Rose Byrne says she like to keep pretty “church and state” with her work life and her family life, but she admits that some moments on her new comedy-drama Physical were dark enough to literally give her nightmares.
In a mesmerising lead performance, which will surely be in the conversation come awards time this year, the Aussie actor plays Sheila Rubin, a seemingly dutiful, but privately tortured housewife in 1980s San Diego. Portrayed with searing honesty by Byrne, sporting big hair and clothes from the decade that fashion forgot, new mother Sheila is hiding a range of personal demons stemming from her crippling self-esteem and body image issues but finds purpose, empowerment and possibly salvation in the fledgling field of aerobics.
Byrne, who says she has never been gladder to have an Australian passport than this past, Covid-ravaged year, generally prefers to leave her work behind when she comes home to Rocco and Rafa, her two sons with actor and frequent collaborator partner Bobby Cannavale.
“I have two little kids and they could care less if I am having a bad day at work or wherever,” she says with a laugh over Zoom from her home town of Sydney.
But she adds that there were times when the confronting scenes she was filming with stand-up comedian Rory Scovel, who plays her overbearing, self-centred, hypocritical husband Danny – a one-time ‘60s radical turned political aspirant – proved difficult to shake off once she had left the ‘80s-era perfect set of their marital home.
“By the end I was having bad dreams and I needed to get off the set,” she says. “It was starting to seep into my subconscious in a way that was not good. It was dark. I love Rory and he’s a stand-up comedian and he would be bringing the joy to set every day and making everybody laugh, thank God. But by the end, I did feel like I had to get out of that house.”
Byrne wasn’t the only one who found the filming tough at times, particularly given the black comedy’s device of letting audiences hear Sheila’s inner monologue, which can be excruciating, tragic, hilarious and sometimes downright cruel. Physical creator Annie Weisman based the show on her experiences of growing up in San Diego in the 1980s and sometimes the brutal truth of the words she had put into the script were a bit too much for her to see realised on screen.
“It’s funny, there are so many things that are uncomfortable in this show and often we’d be filming uncomfortable scenes and Annie just wouldn’t be there,” says Byrne. “I’d be like ‘where’s Annie’ and she’d be hiding in her car. I’d say ‘you wrote this – why aren’t you here?’. So, I knew it was having an effect and that’s exciting. Physical may be polarising, but I am excited to be part of something that starts a conversation and it really will I think.”
Byrne thinks it’s that very honesty and truth, no matter how uncomfortable, that audiences will relate to in Physical. She says that Sheila is essentially an antihero, who is not always likeable for the choices she makes, but it was that complexity that made it so appealing to commit to what is her biggest television project since her acclaimed performance in the US legal drama Damages.
“It’s such an examination of the human condition,” she says. “I feel like when people see the show, everyone I know relates to the darkness of it and the humour in that and it’s uncomfortableness and where that leads you in your own narration in your head and how we handle that.”
Byrne regards Physical as a companion piece to her recent turn as feminist trailblazer Gloria Steinem in Mrs America. But where that historical drama focused on the 1970s movement to ratify the Equal Rights Movement in the US, Physical draws inspiration from the rise of female health and fitness entrepreneurs such as Jenny Craig and Suzanne Somers the following decade, as Sheila taps into a wave of women seeking both physical and financial empowerment and chasing the American Dream.
“These women found the space to be an entrepreneur within fitness or health or diet,” says Byrne. “It was a uniquely feminine space to be an innovator. And it’s also so American – they foster that so well, I think more than anywhere else, the idea of the entrepreneurial spirit and independent thinking, so it was really interesting to explore the characters of that time specifically.”
Byrne says that the proliferation of streaming services and new-found push for inclusivity and diversity have helped put female-driven projects front and centre in recent years, and with that a belated realisation that there is a keen audience for such projects.
“Being a woman isn’t just one monolithic experience, there’s so many different sides to it,” says Byrne. “There have been great characters before – Nurse Jackie is a fantastic character on television, Patty Hewes is a great character from Damages, who Glenn (Close) played.
“The show I was so profoundly drawn to over the last year was I May Destroy You, by Michaela Coel. That was a truly groundbreaking show. Or Mrs America – I don’t know if that would have been five years ago. So, I feel like it is all timing, like anything, and these streamers really do offer that platform.”
Inspired by her long-time friends Joel and Nash Edgerton and their Bluetongue Films production company, Byrne has banded together with four of her women friends and colleagues to form Dollhouse Pictures, which prioritises female driven storytelling. She filmed the company’s first feature, Seriously Red, with Cannavale in northern NSW last year (where he also made Nine Perfect Strangers) and she says working in Australia was a blessing as the coronavirus ravaged her adopted home of New York.
“It’s always home,” she says. “My family is here and my sisters and brother. But it’s even more special during this time to be in a place that has great safety for us all so I feel very grateful, even more so than ever, to have my passport.”
Physical streams on Apple TV+ from Friday.
Originally published as Why Physical gave Rose Byrne nightmares