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'It’s surreal meeting someone as famous as Oprah...she practises being grateful and is a great raconteur'

Rose Byrne wasn’t planning on returning to work six months after having a baby — then the chance to star opposite Oprah came along. She tells Jane Mulkerrins what it was like working with an icon and how motherhood has made her long to live closer to her family

By Jane Mulkerrins

It's late afternoon in midtown Manhattan and Rose Byrne, casual in navy sweater and jeans, her brown hair pulled back, is holed up in an almost deserted wine bar debating whether or not men are comfortable with women being funny. "I think being funny comes with an authority that people find hard to give women in general," she says. "The power to make a joke, to have the punchline - it can be very competitive and quite a masculine energy. I think in a lot of mainstream US comedies women are always the nagging one, the downer. Those films are a bit misogynistic."

Byrne, the Australian star of Bad Neighbours, Damages and Bridesmaids, is in part responsible for changing attitudes - Bridesmaids was the film widely credited with persuading naysayers that female-led comedies could be commercially successful, making almost $300m at box offices worldwide - but the issue of the gender pay gap remains a hot potato in Hollywood, with actresses such as Jessica Chastain refusing to take roles if they are paid less than their male co-stars. It is a topic Byrne is, somewhat surprisingly, reluctant to discuss.

"My decisions around what I do, why I do it, financially, are personal," she says. "And I think those questions are really for the producers - why are you paying women less? I feel like actresses often get lumped with these questions, and it's like, sure, there's disparity, but you should ask the people in power - they're the ones who have the responsibility and the power to change stuff."

Which is exactly what she is planning to do, from the inside. Two years ago, Byrne set up The Dollhouse with a group of fellow Australians, a collective comprising longtime friends including writers Gracie Otto and Krew Boylan, and director Shannon Murphy, with the aim of developing and producing more films, TV shows and plays about women, by women, for women.

"The only films that the studios are making are about robots and cars; it's all The Fate of the Furious. And the film industry is a broken system - most films fail," she says. "You can have a film packed with every A-lister under the sun, and it can still not work."

And then there's her latest project, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, again female-led, which abruptly pulled the actress out of maternity leave less than six months after giving birth - her son with actor Bobby Cannavale, who starred in Boardwalk Empire, was born in February 2016. "I didn't want to go back to work, but I couldn't say no," says Byrne (37). "I wanted to tell this story, I wanted to work with George Wolfe (the writer and director), and I wanted to work with Oprah Winfrey (her co-star). So, I found myself on set."

The HBO production will be shown on Sky Atlantic next month. Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951, aged 31, leaving behind five young children in Baltimore. Some cells that had been removed from a tumour during a biopsy - without Lacks' knowledge or consent - were cultured and used to create a cell line, known as HeLa, which went on to be used in groundbreaking medical research, including the creation of a vaccine for polio and the development of gene mapping. The cells were also cloned in the first-ever cell production factory and sold to science labs.

Byrne plays Rebecca Skloot, the science journalist who wrote the bestselling book on which the production is based, and to whom she bears quite an uncanny resemblance. "Absolutely, we could easily pass as sisters. Except that she's a thousand times smarter than I am. I'm terrible at science and completely failed biology at school." Winfrey, meanwhile, plays Deborah Lacks, daughter of the late Henrietta, who, along with Skloot, uncovered much of her mother's story.

Taking cells without a patient's consent or knowledge was a widespread and entirely legal practice in the 1950s. "At that time, everybody's cells were taken - black, white, everyone," nods Byrne. However, when Lacks' children were later subjected to tests connected with HeLa, they were, shockingly, told that they were being tested for signs of cancer. The family has never received any compensation from the industry that emerged around their mother's cells, and were not even informed about the existence of HeLa until the 1970s. "The way the medical community treated them was entirely because they were black," believes Byrne. "They were given no respect."

Winfrey bought the rights to the book soon after it was published and is an executive producer on the project. "It's surreal meeting somebody that famous," Byrne says of working with the 63-year-old icon. "You feel that you know them, when you obviously don't at all. She's one of a few people on the planet who has transcended gender, race, class and politics - she has transcended everything."

But Winfrey wasn't doling out pearls of wisdom on set. "Hers is a physically and emotionally demanding role, so she was very meditative. But she practises being grateful. It would be 100 degree heat, and she'd be, like, I'm grateful." She's also, says Byrne, "a great raconteur".

Unlike many of her deliciously messy comic creations, in person Byrne is poised and unfailingly polite ("polite to the point of pathological," she has herself admitted). She orders a grapefruit juice, which, on arrival, is an unappealing murky brown colour; she says nothing, but quietly moves it to one side and sips on water instead.

She's also refreshingly unstarry and normal, which she attributes simply to being Australian. 'We don't take ourselves too seriously,' she shrugs. Growing up in Balmain - a Sydney neighbourhood formerly populated by bohemians and artists, now fully gentrified - her mother, Jane, taught at an Aboriginal primary school, while her father, Robin, was a statistician.

The youngest of four children, Byrne was incredibly shy and a family friend suggested getting involved in drama classes at the Australian Theatre for Young People might help. She was cast in her first film role, Dallas Doll, at 13 years old, and appeared in several Australian television series, such as Heartbreak High, in her teens.

In spite of such youthfully precocious success, she failed to win a place at drama school - which was, she says, "devastating" - and studied English literature and gender studies at Sydney University instead. But she dropped out after two and half years, when she was offered a role in Two Hands, an Australian comedy-drama alongside Heath Ledger. She moved to LA in her early 20s, winning small roles in big films such as Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Troy, opposite Brad Pitt. "I found it very hard, I was very homesick," she says.

She was infinitely happier in east London, where she moved at 25 and bought a house in Hackney with her sister, Lucy, who was working at Penguin Books. "I loved living in London," she rhapsodises. "My friends were all in Dalston and Shoreditch, and we'd hang out on Broadway Market, London Fields and Columbia Road. There's nowhere else in the world like it. It's got the best fashion and music and art and theatre in the world. The streets are such a catwalk - people just don't give a f***." She's still, somewhat improbably, landlady of a property in Hackney. "I'm holding onto that, just in case…" she grins.

Film-wise, The Dollhouse collective's first offering, Eaglehawk, a short, whimsical story, debuted at the Sydney Film Festival last July - and it has two feature films, Seriously Red and Girls in Hotels, in development. Her next non-Dollhouse project, Juliet, Naked, is an adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel, the story of Annie (Byrne), the long-suffering girlfriend of Duncan (Chris O'Dowd) and her unlikely transatlantic relationship with a faded rock star (Ethan Hawke). The film will shoot in the UK this summer, meaning she gets to return to her beloved London.

But New York is firmly home for now. Byrne and Cannavale have bought a brownstone in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, which they're currently doing up. "It's made me feel scared in terms of how divided the country is," she says of Trump's presidency. "But New York is such a sanctuary and it does feel, here, that everyone's sort of on the same page." She has previously claimed she has no desire to get married ("It doesn't interest me"), but today she has referred to Cannavale several times as her husband. Have the couple secretly tied the knot?

"He's practically my husband, so calling him that is easier," she says. "The formality isn't a draw for me, but we'll do it one day. Once you have children, I just think, why not? It would be great if everyone in Australia could get married though (gay marriage is still not yet recognised under Australian law). What's the hold up? Get with the program, Australia.'

But becoming a mother has, she says, meant she has felt the physical distance between her and her family more keenly. Her sister Lucy (44) works for the Australian Council for the Arts, Alice (43) is a painter, and George (40) is a photographer; they are all based in Sydney, while their parents have retired to a garlic farm in Tasmania.

"I'm really close to them, and they all have children, and having my own immediately made me want to spend more time all together - all those clichés," she smiles, wryly. "I'm an Australian, through and through. Even though I have been here for 10 years, I'm not a citizen, and I still wake up on some days and go, what am I doing here? I'm an alien."

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will be shown on Sky Atlantic in June

Rose Byrne wasn't planning on returning to work six months after having a baby - then the chance to star opposite Oprah came along. She tells Jane Mulkerrins what it was like working with an icon and how motherhood has made her long to live closer to her family

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