationship.

“You’ve got to make the effort to make sure you’re in each other’s lives all the time,” she asserts. “It’s just like if you’re a journalist or a politician or any job that takes you away a lot. You have to organise your life or the time apart can stretch into weeks and weeks and that’s not good for any relationship. It’s hard.” she smiles. “But it’s not that hard. He’s not on an oil rig; I’m not in the Congo.”

Recently, in fact, she and Cannavale have had a lucky spell, making three films together in quick succession: the Jay-Z-produced Annie, the comedy Adult Beginners, and Spy, in which Cannavale plays an arms-trade associate of Raina. 


“I was a little nervous initially,” she admits of their decision to work together. “It could have not been a good idea, but I admire him so much as an actor I was really excited to work with him.” In Cannavale’s acceptance speech for the 2013 Emmy he won for his role as Gyp Rossetti in Boardwalk Empire, Cannavale called Rose “the love of my life”. She squirms a little, however, when I ask whether they have plans to start a family. “I’m happy in my life right now,” is all she will say on the subject. 

She will, though, attest to the fact that settling down with Cannavale has affected her vision of the future. “There’s always a small part of me that feels like a foreigner in a foreign land, that this isn’t my country and these are not my countrymen and I will probably return home one day; even if it’s totally not true, it’s a little story I have always told myself,” she says. “But once you have a life here with somebody, that’s obviously a total game changer.”

Aside from her family, there is another, new pull back to her homeland. She has set up a production company with a group of girlfriends, called The Dollhouse Collective. “It’s a sort of think tank, where we will try to bring material to each other and direct and produce it. It is really exciting and feels very empowering,” she enthuses. The members include other actresses, a writer, a director and a producer. Byrne has never written or produced before, “But I want to try my hand at it all, and see what I can bring to the table.”

In the meantime, she is about to begin filming The Meddler, a comedy-drama about the dysfunctional relationship between a mother and daughter, with Susan Sarandon and JK Simmons. And her character in the X-Men franchise, Moira MacTaggert, who has been absent from the last couple of films, is set for a return in the next instalment, X-Men: Apocalypse. 

“I don’t know where she went for a while, but hopefully we’ll find out,” Byrne quips. “Her memory was wiped, so maybe she decided she was going to work in advertising. Or maybe she’ll come back with an Irish accent.” 

Spy is out on June 5