The Saturday Interview

Melanie Lynskey: ‘Doesn’t everybody want to be loved by gay people?’

As the Kiwi actor returns for a second season of ‘Yellowjackets’, she speaks to Annabel Nugent about making her debut as a teenager opposite Kate Winslet, being a queer icon, and why ‘crying holidays’ should be a thing

Saturday 29 April 2023 09:51 BST
Melanie Lynskey has found her spotlight as Shauna in Showtime’s thriller series ‘Yellowjackets’
Melanie Lynskey has found her spotlight as Shauna in Showtime’s thriller series ‘Yellowjackets’ (Dave Benett)

I don’t have a big, booming voice,” says Melanie Lynskey in a Kiwi accent that is the antithesis of big and booming. “It’s high and quite quiet so I think it’s easy for people to make assumptions.” People have been making assumptions about Lynskey for decades now. Each time, she upends them. She implodes them. In fact, she’s so good at it that “not who you expect” has become her calling card as an actor. “We’re taught that power is in masculinity, and I don’t agree with that. Feminine traits are also powerful,” she says. “I think soft-spoken people can carry a lot of things within them.”

Lynskey, 45, is living, breathing, softly speaking – now, latte-sipping – proof of that. She was 16 when she landed her first role opposite a then-upcoming star Kate Winslet. Together, they played the intensely entwined, murderous schoolgirls of Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994). Even then, Jackson innately understood something about Lynskey’s allure – a glimmer of danger never totally out of sight. It flickers across the length of her career, from her 12-year stint opposite Charlie Sheen (and later Ashton Kutcher) on the sitcom Two and a Half Men to last month’s episode of HBO’s The Last of Us, in which she played a merciless rebel leader. No doubt, that glimmer is the crux of her performance in Showtime’s series Yellowjackets, which has returned for a thrilling second season.

The hit series toggles between the Nineties and the present day, following the survivors of a plane crash in its immediate aftermath and later fallout. The part of Shauna, a survivor turned suburbanite who doesn’t so much have skeletons in her closet as she does a dark, dingy basement chock full of them, is perfect for Lynskey and that dangerous streak.

In person, it is absent. That is, except for when Lynskey shows me a posture she often strikes when she wants to convey a severity on screen: uncrossed legs, steely gaze, elbows on knees. (“That move has a lot of power for me,” she says, adding it first came to her in a dream.) But mostly, Lynskey is warm in the way most celebrities have already grown out of. She is also unfailingly polite – and ill. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” she coughs, lifting her hand to cover her mouth. Tiny black hearts are etched into her baby pink manicure. “It’s the worst to be in the room with someone who is sick.” It’s not for nothing Lynskey has a reputation as the nicest person in Hollywood.

Phonetically, her name might not lend itself as easily to a portmanteau as Laura Dern’s or Kathryn Hahn’s (mind you, Melanaissance isn’t half bad) but given the double whammy of Yellowjackets and The Last of Us, like them, she, too, is experiencing a career resurgence. “It feels very different, I have to say,” Lynskey gestures to the swanky London hotel suite where she is spending the day chatting about one of her recent hit shows. Shows – plural! “It’s funny, I’ve never had a publicity schedule before so it’s all new.” But the years have made her realistic about the business; she knows this is temporary. And she’s OK with that. “It’s not going to last forever so I’m trying to make the most of it.”

You can hardly blame Lynskey for her pragmatic attitude. She was a jobbing actor for nearly 30 years, playing supporting roles in mainstream films (Sweet Home Alabama, Coyote Ugly, Don’t Look Up) and lead roles in indie films (Hello I Must Be Going, Happy Christmas), before mainstream and lead role coalesced with Yellowjackets. But the uptick in her career has dovetailed with major life events, making this period in her life both “exciting” and “really complicated”. In 2018, Lynskey gave birth to her daughter (she is married to the actor Jason Ritter). Two years later, she had a pregnancy loss. “I was grateful not to be working at that moment because I got to process it a little bit but there’s definitely still things I’m working through.” She needs a vacation. “A crying vacation – is that a thing?” Lynskey laughs. “A crying vacation where you take a bath every day, cry a little bit, then go and have a glass of wine.” It helps matters that her daughter, now four, goes with her “pretty much everywhere”.

Lynskey’s first experience as a working mother was not ideal. It was 2019 and she was playing a conservative activist in the acclaimed miniseries Mrs America opposite Cate Blanchett. “It was really hard,” says Lynskey of her time on set. “Cate validated my feelings. Y’know, I would come to set and burst into tears and she would be like, ‘Aw honey…’ She was very, very there for me in that way.” As was Sarah Paulson. Blanchett and Paulson, higher up on the call sheet than Lynskey, offered up their trailers so she would have somewhere private to pump and breastfeed. “These generous women were giving me the things that were afforded to them in their contracts so that my life as a mother would be easier,” she smiles. The whole thing was a learning curve. By the time negotiations forYellowjackets rolled around months later, Lynskey knew what she needed as a working mum. “I asked for the world,” she says. “I wasn’t going to do that again!”

Lynskey was 15 when producer and screenwriter Fran Walsh paid a visit to her high school in New Plymouth, New Zealand. Walsh was looking for an unknown to star opposite Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson’s movie about a real-life Christchurch murder case from the Fifties in which two genteel schoolgirls killed one of their mothers. Lynskey netted the part of glowering, curly-haired Pauline Parker – and was astounding. A brilliant showcase of a burgeoning talent, Heavenly Creatures should’ve been a catalyst for Lynskey like it was for her co-star Winslet, who went on to win an Oscar shortly after. It was years before Lynskey next appeared on screen; and decades until she landed another lead role.

Lynskey as Shauna in Showtime’s ‘Yellowjackets’ (Colin Bentley/Showtime)

Lynskey has spoken of feeling sidelined on the film’s publicity circuit. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to speak to Winslet only. For what it’s worth, she isn’t bitter. Not then and not now. “People were never cruel. It was more that I had a co-star who was so undeniably spectacular that I fell by the wayside a little bit. It was Kate Winslet becoming Kate Winslet,” she says, widening her eyes. “It was funny because I was super excited for her; I knew it was very much what she wanted – but then, you know, I wanted to be working as well.”

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Lynskey did work – eventually. She didn’t have the “very specific look” studios wanted for their leads, however, leaving her with supporting roles. “You’re either the bitchy friend or the shy friend.” She identified with neither. “My agents would try to talk me into auditioning for things but I’d be like, ‘I don’t want to play that kind of character. I don’t like that this character exists. I don’t want to do it,’” she says. In a recent New York Times interview, Lynskey recalled reading a script in which a character held a candy bar in every scene. She passed on that – and plenty of others. “It’s hard when you don’t have money, frankly, to pass on things but I really tried to commit to building as interesting a career as I could with my limited options.”

To use a cliche, the first time Lynskey felt seen was in 2003 when she auditioned for Mona Lisa Smile. Lynskey had been up for Connie Baker, a role that fell squarely within the carriage of strait-laced characters she had by then grown accustomed to playing, when director Mike Newell told her it wasn’t a fit. Instead, he encouraged her to read for Giselle, a sexually adventurous college student. “Nobody had ever taken the time with me to stop and say, ‘Hang on a minute, who is this person internally?’” Lynskey didn’t get the part (it went to Maggie Gyllenhaal) but wrote Newell a thank-you note, regardless. “It was just nice to have a good experience. Sometimes that’s enough.”

Lynskey and Kate Winslet in ‘Heavenly Creatures’ in 1994 (Rex Features)

Lynskey’s career so far has been punctuated with canonically queer titles, chief among them Natasha Lyonne’s pepto-pink cult classic But I’m a Cheerleader (1999). There was Heavenly Creatures as well as a recurring role in The L Word. Yellowjackets, too, has been praised as the “queerest show on TV right now”. Someone once asked Lynskey whether perhaps she was playing too many gay people. Their subtext being that yes, she was. “I was like, ‘What?’” she laughs. “There are so few gay characters in the world. It’s not like I’m going to be able to exclusively play gay people. There’s just not enough material. It’s always been strange to me that people have those concerns.”

Queerness was never a taboo in the Lynskey household. “I was always a person who was exploring my sexuality even before Heavenly Creatures,” she says. “I always thought I could be anything!” A laugh erupts from Lynskey as she recalls how her mother would always question her and her siblings over whether they were gay. “She always wanted a gay child. It was always something that was not just on the table but she would say, ‘Do you think maybe…?’ And so I was like, ‘Yeah, maybe!’ I was always exploring it.” And how does she feel about her status as a gay icon a la Jennifer Coolidge? Lynskey beams in response. “Doesn’t everybody want to be loved by gay people? I feel like heterosexuals are not always so discerning. This feels like more of an achievement.”

In February, one irate person criticised her involvement in The Last of Us as “homosexual agenda-pushing”. Lynskey responded aptly and hilariously: “OMG yes let me push that homosexual agenda just by showing up!” She is quick with a clapback. “Well, I ignore a lot,” she says when I ask what prompts her to engage. “I was a shy kid, kind of bullied and I didn’t know how to stand up for myself. All I knew to do was double down on being a weirdo and make them even more freaked out by me. Now, I just don’t like it. I don’t like people being mean.” Would her younger self be proud of her now? “I think so. Little weird me would be like, ‘Oh my goodness!’” Lynskey would like to clarify, though, that most comments she receives online are very kind. She is the sort to dwell on the good.

Clea DuVall, Lynskey and Natasha Lyonne in 1999’s ‘But I’m a Cheerleader’ (Alamy)

Lynskey recently recounted how she had been body shamed by someone in the Yellowjackets production team. She is careful to clarify today that it was one singular person at fault. “I feel like sometimes it’s been made out to be a cultural thing, but it was literally one time,” she says. The show’s co-creator, Ashley Lyle, wrote Lynskey an email after she learned what happened. “I’m going to keep it forever,” she says. “Ashley said how proud she was to have created a show where there is a regular-sized woman who is in a love triangle with two hot guys. She said that if she had seen something like this when she was a teenager, it would have changed the trajectory of her life. She said that they love me, and they love what I look like.”

Lynskey is very loved online, too. The internet’s affection increased tenfold earlier this month after her appearance with Ritter on The Drew Barrymore Show went viral. Her husband had opened up about struggling with alcoholism during the early days of their relationship. It’s a heart-pinching moment and completely romantic. Lynskey tells me now “there was not always a light at the end of the tunnel”. They even had a goodbye party for their relationship once. “We called it a goodbye party, but it was just the two of us locked in a house for a weekend trying to get it out of our systems.” It didn’t work. Within a fortnight, they were back in touch. “Things were crazy for a while. It got a lot easier when my husband got sober, which I’m so proud of him for, but we were not two people who were ready for a relationship at all.” Maybe it was their unborn daughter, she muses, out in the universe willing them to keep going. “We were at a bad time in our lives, but I’m so grateful to have found him.” As always, Lynskey finds the silver lining.

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