Rose Byrne on her "Platonic" chemistry with Seth Rogen and the shocking reactions to "Physical"

Byrne breaks down her approach to comedy, from the lighthearted "Platonic" to the provocative "Physical"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 23, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Rose Byrne (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Rose Byrne (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

In a cultural landscape of darkly seriocomic prestige series like "Succession" and "The Bear," Rose Byrne is happy to just take a pratfall. "We're going for the laughs," the Australian actress said of her new Apple TV+ series "Platonic." "The joke is the most important thing."

Reuniting with her "Neighbors" movies costar Seth Rogen, Byrne plays midlife stay-at-home mom Sylvia, whose life gets a revitalizing — if messy — shakeup from her recently divorced former bestie, Will. The show is an exploration of friendship rarely depicted in popular culture: a straight man and woman whose bond is deep without being romantic.

"There is a side of Sylvia that she reveals to Will that she just can't show to her husband," Byrne explained on "Salon Talks, "and she can't show to her mom friends, and she can't show to her children."

Byrne, who has been working in TV and film since the mid-'90s, has done dramas, musicals and horror, including a running role in the "Insidious" franchise, but she's found a sweet spot in the kind of comedy that takes big swings. (In "Platonic," her character gets to battle an overflowing toilet and shamble through a night on horse tranquilizers.) "Any chance you can to do something physical on a show," said Byrne, who names Kristin Wiig, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and John Cleese as inspirations, "is such a relief. That to me is always liberating."

Byrne also opened up about leaning into being "definitely middle-aged," her very different turn on her other AppleTV+ series, "Physical," why the polarizing response to the show was "shocking" to her, and the classic sitcom she returns to again and again when she's feeling weird. Watch Rose Byrne on "Salon Talks" here, or read our conversation below.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Tell me what drew you to "Platonic," and how you and Seth Rogen got to reunite for it. 

Well, Nick Stoller and Francesca Delbanco, the writer-directors of the show. Nick did the "Neighbors" movies and "Get Him to the Greek." The first comedic role I'd ever had, he cast me in. I'm indebted to Nick. He had approached me trying to collaborate on a television show. Then they pitched me this idea through some experiences Francesca had . . . what does a platonic friendship evolve to? When you're in your 20s and your 30s, it's a different thing, but once you're in your years of raising a family or starting a business or, as we see in the show, very different chapters of your life, what does it look like and what does it look like to other people?

I said, "Maybe we could get Seth." It lives and dies on the chemistry between the two leads because it's this friendship that's being examined and unravels and comes back together. They bring out the best and the worst in each other. Knowing we'd had that history of doing the "Neighbors" movies, I thought we would bring that with us. We have a good comic rapport with each other. I really didn't want to do it unless we had Seth on board, and he luckily said he would.

One of the things that I also really appreciate about it is it's just a straightforward comedy.

It is. We're going for the laughs. The joke is the most important thing.

It has the feelings, but it's also just straightforward comedy and I feel like there has not been a lot of that lately. 

"The joke is the most important thing."

I know. I go to "Seinfeld" if I feel a bit sad or weird or bad. That's my comfort show. With "Platonic," it deals with an issue that's resonant and familiar to people of many ages, but particularly I think to a woman in the point of her life that Sylvia is at. 

It's hard to make something funny, to get a laugh every few minutes, to try and get a laugh in there. It's really challenging. It definitely harks back to the films Seth and I have done together, and obviously, the films Seth did in the 2000s and so on — very influenced by that kind of tone, but in a series format.

I don't think it is a spoiler to say it is not a rom-com.

No. It makes great pains to put the audience at ease that this is not about, "Will they, won't they?" That's unusual to see. You never really see a whole story about that. It's more about how other people around them comment on their friendship. There's never any tension and stuff like that, which was funny because when we did the "Neighbors" films, we were happily married so we were affectionate and loving. Then in week two of shooting, I was like, "You're being really mean to me," because we could be. We were much more like friends that wind each other up, but to me it felt very fresh and very unusual to examine that.

A lot of us have friends across the gender spectrum. It's not that unusual. And yet this idea is still not really being explored. I was thinking while watching this of how just a few years ago Mike Pence was saying how he would never have dinner with a woman. Why is it important for all of us to have friends who are not just our same gender and our same orientation?

I think that you get something different from the other gender that is just inherent to being. I do think it's generational. People in their 20s now would look at this idea as very old-fashioned. I think people a generation older than me would relate to it even more because it's even more gender segregation. Now gender is a much more fluid and complex conversation. This hones in on an idea that has been around for centuries and it's fun. We're doing it through humor. The best way to put something under the microscope is to discuss it with humor.

"This idea that we can do it all and we should have it all is kind of ridiculous."

I have a dear friend who was my roommate when we were struggling actors in LA in the early 2000s. We never were together, ever, and nobody could believe me. No one. They were always like, "Yeah, but you hooked up, right?" Constantly this skepticism from people, particularly his friends. And it was fascinating to me that people A, gave a s**t, and B, were really intrigued by it. Then when you look around now and you think about your friends, and your male friends, "Could I go away for a weekend with my male friends, and could Bobby [Cannavale, Byrne's partner] go away for a weekend with his female friends?" You're like, "Sure," but would you do it? It is an interesting conversation to have once you turn the spotlight on your own life.

Because it's also about emotional intimacy. It's not about romance. It's not about sex. But it is about that person who I let in and that person who can see a side of me that maybe no one else sees.

And nobody else can. That's what we really try to show in the program. Sylvia's husband, Charlie, played by Luke Macfarlane, at one point in the show says, "I don't think that they're having an affair, but I think they're getting off on the fact that they could have an affair," or something like that. It's another funny observation of what people are projecting onto the relationship. It's true. There is a side of Sylvia that she reveals to Will that she just can't show to her husband, and she can't show to her mom friends, and she can't show to her children.

It's also so much about when you're at that place in your life, in midlife, where you're looking at where everybody else is. I wouldn't call you midlife, but...

No, I am. I'm definitely middle-aged.

You are at a point in life where you are being looked at in a different way as a performer. What does your career look like now as a mom of two young children?

It's like any working parent, you're always reexamining and juggling and looking at things on a case-by-case basis. Particularly with two working actors, you're always putting those puzzle pieces together. I think balance is really hard and this idea that we can do it all and we should have it all is kind of ridiculous. Day to day, it's just chaos, and you've got to enjoy it and be as organized. For me, I find organization helps and then it's still chaotic, even if I'm trying to be organized.

Then in terms of work, it's always a challenge. It never ends. I think actors always think the last job is the last job, but I feel grateful that I've been able to be part of a project like this, which is really personal to Nick and Francesca in many ways. It's something that is relatable in a way that is lighthearted and accessible, which is hard to find on television sometimes. A lot of the comedies these days are a lot darker, like "Physical," which I love and I'm drawn to, but this is truly a genuine laugh-out-loud comedic piece with big set pieces.

Let's talk about "Physical." It is so dark and intriguing and has had people talking and thinking and feeling deep feelings.

Yes, definitely.  It's a provocative show.

It is a provocative examination of really tough stuff. Were you surprised by the reaction it got when it arrived?

I was. I was prepared that it would be polarizing, but it still was a little bit shocking. I was like, "Wow, there's still so far to go," and people acknowledging eating disorders and acknowledging women being morally ambiguous about their life. It felt very personal, the reviews, far more than anything else I'd done. People really had an opinion in a way that was quite revealing of themselves, I thought. I guess the piece provokes that in people, which is a good thing and I think it's good that people have discussions around art, but I was a bit taken aback, initially. 

Some of that seems gendered. I can't think of too many other ambitious shows with a character who is sometimes unlikeable, who is thinking dark thoughts, who is doing sometimes dark things, that has a male protagonist — which most of them do — that get that kind of visceral…

Pushback, yeah. People were uncomfortable in a way that was very revealing, I thought. It did beg that question. It's hard to not include that as part of the conversation. I'm all for gender equity and for being treated equally. If you're going to put yourself out there, then you've got to also take the bad with the good. But I did feel the response was a little more direct because of that.

It's rooted in real experiences, and yet it is hard to show these things in a way that is honest without romanticizing.

Of course. That's the trick.

How did you strike that balance? How did you work as a team so that you're telling a story that is truthful, is provocative, is vulnerable, is about experiences that a lot of women have had and yet also doesn't tip over into something that feels almost dangerous?

"Actors always think the last job is the last job."

Depiction doesn't mean you're endorsing anything. That's the number one rule of art: Just because you're doing it doesn't mean it — by its very nature, it can lend itself to that and so it's very, very careful and you are threading a really fine needle. 

I very much leaned on Annie Weisman, and this is her personal story. Her perspective, I hope I'm correct in recalling it, was she would want it to be shown how she would want to see it, which was that you see what's happening with her addiction and her eating disorder. She very much wanted it. She'd never seen it. This is how she would've wanted to see it for someone who's in recovery and for someone who's been through that so I just trusted her because I had to have a leap of faith and go, "This is." I feel like it is done well. I think it is done well. Like you say, it's very challenging.

I want to ask what the response has been from viewers. I will tell you, as someone who remembers this era, I can see traces of my own mom in this character.

I've had, interestingly, friends who are in recovery from addiction, whether it's drug or alcohol or sex or food or whatever, have reached out to me and gone how much they relate to the inner monologue of an addict and what that is day to day, minute to minute, and how crushingly overwhelming and debilitating it is. That has been really fascinating to me that Annie captured that so well with the writing. That has been very moving to have people confide in me like that.

I've heard you talk about how you really act with your body. It's called "Physical." You are a very physical actor. What is it about that kind of performing style that you feel you can express something with?

"People were uncomfortable in a way that was very revealing."

I have a great choreographer on "Physical." I'm deeply, deeply uncoordinated. It takes every ounce of my brain power to be able to talk and move at the same time, so that was very challenging. Any chance you can to do something physical on a show, pardon the pun, whether it's "Platonic" or whatever, "Mrs. America" — that was a whole-body movement, playing Gloria Steinem, because she was so specific with her walk and talk — is such a relief. You're out of your brain, so you're less self-conscious and you actually have something to focus on rather than just your "performance." That to me is always liberating when you have to really do something physically.

I'm such a fan of physical comics. Kristen Wiig, I think, is an incredible physical comedian. John Cleese, Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I could go on and on. Seth is so funny, physically, comedically, so that was really fun on "Platonic." They very much wrote to our strengths, so that was great. They try to give us funny set pieces that could bring out our strengths as a pair.

Was there a particular moment on "Physical" that was the most challenging this season? 

There were a lot of big set pieces on "Physical" that were challenging. The character of Zooey Deschanel appears a lot of the time in Sheila's subconscious, so that was challenging. Usually, the subconscious is just a VO. This was more in-person and trying to figure out the subtle differences of what was there and what wasn't, so that was challenging, but fun. It was so fun. Annie just spoiled me with the writing on the show. Every episode I was like, "How am I going to do this? Who wrote this?"

And getting to work with Zooey Deschanel returning to TV.

I know. I loved working with Zooey. She was such a delight. She's such a multifaceted, talented, all-American performer. She sings, she dances, she acts, she is a blogger, she is a chef. She's just one of those people where you're like, "Oh, you could play this instrument and that instrument." I'm fascinated with that and we really try to play to all of her strengths and all of those multifaceted talents that she has for the character.

She even gets to be a blonde.

And she gets to be blonde. She's so funny. It's a specific tone of the show and she just immediately just got the tone and got the character.

I have to ask you one more thing, because I'm a big "Insidious" fan. The new one is coming out this summer, directed...

Yes, by Patrick Wilson. Directed and written by Patrick.

It's a big deal. 

It is a big deal, yeah. It's set in the present day and it's great because it's the original cast of the original film, so it was really special. It was Ty [Simpkins], myself, Patrick [Wilson]. Lin [Shaye] is in there too, but she's come back from the dirt, I think. There's been many chapters of the film. We shot in Jersey last summer. I was just delighted. It was a tickle. I adore Patrick, and I love working with him so it was really fun to see the trilogy come to life. It was really special.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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