Bridesmaids actress talks Hollywood discrimination, playing gay and drag-inspired Spy role
By: Chris Azzopardi*/Special to TRT—
Rose Byrne is up to no good again.
After driving Kristen Wiig further into cupcake-consuming meltdown mode during 2011’s Bridesmaids, the Australian actress goes full-on diva in Spy, which reunites her with director Paul Feig and co-star Melissa McCarthy. As McCarthy’s dead-serious, fashion-challenged Spy foe, Byrne – also known for roles in Neighbors, Damages and the X-Men movies – stars as the wickedly divine Raina Boyanov.
During our recent interview, Byrne talked about how her onscreen bouffant caused a hairy situation with the studio, the disparity between women and men in Hollywood films (“It’s discrimination”) and her caveat when it comes to playing gay.
Chris Azzopardi: I know lots of queens who’d kill for your Raina hair in this movie. Who was your drag queen consultant?
Rose Byrne: (Laughs) I’m very honored and flattered you say that. As long as I have their approval, I’m done! (The studio) didn’t actually want my hair like that. Paul and I really had to fight for it. We had a specific idea of where she was from and what she looked like – a lot of money, no taste and very Eastern European. Very Marie Antoinette. And it’s a spy film, so style is such an important element of it – even if it’s bad style!
Q. I’m glad everyone could agree that bigger is better in this case. How did you convince the studio to see it your way?
A. Once it was all together and we were on camera. It just all came together – the costume, the makeup, everything. And it just needed a little more. She’s quite still as a character, and I think (the hair)… it says a lot! (Laughs) It was the stronger choice! That’s how we convinced them.
Q. What did it feel like on top of your head?
A. It felt… good! I mean, it was heavy. It would move a lot too. Oh my goodness. It was constantly shifting because it was so big, and if I was waiting around, it would start to, like, deteriorate. Sarah Love, the hair designer on the film, did a brilliant job, because it was a lot.
Q. And how about all those flamboyant costumes you wore? How much fun was it to play dress up? I mean, leopard pants!
A. My leopard pants! And neoprene, which is an interesting fabric. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it…
Q. What’s it like wearing neoprene?
A. It’s weirdly comfortable. A bit like a wetsuit. But yeah – it was a lot of fun. She’s a delectably delicious villainous.
Q. Did you feel like a drag queen on set?
A. (Laughs) The shoes are pretty drag-ish. The shoes were major. They were about 5-inch pumps. Maaajor!
Q. Have you had a lot of wig experience prior to this movie?
A. A little bit here and there. It actually wasn’t a wig; it was a piece. It was all my hair, and at the back she had a piece and then that had a big, long tail coming down. I have kind of big hair, so it was a bit of both.
Q. Between this movie and Bridesmaids, you really know how to play up the diva role. As an actress, where do you go, and who or what do you riff on, to achieve ultimate divadom?
A. You know, probably RuPaul or someone fabulous like that. That’s a great diva! Or someone like Dame Edna Everage – she’s a fantastic drag character by Barry Humphries, an Australian comedian/actor.
(Raina’s) very humorless. And really psychotic, I suppose! I mean, she has no empathy with regard to anybody. Everyone is a servant. Playing real entitlement – sort of beyond entitlement, where she’s like royalty – was an interesting place to start from. (Laughs)
Q. Spy demonstrates that women can be as fearless and fierce as men in movies. Do you see this film making a feminist statement?
A. I see it doing a few things. Paul Feig just breaks every convention, and he’s such a lover of women and continues to redefine gender roles in film. You see it in his films, which are really big films with big audiences that are entertaining and appealing.
Now, he’s putting Melissa, his muse, in the lead, and the lead antagonist is my character, who is also a woman. What other big films are doing that with budgets of this scale? Not many, if any, is the answer. So, I take my hat off to him for how much he’s done in the business in a very significant way.
Q. You co-founded an all-female production company called The Dollhouse Creative, and you’ve starred in several films that pass the Bechdel Test. Why are films like Spy, films that close the gender gap, important?
A. The statistics are still so dreadful for women in film. Now the ACLU is doing an investigation into it because they’re starting to realize it’s actually discrimination – it’s not just good ol’ fashioned misogyny that everyone’s quietly tolerated for years. The business is sort of the wrong way in the sense that the statistics are just really dreadful for women in terms of speaking parts and paychecks for women. All that stuff that was leaked through the Internet when Sony was hacked – it all speaks for itself. So, it is beyond just misogyny. It’s legitimate discrimination based on gender, which is illegal. Any discrimination is, whether it’s sexuality, race or gender.
Q. With that said, do you plan on producing any films that feature lesbian women in lead roles?
A. I hope so! I mean, two of my best friends are gay, a man and a woman – and during my life I’ve been surrounded by people from all different walks of life – so I’d love that. I mean, I just watched all of Transparent in a day and a half. It was the most entertaining and moving piece of work I’ve seen in years. I just thought it was beautiful and brilliant.
Q. Though you’ve played lesbian on the Australian TV show _Fallen Angels_, you’ve never actually been lesbian on the big screen. What kind of character would intrigue you enough to take on a lesbian role in a film?
A. I would be honored to do something like that. I suppose it would be interesting to play a character who wasn’t defined by that, who just happened to be. Where it’s less of a defining thing and more of just a, “Why does it have to be such a big deal?” Like, why it is such a big deal that women are funny. Same thing. I know we’re not there yet, but for sure, as an artist, I would love to tackle that.
Q. Your girl kiss with Halston Sage in Neighbors nabbed you an MTV Movie Award nomination. Can we talk about that kiss?
A. (Laughs) I had a lot of fun! A lot of questions about that. I was very lucky. She’s a gorgeous young belle.
Q. How much more aware were you of your lesbian admirers after that kissing scene?
A. Really just when I get interviewed by people, yeah.
Q. That’s really the only time it comes up?
A. Yeaaaah. I’m not kidding. (Laughs)
Q. From your experience with the LGBT community, why do you think gay men are attracted to strong, empowered women like yourself and Melissa in Spy?
A. Probably because we are both part of groups that have been marginalized in some way. People who are gay and people who are women get generally marginalized just simply based on that, with no other merit added to the equation. I think there’s definitely a bonding over that.
Q. Last year you helped bring Annie back to the big screen. What other musicals would you be interested in starring in?
A. I’m not sure if you read the reviews for Annie, but…. (Laughs). It did not get well received.
Q. I did, and I didn’t wanna bring those up. But since you did…
A. (Laughs) No plans yet, put it that way.
Q. Please tell me that you’ll at least have a cameo in Paul’s all-female Ghostbusters reboot.
A. I know! We’ll see. He’s such a great guy and I’d be a part of anything he does, so absolutely.
Q. Who are some ladies in and out of Hollywood who empower you?
A. I admire Glenn Close so much. She’s a dear friend, and she’s just wonderful. An incredible mother, wife and activist, and she does a lot for the mental health industry. She juggles a lot of hats and does it really gracefully. I really admire Glenn. Also: Rosa Parks and Marie Curie – people who have really changed the world.