October 31, 2020

Rose Byrne on Playing Gloria Steinem and Mrs. America Takeaways

5 min read

Rose Byrne won’t tell anyone how to feel after watching a television show. But if there’s one takeaway from Mrs. America, FX on Hulu’s period drama in which she plays activist Gloria Steinem, the 40-year old actress hopes it’s how relevant the story is today.

“The first time I read the script, I thought to myself, ‘Wow,'” she tells ELLE.com, her Australian accent a stark contrast from Steinem’s faint Midwestern lilt. “It’s haunting and profound, but really eerie. The show is basically a foreshadowing of what’s to come, a look at the divided world we live in now.”

Mrs. America revisits one of history’s most controversial ideological battles: The struggle to ratify an amendment to the United States Constitution designed to guarantee fair treatment under the law regardless of sex. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) never passed, thanks in large part to the 1970s campaign efforts of grassroots organizer Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), who publicly challenged the ideals of the era’s biggest feminist icons—including Steinem, Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), and Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale)—and gave birth to the modern-day conservative movement.

As Mrs. America airs its finale, Byrne talks to ELLE.com about channeling Steinem on the small screen—and celebrates the “forever” friendships she made working on the show.

You read Gloria’s book My Life on the Road to prepare for the role. What did you learn about her?

Her dedication to her activism is extraordinary and defining. I wanted to honor that and honor the complexities of her childhood, which were very profound. She had a very unusual, peripatetic [childhood], not without trauma. It shaped the person and the woman [she] would become. She grew up in the ’50s and ‘6os, which is a remarkably different time for women. This was before birth control. She came up in such a different time than I did. There were so many differences [between our experiences], so as an actor I tried to be [her] attorney, of sorts, and put her best case forward.

What surprised me most was that Gloria was vilified by the right, obviously, but also by feminists. Betty Friedan was so cruel to her in public. The determination she had to continue to fight and not engage with any dispute is remarkable.

It’s startling to realize how little has changed for women in the last half century.

The terrifying thing is that I related to a lot of [the show], and this is decades later. I was like, “I know that feeling, I understand that sense of judgment or dismissal.” We’d be on set, going over scenes, and saying to ourselves, “This is still what we’re talking about in the news today!” Women of an older generation worked so hard for all of these rights, and we now stand on their shoulders. The fact that we’re still talking about it all is just depressing.

What about happy memories from backstage?

At the wrap party, they got a Phyllis Schlafly drag queen. She was all dressed up like Cate is in the show. I can’t remember what she sang. I think Cate has a photo from that night!

No. Way. That needs to go on Instagram!

[Laughs] Seriously, the show was really fun to work on. I thought I knew about this part in history, but I didn’t. It was comprehensive and complex. As a historical piece, you can reverse engineer everything and see how we got to where we are today. What I took away was how we ended up where we are now by looking back at this very interesting time.

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The fashion in the series is fantastic. Subtle but powerful. Lots of bellbottoms and aviators. Did you get to keep any of the outfits?

There was this one episode where Gloria wears a great multicolored pattern shift dress made by Bina [Daigeler, the costume designer]. She’s also got this bolero hat. I loved that. Bina was so specific about the fabrics and the textures, because it’s easy to veer into retro when you’re doing a historical piece. This was such an iconic part of fashion history, but it can become a parody if it’s not done right. We felt it was very important to make it look as authentic as possible. Gloria is innately a chic person, so trying to get that across was really important. That started with trying to emulate her silhouette: Her hair. Her glasses. Do we go with high-waisted pants, or her mini skirts? Gloria also had this innate sensuality about her, [but] the show never objectifies her. It does deal with her objectification, but it’s part of the narrative. There’s never a male gaze on her.

You’ve said that working with such a large group of female collaborators for Mrs. America was a lot like being on the set of Bridesmaids.

Yes! It was such an experience and probably won’t happen again for a long time [because of the pandemic]. I really took a lot away from Mrs. America. I just adore all the women I worked with. I got to know Uzo really well, and Tracey Ullman. They’re both incredible. Am I gushing? I’m totally gushing, aren’t I? What a special time I’ll remember forever.

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