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For Rose Byrne, the experience of filming FX’s star-studded Mrs. America, a drama about the movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, was a lot like filming her breakout hit Bridesmaids: filled with talented women at every level of production.
Being on a set surrounded by such a large group of women collaborators — creator Dahvi Waller; star and executive producer Cate Blanchett; executive producer and director Anna Boden; co-stars Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Sarah Paulson, Ari Graynor, Margo Martindale, Tracey Ullman, Niecy Nash, Jeanne Tripplehorn and so many more — reminded the actress of working on the 2011 comedy.
“The point of entry was this incredible cast and this tapestry of all these women,” Byrne tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It was so fun going to work. I haven’t had that since Bridesmaids, really, where you go to work every day and it’s just this cast of brilliant [people], not just one woman but all of us there. It was really, really special. It was kind of life-changing in a way. I hope I get to have such a [meaningful] experience again. These sorts of jobs do not come along all the time.”
Not only was Byrne surrounded by talented women, she and her castmates were bringing to life a collection of the 20th century’s most important feminist icons, and Byrne plays one of the most recognizable: activist Gloria Steinem.
“I was like, ‘No way, are you crazy? I’m not playing Gloria Steinem!’ That would be the hardest job because she’s so influential. How do you shed light on this character that is already so projected upon from everybody? Everybody’s got their opinions and their projections about her. I was nearly trying to back out at one point because I kept getting so scared,” says the actress.
Ultimately, though, it was the stacked cast and the importance of the story of the show that made Byrne commit: “The whole piece was such a great tapestry of all these characters and all this drama in a part of history that’s extraordinary and largely forgotten. So that was really what I wanted to be a part of ultimately, to be a part of this tapestry and to work with this extraordinary cast. I just couldn’t pass it up in spite of my fears and my anxiety around her being so well-known. It’s just such an intimidating thing to do and to try to not screw it up too much.”
Mrs. America is an ensemble series, with each episode highlighting a different figure from the movement, starting with Blanchett’s anti-ERA leader Phyllis Schlafly. Episode two follows Byrne’s Steinem, touching on her abortion as a young twentysomething and her mission with Ms. magazine. Below, Byrne discusses her research into Steinem’s life, the blindspots of second-wave feminism and female antiheroes.
How do you go about creating a character — particularly someone with such distinct style and mannerisms like Gloria Steinem — without veering into an impersonation?
There’s much research about her. Where do I begin, you know? There’s so much to read. [Waller] sent me a really great beginner’s package with two books and a lot of archival footage and media articles written about her and by her from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. So those would have been harder to access. And then she’s so different from my look, but [hair and makeup] did a great job of mocking it up to make me look like her.
Biopics are so hard. The ones that are most interesting to me are when you really see the flaws and it’s not just a puff piece. It’s not something that is just standing on a soapbox about the person but rather trying to, when someone’s that married to a movement — whether it’s Gloria Steinem or Phyllis Schlafly or Bill Clinton — whoever the figure is that you’re playing, what is the cost of that? What is the cost of the intimate moments and the intricacies and the idiosyncrasies that you’re trying to capture? So I would just be pitching ideas at Dahvi all the time, like maybe Gloria’s always falling asleep everywhere. Maybe Gloria’s threatening the television. Can I do that sort of thing? I was calling constantly trying to pitch sort of silly ideas at her, things that I’d read about or that people commented on with her and try to just get all the different shades and things and to not shy away from the mistakes they made, and all that.
But it was definitely a complicated layering process because the silhouette of her is so iconic, trying to get that right. Trying to get the shape of her voice right — she sounds so different from me like. But it was really fun. It was really ultimately a fun thing. Nerve-wracking and terrifying, but it’s fun and she was just such a specific essence in her power, Gloria. She’s so different from Betty Friedan or Bella Abzug. Her power is far more subtle. And she’s got an innate calmness and serenity to her and unflappability and sort of a sensuality, too. So that was another thing to bring that essence of her to the screen.
Yeah, in the “Gloria” episode, she’s calm and almost motherly when the woman brings her the magazine article about abortion to sign.
She is, and they always commented on that in the media. That was always one of their sticking points — she’s so unflappable and stoic. But there’s an empathy, because she’s hugely empathic, Gloria, to everybody and she has that really maternal quality. Absolutely. She doesn’t have children, obviously, but she does have a warmness to her. There’s an accessibility and a warmth to her.
She doesn’t give anything away, which is quite a contradictory thing — she’s really warm and loving but then she’s also incredible at deflecting everything. Deflecting, deflecting, deflecting. I would assume just the scrutiny she was under and the spotlight she was under and the thick skin that you would have to have to be that scrutinized and that attacked by anti-feminists and feminists alike, you know? Betty Friedan was so cruel to her. She was really in the crossfires back then, in that decade in particular.
Like any good historical drama, this show takes place in the past but mirrors a lot of our current political landscape. What’s it like to take on something of such importance, but also something that can be a lightning rod for for everyone?
It was so intense because you’re on set some days like, why are we still talking about reproductive rights for women? We’re still talking about equal pay for women and gender neutral bathrooms or whatever the thing is, and it was bizarre that that was still the conversation and in a way. It makes it so relevant and not historical at all. It’s just the same things we’re talking about 45 years later. And also, it makes it very relevant.
It’s also good that people can see it at this time, now, because it’s historical they’re not necessarily going to be associating anything that’s happening right now with watching it. You’re just kind of immersed in it in that sense when you’re watching something historical you’re in that time with them. So I’m hoping that’ll be a nice respite for people. But yeah, we would have those weird, surreal conversations around on set and think, jeez, it must be [frustrating] for the women who were alive then and who are still alive now still talking about the same thing.
The series does not treat Phyllis Schlafly’s movement condescendingly, as surely some conservatives would think it does. Do you think a conservative audience will be able to watch without writing it off as advancing a liberal agenda, or something like that?
I think Dahvi was really striving to give agency to both sides and to not present who’s right or wrong, but just to present the arguments. Hopefully you have empathy for both sides. I mean, it’s Cate Blanchett. She’s extraordinary how she can bring someone like Phyllis Schlafly to life, who is pretty polarizing, and show us in all dimensions. We’re all just dealing with the hand that we’re dealt. Also the show is really witty. It’s very emotional and it’s not just, like, a libber’s message. It’s it’s far more nuanced than that and far more entertaining and funny and emotional. I guess we’ll see what are the reactions from, hopefully, all walks, all folks who watch it. That’s what you want — you don’t want to be preaching to the converted, you want to be reaching all different sorts of audience members.
Is there anything that really stuck with you from all the research you did as you prepared for the show?
In terms of Gloria, it was really her being in the crossfires so much. I didn’t realize how she was really polarizing to people. That was extraordinary, to realize what it’s like to have that spotlight thrown on you in such a way that people still don’t — they still take up issue with her. That to me was really revealing. There’s such a determination there, such a strength behind this incredibly glamorous appearance and all this other stuff. And they kept trying to sidetrack her, but she has such a determination and drive and self-belief to be able to achieve what she has achieved. She is beloved, extraordinary, iconic and all those things, too, but she was also very controversial in a lot of ways and particularly within this decade that we’re examining.
She’s been criticized about her lack of intersectionality, and the parallel storyline with Shirley Chisholm (highlighted in episode three) really brings that to light, and the lack of intersectionality within second-wave feminism in general. It wasn’t really as inclusive as maybe they thought it was then.
Absolutely — and look at Betty Freidan and the lesbian feminists. She was so excluding of them in the movement and saying that they should be doing their own thing and it’s just clouding what we’re trying to achieve. They didn’t have that language yet. They didn’t have the language around it to discuss. There was no way to articulate intersectionality and words like that — they didn’t have that articulation around it yet. And in a way, it was sort of innocent on Gloria’s part that those things came up and weren’t addressed. There’s a scene when Margaret [Sloan, played by Bria Henderson] says, “We’re not a monolith, black feminists.” There’s diversity within [feminism] and there’s dialogue around it now, whereas then I think it was far more combative. And again, they didn’t have the articulation that we do now to be able to [address it]. But for sure there was an idealism with Gloria that is so magical, but also has its [downside] and comes up against its own issues.
Has working on this show made you think more about your own politics and beliefs? Has it fired you up a little bit? Do you think more about it?
I do. It’s sad because it’s so polarizing right now, divisive, and it’s hard not to take a side, even though you don’t want to divide things more. It has absolutely has made me more aware of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go to have equal rights as women, and also sort of the arguments that we are still trying to achieve. It’s really extraordinary.
She says in her great speech at the end, Gloria, that it’s a patriarchal society, whether it’s how we are educated, whether it’s how we’re taught about our sexuality, whether it’s our economic system or whatever. The more that women are allowed to have their voices heard, it’s just beneficial for everybody. For families, for companies, whatever the situation is, all the data points to it being more beneficial. That is really interesting to me, to look around the world with that different lens on. Dahvi made a good point — a lot of these antiheroes on television are male characters just masquerading as women, and this is truly a female antihero because she’s striving so hard for her right to be a homemaker and all these things, and she’s going around the country preaching about it. The irony of Phyllis Schlafly is she truly is a feminine antihero, not just a male version. And what does that really look like? I think it makes people uncomfortable because people even want their female antiheroes to look like men, not like women.
The first three episodes of Mrs. America premiere Wednesday on FX on Hulu, with new episodes debuting weekly.
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