Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale Are Lovers Playing Fighters Onstage

In Medea, an avant-garde take on the Greek tragedy.

Photo: Daniel Dorsa
Photo: Daniel Dorsa

In a bare room, Rose Byrne approaches Bobby Cannavale with a painting. It’s a gift that is also clearly a ploy to get back into his life. They talk about their kids and vaguely of her recovery from some kind of trauma. She pretends to be better, while he pretends there wasn’t something between them, though their history sizzles in the air. He’s seeing someone else now. She claims to be over it, yet she can’t help but bring it up. “This isn’t a good conversation,” he says. “It’s not the best, it’s not the worst,” she counters. It’s like watching them pick at a rash when they know they shouldn’t, until it inflames, pustulates, and then kills them.

Byrne, 40, and Cannavale, 49, are rehearsing the first scene in Simon Stone’s adaptation of Medea at BAM. When the scene ends, Cannavale, as if to annotate his performance, tells Stone he was “thinking about the way sex is on the table” between the characters. “I feel as if it’s there,” Stone says. “And the sadness of it also not being possible.” Stone, who is directing, too, likes having them run through the scene in rehearsal to develop a sense of their characters’ shared past together.

Then Byrne and Cannavale go off to their home in Brooklyn and their own two kids, since they have a shared present together, too. Byrne, an Australian expat who, thanks to movies like Bridesmaids, has become more successful in comedy than as a dramatic actor, and Cannavale, a Cuban-Italian New York stage fixture who has become a recent favorite of Martin Scorsese’s — currently, he can be seen in The Irishman — started dating in 2012. (They met through mutual friends while Byrne was playing legal psychodrama across from Glenn Close in Damages.) It seemed like no big deal to go from dating to co-starring, and in 2014 they appeared in both the indie Adult Beginners (as a married couple) and a studio remake of Annie, though they disagree about which was filmed first. He says Annie, she says Adult Beginners. “We can’t even agree on this,” she deadpans, almost directly into my voice recorder. They followed those up with roles as villains in the 2015 comedy Spy.

Even when they don’t produce hits, their work tends to be critically acclaimed, which has resulted in the two actors occupying a place as a thinking fan’s celebrity couple, best known by people willing to pay for tickets to the theater or premium cable. They feel like a rustic Brooklyn answer to Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker’s Manhattan theater, fashion, and screen combo, of a kind with fellow Brooklynites Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, or Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard. Plus, Byrne and Cannavale have symbiotically complementary looks, with his hulking figure and brow and her petite poise and knowing rag-doll eyes. They can make it feel like “sex is on the table” immediately, even in a quiet rehearsal room.

That spark makes you want to know more, even if the two of them find the interest in their personal lives a little strange. “It’s way more interesting for other people than it is for us,” Cannavale admits over lunch at Rucola, a cozy Italian place in Brooklyn with eggplant sandwiches he loves, a few more weeks into rehearsal. They’re a little tired of my questions about being a couple in the public eye, even if those questions come with the territory of promoting a play. “We’re not doing this to do interviews about our relationship,” Byrne says, “even though that’s what we’re doing right now.” She laughs, firm yet charming. “I know you’re just doing your job.”

Medea is Byrne and Cannavale’s first play together, which, considering the plot, is a little like taking your first family vacation to the center of an armed conflict. Euripides’ telling of the tragedy takes place after Medea, a brilliant sorceress, has helped Jason (of the Argonauts) complete his quest for the Golden Fleece. He abandons her for a king’s daughter, and Medea gets her revenge by killing her and Jason’s own children. In Stone’s version, credited as “after Euripides,” Byrne and Cannavale play contemporary analogues roughly patterned on the case of Debora Green, a Kansas physician who pleaded no contest to burning down her family’s home, killing two of her three children, and attempting to poison her husband. So yes, Byrne will be acting out the murder of two of her and Cannavale’s children every night before heading home to their real kids. If not that interesting to them, it’s fascinating for us.

In addition to the fraught story, the two actors have to navigate Stone’s bolder directorial choices. He developed Medea at Toneelgroep Amsterdam, home of fellow classical-theater-wrecking artist Ivo van Hove, who is currently on Broadway with a dismantled West Side Story. In Stone’s staging, the relentless, 80-minute flow of action takes place in a set so bare, sterile, and evenly lit that Cannavale compares it to a big white void slowly filling with ashlike debris as the tragedy advances. “The set’s a bit disorienting when you first see it,” he says. “When the actor’s onstage, it looks like you’re floating.”

The idea of casting Byrne and Cannavale came from David Binder, BAM’s artistic director, who asked Cannavale at a gala one evening if the couple would ever consider acting onstage with each other. They had already signed on to do A View From the Bridge in Sydney this December — Byrne likes to return to work in her home country when she can — so why not take on one more big tragedy beforehand?

Cannavale, a true enthusiast who describes himself as loving the theater the way other guys love cars, was especially excited to work with Stone, whose similarly modern update of Yerma was a sensation at the Park Avenue Armory last year. “It was just about convincing her to do it,” Cannavale jokes, elbowing Byrne. She laughs, deflecting focus to the pragmatic. Of course, she wanted to do Medea. Of course, she wanted to work with Stone, whom she knew distantly in the way all Australian actors and directors seem to know one another. (In rehearsal, the two of them get distracted catching up on gossip about other theatrical Australians; many of the stories seem to involve Jacki Weaver.) But really, so much depends on just having someone to watch the children. “It’s hard,” Byrne points out. “You have two parents not putting kids to bed. That’s the biggest part of the decision.”

One thing that is clear to Byrne, however, is that her kids will “always have a relationship with Australia.” Given her connection to the country, she is deeply affected by the ongoing wildfires. “It’s surreal being away and reading about your home country, and devastating to see it, the people losing their lives and the animals,” she says. She has encouraged people to donate to relief efforts and is proud of fellow Australians who have also raised money. And she’s furious with “the most tone-deaf fucking [prime minister],” Scott Morrison. “It’s a climate crisis, and he won’t address it as that,” she says. “He’s a real piece of work, that one.”

The couple will return to Australia later this year for View, but for now, working on Medea, they are content to be at home in Brooklyn. Rehearsal is within walking distance of their house in Boerum Hill, where they can check in with Rocco, 3, and Rafael, 2. The kids are blissfully too young to understand that their parents are acting out filicide for a living (only recently did they show a glimmer of recognition of their mother in a commercial for Peter Rabbit) and are too focused on being kids to care. “I can come home with my head spinning, and they’re just like, ‘Mama, Mama, tell me a story!,’ ” Byrne says. Then, in the tone of a preening character she might play in a comedy — a mock version of herself she occasionally puts on display — she adds, “Do they know who we are?” Puffing out his chest, Cannavale joins the bit: “They don’t know who we are!”

Cannavale has been through the process of raising a child before. His son Jake, whom he had with the writer Jenny Lumet, is now 24 and also an actor, appearing alongside his father in Nurse Jackie and playing a bounty hunter in the Star Wars show The Mandalorian. (“He’s a dead bounty hunter now,” his father quips.) When Jake was young, Cannavale was just starting his own career and hustling for jobs. “I’ve basically spent my life since I was 24 actively raising children,” he says, “and it will continue that way until I’m in retirement.” Byrne laughs at the idea of his retiring. “And you’ll do what?,” she asks. “Live!,” he announces, as if it’s obvious.

But Cannavale is the planner in the family. He’d like to keep working, though at his current, somewhat anonymous level of fame. “I actively don’t want to not be able to ride the subway,” he insists. So what are Byrne’s plans? “I’m a little bit more moment to moment,” she admits. “That’s why we’re a good yin and yang.” There’s a trickster spirit in Byrne that takes its time to reveal itself. You think he’s the goofball but then realize that she’s working her own angle.

There’s some of that play in their working relationship as they figure out where to move for different projects. They relocated to Toronto for a few months last year, when Byrne played Gloria Steinem in an FX series. In a recent interview, Cannavale blurted out that Byrne makes twice as much as he does, which garnered some attention that mystifies them both. “First of all, that number is wrong. It’s probably a wider gap,” he says. Byrne laughs and slips her wrist inside his elbow, a reflexive gesture she repeats in moments like this. It’s loving but also a nudge that maybe he’s saying too much again. “I’m kidding!,” he continues. “My point is that we’re both lucky enough to be working all the time, and we can go back and forth. I do work in the theater a lot, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that if you’re working in theater, you’re not making as much money as Dwayne Johnson.”

Throughout our conversation, they keep referring to each other as husband and wife, even if one thing you learn pretty quickly from stories about Bobby Cannavale and Rose Byrne (especially from their publicists’ clarifications of those stories) is that they are not married. “We’re not,” Byrne says. “We were planning to … and then another baby, and then — ” “I hate all the other words!,” Cannavale interjects. “It’s just easier to say husband and wife.

Boyfriend and girlfriend feels so young,” he adds. “Partner feels so sterile.” At this point, Byrne has her hand wrapped under his elbow again and peers at him with amusement. “What else could we say?,” he asks, looking right at her. “My lo-ver!” A firm two syllables, heavy with sauce. We’re back inside a bit, where they feel most comfortable — at least with a reporter nearby. She laughs. “Sure. My lover, Bobby,” she says. It sounds especially sarcastic in her Australian accent, almost rhyming: lohvah, Bohbbay. “Who gives a shit?!,” he says. “It’s just funny what people care about.”

Medea is at BAM through February 23.

*This article appears in the January 20, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale Are Lovers Playing Fighters