The actor: Melanie Lynskey, a New Zealander who made an impressive debut in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures opposite Kate Winslet, and has gone on to a steady career in Hollywood as a character actress, often playing ordinary-looking women with a frayed edge. Last year was one of Lynskey’s biggest: She played significant parts in the movies Away We Go, The Informant!, and Up In The Air (all now available on DVD and Blu-ray), while continuing her recurring role on the hit sitcom Two And A Half Men.
Up In the Air (2009)—“Julie Bingham”
Melanie Lynskey: I had to audition. I read the script and thought it was so beautiful. I really liked Jason Reitman’s previous movies, but before I walked into the audition, the casting director stopped me and said, “Jason doesn’t ever want to cast foreigners who are doing accents. So if you’re going to talk to him, can you please put on an American accent, so he doesn’t know you’re a foreigner?” I’m just not very good at doing that. I feel like I’m kind of faking something if I’m talking as myself and putting on an accent. So I ended up not saying a word to him the whole audition. [Laughs.] I was too nervous that I’d give it away.
The A.V. Club: Coming from New Zealand, do you have much of an affinity with the American Midwest?
ML: No, to be honest. [Laughs.] It’s something I just know about from television and movies. Now that I’ve spent some time filming in the Midwest, I understand it a little better. Maybe.
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AVC: When you’re only in a movie for a handful of scenes, are you focused more on making an impact?
ML: I feel like any actor should always be thinking about how to serve the story. The thing to be cautious of is trying to make too much of your “moment,” or whatever. The story is a lot bigger than you, and you’re there to help it along. The thing to think about is whether what you’re doing is true to the moment and where the story’s going, rather than going, “Here are my scenes. What can I try and do to make the most of them?” But yes, you do have a little more freedom, in a way, because the audience isn’t really paying that close attention to you. It’s not like when you’re a leading actor and you’re worried about how to hold their attention.
The Informant! (2009)—“Ginger Whitacre”
ML: Steven [Soderbergh] isn’t the kind of director where you talk about everything beforehand. He didn’t go into whether my character knew her husband was lying or anything, so I had to make the decision, because I wasn’t able to talk to the real Ginger. I decided that she didn’t know, that she was the kind of woman who would feel like her job is to take care of the house and her husband and be at home and not suspect anything. Obviously she’s given a lot of conflicting information, and she’s very confused about what’s happening, but I don’t think she ever knows what’s really going on. I had to make that decision for myself, because Steven was very clear about the fact that you’re playing a character in a movie, not doing an impersonation of somebody. You’re telling the actual story, but you don’t have to worry that much about what really happened. But then when I met the woman at the première, she told me that I got it right. She didn’t know what was going on.
AVC: Did you know going in that the film would have such a light tone, even though the subject matter is dramatic? Or was that something that came about later, through the music and editing?
ML: No, I knew going in that Steven was casting a lot of comedians, but I also knew he wanted to play it straight. He didn’t want people to play it like it was a wacky comedy, though he wanted people who would bring something comedic to it. Yeah, the tone of it is really, really interesting. [Laughs.] I was telling my husband that if I wasn’t in the movie, it would be my favorite movie of all time. It’s so weird. It’s so great. The music is so amazing, and it’s a really interesting movie.
Two And A Half Men (2003-present)—“Rose”
ML: I’d never done a sitcom before, and I was asked to do a bit in the pilot. I thought I’d do it just to see what it’s like, this sort of weird thing that is the American sitcom. And then they asked me if I would be a regular, and I was a little nervous, but I figured I had a lot of fun doing the pilot. And the show was really fun, but after a couple of years of being a regular, I felt like I was losing my mind a little bit, doing the same thing because I was always available.
Y’know, it’s such a weird character, and I think it was hard for them to come up with a lot of reasons for her to be around, so that I could show up and have like my one wacky line. It started to drive me a little bit crazy. So after the second season, I said that I thought I might want to leave to do some other things, even though my manager and my agent thought I was insane, because it was a hit show and I was making a lot of money. I just knew I had to try and do something else. And I was sad, because I loved who I was working with, and I loved the character. I had a huge conversation with Chuck Lorre, which was one of the scariest conversations I’ve had in my life, because people don’t usually say no to him. He tried to talk me out of it, and we came up with this great solution where I could be recurring on the show and just come and go, while being free to go out on other jobs. Ever since then, I’ve been happier than anything to be doing that show, to keep the story going and play that character, but not have it be the only thing in my life.
The Shield (2003)—“Marcy”
ML: That’s funny. That comes up so often. It’s weird people recognize me from that all the time.
AVC: Is that a bad thing, given the character you played?
ML: [Laughs.] Maybe, maybe. It’s so funny. Before I got my green card, I was never able to do television, because they cast it so quickly and there was never enough time to get my work papers in order. It was right after I got my green card that I went in to read for this part. What a great show that is. I hadn’t watched it before that. The way they shot it, with the hand-held cameras… it’s very much about the acting.
AVC: Were you ever worried early in your career that you would be typecast as crazy?
ML: The crazy person? I don’t know. I just wanted to work. [Laughs.] The only thing I was conscious of was trying not to do anything horrible—the sorts of movies that are disgusting or evil. Other than that, I’ve been pretty open. I don’t think I’ve played a lot of crazy people. If ever I had a choice between two movies, I’d try to do whatever was the opposite of what I did last time.
Heavenly Creatures (1994)—“Pauline Parker”
ML: That whole experience… I kind of wish I could go back, being who I am now, and have that experience again. I loved every second of making it, but I didn’t realize at the time that it was really unique. I was like, “Oh God, making movies is amazing,” and then I went on to do all kinds of things and realize that not everyone is Peter Jackson. [Laughs.] He was just so protective and so loving. It was a really special time. I was in high school when we made that, and I’d always had this great dream of being an actor, but everyone around me said, “You’re crazy, people don’t just become actors. You need to think about getting a real job, or you’re never going to be happy.” And then I got this movie and it took my life on a different path.
AVC: Have you stayed close with Peter Jackson and Kate Winslet?
ML: Kate and I were so close for a few years, like sisters in fact, because we didn’t want to let it go for a while. I ran into her recently when I worked with her husband on Away We Go, and we spent a little time together, which was really nice, but before that, we hadn’t seen each other for years and years. And Peter, I see every now and again because one of my good friends works at his company.
Drive (2007)—“Wendy Patrakas”
ML: Oh I loved that. I loved that show. It was so… I don’t know what happened there, it was weird. I don’t know if they didn’t know what to do with it, but you could just sort of feel it falling apart as it was going along. But I loved my character, and [creator] Tim Minear is really great, I think. There were elements of the show that felt a little like Twin Peaks to me, but it was also an action show. I really loved it; I wish it had gone on a bit longer. They gave me two weeks off to get married, and during that time, I didn’t check my e-mail. Then on my honeymoon, I got this string of e-mails saying like, “The show’s premièring tonight,” and then, “The show didn’t do very well,” and then, “We’ve been cancelled.” [Laughs.] I read them all at once.
AVC: When you do a movie, you have a script with a finite end, but with TV, especially on a show like Drive, you don’t always know where the character’s going to go. Does that affect the way you prepare?
ML: It does, a little bit. That’s honestly one of the hardest things about doing a TV show. On Drive, Tim Minear was pretty great about trying to give me as much information as possible, which was helpful, because if your character is keeping a secret, it’s nice to know what that secret is, just so you can have it in your mind while you play with it. It’s hard if some gigantic plot thing comes up and you’re like, “Huh, I didn’t know that.” It doesn’t matter so much with a sitcom, which are made to be watched in any order. But it’s better in a movie, where you have all the information and you can bury some things and give other little things away if you want to. There’s just more you can do with it.