The Actress Who Can Do Everything
Melanie Lynskey exploded into film 20 years ago, playing a murderous teenager in Heavenly Creatures — now she's a hipster mom in Happy Christmas. She talks about her career choices, Charlie Sheen, and full-frontal nudity.
When Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh went looking for the perfect actress to play Pauline Parker in Heavenly Creatures, they found her in 15-year-old Melanie Lynskey, a small town girl from New Zealand. According to a story in the Washington Post from the fall of 1994, when the movie was released, the filmmakers looked at between 500 and 600 girls to play the seething, simmering Pauline, who, with her best friend (and girlfriend) Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), murders Pauline's mother. "The film was obviously going to live or die on its casting," Jackson told the Post about the search at the time. Walsh and Jackson went on to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay, and Lynskey won Best Actress at the New Zealand Film & Television Awards.
Twenty years later, Lynskey, 37, is living in Los Angeles, where she's spent most of her adult life, and working consistently, doing both movies and television. Whereas you could once see her in supporting roles on a more massive scale — as a friend in Sweet Home Alabama or Coyote Ugly, or as Two and a Half Men's crazed stalker, Rose — she has more recently homed in on a vibrant career in independent movies. On Friday, Joe Swanberg's sweet Sundance film, Happy Christmas, in which she co-stars opposite Swanberg, Anna Kendrick, Lena Dunham, and Jude Swanberg (a toddler, and a scene-stealer), will begin its theatrical rollout. (It has been available on iTunes and on demand for a month.)
In Happy Christmas, Lynskey plays Kelly, a Chicago novelist and mother who finds herself wondering about her life and her ambitions when her husband's (Swanberg) wild, fucked up sister (Kendrick) moves in with them. That's slightly wild, and a little fucked up; everyone is pretty nice here. It's a lovely movie. And Lynskey, whose character you might think is going to be an uptight scold, creates a real-seeming person in Kelly. You'd want to hang out with her.
Lynskey and I met recently — in an empty screening room at the University of Southern California's film school, which was an odd setting, but we got over it, I think — to talk about her career.
Heavenly Creatures came out 20 years ago. Does it feel like that to you?
Melanie Lynskey: I mean, it's scary to think that I was acting 20 years ago. But when I think about it, it feels like a really long time ago.
You were in normal school, and Fran Walsh was basically going door-to-door looking for someone to play Pauline Parker?
ML: Yeah. She was driving around schools in New Zealand, auditioning girls.
Were you a theater kid?
ML: I'm from a very provincial town, so I couldn't get an agent or do anything like that. But I did all the local theater.
What kind of teenager were you?
ML: I was a little bit naughty. I really liked boys a lot. I come from a very relaxed family where nobody knows what time you're getting home. Sometimes my parents would be, like, "You need to have a curfew!" But then they would never do anything about it. I didn't have a lot of rules.
So you ended up auditioning for Peter Jackson.
ML: He showed me Kate Winslet's audition tape before my second audition. Which is one of the meanest things. She's this professional actress, and he showed it to me and he was, like, "This is how good you have to be."
That is mean. And she had been acting professionally, and living on her own, I think. That was different from your experience.
ML: She was, like, an old pro at that point. She was two years older than me, but when you're 15, two years feels huge. I had never met anybody that glamorous before. She had a big pile of headshots, and she was, like, "Oh, they're for fans." I was, like, "What?"
That must have worked well for your characters' power dynamic.
ML: It could not have been more perfect. I idolized her.
Do you feel like if that movie came out now, everyone would be more relaxed about whether the girls are or aren't lesbians? It was such a different time in terms of sexuality on screen.
ML: That was the thing that really confused me when I was doing press for that movie. Again, my household was very permissive, and I had made out with girls, and been, like, Who knows? Everyone's kind of everything, right? I was very loose about that kind of thing. Some of my friends had gay parents. And that was all anyone was asking me: "Are they lesbians?"
When you were done filming, did you go home and resume your normal life?
ML: I went back to high school. I never thought about it coming out. I never thought about anyone seeing it. New Zealand is very big on people not getting too full of themselves, so I was encouraged to be, like, Well, that was fun, wasn't it? Now get back on with your life. And Kate took off so completely — I think I was like, Well, that's her thing. Who do I think I am to try to start working? It took me a couple of years to get the courage up to even try. I came over here to do some auditions, and it was soul-destroying. I wasn't ready for it. Then I went back home and regrouped.
After Heavenly Creatures but before you moved to Los Angeles, did people in your life think it was strange that you had been in this movie, and then were just living a student's life?
ML: Not really, because people do that in New Zealand. Nobody's really a celebrity or anything. Everyone's all just, Don't get full of yourself. There are a lot of actors who would do one movie. And then everyone would be, like, Well, she's the person in that movie. So we can't put her in another movie. And then they would go to Australia. So I don't think it was that weird. I was working in a truck stop as a waitress — it sounds very dramatic…
Wait. After Heavenly Creatures?
ML: Yeah. I didn't get recognized by that many truckers, but I got recognized a couple of times. And I was just kind of like, "Oh, yeah." I didn't have that, I'm too good to be a waitress or whatever.
That's great. And please excuse my alarm. But you didn't get paid enough for Heavenly Creatures not to work at a truck stop?
ML: Well, it was my first movie. I got a certain amount of money. I think I put some in a savings account. And then I was at university. I needed a job. I didn't have hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even tens of thousands of dollars. I think it was pretty fair. It's more than I get paid for movies now. New Zealand actors don't have a union, so I never got residuals or any money after that.
What was it that made you move to Los Angeles eventually?
ML: I got an agent over here. It was the only agent who had any interest in me. And she ended up becoming a manager, and she was my manager until last year when she passed away. So for 20 years, basically. Susan Smith was her name. She was, like, my second mother. She let me stay in her house when I came over here.
Los Angeles must have felt so far.
ML: It's so far. And I was really naive. I think it's a little different now because people have the internet, and the world is more connected. But at that time, I would order Premiere magazine and it would get to me like four months later. I was not on top of what was going on. So it was very, very frightening, and she was really kind to me.
I auditioned for The Crucible, and they asked me to test for it properly. I came over here and tested with Daniel Day-Lewis. I think that was when I was like, If he's taking me seriously, and if they'll let me be in a room with Daniel Day-Lewis, then maybe I have kind of a shot. And then I started to really try to do it.
At one point, you were a series regular on Two and a Half Men. And you asked to just be a recurring guest star instead, even though it was a huge hit show.
ML: I guess mostly people do that when they have a huge film career, and they're like, "I'm too busy, guys." I don't know if anyone's ever done it with nothing else to go to. I just got in a panic.
ML: It started becoming really popular. After the first season, I had a conversation with Chuck Lorre where I was like, "Am I, like, the wacky neighbor?" He was like, "No, no, no." I said OK. Then, after the second season, I just realized that the show was about what it's about, and everyone else is kind of peripheral. And I thought, I'm going to lose my mind if I'm on this show, just showing up every week and saying something crazy. It's the easiest job in the world. The hours are amazing. I liked who I was working with. I could have been a millionaire. I could have a real fancy house! But I just was like, This feels like if I keep doing this, then it will only be this. Not just time-wise. But because there was so much exposure, and I knew I had to get out and start building up something else. Because also I had just done Shattered Glass. It was the first movie I'd done in awhile that I felt really, really, really proud of. And I thought that's the feeling I need to have.
And Chuck Lorre said OK?
ML: He really was not happy at first. And Chuck Lorre not happy is really scary! But he was very kind to me. And after a little while, he was like, "You made an artistic decision, and I have a lot of respect for it." And it worked out perfectly. It saved them money, not that they worry about that. But also, every time I came back, they needed a reason to bring me back, so they would write something good for me to do. It ended up being really fun.
You've always spoken highly of your working relationship with Charlie Sheen.
ML: Yeah, I really loved him.
What was he like to act with, especially in the early years of the show?
ML: When I met him, he was sober. Just a really, really sweet, good person. He was so prepared. So, so, so prepared. He's the only actor I've ever worked with I think who was off-book for every rehearsal. And there's no point being off-book when you're doing a sitcom, because it gets rewritten after every time you rehearse it. But he would learn the lines so he could be present and feel it out properly. I was like, "Why do you do that? What's the point in learning it? It's just going to change." He was like, "Ah, it's just how I like to do it." He was super respectful. We had a lot of physical stuff we had to do on the show because we were love interests. He would always be like, "Is this OK? Is that OK? Here's how I think we should do it."
Were you around when the craziness with him happened?
ML: I hadn't been there for many, many months, and then I showed up, and it was clear that something was going on. I showed up and was like, "Hey everyone!" And everyone was like, "Uhhhhhh..." There was some tension. We ended up not filming the episodes. I think we did two of them. I was very confused the whole time. I was like, I know something's not right, but I don't know what.
You have kept your life pretty normal. And as far as celebrity spectacle goes, that was the most extreme. What was it like to know the person involved?
ML: I could tell that he wasn't taking himself seriously at times. I reached out to him, and I was like, "Is everything OK?" And my conversation made me feel better about where he was at. And I haven't been in touch with him for awhile. But you just hope that person is all right. He was always so good to me.
I'm going to ask you about some of your other past work. I loved Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and your character represented the twist in the movie.
ML: It was really a complicated decision to do that. But I felt like the book had been so powerful for so many people, and I trusted Stephen. And I thought the movie could be something that could really help a lot of kids. It was nice to think of being a part of that. And I also thought it was a really interesting — it's so tricky to talk about without seeming completely creepy. But, you know, a lot of abuse is perpetrated by people the child is really close to. Someone who's really beloved. And I thought it was a really interesting way to show that. She was this really warm, lovely presence. But this other thing was going on.
You also worked with Steven Soderbergh and Matt Damon in The Informant!.
ML: That's my favorite thing that I've ever done. That's my favorite finished product, and it was also my favorite experience. First of all, Matt Damon is one of the greatest actors ever. Especially playing that character, he was so good and so weird. And Steven works in a way that was really appealing. It was very loose, and you felt like you had a lot of control over what was happening, but you felt very, very safe. We worked really quickly. Everyone would go to the bar after work and just hang out. It just was an atmosphere of respect. Steven has a lot of respect for everyone; everyone has a lot of respect for him. And then I just loved the movie. I feel like they maybe didn't make it out to be the movie that it actually is in the trailers and in the marketing of it. So I think some people were a bit annoyed. I think people were confused about what the tone of it was.
Earlier you mentioned Shattered Glass. What was it about that experience that caused you, basically, to leave Two and a Half Men?
ML: Billy Ray is so smart, and so great, and he was very, very tough on me because I had been doing some romantic comedies. And he was really, really specific about not being too big, not doing anything character-y. Just being real, and sitting there and talking. And that movie was just so fucking good. It's like The Informant! — I'm just watching the movie, and being, like, I love this movie, and then seeing myself in the middle of it.
You have a big Southern accent in Sweet Home Alabama. You're the one who Reese Witherspoon's character says, "You have a baby — in a BAR" to. Was that one of the romantic comedies Billy Ray was yelling at you about?
ML: I guess so. Yeah, that was a crazy shoot. People were really partying it up. Not Reese. Not Reese. She's serious. She works a lot.
Well, I was happy to see her cut loose in that tape when she was arrested.
ML: She's the kind of person I wish I was. Because I'll, like, get in a fight with somebody if I have to. But I'm so indirect and making sure everyone else is happy, and, What does everyone need? She just asks for what she needs, she's very direct, she expects people to be respectful. And I just love that. She's really kind, and she's very, very generous and funny.
I was going to shoot The Perks of Being a Wallflower. And I never look at tabloids or anything like that, but I'd had a really shitty day. I can't remember what happened, but I was like, I'm gonna get a tabloid — fuck it. I'm just going to sit here and be disgusting and eat some chips and read this. I'm sitting on the plane going to Pittsburgh, and I hear this voice go, "Melanie?" And it was Reese. She was sitting in the seat next to me on this flight, which was wonderful because we had this nice, long flight, and we got to really catch up with each other. But it's the last person you want to see you with, like, a trashy magazine. Awful. If I could name the one person in the world I wouldn't want to see me reading Us Weekly.
So, with Happy Christmas, from what I understand of the Joe Swanberg process, he outlines his screenplays, and the dialogue isn't written.
ML: There's no dialogue. Some scenes are a little more specific in that he'll say, "They have a conversation about how she needs more time to write. He says he'll try to help her." But then some scenes are just like, "They're in a room — something in the basement!"
Speaking of the basement, I loved that scene with you and Anna Kendrick and Lena Dunham. With something like that, would you talk with them ahead of time about what to say, or would you just try to have a normal conversation?
ML: We just tried to have a natural conversation. I told Joe what I wanted to talk about. Most of what I say in that scene is directly stolen from my three best girlfriends, who have made me the godmother of their children. Because I don't have children. But I feel I have a good understanding of what it's like. And that was kind of why I wanted to do the movie, because I thought that was such an interesting thing to discuss.
I feel like movies have a lot of trouble portraying parenthood, the shades of it. The fact that it's rewarding and wonderful, but also kind of ruining your life at the same time. The Kelly character loves spending time with her son — but also, it's not enough.
ML: I think the thing that surprised me the most with my female friends, and surprised them about motherhood, is they kind of thought, I'll have the baby, I'll go back to my career, and I'll be able to do both. I'll get help if I need it. And the instinct they had of wanting to be there with their child really shocked them. These women have worked really, really hard to build a career, and in your early- to mid-thirties is kind of when you're getting to the place where you want to be. And it's so hard to let go of that. But then, at the same time, they're like, I don't want to not be at home. But I don't want to be at home.
The movie turns out to be about Jenny, Anna Kendrick's character, and Kelly and their friendship. I loved that.
ML: I kind of loved that too. It's kind of the wonderful thing about the way he works. He gets really interested in a little snippet of a conversation, and then he'll be like, "Can you put that in this scene?" or, "Can we do one scene where you're talking about that?" And I think I got along really well with Jude. And he wasn't sure if that was going to happen, so it enabled him to have more stuff where I was involved with Jude.
He's a good little actor, that Jude!
ML: He's so good! He's so cute!
You're in one of Joe Swanberg's upcoming movies too. So, you were nervous about his process, but it ended up being something you would want to do again?
ML: If I don't know how receptive someone's going to be, it's hard for me to speak up. And then I'm pretty good about it, once I work out who I'm dealing with. Once it became apparent that Joe was really open to anything, I really liked it.
Does it feel to you like you work steadily?
ML: Yeah, I feel really grateful. And it's been really tough. A lot of my friends are actors, and character actors. It's been hard the last few years. Nobody makes enough money to really live off of. There are so few jobs that the jobs you typically would have done, a famous person is now doing them. There's this whole sort of trickle-down effect that's been really hard on people. It's always nerve-racking. I don't know an actor who doesn't feel like that. I mean, maybe I just wouldn't be friends with those people. But everyone I know is like, Well, it's all over!?
You're on the Duplass brothers' HBO show, Togetherness, which will be on sometime next year. What's your character like?
ML: Mark Duplass and I are married to each other, and his friend, who's played by Steve Zissus, moves in with us. And then my sister, who's played by Amanda Peet, also moves in with us. Mark and I are having marriage problems; I can't stand the sight of him sexually, I love him in every other way. It's just kind of about marriage, not really in crisis, but dealing with problems. And parenthood, again. We have little children again.
An HBO show like that is something that could run for five seasons.
ML: Oh my god, that would be so great. I've never been sadder to have anything end.
Why was that?
ML: It felt so creative. Everything about it was really good. And I loved the show. I've seen two episodes. I've seen the pilot, and I've seen the one that I'm full-frontally naked in.
Oh, you're — wow!
ML: You didn't see as much as I thought you would see. But you — there's some stuff. But I kept hearing from people, "Oh, all the episodes are so good." So I was like, "Please show me the one. I need to know what people are seeing of my body."
And how was that?
ML: It was fine. I felt kind of good about it. It's definitely not the kind of naked body you usually see. But there's a part of that I feel weirdly kind of liberated about. I saw it and thought, This feels kind of nice for the world. Just a fleshy, fleshy lady lying there.
You don't look fleshy. I feel weird.
ML: I am, though. You don't see any muscles. But I was like, I kind of love that that's what my body looks like. And that's what is going to be on television. It just feels nice to be representing something. I'm prepared for the backlash of people saying, "I don't need to see that!"
I don't think that would be the backlash. I think it could be, "Why is everyone naked on HBO all the time?"
ML: I think it's good for people to be naked.
Sorry, I meant naked women.
ML: Well, Mark is naked too.
Ah! Then they won't say it.
ML: Everyone is naked! I think everyone is naked on our show at some point.
God. This is going to be a good show!
This interview has been edited and condensed.