It’s coming on 20 years since Melanie Lynskey appeared in her first film, but she cannot get used to seeing herself on screen. “It’s awful. Awful,” she says in her kiwi accent, characteristically wide open and soft spoken, over iced teas in Manhattan’s East Village. She has a new movie coming out, “Hello I Must Be Going,” in which she’s the lead and is in every scene — a first for the actor. Her work in this film is widely being referred to as her breakout performance, which could be a frustrating identification for anyone who saw her in “Heavenly Creatures,” almost two decades ago. Many are hoping the label sticks this time, but after so many years in movies and television, Lynskey refuses to have expectations about where her career is headed.
In “Hello I Must Be Going,” she plays Amy Minsky, a woman in her mid-thirties who, blindsided by her husband’s request for a divorce, finds herself living with her wealthy parents in Westport, Connecticut, deeply depressed and directionless, having abandoned all of her own interests while building her life around her successful husband. She begins an ill-advised affair with the 19-year-old stepson (Christopher Abbott of HBO’s “Girls”) of her father’s business associate after they unexpectedly kiss while their parents have dinner in another room. Despite the age difference, both characters are at a crossroads in their lives, and their union helps them each find direction. Lynskey explains, “I wanted their connection to be something that was kind of unexplainable. They make an impulsive decision to kiss each other and something chemical happens during it, and they’re just like ‘what the fuck was that?’ And then their lives change. I feel like that happens, and that’s so romantic to me.”
The film is funny, sexy and affecting, and Lynskey is excellent. Her performance is singular and subtle, creating an authenticity that inspires effortless emotional investment from an audience. You’re not watching Melanie Lynskey play Amy Minsky. You’re simply watching Amy Minsky, and you could watch her for hours.
One of the things that sets “Hello I Must Be Going” apart from most other romantic comedies is that there isn’t anything “Hollywood,” physically or otherwise, about its star. When I bring this up, Lynskey tells me about a conversation she had recently with Amy Poehler on the set of David Wain’s upcoming film, “They Came Together.” Despite the fact that they were about to shoot a scene that involved a workout video, they both opted for a second piece of pizza. “[Pohler] said ‘You know what? Most actresses don’t eat for a reason.’ We were about to jiggle around in this spandex. And I think it’s so awesome that she’s eating pizza. I told her that whenever I’m filming something I’m like ‘Fuck it, someone needs to look like a human being.’ ” If Lynskey feels that her character would not wear makeup, and that her character’s hair would be a mess, she shows up bare-faced and unkempt. She’ll walk around in an exceptionally unflattering outfit for the first half of a movie if it seems like something her character would wear. But when she sees herself on screen later, she is horrified. She knows there’s a middle ground, what she calls a “movie version of being unattractive.” And after the fact she will ask herself why she didn’t shoot for that aesthetic compromise, why she didn’t go on a cleanse, or whatever it is that Hollywood does.
“I think it’s good that there are some people on screen who still look like the people in the audience. I feel weird when I go to the movies and everybody’s faces are perfect. But it’s hard to be the one person who doesn’t look like that.” At another point in our conversation, Lynskey mentions that the film has been dismissed by certain male reviewers as unbelievable, as they feel she isn’t attractive enough for the role. “I feel like that says more about men [than it does about me], but at the same time, that’s how the world is.”
Lynskey’s childhood was defined, in large part, by self consciousness and a crippling shyness. The eldest of five siblings, she was a serious child, constantly worried about things large and small, from her stuffed animals feeling left out if she didn’t sleep with all of them, to the possibility of nuclear war. Her father, a doctor, had residencies that caused the family to move often, making it difficult for the introverted Lynskey to make friends. When she was seven her family settled in the provincial town of New Plymouth, New Zealand, which she recalls being somewhat of a depressed place. She read everything she could get her hands on — Charles Dickens, Stephen King, Jane Austen and D.H. Lawrence were standouts — and wrote stories and poetry.
Her first school play, at age six, was a life-changing occurrence. Having words to say and pretending to be a different person bred a confidence she hadn’t felt before. On stage, she was liberated. Her peers began to treat her differently after seeing her act. She sought out every opportunity to perform after that, from community theater to productions at her grandmother’s Baptist church. She found improv comedy to be particularly fulfilling in its ability to take her farthest outside of herself. As a teenager, she started to feel a sense of belonging. She had a group of friends with whom she would obsess over The Cure, The Smiths and David Lynch. She babysat for a neighbor who was a painter and a feminist, who lent her books including “The Beauty Myth” and “Backlash,” which Lynskey credits with giving her an anchor of sanity through the years, particularly while struggling with body image, both as a teen and in Hollywood.
Lynskey was discovered at 15 by Peter Jackson’s wife and screenwriting partner Fran Walsh at a casting call at her high school for Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures.” Initially, she was excited to audition for the role because she thought trying out for a real movie would look good on applications for drama schools. Much to her shock, she was cast opposite Kate Winslet, then a TV actress with a relatively small CV, who was also making her feature-film debut. The pair played Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme in the based-on-a-true-story tale of two teenage girls who become embroiled in an obsessive friendship and a vivid fantasy world they create together, and who, in an effort to prevent their impending separation, decide to murder Pauline’s mother. Both Winslet and Lynskey deliver phenomenal performances. Winslet brings a theatricality to the role that suits her character, and the camera loves her, but Lynskey gives herself over to the role so completely that it never feels like she’s acting.
But even after that breakthrough performance won her Best Actress at the 1995 New Zealand Film and TV Awards, Lynskey’s career failed to take off. She was expected to return to high school, and her parents advised her to forget about acting and pursue something more practical, like law or medicine. They had been “hands off” in regard to “Heavenly Creatures” from the start, not feeling it necessary to become involved in the process or even read the script beforehand. “They saw it and just said ‘Well, that was quite intense.’ ” She added, “Still to this day, if a movie I’m in is on the airplane, they’ll watch it. But they won’t go to the movie theater.” Lynskey observes that while American parents are like cheerleaders for their children, that dynamic isn’t common back home. “I know my mother-in-law would drive two hours to go see a movie that I’m in,” she says. “There’s not much of a follow-your-dreams kind of vibe in New Zealand or my family.”
And while it was clear that Winslet’s career would continue, Lynskey was treated differently by the people she’d worked with on the film. They thanked her and praised her performance, but advised her to return to high school and to not let the experience ruin her life. She assumed the role of Winslet’s proud friend. “Heavenly Creatures” came out during Lynskey’s final year of school, and her peers didn’t quite know how to handle what they’d seen. As she said in an interview earlier this year at Nerdist. “It isn’t a glamorous role, to say the least. It’s not like I was some gorgeous movie star. I was doing this very complicated thing and it was very intense, and a lot of kids just didn’t really know how to process it. I got a lot of ‘You kissed a girl! I saw your tits!’ ” The adults around her weren’t much more encouraging. “People in New Zealand go out of their way to not be impressed by things,” she said. “They were very careful to let me know that it wasn’t a big deal to them. Luckily I had a group of close friends who were supportive.”
Lynskey finished high school and spent a year in college before deciding drop out, go to California and start auditioning. Her work in “Heavenly Creatures” secured her an agent in L.A., who invited her to come and stay for three months while she tried to find work. Shy, foreign, friendless, unable to drive, and completely unfamiliar with the audition process or the acting scene, Lynskey struggled. “I was very different from the other actresses who I was reading with. I was auditioning for all kinds of stuff, and I felt like I was really fat, like I wasn’t pretty. Everybody had such a specific look to them.” It was the late ‘90s, and casting agents were looking for the likes of Tara Reid, Kirsten Dunst and Sarah Michelle Gellar to star in teen-centric movies featuring cheerleader types. “That was the world that I dropped into,” she said. Lynskey declined to wear makeup to auditions for parts where she thought her character wouldn’t wear it. She turned up for a part in a Western appropriately bare faced, only to walk into a waiting room to find her competition fully coiffed and glamorized. Her agent had to step in and instruct her to show up for every part with her makeup and hair done. “So much of it was about what you looked like, and I already had a shaky sense of myself to begin with, so I spiraled into a self loathing that was really intense.”
Lynskey left L.A. defeated, and began to view her experience on “Heavenly Creatures” differently. Kate Winslet ascended after that film, scoring accolades in “Sense and Sensibility” and Kenneth Branagh‘s “Hamlet” before going supernova in James Cameron‘s “Titanic.” While Winslet had five years’ professional experience and a TV career already under her belt, Lynskey had come into ‘Creatures’ as a total unknown. “I started to feel like, ‘Well, acting is her thing. How dare I think I could just show up and say, ‘Oh, me too?’ It was a slow process of building my belief in myself and trusting that I could do it, and trying to work out a way I could do it that didn’t feel massively compromising to my soul.”
It was another audition, this time back in New Zealand, with Kiwi director Gaylene Preston (2003’s “Perfect Strangers” starring Sam Neill) that set her back on track. Mired in self-doubt, Lynskey gave a weak performance. Preston halted the audition and confronted her, and the actor broke down crying. “She was the first person in a long time who sort of listened, and wanted to help me move forward. She also said ‘You’re really good. Stick with it and keep going.’ ” Words Lynskey was unaccustomed to hearing. Preston helped her to create a life plan, instructing her to make a list of everything that was making her unhappy, and change each of those things one by one. Lynskey says the life-coaching session served as a reset for her entire life. “This woman was like an angel to me. She talked to me for an hour, in an audition situation, about me and what was going on with me.”
Fortified, Lynskey returned to L.A. “I was like ‘Fuck it, I’m going to do it the way I want to do it. All I have is that I’m myself and I’m not like anyone else.’ Everything changed when my attitude changed.” She started auditioning again and got a part in “Ever After,” the 1998 updated Cinderella story starring Drew Barrymore. And she’s worked as an actor steadily ever since. Lynskey is perhaps most widely known as Rose, the wacky neighbor from sitcom “Two and a Half Men” who stalks Charlie Sheen’s character, but she’s had standout supporting turns in several recent films like “Win Win,” “Up In the Air,” and Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!,” the last of which she identified as the greatest experience she’d ever had working with a director. Soderbergh had noticed Lynskey in “Heavenly Creatures” and kept tabs on her until he was able to cast her as Matt Damon’s wife. As he told the LA Times, “She is so watchable… Her rhythms are really unusual, like her cadence and her reaction times to things, and the way she sort of lays out a sentence. It’s just really, really interesting.”
Director Todd Louiso says it was impossible to imagine anyone else in the lead of “Hello I Must Be Going” after watching Lynskey read the script. She reminds him of some of his favorite actresses, like Toni Collette, Holly Hunter or Frances McDormand, who found their own unusual trajectories from character actor to atypical female lead. “As leading ladies, they’re so much more interesting. They bring out a depth and a reality to the characters that allows me or an audience to connect with them more in a role than, say, if Jennifer Aniston were in the role of Amy.” He also mentions, laughing, that while standing in his wife’s family’s kitchen in Westport discussing rehearsals, Lynskey began to wash the dishes in the sink. Bewildered, he asked what she was doing. She explained that she was a guest there, so it was the polite thing to do.
Her co-star in the film, Christopher Abbott, categorizes Lynskey as a “generous actor,” and credits her, in part, with the quality of his own turn. “It’s easy to give an authentic performance with Melanie. The way she talks to you and looks at you during scenes, she’s totally present and she really listens. It may seem like an obvious, normal thing, but I think it’s actually very rare.”
When I ask Lynskey if she thinks the ability to be a great actor is inborn, she immediately says “I don’t think I’m a great actor.” She cites Samantha Morton in her first movie, “This Is the Sea,” explaining that everything the actress is today and everything she’s capable of is already present within that performance. Of course, some would argue the same for Lynskey as Pauline Parker in “Heavenly Creatures,” but she would graciously disagree. She does observe that the actors she respects and admires most seem to be open to life, change and people around them, including fellow colleagues. “They possess a willingness to let the world in and explore things and experience things and feel things.” The actors she is close with are ones that are like her, she says, character actors who are just trying to work. “Sometimes there are actors where I’m just like ‘I feel like I’m just a different person to you entirely. I don’t even understand what your thing is.’ ” She laughs. “There are some people who do this job for very different reasons.”
“Hello I Must Be Going” begins rolling out in limited release on September 7th. Check here to see when it’s coming to a theater near you.