Growing up in the crowded suburb of Sydney’s Balmain, Rose Byrne was a quiet kid, whose parents encouraged her to pursue acting to combat her shyness. “I was never a super confident [young actor],” admits the now 41-year-old Byrne, her calm composure at odds with the younger self she is describing. “I look at social media and the savviness, sophistication and confidence of the young actors I now work with – millennials – and I think, ‘Wow, I never had that, ever.’”

Yet fast forward a few decades and the transformation from timid Aussie teen to Hollywood heavyweight is apparent – even down to the empowered female characters she chooses to immerse herself in.

In 2020, Byrne played iconic feminist Gloria Steinem in Mrs. America. The mini-series is based on the true story of the attempt in the 1970s to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in all 50 states of the USA, and Steinem’s unsuccessful battle against the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett), who led the backlash against it.

At first glance, Byrne’s new gig – Physical, a 10-part, whip-smart comedy set against the backdrop of the aerobics craze of the ’80s – seems a far cry from Mrs. America’s serious historic bones, but both tell a story of society in flux, with feminism at the fore.

In Physical, Byrne plays a tortured Californian housewife, Sheila Rubin, who finds her power through exercise and eventually becomes a lifestyle guru with her workout videos, paving the way for the dime-a-dozen fitness influencers of today. “The show’s all about that whole generation of discovery – going from the ‘We’ generation [in the ’70s] to the ‘Me’ generation of today,” Byrne explains. “Now everybody’s an entrepreneur. Everyone’s got a clothing line or a candle line or a parenting blog or whatever. The ’80s was the beginning of that and this show is examining how it started.”

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