Late in 2017, as Rose Byrne blissfully cocooned with her newborn son, she was scarcely thinking about work.
Then Sean Anders blindsided her with Instant Family, his semi-autobiographical comedy about foster-care adoption.
“I read the script and was like, ‘Oh [expletive], oh no, ugh,’” Byrne said, re-enacting her mini-meltdown. She handed it to her partner, Bobby Cannavale, who pored over its pages and sighed, “Oh dear,” amid a flood of tears. Finally, she spoke with Anders, the film’s director and co-writer, and more salty utterances flowed.
Perhaps it was the post-baby fog, but Byrne just couldn’t say no.
In Instant Family, Byrne and Mark Wahlberg play Ellie and Pete, upper-middle-class house flippers who delayed having children and, now hovering around 40, decide foster parenting is the solution. But Lizzie (Isabela Moner), the Latina 15-year-old they invite into their home, comes attached to two younger siblings (Gustavo Quiroz and Julianna Gamiz). And the couple’s dreamy notion of familial contentment — just add love and stir — soon disintegrates. Sometimes humorously, sometimes not.
A decade earlier, Byrne, an Australian, broke into American television as the idealistic protegee of Glenn Close’s Machiavellian litigator in the legal thriller Damages’ Then came the comedies Get Him to the Greek, with Russell Brand, and Bridesmaids, with Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy — and Byrne unfurled her freak flag.
On November 11, as fire raged through Southern California, the red-carpet premiere of Instant Family was cancelled, and the movie screened instead for 350 evacuees at Pierce College. In a phone interview earlier that day from the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, where families and their pets were seeking refuge, Byrne, 39 — who lives in New York with Cannavale and their two toddler sons — spoke about finding joy amid a crisis, the perils of humour and the comeback of Louis CK.
Sean was striving to make a joyful film to try [to] destigmatise these kids... he really wanted to make a film with a little more hope.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Last year nearly 443,000 American children were in foster care, a number rising in tandem with the opioid crisis. Did you wonder how such a serious matter could be made comedic?
I was nervous, to be honest. Sean was striving to make a joyful film to try [to] destigmatise these kids, because there’s been so much about the system, and it’s heavy and dark. But he really wanted to make a film with a little more hope, and there were a lot of scenes where I was like: ‘Are we being too wacky? Is this too crazy? I don’t want to be disrespectful.’ But I’d hooked up with a great group of foster moms who were really candid and answered all my nosy questions. And I just trusted Sean, knowing that it was his story.
There were so many possibilities for being upstaged: the children, the dog, Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer.
They say, ‘Don’t work with kids and animals because you know they’re going to steal the show.’ Nobody’s going to give a [expletive] about what me and Mark are doing. They’re just going to be like, ‘Oh my God, that girl’s heartbreaking.’ And [Tig and Octavia were] hysterical. And also, so weird. Tig’s dry and straight, and Octavia has such a kind of explosive energy, and it was very authentic, their chemistry.
Somewhere between ‘Damages’ and ‘Bridesmaids’, you became a comedian to reckon with. When did you realise you were funny?
I by no means knew. I think like any actor, I was just craving to do something to show different sides of myself. I’ve been so lucky because you’re only as good as the company you keep, no? And so being paired with Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy [in ‘Bridesmaids’] and Seth Rogen [in ‘Neighbors’] and Tiffany Haddish, who I’m working with in ‘Limited Partners’ — she’s fierce and she’s magical — I feel incredibly lucky. I’m just trying to keep up with them.
That’s awfully self-deprecating.
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s so boring to be so self-deprecating. It’s such an Australian quality. But I look at [them], and it’s effortless, and for me it doesn’t feel that effortless. Also, the catch with comedy is if you’re funny in real life it doesn’t mean you’re funny onscreen. Comedians are often very serious and dark but hysterical in their characters. The stakes are higher.
You appeared in Louis CK’s ‘I Love You, Daddy’, which was shelved after the sexual misconduct allegations against him surfaced. Was that difficult?
Of course. You go in with such great intentions, and Louis was very sweet with me, and I had a very respectful experience. But it’s obviously very complicated, and I stand with the women who came forward. But yeah, it is conflicting when you commit to something, just from my experience of, ‘Wow, this is a really weird, dark story — I’m intrigued by it.’ And then it becomes a much bigger thing than what it is. I think it will be a while before that film can be seen, and I think that’s right.
Is it soon for Louis to have a comeback?
It’s too soon for him to have a surprise one, that’s for sure. I think if he’s going to show up, just let everybody know so then they can make a decision, like, ‘I don’t want to see this guy — I’m out.’ It’s also the gatekeepers around these things who give people the chance to have a comeback. They’re actually really powerful. I would like to see them being held accountable a little bit more.
Have you noticed a shift in the industry a year into the #MeToo and Time’s Up era?
I think like in any movement, people get overly sensitive and overly ‘Can I do this or that?’ And that will even out, but I feel like there’s a bit of a shift. It’s an ongoing conversation, and it still has so far to go. It’s such an entrenched and systemic thing. But it’s remarkable these women who come forward and risk so much by doing it. I still don’t think people really get it, how hard that would be.
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Instant Family is out in the UAE on November 29.