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Rose Byrne on Transitioning to Comedy and Why ‘Damages’ Should Be Considered Groundbreaking TV

Rose Byrne on Transitioning to Comedy and Why 'Damages' Should Be Considered Groundbreaking TV

READ MORE: Rose Byrne on Doing More Comedies, Her Run on ‘Damages,’ and Why She Has Yet to See ‘The Conjuring’

After earning a pair of Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for her work in the acclaimed legal thriller “Damages,” it’d be more than reasonable to assume that Rose Byrne’s future was in drama.

But in the years since she wrapped production on the series in 2011, Byrne has emerged as one of the most ubiquitous and impactful presences in American comedy film. From scene-stealing turns in “Bridesmaids” and “Get Him to the Greek” to leading roles in “Neighbors” and the upcoming “Spy,” the Australian-born actress has drawn the attention of viewers and critics alike for her wicked comic edge.

She’s the kind of artist who’s always seeking out a new challenge — her shift from drama to comedy hardly covers the new ground she’s been exploring. Last fall, she earned top notices for her Broadway debut in the revival of “You Can’t Take It With You,” and earlier this week, it was announced that she and four other Australian women in the film industry had come together to form The Doll House Collective, an all-female production company. The goal is to promote strong women leaders in film, from all areas of production.

In-between her flashier projects, however, Byrne’s newest movie is the intimate, small-scale indie “Adult Beginners.” Co-starring her boyfriend Bobby Cannavale and “Kroll Show” star Nick Kroll, the film focuses on three people in their 30s, struggling in the so-called transition from youth to adulthood. As directed by Ross Katz (“Taking Chance”), “Adult Beginners” is an embracement of arrested development, as well as a humorous acknowledgment of the perils of adulthood.

Indiewire sat down with Byrne on Tuesday afternoon to discuss “Adult Beginners” and, more broadly, to talk about the direction of her career and what led her to forming The Doll House Collective.

READ MORE: Watch: Nick Kroll Shows His Softer Side in New Trailer for ‘Adult Beginners’
Since “Damages,” you have made a turn to comedy. You did “Get Him to the Greek” and “Bridesmaids” while you were still doing “Damages,” and I’m wondering, was that a conscious thing you wanted to do — make this shift? Or did it just sort of happen?

I had done more dramatic things like “Damages” and “Troy” and “28 Weeks Later.” Like any actor, you just crave diversity, so I think I did sort of [make that change]. I don’t think I’m particularly funny as a person, but comedians are often very serious when you meet them. I think it’s so hard, personally. It’s sort of like doing drama, but you have to get a laugh on top of that. Because if the stakes aren’t high, it’s not funny because you don’t have anything to lose.
In “Adult Beginners,” you get to play with that balance. I even think of “Get Him to the Greek,” where you had these scenes with Russell Brand that were very poignant. Do you like to play both sides? “Adult Beginners” is obviously very lived-in and very intimate, but even in these broader comedies that you’ve done, it seems like you’re working to maintain a real center.
Even with something like “Greek” or “Bridesmaids,” which is a comedy, you still have a character. It’s always from a real place — that I would hopefully work from — and trying to figure out who that character is. Within that, I can find the more comedic stuff. It’s always like, the more serious you are, the funnier it is. That’s what I’ve found on set. But I’ve been so lucky. I’ve gotten to work with Russell [Brand], [Kristen] Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, Owen [Wilson]. These really big heavyweight, funny actors. I’ve learned a lot, watching them and seeing how they work, and how they sustain themselves.
And Glenn Close on the dramatic side.
And Glenn! Being able to work with someone like Glenn, who’s also hysterical!
As far as the news that came out today about your production company: Why is this important to you?
It was a really organic thing that happened between some friends of mine who are based out of Australia. It’s something I had been ruminating about and marinating on — that thing of wanting to take control more and develop things. It happened really organically; we all started to meet up and talk about it — come up with this idea and this concept. We’re off to a good start.
Are there any things, specifically, that you’re looking to be doing?
I love collaborating, so it’s great to have these really intelligent women around me. They’re all from really diverse backgrounds, so it’s great already to have dialogue and get to know the strengths that everybody has. I’m really looking forward to that side of things. And probably less-so the acting stuff, and more like developing things — hopefully to be in things, but really sourcing scripts, helping with writing, ideas for directing.
With “Damages,” I wonder if you think — because now you have shows like “Homeland” and “The Good Wife” — in the age of the antihero, it didn’t get enough credit. Because in that time period, it was really the only show of its kind to have these really complicated, dark female protagonists in the guise of an “antihero” show. In terms of what you’re doing with the production company, has your work on “Damages” fed into what you’re doing there?
I’m sure it has! It’s all sort of detritus — everything and every experience you have builds up and leads to the next one, in a way. Even if it’s unconscious, it’s definitely, absolutely linked to this point of wanting to start something myself.
And I agree. I think “Damages” is very underrated in terms of its influence and in terms of the breaking of conventions it did in the world of cable and basic cable, especially during this renaissance of the antihero. I really agree, and I see a lot of shows and really see its influence in terms of structure and things like that. 

READ MORE: Women Behaving Badly: Patty Hewes, the Ruthless and Regal Lawyer From ‘Damages’

Going back to “Adult Beginners,” you’ve worked with both Paul Feig and Nicholas Stoller a few times. What was it like to do something with Ross Katz who has only done the HBO movie “Taking Chance,” which was a war movie —
Which was hilarious! [Laughs] 
What was it like to go out of the hands of these very experienced directors to someone who’s new to this genre?
I felt so confident in Ross. It was only his second directorial job. I had a small role in “Marie Antoinette,” which he produced years ago. It was actually the first time I’d really done something funny, because the character was just a really small part. Really funny, irreverent character. Sofia Coppola made a big opportunity for me.
The screenplay [of “Adult Beginners”] was so great, so well-written and so tight. It was so relatable and nuanced and emotional and funny. I just trusted it so much, and with writing that good I was just like, “I just don’t want to screw it up.” I don’t want to speak for him, but I think Ross felt the same way. It was just a really beautifully-structured piece of work. I just had confidence in that. And I didn’t do much improvising, whereas on “Greek” and “Bridesmaids” and “Spy” and “Neighbors” it’s far more improvised. This was, for me anyway, basically script-based.
It’s very interesting that you say that, because of the movies that you just mentioned, this one felt so natural and intimate to me.
That’s a testament to their writing. They’re a young couple who wrote it, Liz and Jeff, and they have young kids and so it’s a very intimate story for them. Reading it was just so easy and pleasant and it felt so relatable.
I think of the scene when you’re in bed and you say, “I forgot to brush my teeth,” to Bobby Cannavale. It’s such a beautiful, simple moment.
It’s so cute. Those things are what’s so warm about it.
I know you recommended Bobby Cannavale to be in the movie. You’ve done a few movies with him now — what’s it like?
Well I should say, the screenplay was written by Liz Flahive and Jeff Cox. And Liz Flahive is the showrunner on “Nurse Jackie,” so she had written for Bobby. And she wrote this for him. So I don’t want to take credit! But when I read it, because her writing’s so good, I was like, “He’d be great!” They were like, “You wouldn’t believe it, but she wrote it with him in mind.”
But it was really fun. They’re all different projects and people are obviously really fascinated by it, but it’s less of a big deal than you think, weirdly. We’ve both worked a lot. Like I said, they’re all very different things, and part of me thinks it would have happened anyway, even if we weren’t a couple.
And it’s also a very economic choice for the producers! [laughs] It’s one car to go to set. It’s true.
I know you have siblings and presume you could relate to the dynamics in the film. Can you elaborate a bit on that, on what you connected to in the material?
I’m the youngest of four, with two older sisters and a brother, and we’re very close. I think they’re very protective of me, just because I’m the youngest. There’s that natural dynamic you have with your older siblings. But weirdly, I relate to the Jake character more than I relate to the Justine character. I’ve far more been the one who’s more irresponsible and self-absorbed, and less knows about what’s going on, whereas my other sisters and my brother have really tapped into those roles in my life. They say the eldest sibling of a family has always got quite a lot of pressure on them, so that was a really interesting thing to explore.
And I love that she’s pregnant. It’s a kind of myth that we have, that pregnant women are like saints and they don’t have struggles or get upset or feel weird or are conflicted. It’s a complex thing to go through. And that I loved, that [the film] examined that. That she wasn’t just this stupid creature, this myth that exists where pregnant women aren’t complicated.
You have a more extreme version of that in “Neighbors.”
Yeah, exactly! “Neighbors” goes all the way to that side!
Both “Neighbors” and “Adult Beginners” deal with a similar theme of arrested development. You seem attracted to that story.
I am. It is relatable to me, and I know people like that in life. I think there’s also people who are born and are just innately adult. Who just want to be 30 when they’re 10 and they want to have those responsibilities. And then there’s other people that really don’t. But as you do get older, it’s so hard to quantify. Like, I’m 35. It’s so hard to quantify the last “what I’ve learned,” and how I’ve changed and how I’m just exactly the same as well. And I don’t have the responsibilities of a family yet. It is all sort of just a charade anyway. We’re all just sort of conducting ourselves. But it’s really funny stuff to think about and talk about, and it’s also a great backdrop for humor, as in “Neighbors” and in “Adult Beginners.”

READ MORE: Critical Crossroads: Seth Rogen’s ‘Neighbors’ is Very Funny, But Is it All Alone?

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