No funny business: Rose Byrne

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We meet comedy’s next superstar – with a very serious side

Words: Debbie McQuoid Photography: Mary McCartney

ABOVE: Top, £680, skirt, £6,700, and ring, £36,000, all Christian Dior (020-7172 1072); bangle, £25,000, Stephen Webster (0845-539 1840); bracelet, £22,900, Tiffany & Co ( Photography: Mary McCartney

We really don’t like making things easy for ourselves. It’s minus five in a derelict chapel in Peckham; the warmest place on site is a sort of scout hut a good five minutes walk away; it’s started snowing again and it might be the coldest day of the year.

It seems the star of our shoot, Rose Byrne, is similarly wearied. She’s just caught the Eurostar from Paris where she was visiting a girl friend. She flew there from New York – via her hometown, Sydney. Possibly the least direct route anyone could ever take. She has a stinking cold and is jet lagged. Every so often her head flops back and she slightly squints at me and I can almost hear the mechanics of her brain working out what I’m saying to her. Basically, she’s wrecked.

Luckily our photographer is Mary McCartney, who is cheerful enough for everybody and is warming up the atmosphere, literally, with blow heaters.

It may have been her very recent trip home, or perhaps her cold making her slightly more nasal than normal, but Rose is super Aussie. It makes her seem incredibly laid back and extremely excitable at the same time, dropping superlatives every two minutes or saying, “You’re a legend,” when all I’ve done is pass her a tissue. I have to admit I’m genuinely relieved at this because, although her range of roles is impressive; from Briseis in Troy (2004) to Ellen in TV hit Damages (2007-2012), it is with uptight friend-thief Helen in 2011’s Bridesmaids I most associate her. We discuss the excruciatingly embarrassing scene at Lillian’s engagement party where Helen and Kristen Wiig’s character Annie battle for the microphone. Trying to watch it for the third time at home recently, I had to leave the room. Or when we just about warm to her when she breaks down in tears about having no friends.

But for the fact that Bridesmaids was Wiig’s film, Rose very nearly stole the entire show. Her character, Nat, in I Give It A Year, the film we’re here to talk about is equally… high-maintenance. In short, she seems to be very good at playing the bitch.

“Nat moves at a much faster pace than me," she tells me in the warmth of the scout hut. “She has incredibly high standards for everybody around her and a checklist with her relationship and job. I’m the opposite to that.” Phew.

ABOVE: Dress: Giles, Shoes: Christian Louboutin. Photography: Mary McCartney

Act one: marriage

The latest film from Dan Mazer, the director of Borat, I Give It A Year is a quintessential British rom-com with a twist. It starts at the end of the romance and the first year of marriage, which is traditionally the hardest to get through. There are some genuinely hilarious moments and a very brave performance from rising leading man Rafe Spall as Nat’s hapless new husband Josh (notably the scene with the photo frame). By subverting the genre, you’re not really rooting for them to stay together, which can be confusing, but it will make those who have given up before making their first anniversary feel a lot less like social pariahs.

“The way a relationship starts is not usually a reflection of how it’s going to go,” says Rose. “It can start in romance and end in disaster; it can start in disaster and end in something great. It doesn’t just stop after the wedding. There is always a constant balance between two people.”

Rose is quick to point out she’s not married herself, but friends of hers have said how hard the first year was and then things just ‘clicked’. Trying to draw Rose on her own marital intentions is impossible. She is so incredibly diplomatic and aware that as soon as she feels she’s said anything too revealing, a light bulb seems to go off above her head and she’ll quickly follow up with; “That’s not to say I can’t see it from the other point of view...”

The 33-year-old’s own romantic history has never drawn much attention, although she has dated actors in the past – a six-year relationship with fellow Aussie actor Brendan Cowell – and is rumoured to be dating Boardwalk Empire’s Bobby Cannavale at the moment.

“I was very shy and sensible as a child and pretty much into my 20s,” she tells me. “It was the same if boys liked me. I was very quiet and secretive about it and found romance icky. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve definitely tried to appreciate it more and delight in those sorts of things more because they are actually precious and special. I’m trying to soften a bit because I think I can be too… practical?” You mean, making decisions about love instead of going with it? “Yeah... and I think it’s nice to be a bit freer...”

ABOVE: Rose wears: Shirt, £850, and skirt, £6,500, both Ralph Lauren (020-7535 4600); necklace, price on request, and ring, £7,800, both Boodles (020-3435 4400). Photography: Mary McCartney

Act two: success

The youngest of four, Rose was brought up in the suburbs of Sydney by her primary school administrator mother Jane and statistician father Robin. While the rest of us were watching The NeverEnding Story, Robin took his young family including an 11-year-old Rose to see her first film in the cinema; Jean De Florette.

“I’ll never forget that,” she says. “The beautiful French village and the hunchback and Gérard Depardieu; it was really amazing. That was a seminal point in films and how they could be so effective and poignant and memorable.” She laughs and then reassures me that her dad is really a down-to-earth sort of bloke, just also a Francophile with a high-brow thirst for culture. She then recalls how as ‘a punter’, he won big at the horses and used the winnings to take Jane and the children travelling around the world when Rose was eight.

“I’ve been very lucky with my parents and their generosity,” she smiles. “They gave all of us a real travel bug and curiosity about life.” As for films, Rose started early with a role in Australian film Dallas Doll when she was 15 (she was also in Heartbreak High for three episodes), and in her late teens, she took a chance and gave up her university degree in Sydney after two years to take up acting full time. Happily, Rose worked non-stop with smaller roles in Troy, I Capture The Castle, Marie Antoinette and 28 Weeks Later, and then the gamble really paid off when she won a part in political drama Damages which saw her gain a wide and loyal fan base, several Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, and international recognition.

“My only plan was to work internationally,” she tells me. “I’m driven so I wanted to be successful. I think, being Australian, we have a real lust for life. I started acting so young and I did start to think, ‘Am I doing this because I’ve been doing it for so long?’ And then I came full circle and I just wanted to get better and improve. I feel very grateful to have found it. It’s been a saviour for me.”

One thing Rose has certainly got better at is comedy. At first, the brilliant Jackie Q in 2010’s Get Him To The Greek, then Bridesmaids and I Give It A Year; next The Internship with comedic heavyweights Will Ferrell and Owen Wilson.

Act three: fun

“I’d wanted to try comedy for years,” she says. “I was really nervous but I’ve got a healthy sense of humour. I’m from Australia! But for me, comedy is far harder. The stakes are higher; it’s just as dramatic and you have to get a laugh too. And it’s arbitrary – what I find funny, you may not.

“I’m not a Will Ferrell or a Kristen Wiig or an Owen Wilson who can make anything funny. I’m only funny if I’m playing a specific character and in a situation and then it provides the laugh.” Working with Kristen and Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolph on Bridesmaids must have been an amazing learning curve then?

“Absolutely. All those girls are from prestigious improv comedy schools like The Groundlings and the Upright Citizens Brigade. Watching them work was just brilliant. They would find what they found funny first and then work on it and rev it up. But in Bridesmaids and in this film, I’m the straight man. I’d like to do something more extreme and get the gags too.” So would you want to be, say, the next Jennifer Aniston?

“Firstly, I don’t think I could compare myself to Jennifer Aniston ever,” she laughs. “But you can’t really compare yourself to anybody. That way lies madness. You have to run your own race. Comparing yourself to people is a losing game; there will always be someone else’s career you would prefer. Work on what you have and what is in your control. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learnt that.”

ABOVE: Dress, price on request, Giles (; ring, £9,300, Stephen Webster (0845-539 1840). Photography: Mary McCartney

Going home

Home is, for now, New York. It’s where Damages was filmed and after six years, Rose decided she was happier basing herself there than moving to LA. She still owns the property she bought in Hackney where she used to live with her sister.

“People from Hackney would be saying, ‘You’re from Australia? Why are you living here? F*ck off and live near a beach!’ But I loved it,” she laughs. “There is nothing quite like it in Sydney. Back then there were still some rough pockets, but now it’s so gentrified. There are fashion kids everywhere. The secret is out!”

When she’s not working, she’s going to the theatre ‘heaps’ and being crap at updating her music collection. “I started to get more into Nineties hip hop, like Warren G and early Snoop. But then it’s just the same old stuff like Elvis Presley. I bought the new album by The XX...?” she offers shyly.

Books are much more her thing, as she admits she’s been a member of the Good Reads online book club for years. “Oh yeah, I’m a dork,” she says, putting on a Kath & Kim twang. “Been on that for years now. I’ve just read Just Kids by Patti Smith. Before that Junot Díaz’ book of short stories This Is How You Lose Her. I’m always happier if I’m in the middle of a book.”

And, is she happy in general? “Oh my gosh, yes. I think getting older has been a good thing for me. As I’ve gotten into my late 20s and early 30s I’m less shy and able to articulate myself more. It’s been a real joy. I like spending time with my family more. Last year I was home three or four times. That’s been a real priority.”

There’s something about Rose that goes against how I expected her to be. Despite the icy temperatures, jet lag and running nose, she’s very... Zen. It feels like, not only has she found a new calling in comedy, she’s also quite sorted in life. No fireworks, or declarations of love, or tantrums, or insecurity. Just fairly normal. “I’ve relaxed,” she says. “Life is hard enough without giving yourself a hard time.”

I Give It A Year is in cinemas nationwide from Friday 8 February