Rose Byrne had just finished an eight-week run in a bold new version of Medea in New York, alongside her partner Bobby Cannavale, when Broadway was shut down by coronavirus.
“We were really lucky,” Byrne says, on the line from her home in Brooklyn.
“We just snuck in under the wire.”
This Saturday, Byrne will return to the theatre for the first time since then – in a manner of speaking, at least.
She will play opposite Ewen Leslie, with musical accompaniment from John Butler, in a live-streamed reading of the play Gruesome Playground Injuries.
She will be in New York, Leslie will be in Sydney, and Butler in Perth.
It’s the second time independent Sydney company Red Line Productions has staged such an event, the first being last month’s production of Orphans starring Alec Baldwin, Aaron Glenane and the company’s artistic director Andrew Henry.
It was a bold experiment, complete with live video mixing, and a resounding success, with Henry claiming “10,000 people around the world tuned in”.
The production was, Henry adds, “a triumphant proof of concept for us, we had thousands of emails following the stream, accompanied by photographs of people dressed up in their theatre outfits. It was just gorgeous and a no-brainer to do it again.”
For Byrne, signing up represented a welcome leap into the unknown.
“I’ve done many play readings but they’ve always been in a room with people sitting around when you’re trying to flesh out a new play,” she says.
“I thought it would be an experiment for me too, and interesting to dive in.” It’s part, she adds, of a broader wave of “everyone rediscovering creativity in the pandemic”.
The Sydney-raised actress is currently on Australian screens in the Foxtel series Mrs America, in which she plays legendary feminist Gloria Steinem.
She has described taking the role as “intimidating” because Steinem was such an influential and well-known figure, and confesses to “trying to back out at one point because I kept getting so scared”.
What ultimately got her over the line, though, was the chance to act with a cast of “brilliant” woman, including Cate Blanchett, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Sarah Paulson, Tracey Ullman and Elizabeth Banks.
“It was kind of life-changing in a way,” Byrne has said.
“I hope I get to have such an [meaningful] experience again. These sorts of jobs do not come along all the time.”
They certainly don’t come along at the moment. Byrne is spending her lockdown at home, with Cannavale and their two young children, four-year-old Rocco and Rafa, who is two.
“It’s obviously strange being in New York, which is the epicentre [of America’s outbreak]. But we’re good. We’ve been safe and well, knock on wood.”
She has massive admiration for the people who have to go to work every day, the health and sanitation and emergency workers.
“Every night you get on your balcony and everybody bangs their pots and pans for a few minutes, it’s very emotional,” she says.
Though Byrne is “mostly in childcare mode” when the offer came to do the reading it seemed perfect.
“I just miss the theatre and wanted to do something creative. It’s been time-consuming but it’s also been really fun and lovely to read something and be creative, to take your mind off things too.”
There’s so much uncertainty around what lies in store for everyone that Byrne doesn’t know when or if her next screen project – the Apple TV+ dramedy Physical, in which she is to play a 1980s aerobics entrepreneur – will go ahead.
There must be a question mark too over her planned return to her hometown to star opposite Cannavale in the STC’s production of A View From the Bridge, but not due to open until December 8 there’s at least a chance it could proceed. Right now, though, Byrne’s mind is on the weekend.
She’s a little daunted, she admits, by the prospect of doing theatre but not in the theatre.
“It’s such an interactive medium, you’re feeding off the audience so much when you really are doing a play so you instantly know if it’s working or not, and obviously this will not be the case,” she says. “But the anticipation and adrenaline will help.”
And what of Mother’s Day?
“I don’t have any plans. You know what, maybe I’ll start drinking at 4 instead of 5,” she says with a throaty laugh.
“There’s my Mother’s Day plan.”