Nobody was more surprised than Rose Byrne herself when she scored a Best Actress win at last year’s Venice Film Festival as a blind woman in Clara Law’s perplexing Goddess of 1967. Surprised because she is genuinely confounded by her strengths as an actress. In a noisy restaurant during last year’s Toronto Film Festival, the talented award-winner talked about Goddess, Star Wars and her genuine insecurities, to Paul Fischer.
A crowded Italian restaurant in downtown Toronto is the least likely place to find Aussie actress-of the-moment Rose Byrne, who just days ago had found out she had won the top acting prize at the Venice Film Festival. “I’m so embarrassed that I didn’t hang around”, the unpretentious 21-year old confessed. “I got an email when I got here and just couldn’t believe it.” The Goddess of 1967 is the second Australian feature from Hong Kong filmmaker Clara Law. Byrne gives a startling performance as Diedre, a young blind woman in outback Australia who is haunted by her past. Getting about in a pink ’67 Citroen “Goddess”, she is brought into contact with a Japanese man (model Rikiya Kurokawa). Together they hit the road on an often-surreal journey that is inter-cut with episodes from the past.
Profound yet very non-linear in its approach, Byrne admits that when she initially read the script, she found it “impossibly ambiguous and hard to grasp.” In short, she “didn’t get it at all. I felt there was all this symbolism and metaphors that had gone over my head. I really thought it was too intellectual for me.” She recalls the writing as having been “very poetic and not naturalistic.” Byrne agreed to do the film partly because of Law, but also she concedes, “Because I’m not in a position to pick and choose.” After she landed the role, she laughingly recalls being “really overwhelmed and wondering: Wow what in the hell am I going to do now that I’ve got it!” What she did was “make very specific choices for myself.” Those choices, challenging at best, include taking it “scene to scene and figuring out what my character was doing in each one.” While so many actors search for something within to create a role, Byrne says that even with the script’s ambiguous nature [“the ambiguity will take care of itself”], it was important to capture the character’s blindness “and be as truthful as possible.”
Playing this character, who is comparatively abstract, meant “acting in my own bubble to a large extent. Acting is, after all, REacting, and I couldn’t react as I, Rose, would react, because I couldn’t see. So it was a whole different dimension.” Rose did research the blind aspects of her character “by watching many films with ‘blind’ performances, and spent some time at the Royal Blind Society.” She adds that hers “is a very stylised performance because Clara didn’t want the blind facets of the character to be distracting.” Byrne admits that there were tough moments shooting the film, including a highly emotive love scene, and a scene at the end involving considerable anger “which I’m just not good at, because it’s not in my nature”, she adds smilingly.
Byrne says, with genuine modesty, that she was surprised at her own performance, “while at the same finding it confronting watching the film “because it was too depressing.” Not the film, but her own acting, as she admits that “watching myself is confronting because I’m convinced I can’t act and I want to get out, that’s how insecure I am.” Then along comes the prestigious award at Venice, to reinforce just how good Ms Byrne is. “It was certainly encouraging yet at the same time, kind of surreal – I feel there must have been slim pickings that year for female lead performances.” More laughter hides her obvious insecurity. “I think my performance in that film works because of Clara’s direction, and because of her, it makes sense what I’ve done.” She describes Law as a director “who is very much focussed on the technical stuff, so you have to be prepared to be doing it solo.”
Ironically, there are parallels between that experience and the more daunting task of working with George Lucas on Star Wars Episode II. Not that she plays a character with quite the dramatic range as in Goddess, she wants to say, with raucous laughter. “She’s not the most prolific character in the film, let me say.” Not trying to divulge much, Rose plays “a handmaiden to Natalie Portman; I just stand behind her looking very demure.” A tall order, one suggests. “Yeah, I had to search for a lot within myself to play demure.” Rose had a blast working on Star Wars, and got to hang out with Portman. “She’s really cool and we got to hang out on weekends a few times.” Byrnes’ boyfriend, a stuntman, “doubled for Obe Wan which was fun and such a small world.” Byrne joins a host of Aussie actors, including the likes of Susie Portman. “It’ll be a case of spot the Australian actor on this film.” Byrne may not get to choose to her own films, but at least she got to be in Star Wars and she can brag about to all her friends. “Fuck yeah, for sure, that’s half the fun: Guess what, I’m in Star Wars. I just might make the cut.” In more ways than one.