When you hear the word “boss,” who comes to mind?
“Margo Martindale — she’s such a pistol,” says Rose Byrne over eggs at a Mediterranean café in New York City’s East Village. Byrne, dressed in a crisp white top and dark blue wide-leg Chloé jeans, has just gotten back to town after spending five months in Toronto filming the upcoming FX show Mrs. America with the beloved character actress.
Byrne plays Gloria Steinem in the nine-episode series, which centers around the battle to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified in all 50 states and the anti-feminism movement led by Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett). Martindale plays activist and congresswoman Bella Abzug, and Sarah Paulson, Tracey Ullman, and Uzo Aduba round out the cast. “It was epic,” says Byrne. “We all bonded and became a very close-knit group of women.”
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But filming the show at this exact moment in history definitely colored the experience for Byrne. “It was profoundly depressing that the same things people were trying to get passed in the Senate back then, like reproductive rights, are still under fire now. Except they’re trying to revert all these things that have been put in place.” On set, she says, the cast would sit and marvel at the parallels between then and now. “It was quite shocking.”
Byrne has yet to meet Steinem in real life, but she did her homework. “I tried to do as much research as I could — read every book, every article [by and about her] from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. But at some point you have to throw it out the window and just dive in.” Steinem, says Byrne, has a confident grace. “She’s incredibly composed in the way she walks and talks and presents herself, so I was trying to capture that. There’s a toughness to her, really.”
Byrne’s Like a Boss character, Mia, is a little less self-possessed, though the actress still plays her with the same go-for-broke commitment she showed to great effect in Bridesmaids, Neighbors, and Spy. “Trying to do more comedic stuff was a really important thing for me,” she says, thinking about her career arc. “Professionally, that was a huge turning point.” Another watershed moment? “Meeting Bobby [Cannavale, her partner] and having my kids was the biggest profoundly emotional turning point in my life,” she says. “It’s so hard to talk about without sounding like a cliché because it’s so much more than that.”
It’s not to be overstated how challenging having two children under the age of 3 can be — and when you mix in two active careers that often involve a lot of travel... well, it’s worth saying that she deserves a few high fives and perhaps a nap. So that Byrne could film Mrs. America, she and Cannavale relocated their family to Toronto, and their older son, Rocco, went to school there. She said Toronto reminded her of her native Sydney — “lots to do, lots of parks” — but is happy to be back home in Brooklyn for now.
Byrne turned 40 this past July, and she says it inspired her to take more risks. So her next project is full-on — this month she’ll appear as Medea opposite Cannavale in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s contemporary production of the Euripides play. Quick reminder of the plotline: Medea swears revenge against her husband, Jason, for betraying her with another woman and goes to extreme (murderous) lengths to hurt him (by murdering people).
“You know, Greek tragedy. It’s fine! It’s lighthearted,” she says with a laugh. “After I turned 40, I thought, ‘This is the kind of most ridiculous, risky thing I could do. I’m scared. I’m gonna do it. And if I fail, that’s OK.’ Listen to me comforting myself! But I’m going to dive in and do it. No risk, no reward.” And though Byrne peppers our conversation with modest qualifiers like that, she says her confidence about what she can do has only gotten more solid.
“I know where my intuition is going to take me,” she says. “I may not present that way. I think most people are like, ‘Wow, you seem really scattered,’ but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more comfortable with autonomy.”
Photos: Robbie Fimmano/Walter Schupfer. Styling: Julia Von Boehm. Hair: Ursula Stephen for Starworks Artists (Haddish), David von Cannon for Starworks Artists (Hayek Pinault), and Harry Josh for Statement Artists (Byrne). Makeup: Keita Moore for The Only Agency (Haddish), Genevieve Herr for Sally Harlor (Hayek Pinault), and Hung Vanngo for The Wall Group (Byrne). Manicures: Deborah Lippman for Starworks Artists. Set design: Todd Wiggins for The Magnet Agency. Production: Bo Zhang for Creative Production Group.
For more stories like this, pick up the January issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Dec. 20.