Rose Byrne is having a serious moment

Rose Byrne ()
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Australian actress Rose Byrne, currently appearing in both Bridesmaids and X-Men: First Class in theaters, has said that she feels more like “a character actress than a celebrity." Many actors make such a claim, but few deliver the goods.

I wasn’t all that familiar with her work, although I had seen and loved 28 Weeks Later and Sunshine. But 30 seconds into her first entrance in Bridesmaids, I felt a telltale rush of excitement, a sensation that comes all too rarely, where I realize an actor I knew very little about is really, really good. In Bridesmaids, surrounded by comedy heavy-hitters such as Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph, Byrne (with an impeccable American accent) plays Helen, the competitive woman who co-opts the wedding of Lillian (played by Maya Rudolph). She takes a pretty-lady role and, in a cast full of heavyweight comedy actors, makes it an indispensable part of the gag.

It would have been far too easy to play Helen as a generic “mean girl,” and a lazier, less curious actress would have gone that route. But Byrne saw an opportunity in this role to reveal something much more subtle and poignant about the kind of woman who has it all.

Byrne’s Helen is a scarily accurate (and very funny) depiction of the "perfect" woman who knows how to do things like plan a shower, organize a bachelorette party in Vegas, and pick out bridesmaids dresses, all while making other women feel like sloppy and incompetent morons. She is first seen at the engagement party wearing a black ballgown that manages to be over-the-top and frightening—a clear warning signal to all of the other bridesmaids (mainly Annie, played by Kristen Wiig) that Helen’s friendship to Lillian runs deeper than anyone else’s. Helen’s competitive nature (and also her discomfort with being perceived as competitive) is one of the many complexities in Byrne’s entertaining performance. Helen is a smiling smooth operator, gracious at all times, and overly emotional about her friendship to Lillian, suggesting something deeply neurotic going on in the perfect woman’s heart. Annie (Wiig) sees right through it. But there’s a problem with people like Helen: Hovering around them is a palpable cloud of plausible deniability. Overt confrontation is nearly impossible. You just end up seeming crazy, which, of course, is exactly what happens to her in Bridesmaids.

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Rose Byrne’s beauty is almost distracting, which Annie acknowledges at the engagement party, blurting out, “You’re so pretty.” Helen, flattered but not at all surprised, starts laughing, with a predatory gleam in her eyes, and says to Annie, “You’re so cute!” That’s when I felt the rush of excitement from the realization that I was watching an original and specific performance. It borders on mimicry, but that is a compliment in my book. Mimics are uncanny creatures, and those who nail such accuracies as a tight smile, a momentary glimmer of panic in the eyes, posture and body language, come close to what Shirley MacLaine would call "channeling."

That’s what Rose Byrne does with Helen. You watch Byrne as Helen, and you think you know that woman. Helen is so unlikable, and yet so pathetic (watch how she reacts to her stepchildrens’ contempt for her: with a manic laugh, desperation flickering in her eyes), that you can’t help but feel sorry for her. She’s the type of woman who complains that she doesn't have female friends, not realizing that her friendlessness is directly related to her compulsive language of veiled insults, and her clear contempt for all other women. If Helen had been played as a straight-up Cruella De Vil villain, it would have missed the mark. As it is, it’s a breakout performance by an actress with an uncanny gift.

Byrne has been around for some time, having gotten her start in her native Australia, before moving to Los Angeles, on the heels of her friend and sometimes co-star back home Heath Ledger. Byrne was not content with just a local audience. She admired the Australian stars who attempted to go for international fame, and from a very young age that was what she wanted. She appeared as Natalie Portman’s handmaiden in Attack of the Clones (a glorified extra, really), and then got a major break in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, playing Briseis. (She lost out to friend Diane Kruger for the coveted role of Helen.)

Although she had won the 2000 Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival for her performance in Clara Law’s The Goddess of 1967, it was Troy, and her love scenes with Brad Pitt, that raised her profile. Instead of moving on to other summer blockbusters, Byrne instead started appearing in smaller critical darlings, such as Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to Danny Boyle’s zombie-apocalypse hit 28 Days Later, this time helmed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. These were smaller films, and she had small parts (she is notoriously humble about her own importance, choosing to downplay her participation in the films she appears in), but in retrospect it seems as though Byrne was working by stealth. She preserved her reputation by not working too much in overblown second-rate films, she created relationships with directors, and she kept her name out of the tabloids altogether. It is the profile of an actress in show business for the long haul.

For her recurring role of Ellen Parsons, the young, green attorney under the corrupt tutelage of Patty Hewes (played by Glenn Close), on the FX series "Damages," Byrne has been nominated for two Golden Globes and two Emmys. It was canceled, briefly, after three seasons, but now it’s back on track, with season 4 set to air next month. Byrne had already done numerous television series and soap operas in Australia, and found the idea of working with Glenn Close intriguing, if not intimidating. She also seemed to like the challenge of developing a character over the length of the season, something that film actors don’t get a chance to do.

In an interview with the L.A. Times, Byrne said of her decision to do "Damages," “I was also at a point when I wasn’t in my early 20s anymore and I wasn’t into my 30s yet. I was at a funny age for an actor.”

That “funny age” has probably saved her from having to play bimbo-in-short-shorts-running-from-C.G.I.-monster roles, a rite of passage for any young starlet in Hollywood. Byrne, who had been living in London when she was cast in "Damages," uprooted herself to New York, where "Damages" is filmed. Her long-time boyfriend, Brendan Cowell, an Australian film director, actor, and writer, moved to New York from Sydney, where he had been living. The two had been living on separate continents, and so migrating to New York City, that urban hub of ambition and possibility, was the first time they had been in the same time zone for years. The relationship ended in 2010, with minimal controversy, long distance being given as the main reason for the split. Byrne’s work schedule has been increasingly daunting, with sometimes only a couple of weeks between different jobs. Byrne now splits her time between Manhattan and Hackney, the London suburb where she owns a home.

This summer, Rose Byrne is also appearing as Moira McTaggart, the lone C.I.A. operative sympathetic to the mutants’ point of view in X-Men: First Class. McTaggart is a woman navigating a strictly male-dominated world, and in her first scene, she infiltrates an exclusive party by posing as a go-go dancer/sex worker, stripping down unceremoniously to her black underwear and strolling through the party trying to look like she knows what she’s doing. McTaggart tries to do right by the mutants, and in the end she is congratulated for her efforts by having the top brass say to her face that “the C.I.A. is no place for a woman.” Because Rose Byrne has chops as an actress, she underplays her role, keeping it simple and open and expressive. Unlike so many other young actresses who play similar parts, Byrne actually seems like she would fit in to that world of high-end surveillance and realpolitik machinations. Moira McTaggart is a nothing part, as they say, but Byrne gives it some soul and depth.

After you see X-Men, though, walk right next door into the theatre showing Bridesmaids to see what she can really do. The sky’s the limit for Rose Byrne. She's good.