Rose Byrne can do it all. Between 2007 and 2012, the Sydney native earned two Golden Globe and two Emmy nominations for her masterful performance as Glenn Close’s protege in the tense legal thriller Damages. When she wasn’t bribing judges or brandishing guns, however, the 41-year-old actor was establishing herself as a comedic scene-stealer with parts in Marie Antoinette (2006), Get Him to the Greek (2010), Bridesmaids (2011) and Spy (2015).
Then came Mrs America (2020), the 1970s-set saga about the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, in which she plays Gloria Steinem. In Byrne’s hands, the straight-haired, aviator-clad feminist icon became a real woman with doubts, flaws and blind spots. If any naysayers remained, they were proved wrong.
Now, she’s bringing her talent for tiptoeing between genres to Physical, a 10-part comedy-drama, which unfolds in 1980s San Diego. Created by Annie Weisman, it centres on Sheila Rubin (Byrne), a disgruntled housewife who is supporting her husband (Rory Scovel), a professor who decides to run for state assembly. The pair were once idealistic student activists, but now Sheila is consumed with self-loathing. After dropping her daughter (Grace Kelly Quigley) off at school, she heads to a fast-food joint and then to a motel room to binge and purge while a voice in her head tells her that she will never be good enough—a secret routine that has slowly decimated her family’s savings.
Just as her life is about to fall apart, she discovers an aerobics studio in her local mall and dancing to pop hits in high-cut leotards becomes her new addiction. In an attempt to raise funds for her husband’s campaign, she starts teaching classes, puts herself on videotape and builds a business that will turn her into a fitness mogul. Despite all that, her demons continue to plague her.
Ahead of the show’s Apple TV+ launch, Byrne spoke to Vogue about women’s empowerment, her tragicomic upcoming film and looking for Weisman on set, only to find her hiding in her car.
Sheila Rubin is such a complicated character who skates between comedy and tragedy in a way that we rarely see on screen. Is that what made you want to play her?
I read the pilot and I was so arrested by it. She’s the ultimate antihero and I was like, ‘How do you root for her?’ She’s living in this terrible space of lies and they just get worse and worse. I was shooting Mrs America in Toronto and Annie [Weisman, the show’s creator] came up to see me. I was a bit scared. I know what it takes to do a long-running series. I did Damages with Glenn Close. It’s a lot of hours and I hadn’t done that for years, but the world of this show was full of potential.
Did you start doing aerobics before filming began?
We had a fantastic choreographer, Jennifer Hamilton, and she and I started doing Zoom classes. I was in Byron Bay in Australia and she was in California. About two months in advance, we’d do a couple of hours twice a week. It’s addictive! I like to walk and do yoga, but I’ve never been a fanatic for a specific style like Tracy Anderson or The Class by Taryn Toomey. This delves into that world a bit. It’s interesting—people who were in California at the time, in the 1980s, refer to it like it was a cult. Like, [whispers] ‘There’s this thing! This exercise!’ [laughs] It was fun to explore.
The 1980s costumes, hair and makeup are incredible. What were your fittings like?
Annie had a vision for the hair. She wanted Sheila to fill the frame, and she does. At the beginning, I wasn’t sure, but by the end, I was like, ‘I want it bigger, bigger, bigger!’ Kameron Lennox is our costume designer and she was so specific. It’s hard with a show that’s set in a period that is often so comedic. You have to try to make it feel authentic and not like a costume or a Saturday Night Live sketch. You’d think I was doing a Marvel film. I had hours of fittings for those leotards.
In the show, Sheila is constantly battling this voice in her head. Was that challenging to film?
It’s interesting playing a character with such an addiction because it informs everything and so does that voice. It’s uncomfortable and people get a little squirmy, but they relate. Annie was funny though. Often we’d be filming these uncomfortable scenes and she would be gone. I’d be like, ‘I have a question for Annie!’ and she’s hiding in her car [laughs]. I say, ‘You wrote this! What’re you doing? Why are you hiding?’ She’s like, [whispers] ‘I just felt a little bit uncomfortable.’
You played Gloria Steinem in Mrs America, and Physical—set a decade after that—also looks at women’s empowerment. How far do you think we’ve come since the 1970s and 1980s?
This show is a companion piece. Mrs America was a true story about the women’s movement and Sheila is a child of that. She’s an activist, she went to Berkeley and her husband is a liberal professor, but she’s suffering. She’s in this supporting role and she has no agency when we meet her. Five years ago, a show like this or Mrs America probably wouldn’t have been made. There’s an appetite for different stories about being a woman. It’s not a monolithic experience. I see more representation on screen and great strides being made but then, you look at reproductive rights being taken away or not [being] accessible to women in so many parts of the world. So, I don’t know.
Up next, you’ll appear in Seriously Red, which you’re also producing through your company Dollhouse. How much can you tell us about it?
Seriously Red is our first feature. It’s been a long development process and we shot it at the end of last year. I have a supporting role. It also inhabits that space between tragedy and comedy. It’s about a woman, who becomes a Dolly Parton impersonator, trying to be taken seriously.
Beyond work, what has the last year-and-a-half been like for you? How has it changed you?
We’ve been safe. I’ve been so incredibly lucky. My partner [actor Bobby Cannavale] has lost friends in the pandemic and I had a friend who was critically ill in hospital. I’d like to salute all the healthcare workers who’ve been on the frontline. I feel like it’s going to take us years to unpack everything and we’re still in it. We’ve returned to Australia. We’re lucky to have that passport and be able to come home because it’s pretty much contained here. They’ve done an incredible job.
The first three episodes of Physical premiered on Apple TV+ on 18 June, followed by one new episode every Friday.