Rose Byrne’s feminist awakening
Playing one of the most revered feminists in recent history, Gloria Steinem, in the powerful biographical drama Mrs. America, was an education in the sisterhood for Rose Byrne.
With fellow Australian actor Cate Blanchett taking the lead as anti-feminist conservative, Phyllis Schlafly, against the backdrop of the 1970s battle over women's rights, Byrne walked away from the xx-part series with more than just a history lesson - leaning into the power of working and learning alongside some of best female actors of a generation.
Created by Davhi Waller, the powerhouse cast includes Orange Is The New Black's Uzo Aduba (as Shirley Chisholm), Pitch Perfect's Elizabeth Banks (as Jill Ruckelshaus), The Americans' Margo Martindale (as Bella Abzug), Mad Men's John Slattery (Fred Schlafly), Tracey Ullman (Betty Friedan), and American Horror Story's Sarah Paulson, who plays a composite character on Team Schlafly.
Arguably, without Steinem and her partners in crime - including fellow 'rebels' Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, Jill Ruckelshaus, and Bella Abzug, known as the second wave of feminism - today's #metoo movement would probably never have come into being.
Byrne agrees, telling News Corp Australia: "without the movement, spearheaded by those women chronicled in Mrs America, there would be no third-wave feminism, there would be no #metoo or #timesup movement. It was a complex, broad, huge achievement of those women during that time," she says.
"So I was tickled to be part of this show, and to play this woman who was a true force of nature."
Byrne admits she came late to the party in terms of discovering the feminist movement: "Yes, it wasn't until my early 20s when I first read The Feminine Mystique, the Betty Friedan book, which really opened my eyes to the second-wave feminist movement," she says.
"That was my introduction to some of Gloria Steinem's writings. So the experience of making Mrs. America was very educational for me, especially since I wasn't familiar with Phyllis Schlafly, [whose journey] is obviously what the show is about. It was extraordinary what she did, single-handedly and along with her movement, in stopping the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment)."
Schlafly was one of the most prominent activists in the conservative movement from the 1970s until her death in 2016, championing pro-life and pro-traditional American values. Interestingly, Schlafly can be seen in footage at the tail-end of Trump's presidential campaign.
"I don't think there would be Trump without a Phyllis Schlafly," Byrne offers.
"Mrs. America is a very clever unravelling of history. It informs everything, and really tries to give a nuanced portrait of what was going on at the time. Through watching the series you can see the roots of this third wave of feminism, as well as the [genesis of the] right-wing personalities who now dominate and give the majority of people in America their news, like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh."
Clearly, she was enamoured with Steinem (though they never met) and this role in Byrne's impressive litany of work will remain close to her heart.
"She was so impressive, and there was a toughness to her, too, which was necessary for her to survive in that world. She was so picked-on by both men and women, and dealt with those insane double-standards of gender. I was very immersed in everything about her. It was quite a thing to shake off at the end."
Steinem and Schlafly also never met in person, meaning audiences miss out on two of Australia's highly esteemed actresses together in a scene playing these formidable political titans.
"I wish I'd had a scene with Cate, but Gloria had always refused to debate Phyllis because she knew it would bring Phyllis more press," she laughs.
"She was very savvy that way. But I would see Cate on set, which was lovely. I was always trying to sneak in by the monitor and have a look at her scenes. And she did the lion's share, of course, she shouldered such a heavy load on the show.
Byrne and her actor husband Bobby Cannavale (who starred with Blanchett in Blue Jasmine) did manage to spend "a few great days at our house at the beach. I previously worked with her husband, Andrew [Upton]. He directed me in a play at the Sydney Theatre Company a few years ago (Speed-the-Plow, in 2016).'
Growing up in an estrogen-laden household, Byrne, 40, the youngest of three daughters, was greatly influenced by the women closest to her. "Yes, coming from a house full of women, my mum obviously, and with my sisters, who are seven and six years older than I, they were my role models and were hugely influential. I went through all the stages of learning from them, [which include] trusting them and rebelling against them," she says.
Byrne is speaking from her home in New York.
Married to Cannavale since 2012, they have their hands full at home in lockdown with their sons Rocco, 4, and Rafa, 2.
She laughs: "There's been a lot of Sesame Street and Bluey. We've also been cooking a lot, and we've been doing some homeschooling. You go through stages of cabin fever, but we're lucky to have a place that we can stay in.
"Actually, the kids are incredibly distracting, which is brilliant because you have to focus on them. And yeah, there are challenges but then you read the news for five minutes and think, 'I can't believe what people are going through.' I'm in touch with my friend, who's a midwife, and she's delivering babies for women who are now coming in with COVID. It's just extraordinary. They're risking their lives and being quite vulnerable," she says. "Oh my goodness, some of the stories, it's heartbreaking."
She pauses: "It makes you realise, 'I've really got nothing to complain about."
* Mrs American, 8.30pm Tuesday, Fox Showcase and streaming on Binge
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THE FUTURE IS FEMALE
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Originally published as Rose Byrne's feminist awakening