“I thought I was going to get fired.”
In a perfect world, such a thought would never cross Melanie Lynskey’s mind, for the talented actress would literally never be in danger of getting canned. She could throw fits next to crafty, punch a grip in the face, or burn down the sets, and we’d still forgive her because… Well, because Melanie Lynskey would never do any of that. She’s Melanie Lynskey.
But the actor you fell in love with during “Beautiful Creatures,” “Togetherness,” or the 2017 Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning film “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” did have the thought cross her mind for the strangest of reasons: Tom McCarthy found out she was a recurring cast member on “Two and a Half Men.”
Lynskey, speaking during a SAG-sponsored conversation at SXSW, reenacted her “Win Win” director’s astonishment after he noticed a bunch of people coming up to talk to her during filming:
“Why is everyone going up to Melanie?”
“I think it’s because of ‘Two and a Half Men.'”
“He was horrified,” Lynskey recalled. “I thought he was going to fire me. But he forgave me.”
If you’re just now discovering one of New Zealand’s most cherished American exports, let me assure you she’s full of charming gems like the above. Moderated by “Sadie” director Megan Griffiths, Lynskey recalled dozens of entertaining and informative memories for the SXSW audience. Below we’ve done our best to recreate the magic, sharing the actress’ best insights from a wide-spanning career that’s still raging forward. Enjoy.
Kate Winslet, the Ultimate Teacher
Lynskey’s first credited role was in Peter Jackson’s Oscar-nominated crime drama, “Heavenly Creatures,” opposite none other than Kate Winslet. At the time, this was Winslet’s biggest breakthrough — she was still three years away from “Titanic” — but the 15-year-old Lynskey remembers the 17-year-old Winslet with great admiration.
After an initial informal audition, Lynskey moved on to read with Jackson, and to help her understand the tone he wanted, he showed her a tape of Winslet’s performance.
“No pressure, showing you an audition of Kate Winslet, the world’s greatest actress,” Lynskey said. “I was just like, ‘All right, I guess I’m going to try to do that.'”
After she got the part, Winslet worked with Lynskey on set to help master the technical side of the production.
“They just gave me this day of getting used to it,” Lynskey said of how she learned to hit her mark and what blocking was. “And Kate gave me a hand, since she was an old pro — at the age of 17.”
“We were two different kinds of actors,” Lynskey said. “And we gave two different performances.”
All Credit to Daniel Day-Lewis
After “Heavenly Creatures,” Lynskey stayed in New Zealand for two more years of high school. She did get an agent, though, and earned an audition across from Daniel Day-Lewis for a role in “The Crucible.”
“He was so kind, generous, and wonderful,” Lynskey remembered. But she had never dreamed of a career in acting before that moment.
“That was a moment when I thought I could do this professionally,” Lynskey said. “People are trusting me to be in a room with Daniel Day-Lewis.”
Though she didn’t get the part, “something clicked. Maybe I deserved to be in the room.”
Now, she has her own advice for up-and-coming actors:
“I think the most important thing that I keep trying to hold onto is that there’s only one of me,” she said. “You know who you are. Keep trying to work on that, work on yourself, and you know internally what’s right and what’s not.”
Her Favorite Director: Steven Soderbergh, Clint Eastwood, or Sam Mendes?
The list of A-list directors Lynskey has worked with is long; fitting, given that her first film was with Peter Jackson. But after “Heavenly Creatures,” Lynskey worked with Clint Eastwood, Jason Reitman, Tom McCarthy, Mark and Jay Duplass, Sam Mendes, and Steven Soderbergh.
So who’s her favorite? It wasn’t an easy answer, but Lynskey did narrow it down to one:
“My favorite director, I think, is Steven Soderbergh,” she said. “Just because he wanted it to be so loose and free. There was a real sense of fun and adventure and trying stuff that I got addicted to very quickly on set.”
She said working with Soderbergh on “The Informant!” felt like an indie film, in part because he didn’t demand a lot of takes.
“Then the Clint Eastwood movie [‘Flags of Our Fathers’] was all set up when we got there — as if by magic — and you did one take and were done,” she said, adding most days ran from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. “It was crazy. [But] people just want to make him happy. He’s such a calm presence.”
“When I worked with Sam Mendes, we’d shoot one scene in a day,” Lynskey said. “Because I come from independent movies, it was hard to keep my energy up.” But she learned how to get the most out of the many takes done for coverage, citing the film (“Away We Go”) for helping her on long days with studio movies.
A Couple of Johns, Her Favorite Actress, and Sarah Michelle Geller
Over the years, Lynskey has worked with an impressive array of actors, and she briefly remembered a few telling anecdotes during her talk.
- On John Goodman: “He wasn’t having much fun on the movie,” Lynskey said, fondly remembering “Coyote Ugly.” “But he was fun.”
- On John Gallagher Jr.: “John Gallagher Jr. works in a very different way than me,” she said of her “Sadie” co-star. “He wanted to do nine more takes, and I wanted to do zero more takes. So we did two more takes.”
- “My favorite actress is Isabelle Huppert. I think she’s absolutely amazing.”
From her early life in Hollywood, Lynskey recalled going out for auditions against Sarah Michelle Geller and more actresses who looked similar to the “Buffy” star. Because of their striking similarities, Lynskey said she kept thinking that she needed to change how she looked and acted in order to land major roles.
“I felt like such an outsider,” Lynskey said. “I was literally starving myself and being miserable.”
Eventually she decided, “All I can do is be myself and see where it takes me.”
From where she stands now, that sage advice has taken her very far indeed.
IndieWire will be reporting live from Austin throughout the 2017 SXSW Festival. Keep checking in for updates, and take a look at all our reviews, interviews, and panel coverage here.