Rose Byrne is playing Ellen Parsons on Damages for the show’s fifth and final season on DirecTV. (The first three seasons aired on FX.) Since last season, the former Patty Hewes protégé has set herself up to be the main character witness in a child custody case about her former mentor’s granddaughter, primarily because Ellen wants to finally reveal in open court what she knows — which includes Patty’s attempt to kill her. Patty, of course, wants to silence her, and she has just the thing to make it a conflict of interest — give her a major case and a rich client, and then take the side of the opposition. Byrne chatted with Vulture about Ellen’s prospects, power trips, and paranoia.
The flash forwards look ominous for Ellen. She can’t be dead, can she?
I can’t say! [Laughs] I plead the Fifth on this. I can’t divulge anything except to say that all will be revealed. I promise.
Do we have a chance for five seasons and a movie? Not quite the six seasons and a movie people hope for, but still …
You know, I’d love to know the ratio of how many shows have made it to six seasons and a movie, and not just any old movie, but a film that was good, you know? There aren’t that many, right? That would be a whole different way of measuring it. But yes, exactly, our storytelling device allows for anything, hypothetically, so I’ve got to go pitch that. [Laughs] I mean, I think the show is quite cinematic already.
How do you say good-bye to Ellen?
It’s strange, because it hasn’t hit me quite yet that I’m not going back again this summer to shoot more episodes, which is normally when it would hit me, in theory. It’s not quite real to me, that we’re telling the final chapter of this story. When it does hit me, I’m going to have Post-Traumatic Ellen Stress. It’ll be like, “Whoa!” Because there is such intimacy to playing a character in a long serialized story, and you hit so many notes, and you have all these different sides that are shown and exposed, and it’s like a novel. All the hidden things, all the bits, all the things that have happened and changed. I was just looking at the season-one flashbacks, and it’s wild to see how different the character is back then, how she looks, the whole thing. But that’s why I love a long-running series. You really get to know the history, and you get to invest something more in it, like in a book. I don’t want to let it go. I’m going to miss it.
In the season-one flashbacks, we see all these props that are coming back into play — the “I was warned” card from Hollis Nye, for instance. Did you get a chance to steal any props from the set?
I took the “I was warned” card. [Laughs] So I’ve been warned. What else did I take? Several pieces of clothing. I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on the Statue of Liberty bookends, even though they were crusty and covered in blood and hair and rubbish, but they were harder to steal. I wanted the green coat covered in blood, but that’s been put in a glass case and mounted on a wall, so I didn’t have room in my pockets for that.
Patty’s taught Ellen to be paranoid, but is it really paranoia when someone’s out to get you? And if she knows Patty’s not to be trusted, why does she still play the game — taking a client referred by her, taking steps based on clues Patty’s given her? Why not walk away?
She’s got her reasons. And there’s also the issue of revenge, and wanting Patty to confess. That’s a very powerful drive, and I feel like the woman has such a powerful hold on her psyche and development, she has to see it through. She can’t not. It’s toxic and it’s dysfunctional and she’s a hostage to that. But at least now she’s not apologetic about how much she wants to win, and how far she’ll go to the dark side. Up until now, she’s always played it safe and done it her way, but now they’re able to set each other up, which is so cool. It’s a game she knows well now, and she can really play it, like chess. It’s about power, and how power corrupts and destroys, and Ellen really gets some power this season. It’s an addictive thing, and I quite liked that.
She’s got power, but she can’t control her one client, Ryan Phillippe.
[Laughs] His character is so evasive and so weird and he just keeps getting weirder and weirder, which is really compelling as a viewer, but really frustrating for Ellen, because she’s got to do her job and he’s blocking her. She’s taking on Patty Hewes, who is setting up this trap for her, and on top of that, she’s got a client with some very strange sort of Asperger’s personality. I find it kind of funny how odd he is, but Ryan himself couldn’t be more different.
You just finished shooting a romantic comedy, I Give It a Year, with Anna Faris, and you have another comedy coming up, Internship, with Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. That help lighten the Damages heaviness?
I Give It A Year is adorable. It’s the directorial debut of Dan Mazer, my character is a newlywed, and it’s so exciting to be able to go from something heavy to something light, even if there’s some paranoia in this character, too. She has a certain element of Ellen that lives in and rules her, that she doesn’t even realize. She’s a difficult character. Personally, I think comedy is the harder task, though, especially this character, because she’s quite humorless and rigid in her ideas. What’s the creative side of your brain, the left? She’s right brain and I’m left brain, so it’s a totally different mind-set to me, but that’s where the comedy is.
And I would imagine in Internship, there’s a lot of comedy in a boss in a relationship with an intern who isn’t younger and allegedly powerless. You’re starting to shoot that this month?
I plead the Fifth on Internship! But you don’t want to take advantage of someone younger, no. Although Ellen probably needs to. An office romance would be quite good for her. She needs some dodgy guys in her bed, but she would never do that. That would have been quite entertaining, to get to see that side of her. Yeah, she absolutely needs that, and those flings never go over well. [Laughs]
So I hear you’re about to be a bridesmaid yourself for the first time?
Yes! My dearest and oldest and closest friend in Australia is getting married, so I’m finally getting to be a bridesmaid! I’m thrilled about it. But she’s very relaxed — she’s not a Bridezilla, so it’ll be easy. I’ve never done it before, so I’ve been doing a lot of research so I can organize things. I don’t usually enjoy weddings, but I haven’t gone to that many that I’ve been this excited about. I’m looking forward to witnessing her and her wonderful boyfriend do this, and at least I know now how absolutely not to give a toast. I know what not to do!
You had the best drinking game at the awards shows for Bridesmaids. What would the Damages drinking game be?
Drink every time I say, “What do you mean?” [Laughs]