Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: When we last sat down with the New Zealand-born actor Melanie Lynskey in 2010 for Random Roles, we remarked upon her robust film career, which she somehow managed to balance with a recurring role on Two And A Half Men. A decade later and Lynskey hasn’t let up, wearing her “character actor” badge with pride as she makes the most of her screen time in numerous ensemble pieces. But she’s also stepped into her own as a lead with impressive emotional depth, no better evidenced than by a single day in 2016 when she learned HBO had abruptly cancelled Togetherness on her first day filming the bracing dark comedy I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (more on that below). Currently she can be seen on FX and Hulu’s Mrs. America as real-life homemaker-turned-conservative activist Rosemary Thomson, a role she couldn’t turn down even though she had just had a baby (more on that later, too).
The full interview is below, and some highlights from our Zoom call with Lynskey can be found in the video above.
Mrs. America (2020)—“Rosemary Thomson”
Melanie Lynskey: At the time I had a six-month-old child—she’s now 16 months old—but I hadn’t worked. I did one day of work in my whole pregnancy, and then, since she was born, I hadn’t worked. And I had just been offered a job in Australia that was, like, amazing. So I was just trying to figure out, if I’m going to go to Australia and do this job, we have to find a babysitter and do all this stuff, and then I got this offer out of nowhere. And it was for this thing starring Cate Blanchett, and I just was, like, “What?” [Laughs.] And I read it and Rosemary—my character—is barely in the first two episodes, but it just was so good. It was impossible to say no. I said that I couldn’t do the Australian thing, I talked to Dahvi [Waller, series creator] on the phone, and she said, “I have to be honest with you—I know you got offered another job, and there’s not ever going to be an episode that’s called ‘Rosemary’ that follows Rosemary, you know, just in case you’re wondering.” And I said, “Honestly, it’s kind of a good thing right now. I have this tiny baby, I haven’t worked.” And then, as the show went on, I did get more and more to do, so it ended up being a lot more of a time commitment than I thought [Laughs.], but—what Dahvi told me on the phone about Rosemary really was fascinating to me.
And the writing was so good. And then the cast they’d already put together—I mean, Carmen Cuba, who cast it, is so brilliant. What she does is incredible, and she put together this group of women that’s just amazing.
AVC: It’s true that there isn’t an episode called “Rosemary,” but we do see an arc for her, and she’s one of the women that—ironically—becomes empowered by the Stop ERA movement. She’s the comic relief at times, but this is also a real human being that you’re playing. Is there any aspect of her that you empathize with? She’s definitely on a certain side of the equation…
ML: She’s definitely on a certain side of the equation, but what Dahvi talked to me about when she asked me to do the part was, Rosemary’s got a very strong set of religious beliefs and, whatever beliefs I have now, and I’m very liberal—I was raised Baptist and that’s intense, you know? There’s a part of that belief system that never really leaves you. So I have a very visceral, sort of deep understanding of some of the things that these women think are wrong. It’s not what I believe, but, when you’re raised in a particular religion, things are kind of ingrained in a way that can be very difficult to shake. So I understood her sort of in my bones.
And Dahvi also talked to me about how she did want her to be funny; she said, “Somebody has to be funny.”[Laughs.] You know, a lot of the show is dealing with very, very serious topics. So that was also appealing. But, she’s a really interesting character and she did end up actually working in the Reagan White House. Which is pretty amazing. And kind of ironic.
Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998)—“Jacqueline”
AVC: After Heavenly Creatures, this was another early project for you. There’s a lot of nostalgic affection for it—do you hear from fans often who grew up with it?
ML: Yeah, women will come up to me and say, “Oh, when I was a little girl, that was my favorite movie.” That was when I realized how much time had gone by. [Laughs.] When these full-grown women were saying to me that they’d been watching me since they were a little girl. It’s really sweet. It’s really moving how much that movie really resonated with people.
And it was such a special time. I mean, I was 19, living in the south of France, and filming with all these people. We had these amazing big dinners all together every weekend. It just was such a special time. Everyone was put up in these gorgeous houses. We were shooting in chateaus.
Anjelica [Huston]’s just a hero of mine. I’m obsessed with her as an actor. And here she is, giving me advice and being like a big sister to me, and calling me to talk about a personal thing. It was such a beautiful time. And Drew [Barrymore] I just adore. I saw her, like, maybe two years ago at SoulCycle. [Laughs.] And she was, like, “Can you believe it’s been 22 years since we shot Ever After?” I was, like, “How do you know that off the top of your head?”
AVC: Your character, Jacqueline, kind of flipped that side of the Cinderella story on its head. She is so sweet and sympathetic—would you have been as interested in the role had she been just another evil stepsister?
ML: I mean, at that time, I wasn’t really choosing projects based on, “Hm, what’s interesting?” I was so excited to be working. I didn’t work after Heavenly Creatures—I finished high school, and it wasn’t easy. I wasn’t getting offered anything. It was hard for me to even get an agent, honestly, you know? So the fact that I was getting to do a movie at all was, you know, I wasn’t, like, picking and choosing. I did Coyote Ugly. I kind of did whatever came along. [Laughs.]
But, yeah, it was very appealing. It made the project—it really had a lot of sweetness. And the thought of getting to have that particular relationship with Drew, who’s just like a little bubble of light and love and joy, it was such a lovely idea to me.
Coyote Ugly (2000)—“Gloria”
AVC: It’s funny you brought up Coyote Ugly—that movie’s twentieth anniversary is coming up this summer.
ML: Oh my god.
AVC: I know you joked about not necessarily picking and choosing roles at this stage, but Coyote Ugly is one of many projects you’re a part of that features a great cast of women.
ML: Yeah, I mean, those were the projects I was always drawn to. And, honestly, I was very excited to do Coyote Ugly. The script I read had been written by Kevin Smith, and it was very dark, and really gritty and interesting. I was, like, “Fuck yeah, this is great.” And then I got to the table read, and it was just a different script. But still very fun—a great ensemble cast of women, and all of them were really wonderful and just great, great, great people. I’m still friends with Piper [Perabo], which is lovely. We’ve stayed friends for 20 years—thank you for that.
AVC: And I’m assuming you met Tyra Banks as well?
ML: I did. I remember there was one day—I think she came in on, like, a helicopter or something like that. There was this one day where I worked with all the girls and my little brother, who was 16 at the time, was visiting me on set and we were doing a reshoot of some kind. And all these supermodels were literally flying in, and it was a 20-hour day, I remember. It was the craziest day. And I just kept apologizing to him, and he just kept saying, “What are you apologizing for? [Laughs.] This is the best day of my life.” Bridget Moynahan signed a magazine for him that was, like, Dear Sam: You’re the coolest or something. It was a good day for a 16-year-old.
Away We Go (2009)—“Munch”
AVC: Your big dance scene in this movie is so memorable. Do you remember what that experience was like for you?
ML: I do, I remember very well. Weirdly enough, that was another one of those crazy days where the day started at 2 p.m.. I had just wrapped The Informant!, and I had one day to leave The Informant! and go to the set of Away We Go. And I had to call in, while I was in makeup, to be part of a phone call that Matt Damon’s character was making to my character. So I was talking to Steven Soderbergh on the phone, and Matt, and they were, like, “How’s it going?” And I was, like, “I don’t know, I barely feel like I’m here yet. I just left you guys and I knew what was ahead of me.” And we filmed the scene until 8 a.m. It was crazy. And I had to do that dance because everybody’s eye line was on me. So I had to do the dance for so many hours. And, when they turned around to film me, it was, like, 4 a.m. or something—it was so crazy. I was crying the whole time. And I remember at a certain point, just because it was so nuts, everybody started to fall asleep. I was just looking out, and everyone in the audience was asleep, except for John Krasinski, who made full, beautiful eye contact with me every moment I was performing. It’s going to make me cry [Laughs.] talking about it. Because I felt so supported by him.
It was really, really intense. Because that’s a lot—when the camera’s not on you and you have no lines. It’s almost impossible, you know? And I said, “They don’t have to be here. Whatever, go take a nap.” And he was just so, so present for the entire thing and it was really—and so were Maya [Rudolph] and Chris [Messina] when they could be. But it was just exhausting, you know? So that’s my main memory is John Krasinski just staring at me and being, like, “I am here with you. You can do it.” It was amazing.
That scene really—it really meant a lot to me. At that time in my life, I hadn’t been pregnant or tried to get pregnant. I didn’t have a ton of sort of personal baggage to take into it. But I had a few months before been at a friend’s wedding, and I knew that she had just suffered a pregnancy loss, and was really sad. It was really hard for her to get her spirits up for this wedding. And at the reception—it was in this big tent—she did this dance for her new husband around the pole in the middle of the tent, and it was this very sexy, intimate dance where he was just kind of sitting there and she was dancing around him. And it felt almost inappropriate to be watching it. It was so intimate and so moving. But I was, like, “Oh, she’s reclaiming this love that they had. She’s reclaiming her own body. She’s a sexual being, she’s a woman.” And they’ve gone on to have this beautiful family and everything’s amazing. But it just was such a powerful moment to know what she had gone through.
So, a few months after that, I read the script. And it’s basically the exact same moment. I couldn’t believe it. I was, like, “I just witnessed this. I know what that is.” You know, I was moved to tears by it. So it feels like it wasn’t really me; I was just channeling this friend of mine and what she had given to me in that moment.
Togetherness (2015-2016)—“Michelle Pierson”
AVC: That show’s end came pretty abruptly, but when you look back, do you feel happy with the way the story ended?
ML: No! No, I don’t feel happy. I mean, I think it was a great ending, because they’re great writers, but… it wasn’t supposed to be. You know? I think they’re smart enough to be, like, “Just in case, let’s let it be something that can kind of be wrapped up,” but I would have done that show for the rest of my life. I would have done it forever and ever. It felt like I had just gotten married, and I was so in love and I was so happy. And I was, like, “This is amazing!” and then my husband left—like I was, “What am I supposed to do now?” I was reading other pilot scripts, and it felt impossible to do anything else. I was really heartbroken about it. I loved that show. I loved going to work, I loved everyone I worked with.
I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (2017)— “Ruth”
ML: My first day on I Don’t Feel At Home In This World, we had had a makeup test just to make sure everything was looking okay and everything like that. I got a call from Jay Duplass, my creative soulmate, one of the great loves of my life. It was him and Mark on the phone to tell me that Togetherness had been canceled. It was a huge shock; they were still renting the stage, they’d written most of season three. Nobody really saw it coming. I was so devastated and I didn’t know anybody yet at work. I went into the makeup room and I said, “I might need to cry for a minute,” and they were very sweet, like, “Oh, okay.” I couldn’t believe that I had to work. I just wanted to get into bed and weep for a few days and eat chips.
And then it just ended up being the most healing thing, because that job, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World, was the happiest job I’ve ever had. I’ve never been happier at work than on that job. I mean, it was so, so, so great and so fun. And we all still text every single day. The entire cast and Macon [Blair, director]—we text—Elijah [Wood] shows us pictures of the bread that he’s baking. I mean, it’s crazy. You know, people showing pictures of their babies, and people saying, “I saw your new show, it’s amazing.” It’s been five years, I think, since we made it, and we’re all still texting every day, basically.
Hello I Must Be Going (2012) – “Amy”
AVC: Another film that puts you front and center is Hello I Must Be Going that was also directed by an actor—Todd Louiso.
ML: Thank you for seeing that movie. It means the world to me when anyone has seen that movie because we just put everything we had into it, and I love it so, so much. I did a Sundance reading of it, and it was me and Dane DeHaan. And I just was, like, “That was so much fun. I was so happy I got to read that.” I didn’t think they would make it with me, and then they really just wanted to. And they came to me and said, “Budget is basically nothing because we’re making it with you, so…”[Laughs.]
I was so happy, and then Dane was doing something else and he couldn’t do it. Then I remember they showed me a bunch of audition tapes, and people were so great, and then Chris Abbott… I just was, like, “What the fuck is going on here?” One of the scenes he had to do was the scene where we get stoned, and he was just rambling on, and I swear his eyes turned red. Like, his eyes got glassy. And I just was, like, “Can he make his eyes look stoned? Is he this fucking talented?” It was so crazy how great he was, and that was it. I mean, I just felt so lucky every day to be working with him. We had such a deep connection with each other, and such a love for each other, and I think he’s so brilliant. A little while ago, I was talking to Chris outside a party, and Joaquin Phoenix stopped—literally stopped—in his tracks to freak out about Chris. He just was, like, “Dude! Oh, my god! You’re amazing. You’re so amazing.” And Rooney Mara was with him, and he was, like, “Every time you’re in something, I say, ‘This guy is the greatest!’ Don’t I? Don’t I?” Rooney Mara was, like, “He does say that. He does.”
Then he walked away and I said,“Chris. That’s the greatest actor of our generation.” Well, my generation, not Chris’ generation. And he said, “I know, I know! I can’t think about it.”
They Came Together (2014)—“Brenda”
Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later (2017)— “Laura”
ML: I’ve been obsessed with Wet Hot American Summer since I saw it in the movie theater. And I was obsessed with Stella and everything those guys ever done. So I met them when I auditioned for Wanderlust, and they had the option of casting Kathryn Hahn, so they were smart and put Kathryn Hahn in the movie, which, always put Kathryn Hahn in your movie if you can.
But they were really nice and, like, “You’re so great and we want to do something with you.”And then when They Came Together happened, I think maybe Kathryn Hahn was busy, so then they asked me to come and do it, which was nice. It was just so fun to be on set with your comedic heroes. It just was, like, crazy. I love Michael Showalter. So much. I could barely look him in the eye. It’s too much for me.
The Perks Of Being A Wallflower (2012)—“Aunt Helen”
AVC: Were you familiar with the book before this project?
ML: I actually wasn’t familiar with the book. I read the script and was, like, “This is gorgeous.” And, you know, it’s not super fun to play a character like that, but I also think is important to just tell the story of how sometimes abusers are the people who are closest to somebody, you know. People who you’d never guess. Who are loved and trusted and… yeah.
The L Word (2008)—“Clea Mason”
ML: I was in Vancouver for some reason, and I went out with my friend Clea [DuVall]. And Leisha was there—Leisha Hailey. And she was so cute, and we had a lot of sort of chemistry, and then she was getting a new love interest on the show, and she was, like, “You should be my love interest.” And I was, like, “Sure.” And then everybody hated me. [Laughs.] People hated me so much! It was really intense. Also, they called my character Clea, who is my best friend in the world—it was so weird.
Detroit Rock City (1999)—“Beth”
AVC: Is there a project that you feel you get recognized for more than anything else?
ML: It depends where I am. I have this sort of weird thing where people know me from one thing and then think I’ve never worked again. And they’ll say, “Do you ever think about acting? Do you think about acting again?” “Yeah, sometimes, you know.” [Laughs.] Now that I have the baby, they’re like, “Ah, that’s what you’re doing. You had a baby.”
But there was a time when, every time I was going through airport security, I would get recognized from Detroit Rock City. Like, the airport security people were all just, “Oh, my god, Detroit Rock City!” I don’t understand why that happened. It was a full year of every time I was at the airport—it was so specific and so weird.
Also on flights—if the pilot was there to wave everybody off the flight, it was Two And A Half Men. Big with pilots, apparently. Or people would be like, “My dad loves that show!” People never come up to me and say,“I love that show.” It’s always [Laughs.], “My dad.”
Main graphic credits from left: Mrs. America (Hulu), Matt Winkelmeyer: Getty Images, Screenshot: Coyote Ugly