Melanie Lynskey On Hello I Must Be Going, Heavenly Creatures Training, And Songs For Getting Into Character
New Zealand native Melanie Lynskey finds her way to the spotlight – at long last – playing a woman, stuck in a sadly hilarious vortex of post-divorce depression, who’s jolted out of her early mid-life ennui by an electrifying affair with a younger man (GIRLS’ Christopher Abbott) in Todd Luiso’s Hello I Must Be Going. It’s an extraordinary dual capacity for deeply-felt pathos and comedy that Lynskey possesses and showcases, often simultaneously, as Amy Minsky; for Lynskey, one of the most genuine actors in the game, it was the kind of role that’s come along all too infrequently in the nearly two decades since her assured debut at the age of 15 in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures.
"It was kind of a dream that I would find a part that had so much for me to do, but it’s so rare," Lynskey said over iced coffees in Los Angeles. Longtime devotees know her well from Heavenly Creatures, in which she and Kate Winslet played a pair of real-life teen murderesses, or from her supporting turns in films like Ever After, Detroit Rock City, and Coyote Ugly; when we first met in Seattle a few months prior, a fan recognized her as Reese Witherspoon's old classmate in Sweet Home Alabama ("Baby in a bar!").
But while she's tasted mainstream success, the soft-spoken Lynskey, whose wicked sense of humor complements her humility (she's truly one of the most grounded actors around, as evidenced by her Twitter musings), seems far more at home in the creatively-fulfilling climes of independent film. Three years into her tenure as the daffy, delightful Rose on Two and a Half Men, she asked to be let out of her contract so she could make films while coming back as-needed in a recurring role. In the time since, she's turned in some of her best, most acclaimed work in potent supporting turns like Away We Go, Up In The Air, The Informant, and Win Win.
"The show was so successful and I could see a crossroads," she explained. "It was like, this way you’ll be a millionaire and one of the people on this show, and this way you’re not going to make a lot of money but you’re going to be able to build something that’s a little more interesting." In Hello I Must Be Going that choice paid off not just with her first starring role, it also prompted Lynskey to examine her own journey in contrast to Amy's vulnerable emotional life. "You come home and everything looks beautiful. It gave me a real appreciation for happiness, and for my friends, for interests that I have, and the fact that I do have a life that I really love."
Below, dive in as Melanie Lynskey takes us into her work on Hello I Must Be Going, her reaction to male critics who've criticized Amy's physicality, lessons learned on the set of Heavenly Creatures, her experience on - and pulling away from - Two and a Half Men, her favorite film critics, David Wain's upcoming They Came Together, and the theme songs she uses to get into character.
One of the great things about Hello I Must Be Going is that audiences get to see you front and center – they know your work, we’ve seen you do comedy and drama, but this is a vehicle that allows you to combine those talents. Were you looking for something of this more intimate scale, or these particular chords to play?
It was kind of a dream that I would find a part that had so much for me to do, but it’s so rare. We made this movie for no money, but even those tiny, tiny movies – movie stars are doing them, famous people. So much of the stuff that Michelle Williams does – can you imagine doing Wendy & Lucy? What a dream! Or Blue Valentine? She’s so amazing. But what a great thing to get to create something like that.
It seems performers do have to turn to the independent world to find projects like that. How did they find you for this film?
Yeah, I think so. I just got asked – I was in Toronto and my agent was like, do you want to come do this reading for the Sundance Institute? They were doing a staged reading of it in front of a little audience. I read the script and said, “Yes – I will fly myself back!” I loved it so much. At the time I thought I’d just be doing the reading, I didn’t anticipate having a future with it.
Who was at the initial staged reading?
There were not a lot of the same actors. Dane DeHaan read Chris Abbott’s part, and he was wonderful. There were a lot of good actors in it. It was fun. We worked on it for a day and Todd [Luiso] directed it. It just went really great, the energy was really wonderful. After that reading they said, “We want to make it with you,” and at the time with Dane, and then they tried to get money that way – but they realized they had to ask for less and less money with me in it. [Laughs] Eventually they got some money and stuck with me and I’m so grateful.
Your character is stuck in a post-divorce depression but there’s a real humorous undercurrent to her, and so much of that is expressed in your face – in your expressions, your reactions to these oblivious people around you.
There’s a tone to the script where you can just tell how Amy is feeling, and it was written from her perspective. There weren’t many reaction cues in the script but Sarah [Koskoff] and are really similar, the writer and I, so that was good – we have a similar take on things and were both excited that we wanted to do the same thing with it.
Chris balances the film opposite you – there’s a quality to his eyes that makes you feel you’re peering into his soul, just looking at him.
That’s such a perfect way to put it. It’s so true. There’s something about him that’s open and accessible but still mysterious; he has a really interesting quality, and his performance is so spontaneous. It feels off the cuff. He’s such a great person, a sweet, sweet person. Kind and lovely – I got so lucky with him.
He seems like he’s always perceiving the world around him.
He is, and he’s not judging. It’s nice. There’s a nice quality to him where he’s sort of scoping people out and watching people but he’s not too cool for school, even though he’s very cool. [Laughs] It was funny when I started watching GIRLS – I was like, Oh my god, he’s playing such a goofball! It’s so different from him.
Was there much time to get to know him before you started shooting?
No. It was crazy, because the other actor was going to do the movie and the casting process was kind of quick after he had to drop out. I remember Todd saying to me one day, “Do you want to watch this audition tape? I keep thinking about this one person…” and when he showed me Chris’s audition tape I started crying. I cried with relief, mostly, like, “Oh thank God they have somebody good!” I was so afraid!
That’s a good point – there are so many elements up in the air in the making of a movie. And the age difference between the characters – she’s 35, he’s 19 – sort of requires two performers who can meet in the middle.
It was important to me that it wasn’t all about the age difference in a creepy way, and Chris has a maturity to him which I think is important. The characters are at such similar points in their lives; “Who am I, and what am I going to do with the rest of my life?” So I didn’t want it to be sketchy. They cast Chris and I was in Connecticut working with Todd and Sarah and we sort of just awkwardly met each other. He had to leave to go shoot something and they were like, “He’s cute, right? Did you like him?” It was like a weird set-up. “He’s tall!”
This was a really quick shoot, which means that you get what you get while you’re there.
It’s always interesting to me to just kind of go along for the ride. Sometimes you come across somebody with whom your ideas don’t mesh and it’s an unfortunate kind of clash, but that doesn’t happen very often. What I like seeing is what somebody wants. Every experience is so different, but you never know until you start.
Actors often say the gratifying part of the process is the work they do on set, within scenes. Do you feel that way, and to what extent did this particular shoot do that?
It’s interesting. It was somewhat of a transition period for me, even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time. It’s interesting to play a character who’s asking, “What does the rest of my life hold for me? I’ve made these choices and I sort of thought everything was going to go one way, and what would happen if it all got turned upside down?” It was interesting to put yourself in that space of having nothing and feeling nothing and just not knowing what was going to come at all. In a lot of those scenes, the toughest stuff for me in those scenes is where she’s very depressed, because it’s just so horrible to sit in that, you know? But it’s hopeful. It’s an interesting thing as a person to spend a day where you’re just letting yourself feel awful. You come home and everything looks beautiful. It gave me a real appreciation for happiness, and for my friends, and for interests that I have and the fact that I do have a life that I really love.
It’s good that you are able to pull yourself from that darkness. Not everybody has that, and it seems like one of the tougher aspects of being an actor.
I was kind of trained to do that on Heavenly Creatures. It was pretty crazy. They were so worried about taking this 15-year-old who’s never done a movie before and being like, “Hey, cry all day and go crazy and see you tomorrow!” They were so concerned about me losing my mind, so there was a whole process at the end of the day of getting rid of everything. The woman who played my mother was kind of my acting teacher – she was helping me with technique and stuff, and she would brush me off and brush the emotion away. It was really great, and it was a good lesson to learn. You don’t need to take it home with you, and it’s better if you don’t.
You were 15 when you made that film – at what point did you realize Heavenly Creatures was the real beginning of a career, that it would launch you into the world?
It’s funny, because it doesn’t feel like it did. [Laughs] There was a point when I realized it was not going to. But it was a start. I think when I got an agent in America and I was like, “Oh my god, people really saw this movie.” But the progression was so slow, there was no kind of – here are movies, and here’s other opportunities! It was just like, “Nice job.” I mean, I went to the Venice Film Festival – that was incredible, that was crazy. I had so many surreal moments. Yesterday I was at high school studying for my English exam, and today I’m having lunch with Uma Thurman and Harvey Weinstein. And Quentin Tarantino, talking and talking. It was amazing.
Heavenly Creatures is a fascinating film to look at now, just to revisit this point when three careers – yours, Kate Winslet, and Peter Jackson, whose films to that point had been very different – sprang and took off.
It’s so amazing. It’s absolutely no surprise to me that Peter has done what he’s done and Kate has done what she’s done. But it was kind of a crazy thing to be a high school student and do this movie with people who had such a fire in them.
How did your classmates react to the film?
Some people were nice. I had friends who were like, “The movie was really beautiful,” but then most people were like, “I could see your tits.” [Laughs] I was like, yep, you could. “You kissed a girl!” I did. But that was fine. It was just a little alienating.
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