The highly-anticipated FX on Hulu limited series, Mrs. America, premiered this week with the first three episodes dropping on Wednesday. The second episode of the series, “Gloria,” gets it title from Gloria Steinem, the iconic women’s rights activist who was among the leaders of the fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. Acclaimed Australian actress Rose Byrne plays Steinem in this series that contrasts the “women’s libbers” battle to get the ERA passed with anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly (played by the inimitable Cate Blanchett) and her army of housewives who led the charge to defeat the amendment. During a virtual press conference, Byrne revealed what it was about this project that drew her to it, what it was like to play the iconic Steinem and how she feels to be compared to Brad Pitt.
This is clearly a story that has some universality in it, the themes and the issues and the questions that it raises.
Yes, absolutely. We did sit on set going, “Wow. We’re still talking about the same things in 2019—when we shot it—as we are in the show, which is in 1970 to 1979.” It was quite surreal, they’re still talking about reproductive rights and equal pay and things that the series addresses.
You play Gloria Steinem—how involved was she, or were you able to get any advice from her at all?
I did not actually. I just had the scripts to rely on. Dahvi Waller, the showrunner, who is an incredible producer and writer, had done extensive research, as had I. She had access to published interviews from the time period which were a little bit harder to source, so she made this package for me. But for someone like Gloria Steinem, there is so much footage and information, including her own work and books. But no, she herself was not involved.
Tell us a little about the relationship between Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and their different styles.
Well, it’s a real thing and Betty was a difficult person. And Gloria was not her favorite person. They were obviously completely different in their styles, in their personalities and their backgrounds, and also in their feminism. Gloria was always embracing of the gay community, and Betty Friedan had a very fraught history with that, with “The Lavender Menace,” and so on. What I loved about how Dahvi approached it, especially with someone like Tracey Ullman, who is so brilliant, is that there’s a real humor around it in the show, which I think is invaluable.
One of the things I found fascinating about the series is the 70s décor and style. What was it like moving back to a time which was not that long ago, but so different?
Well, they did such a brilliant job. It’s easy to overdo those historical pieces and to make it a parody and it never went there. And yes, I am so impressed with how it looked and how it was shot. Even how you walk, how you talk—the pace of things, having to take time, which is so informative for every part of the performance. It was fun, like time travel. I was born in ’79 so I know more than you would think, but it was still completely foreign to me. I enjoyed that immensely.
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How did working with Bina Daigeler on the costumes help you get into character as Gloria Steinem and, what was that collaboration like?
She is so wonderful, so specific and authentic, and her research was just incredible. She was so informed about Gloria. And, obviously it’s all documented, so she was really specific in re-creating that. She was great with textures and with palate and it was such a huge undertaking because of the timestamp from ’70 to ’80. So it really was one of my favorite parts, collaborating on that. And particularly for Gloria, because she was such an iconic figure in her look. She was always impeccable with her style, which was really fun to create.
Gloria is such a fashion icon, too. Was there a particular piece of the costume that helped you get there?
Obviously, the glasses were integral. I have a totally different shaped face than hers, and trying to match it without having the glasses be too big and being a caricature was a challenge. But once we narrowed down to the right pair of glasses, that was ground-breaking. It was like, “OK. I’ve got it.” That and the phenomenal wigs—they just did an incredible job. The thing that I talked about with the producer, Dahvi Waller, was that we had to get the hair right because it was so much a part of her silhouette.
One thing that really stood out about the show are the moments of conflict, especially among friends and people working together.
I was always so moved by the relationship between Bella Abzug and Gloria because they were so different in their styles. I mean, they were fighting for the same thing, but had incredibly different personalities and temperaments. They had such an endearing relationship once they got to know one another. And Gloria always talked about her first impression of Bella Abzug as being, well, she wasn’t her cup of tea, basically. And that turned into a really important collaboration and friendship and mentorship, in a way. So that’s one of my favorite relationships that’s explored in the series. And then there’s also Gloria’s relationship with Brenda Feigen. They were fairly close. It’s really a partnership that was compassionate and I really loved that as well. But yes, I agree it’s great to see complications with women and their relationships and working together and I’ll just say it was done really well.
Tell us a bit about your conversations with Dahvi Waller and her vision for the series.
She was not interested in making a show about the good guys and the bad guys and standing on a soapbox and preaching. There’s nothing interesting about that. She wanted it to be more than a biopic where the person is deified and put on a pedestal. It’s got to be dirty and dramatic on both sides – both sides of the argument have to have agency and complexity, so that it doesn’t just become a parody. Both sides are flawed, deeply ambitious and deeply complicated. And so that was the conversation that really excited me. And then how to play Gloria. How do you portray this woman who’s so iconic and symbolic and well documented, yet still very active and with us? How do you bring that person to the screen? How do you show she was complicated and complex and flawed. So yes, those are the sort of conversations that we had. And Dahvi is just so smart, and she’s quite human in her dialogue which is always brilliant and such an asset to any storytelling.
What I love most about your career so far is your versatility. You remind me a lot of Brad Pitt, in that you use your beauty as a bait and switch, playing characters that sort of undercut or satirize your looks. You don’t play standard wife or girlfriend roles. What is the key to that versatility and which medium do you prefer? I know you love theatre as well.
Aw, thank you. Thank you for comparing me to Brad Pitt, oh my God.
Thank you. I’m floored. You’ve made my year. Like any actor, it’s diversity. I did Mrs. America and then right after that I did Medea on stage at BAM. It’s been diverse and interesting and yes, I absolutely have been lucky enough to get away from being boxed in as the girlfriend, the mother, the two-dimensional roles that are defined by how you look rather than having quality, a brain and complexity. I’ve been really lucky and, like any actor, you have to mix it up as much as you can. And that includes the theatre. You need rigorous training and stamina and it’s such a different discipline. It’s an innate thrill that cannot be replaced for a screen performance. I’ve enjoyed rediscovering it, and I’m hopefully doing a play at the end of the year as well. It’s challenging, scary…and a really good, rigorous workout.
Can you please describe Gloria Steinem, the character, and how you wanted to portray her?
I wanted to make her as complex as we could and maybe as flawed as we could, just like any living human being who’s been under that scrutiny. And to try to bring humor and wit because she was so witty and so smart, and to see her agency. The show covers over 10 years, so it was really important to try to track her evolution of being the face of the movement. It’s really about trying to find the little things. I was always bringing up to Dahvi that there was this legend that she could sleep anywhere. I was always asking, “Could she be asleep in this scene? Can she be asleep here?” They’d said she threw things at the television, so I’d ask, “can she do that here?” constantly trying these things that are idiosyncratic ideas. When you’re playing someone with that amount of profile and dedication to their cause, you try to think about what’s the cost to the character? I really wanted to try to see that sort of experience – for the audience to see that and to share that. What is the cost on her life? This dedication to the movement, what did it cost her?
Since you didn’t work with her personally, how were you able to get to the point where you could really bring Gloria to life in your own body and with your own voice?
I tried to research as much as I could with footage because she was so specific with how she sounded. I didn’t want it to be distracting to the audience, but also I couldn’t sound like I sounded because she was so specific with her tone, being from the Midwest, from Ohio and Toledo. Her mannerisms and her temperament were so informative with how she spoke and how she brought her message across to the masses in what she achieved. And she was quiet in the way she was so effective, she was a very powerful person. But she’s not Bella Abzug, who was front-and-center and mad dash. She was the opposite of that. So that was really important. Me and Margo were always just constantly working, constantly running the lines with our voice coaches, trying to emulate the quality. She was so iconic, it wasn’t something that I wanted to take at will and just do it half-heartedly. It was a long process, starting work with Coach Kate Wilson, who is from Juilliard. She and I started working two and a half months in advance, just running the lines, listening, working on the vowels. She wanted me to try to get as much control of it as possible, because in the performance you want to be in the moment.
Obviously, much of the dynamic of the show is about the interactions between the pro-ERA and the anti-ERA women. But you aren’t on screen so much with Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly. I was wondering how you communicated with each other and how you kind of built your dynamic outside of your screen time together.
So, the truth was that they never met. Phyllis was always wanting to debate Gloria or meet her because it would give such huge press coverage to Phyllis because Gloria was the face of the movement. And so, with Cate, I never had any scenes with her, but I knew that from the start. And I knew that was the whole point. Gloria was very smart. She refused to be photographed with her or debate her because she knew it would just bring her more attention. And that wasn’t what Gloria believed she needed. So she was very, very savvy and very clever about that. As for Cate, I’d see her on set and I’d see her working so hard. Obviously, she is just so compelling in that part. It is such a brilliant, iconic performance. There’s just not a better actor in the world, I don’t think. I really wanted to have a scene with her but unfortunately it wasn’t the job.
What was it like, being around such an incredible group of creative women, in front of and behind the camera?
It was so thrilling! It gets hard once you start shooting because the schedule gets really tough, but every week all of us would gather and have a read-through. And it was just so exciting. I got to see Tracey Ullman do a scene and Cate Blanchett do a scene. There was always a sense of anticipation, for me anyway. We all had a fun time. It was cheesy and boring but we all kind of bonded. We were hanging out in Toronto and on location, having play dates with the kids. It was really a special experience. And I am sad we don’t all get to celebrate together. But there are things far more important to be taken care of in this scary time. But it is a shame, just because I love these women so much. I would like a glass of champagne and some time together.
The first three episodes of the nine-part limited series Mrs. America are currently streaming exclusively at FX on Hulu with subsequent episodes airing every Wednesday.