If you don’t know Kiwi actress Melanie Lynskey by name, chances are you likely do by face. Since breaking out at 16 opposite Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson’s brutal and sad “Heavenly Creatures,” Lynskey has worked with some of the best directors in the business (including Steven Soderbergh, Jason Reitman, Sam Mendes, Clint Eastwood and Thomas McCarthy) and acted alongside stars like Matt Damon, George Clooney and Keira Knightley. Yet despite her obvious talent and impressive CV, Lynskey has yet to make a dent as a leading lady. That’s all about to change with this Friday’s release of her Sundance opener, “Hello I Must Be Going.”
In “Hello,” Lynskey stars as Amy, a divorced and depressed 35-year-old who moves in with her parents to get her life back on track. Things aren’t looking up for Amy despite her parents’ best wishes, until she meets a teenage boy (“Girls” star Christopher Abbott) who changes everything and brings some spark back into her life.
In our interview with Lynskey, the actress candidly reflects on her struggle to leave New Zealand and make a name for herself stateside and opens up about what she and Amy have in common.
I saw “Hello” way back, when it opened Sundance.
Oh my goodness. That’s a long time ago now.
Yeah, I know. So I wanted to get your thoughts—given that so much time has passed—on how the whole experience went for you.
It was great, I think. It got such positive response when Chris and I were just kind of walking around. And, you know, a lot of the reviews were really positive. It was terrifying, though. It’s a scary thing to be the opening-night movie.
I bet. The funny thing is, you’ve been to Park City with other films like “Win Win,” but this in many ways was treated as your breakout vehicle by the press. Did it feel any differently coming into the festival with this film in particular?
Yeah. It felt like a completely different thing, ‘cause I’m so used to being part of an ensemble, or, you know, in a supporting role, and you don’t feel that kind of responsibility. You know, I always wanted them to like the movie, but I did what I could, and the rest of it doesn’t have a lot to do with me. But, you know, I’m in every scene of this one, so I feel like if people don’t like it, it’s completely because of me. It’s because they hate my face or whatever, you know? So I felt very, very responsible.
How did you deal with that extra attention?
It’s scary because it’s something that I’m not used to, and that sort of comes along with expectation. People kept asking me, like, “Oh, how do you think things are going to change after this?” And, I was like, “Oh, God. I didn’t even think about this type of question.” And that concept is such a terrifying concept to me, because I’ve been doing this for so long, you know. It was hard to give a good answer.
Did the role seem like a kind of godsend for you when you first received the script?
Oh my god, yeah. I mean, when I read it, I thought I was just going to be doing a staged reading of it, which I did do. I’ve done so many readings of things that have then gone on to be movies that other people star in. So I just, I was like, “Oh, I’m so excited to do this reading, I think the script is wonderful, but then I’ll probably just let it go after that.” So it was so amazing when Todd and Sarah started to say they wanted to make it with me. It was crazy.
On paper you’re nothing like Amy, having remained so busy on the work front following “Heavenly Creatures.” Could you relate to where Amy finds herself?
Oh, definitely. I feel like the point that she’s at is just a time of like, complete self-assessment, where everything you know has disappeared and you have to sort of sit there with yourself and say, “OK, who am I now and what’s my life gonna be, and how do I sort of pick up the pieces?” And, you know, everyone’s had times in their life like that, where they really have to sort of examine everything that’s happening to them. In the movie, it takes Amy a very long time to even start examining. She just sits there and eats chips for three months, but eventually she starts asking herself those questions.
Did you go through a similar thing immediately following “Heavenly Creatures?” You noticeably took a break before launching into your next project, unlike your co-star in that film, Kate Winslet, who hit the ground running.
You mean did I have a late-teen crisis? Sure.
I did. Absolutely. I mean, that was probably the closest, that, you know—when I was doing the movie—that was probably the closest time that I had to reference. I always had wanted to be an actor. And everybody around me said it’s not possible, it’s not realistic. And then I found myself doing this movie, so I sort of felt like, “Oh, it feels possible now. I’m literally doing a movie, so people are gonna hire me.” But then everybody was sort of like, “Well that was fun, now get on with your life as it was.”
It’s kind of like Amy in the movie after she meets Jeremy. For the first time ever she knows what she wants now, she knows what makes her happy, she’s open to the world. And after I did that movie, I was like, “I don’t know how to go back to my life. I don’t know how to be happy as I was.”
I had this experience that was so magical, so I went into like a very great depression because I was being told that the career that I wanted wasn’t gonna happen. It took me a long time to kind of gather my strength and say, actually, I feel like if I keep trying, then I can make it happen. And then once I decided to that, it took a long time as well. So, it was like a pretty dark time. I feel like I’m rambling, sorry.
No no, please, ramble on. I love it. Who was crushing your dream? You showed such promise in your debut, it’s a wonder anyone tried to talk you out of it.
Thank you. Well, you know, I come from a small town in New Zealand and it truly is not a practical career. Everybody was just sort of looking out for me. You know, there was a protective element on “Heavenly Creatures,” where everybody was like, “We don’t want to ruin your life.” Like, “Thanks for doing this movie for us, and now be sure that you go to university and get a normal job.” You know?
No one wanted to be responsible for me being like, “I’m gonna run off to Hollywood!” And then failing miserably. It was difficult just to hear nothing but, “Don’t do this again.” I was like, “Oh god. Did I do an OK job? I’m so very confused.” And, you know, my parents and teachers at my school…New Zealanders are very practical. Everybody was kind of like, “That was fun. It’s not what your life is gonna be.” It’s kind of good advice, but I think there’s a middle ground.
What was it like to see Kate go on to thrive immediately after, while hearing people tell you that you should hold back from really going for it?
It kind of reinforced what people were saying in a way, because Kate when we did the movie was like, a professional actress. She’d been working in television for five years and she was such a professional and she knew what she was doing and she really, really showed me the ropes. Like, you know, “Here’s your mark and here’s how you look at the camera.” I was like, “Oh my god, this woman is amazing. She knows everything.” And then once the movie came out, everyone was very excited for her, because she’d been working for a long time and it was her first movie and it was like, time for her to do a movie. She was poised for success. There was a lot of support around her, you know. I was a kid who didn’t have a lot of self-esteem. I didn’t feel great about myself, so I was kind of like, “Oh, so that’s not my thing. That’s her thing because she’s worked very hard for it and she’s a professional actress.” And I kind of felt like, “Well, who do I think I am to just like show up and do one movie and be like, ‘Oh, me too!’” You know? So it kind of reinforced that feeling in me of like, “OK, take a step back. You don’t deserve it and you don’t belong.” But, you know, it took a long time for me to be like, “Oh, nobody’s Kate Winslet.” You know?What gave you the impetus to make the move to the states and go for it?
I was at university and I was studying modern drama and studying English, and I just was like, “I don’t wanna be in this place. I wanna be acting.” And I had an agent in America and she started to say to me, “Now, put yourself on tape if you want to send tapes into these movies.” And so I sent a tape in for “The Crucible,” and I ended up flying over to screen test with Daniel Day Lewis. I didn’t get it, but it was kind of enough of a, “OK, if somebody’s considering me for this kind of thing, and if I’m allowed to like go into a room and read with Daniel Day Lewis, then I feel like I can take it seriously. Like I feel like I’m allowed to sort of say, ‘Oh, well I might have something to offer.’” And then I decided to come over and audition and stuff.
Since then, you’ve built up this remarkable roster of fantastic roles with these amazing directors — albeit supporting ones for the most part. A role like Amy in “Hello” is long overdue. Why has it taken this long?
I think that for me as a person, it’s very easy for me to hear, “It’s too difficult.” Or, “You’re not easy to cast.” And “You’re not beautiful,” and this and that. So, I kind of went along with that first.
For many years I had people who were representing me who were just like, “It’s very difficult to cast you.” And I was like, “Oh, God. Sorry. Good luck.” I got to a point where I was doing a lot of television, which was fine, and I bought a house, and I’m grateful. But I was going to see movies and I was like, “Wow, I wish I could have, like, auditioned for that, at least. I wish I was able to…” And then I heard that my friend’s agent was maybe interested in representing me. I met with this agency and I just was brave. I left my old agent and I was like, “You know what, I’m just gonna see if there’s like, a better life. I’m just gonna see if this person seems to believe in me.”
So that was about five years ago, and she really changed everything. She started to look for movies for me to do. Little parts in really great movies just to build up a good resume. She just had a plan and she made it happen, and that’s really changed my life.
“Hello” has yet to come out theatrically, but it and you made a big impression at Sundance. How was your career changed since wrapping the film?
I just finished a movie with David Wain, which was very exciting for me, because I love “Wet Hot American Summer,” and I always have wanted to work with him. So I did a big funny comedy movie, and I did this little indie with a bunch of good actors. I’m trying to just sort of be careful and do stuff that I love, you know. It doesn’t feel like anything has changed, and I’m very cautious of thinking that anything’s gonna change. You know, I feel lucky to be where I’m at. So, if nothing changes, I’m still feeling very lucky.