When Rose Byrne says filming some scenes for her new movie, I Give it a Year, were "painfully hard", she's being literal.
For in this comedy, whenever Byrne felt she was going to break composure and spoil a scene by laughing, she would scrunch her hands into fists and dig her nails into her palms to focus on the pain, rather than the silly business surrounding her. "I laugh very easily, and with someone like [co-star] Stephen Merchant - he could just make me laugh at the drop of a hat."
I Give it a Year is an unconventional romantic comedy. Writer and director Dan Mazer (who also co-wrote the subversive comedies Borat and Bruno) has referred to it as a "com rom . . . a comedy about romance rather than a romance with a bit of comedy in it".
The story begins where a classic romantic comedy would roll credits: After the wedding. Following a whirlwind courtship we watch unfold through a montage sequence, we find Nat (Byrne) and Josh (Rafe Spall) at the altar, promising to have and to hold. At the ceremony, Nat's sister (played by an excellently snarky Minnie Driver), pessimistically predicts the marriage will last only one year.
From the spluttering priest at the start to a lurking ex-girlfriend (Anna Faris) and a suave businessman (Simon Baker) who attempts to woo Nat, it seems the odds are stacked against this mismatched couple.
Rounding out the cast is Merchant playing Josh's obnoxious best friend and best man (the kind who begins a wedding speech thus: "Fornication. Wait … for an occasion …") and Olivia Colman as the therapist who interludes her sessions with Nat and Josh by making argumentative phone calls to her husband.
I Give it a Year follows Byrne's turn as frosty bridesmaid Helen in the acclaimed 2011 comedy Bridesmaids, a role that she continues to reap rewards from. "It definitely helped me get the job [on I Give it a Year], that's for sure.
"I know Dan Mazer saw Bridesmaids and thought that I could bring something to the role of Nat," she says, "So I knew that was sort of how it worked." (Her comedy roll continues with The Internship, to be released later in the year, where Byrne stars alongside Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson.)
Byrne, 33, was born in Sydney. Her first role was in Australian film Dallas Doll, with New Zealand actor Roy Billing. But the film that launched her international career is Two Hands, the award-winning crime drama she starred in opposite Heath Ledger in 1999. It was around this time Byrne started looking for film opportunities abroad. "I was pretty young when I first started going out to L.A, you know, I was 19-20, but I had some good friends who really helped me out and I had some luck in getting an agent and things like that. But it was sort of step-by-step for me, it wasn't one big move, I guess I did it in increments."
The same could be said for Byrne's career. Over the last 14 years she has steadily navigated Hollywood, forging a lasting path by selecting a variety of roles and avoiding typecasting. She's been a sci-fi handmaiden (Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones), a member of the Trojan royal family (Troy), a French duchess (Marie Antoinette), a zombie fighter (28 Weeks Later) and the mother of a son involved in paranormal activity (Insidious).
Then there's her half-decade-long role on critically acclaimed, multi-award winning legal drama series Damages, alongside Glenn Close. Ending in 2012, Damages was a gritty show that enticed many stars to appear in guest roles, including Ted Danson, Marcia Gay Harden and John Goodman.
"I think I've been really lucky. I've had diversity of roles but, yeah, it's what sort of material you try to seek out and what material you actually end up getting," says Byrne. "So much of it is out of your control so it's best that you do as much as you can to steer things but ultimately it's a pretty wild ship to try and take a hold of."
Luck may have helped initially, but Byrne's acting talent has led to praise, with one critic describing her as "Audrey Hepburn with a darker edge". "Wow! I've never heard that before," says Byrne. "That's wild, I'll have to tell my mum!"
Byrne's first comedy role was in Get Him to the Greek, a spin-off to the successful film Forgetting Sarah Marshall. She played ballsy pop star Jackie Q, girlfriend to the interminably icky Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). "That was my big opportunity in America, that was definitely a break," she says.
The film put Byrne in prime position to rub shoulders with comedy king and producer Judd Apatow, who went on to cast her in Bridesmaids. "The great thing with working with Judd was the introduction to doing improv a lot and that is really what we did on I Give it a Year," says Byrne. "I didn't do that much but just being prepared for that . . . Dan would pitch me different jokes for saying different lines, and just being fluid on set - that's something I really learnt working with Judd."
If Get Him to the Greek was a break, then it was Bridesmaids that really catapulted Byrne to the top of the list of viable female comedy leads. "Since Greek and then with Bridesmaids, I've had more opportunities in that genre which has been really exciting and something I've been wanting to do for many years." Yet she has also said that working on a comedy is harder than it looks.
"Every genre is risky in its own way but I think for me, personally, comedy is a harder thing to do," she says. "It's very arbitrary, you know, what I find funny you wouldn't find funny . . . every person's different."
In the January issue of Vanity Fair, columnist A A Gill wrote about the distinctions between American and British humour. He said: "We aren't two countries divided by a common language, but we have a common language divided by two senses of humour . . . British humour is built around mockery. It's bully humour . . . American humour is the cry of the bullied."
So with two recent comedies from each country under her belt, does Byrne notice a difference when she is ensconced in the different films, or are distinctions blurring? "There's always sort of local, culturally specific jokes that aren't going to translate from the UK to the US," she says. "But I think that's what's great - the difference. I'd be so bored if everything was the same."
I Give it a Year opens February 28.
- © Fairfax NZ News