Melanie Lynskey: ‘I want to tell stories about women who are interesting and complicated’

By Maree Pemberton

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A teenage Melanie Lynskey stunned audiences with her impressive début opposite Kate Winslet in iconic Kiwi film, Heavenly Creatures. Since then she has risen to become one of Hollywood's most in-demand character actors and a role model for women wishing to be comfortable with who they are. Happily married, a firm fan favourite and with fresh awards under her belt for her role in cult TV hit Yellowjackets, her star continues to shine brightly.

Unpretentious, unassuming and thoroughly un-Hollywood: that’s Melanie Lynskey. But don’t be mistaken – this softly spoken New Zealander is no pushover. In fact, her demeanour belies the unrelenting level of fortitude and fearlessness any actress needs to forge a career these days.

Unlike most of her peers, she refused to traverse the paint-by-numbers road to success that normally sees burgeoning Hollywood talent prostrating themselves at all the red carpet events and parties, networking with the ‘right’ people and jettisoning their accent even before the plane touches down in Los Angeles.

Conversely, Lynskey’s North Island accent is very much intact and she exemplifies the adage, ‘slow and steady wins the race’. Now, at 44, this wife and mother from New Plymouth, Taranaki has achieved success beyond her wildest dreams. And despite her unusual path to glory, devoid of ‘industry’ types to light her path, she now finds herself atop Hollywood’s exclusive pool of in-demand actresses.

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Amazingly, Lynskey has been working consistently in Hollywood since landing her first role at 16, in which she played a teenager who committed matricide, no less, in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, opposite star-on-the-rise, Kate Winslet. She has since performed in more than 50 movies and dozens of TV series but her career rise certainly did not mirror her co-star’s. Still, by anyone’s standards, hers is an unmitigated success story.

Lynskey has, of late, transitioned from character to lead actress. And deservedly so, especially since she has seemingly never succumbed to the pressure of anyone else’s beauty ideal by undergoing plastic surgery, nor listened to so-called ‘well-meaning advice’. She has also fought studio bosses when the subject of weight has reared its head, and amassed legions of female peers as fans as a result. Evidently, she likes to keep it real. And that’s what we love about her.

Lynskey with Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures.

But for Lynskey, it’s all about the work. She said recently, “I like things with a little bit of darkness; I like seeing how normal people can get to a desperate point.” This seems to be her modus operandi when considering her body of work. Roles in both big budget and indie productions reflect that ethos in performances from Shattered Glass (2003), Up in the Air, and The Informant! (2009), to Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore (2017), Sadie (2018), Lady of the Manor, and Don’t Look Up (both in 2021). In mainstream circles, she’s known for playing Rose on the sitcom Two and a Half Men (2003-2015), a hilarious character obsessed with the show’s lead Charlie Sheen, as well as the shows Togetherness (2015), and Mrs America (2020).

Leading lady

Now at last she takes the lead in Yellowjackets, about a high school soccer team travelling on a plane that crashed on a flight from New Jersey to Seattle, landing in the Canadian wilderness, in 1996.

Twenty-five years later, the four survivors, played by Lynskey, Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci and Tawny Cypress, now middle-aged women, are terrified their ‘Lord of the Flies’ survival-of-the-fittest nightmare will come back to haunt them – in all of its spectacular gore and horror.

Melanie Lynskey and Peter Gadiot in Yellowjackets (2021) copy
Lynskey in Yellowjackets.

Given that Lynskey enjoys her roles served up with ‘a little bit of darkness,’ she has clearly hit the jackpot with Yellowjackets. I’m reminded of a comment she made back in 2017: “I want to tell stories about women who are interesting and complicated, and not like people you’ve seen before.” And the actress has outdone herself as the ever-competent and uber-complicated Shauna, who is as much at ease unpacking groceries as a stay-at-home-mum, as she is butchering a rabbit, or (spoiler alert) dismembering a boyfriend.

While Shauna is a quintessential ‘survivor’, literal and otherwise, the self-deprecating Lynskey chuckles at the notion of her own survival skills, and told The New York Times recently, “I have no survival skills. If I’m going anywhere, I have to read every single TripAdvisor and Yelp review just to make sure the hotel is going to be as nice as I need it to be. I’m very particular, very princess-y.

“When I was a child, I went to nature camp for a few days, and the entire thing was torture. At the end of it, everyone in the class had to write a letter to the person who impressed them the most, and I got every letter because people were like: ‘You got through it. You cried the entire time, but somehow, you did it.’”

In further contrast to Shauna, who doesn’t flinch at barbaric activities – like ingesting truly non-vegetarian fare – Lynskey revels in her plant-based diet, though she has apparently changed her title to pescatarian. “I haven’t eaten meat since I was 10 years old,” she has noted. She reportedly gave up meat after learning the truth about sheep farming. She was in the headlines lately, though, as part of the age-old debate about how actresses should appear on screen – when she was asked to slim down for the Yellowjackets role. She said in a Rolling Stone piece, “They were asking me, ‘What do you plan to do? I’m sure the producers will get you a trainer. They’d love to help you with this.’”

Admirably, she stood her ground. “A lot of women out there look like me,” she insisted in The New York Times. “That was really important to me.” She went on to add in another interview, “This character is comfortable and sexual. I want women to be able to watch it and be like, ‘Wow, she looks like me and nobody’s saying she’s the fat one.’ That representation is important,” she said.

Lynskey found her courage early when it comes to speaking out. While working on the comedy, Togetherness, back in 2016, she refused to let the show make jokes about her size. “There was one scene where I was supposed to be eating a hamburger and complaining, ‘I’m out of shape,’” she told People magazine. “I said to them, ‘I’m not going to do that because I don’t want to put that out there.’”

The role model

Now Lynskey has unwittingly become a role model for women striving to be comfortable with who they are. And she’s not backward in calling out social media trolls either, hitting back at comments from so-called ‘fans’ of Yellowjackets claiming they were ‘concerned’ for her health. A rather dismayed Lynskey wrote on Twitter, “[The] most egregious [comments] are the “I care about her health!!” people … b***h you don’t see me on my Peleton! You don’t see me running through the park with my child. Skinny does not always equal healthy.”

Her husband, actor Jason Ritter, 42, (the son of late TV legend John Ritter), came to her defence and spoke out against his wife’s being body shamed.

“If anyone has any further unsolicited comments about *anybody* else’s body, they can feel free to write them in permanent ink onto their own foreheads and swan dive directly into the sun,” he raged.

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Pictured here at the 2022 Vanity Fair Oscar Party, Jason Ritter and Melanie Lynskey are famed for praising each other in public. Ritter tweeted after she won a Critics’ Choice Award for Yellowjackets: “I am sorry to do this and she will be embarrassed that I did this but my GOODNESS what an absolute beaut my wife is!!! ok I’m sorry but I mean LOOK at this human being who is also the best person I know.” Image: Getty.

Ritter, who has appeared in numerous TV series, including Parenthood and Girls, and is currently starring in Raising Dion, met Lynskey while filming The Big Ask in 2013. His big ask was for a date, and the two quickly worked together again, in We’ll Never Have Paris (2014) and The Intervention (2016). They were engaged in 2017, welcomed a daughter in 2018 and got married in 2020. The marriage is Lynskey’s second, following her union to actor Jimmi Simpson (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).

Lynskey’s mother, Kay, is a former nurse, and her father, Tim, is an orthopedic surgeon. The eldest of five, she attended the New Plymouth Girls’ High school, where she became interested in acting and joined the drama program. She completed her studies at the Victoria University of Wellington. Although her family were thrilled she landed the role in Heavenly Creatures, they were understandably worried about her entering such a precarious profession.

On the set of Castle Rock, a few years ago, she said of the days that followed the release of Heavenly Creatures, “I think people’s concern was that now I’m going to get carried away [in thinking] ‘I’m going to be an actress!’ They were worried about that because they thought, ‘She’s a shy, chubby 16-year-old,’ and they didn’t want me to be disappointed,” she said.

Announcing an intent to become an actress in New Zealand, especially back then, was akin to deciding to live on Mars – an impossible dream not to be taken seriously. “I was at this stage in my life where you were supposed to decide what you wanted to do at university and you were supposed to know what you wanted to do for the rest of your life and when I’d say ‘acting’, they’d say, ‘Don’t be crazy!’”

Still chasing the challenge

Nearly 30 years later, Lynskey continues to offer up hyper-realistic performances in edgy material. Her next role is in the upcoming miniseries, Candy, based on a true crime story in which she plays Betty Gore, a Texan woman murdered with an axe by her best friend, Candy Montgomery (played by Jessica Biel) in 1980. The crime occurred after Gore confronted her friend about having an affair with her husband.

Melanie Lynskey and Jessica Biel in Candy (2022) copy
Melanie Lynskey with Jessica Biel in Candy.

Looking back on past interviews with the evercharming Lynskey, a comment she made during her promotional tour for Up in the Air, in 2009, still stands out. “Maybe one day I’ll be like Nicole Kidman and just get piles of scripts,” she quipped. Thirteen years and many piles of scripts later, Lynskey has indeed eclipsed her dreams.

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