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Melanie Lynskey.

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Melanie Lynskey on Playing Christopher Abbott’s Older Woman and What She Knows About Dating

Since her striking debut in Heavenly Creatures, Melanie Lynskey has crafted a career largely out of quiet-but-powerful supporting roles. Now she's playing the quiet-but-powerful lead in this week's Hello, I Must Be Going. The movie follows a thirtysomething divorcée (Lynskey) who mopes around her parents' Connecticut home — until! — she meets a hot 19-year-old (Christopher Abbott), and starts making out with him, lots. We spoke with the New Zealand–born actress about on-set playlists, Twitter, and the awkwardness of dating.

This movie is sort of sad, yet sort of hopeful. What draws you to that combination so often?
I like to play the grey areas in life — that’s the most uncomfortable place to be. Nobody likes to be in that in-between state where there don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s a lot of tension in that, and a lot of stuff to play with — where it’s uncomfortable and awkward and sad and scary.

If something scares you, is that a good sign you should do it?
For me, it’s more if something clicks emotionally. The interesting thing about acting is using all your own stuff and having some kind of personal catharsis while you’re working. So I understand that, but I don’t have the impulse like, “Oh, I’ve never played this kind of Scottish drug addict ... "

Is there a secret to onscreen crying?
I’m not one of those people who can cry on cue. If I have to cry in an audition I’m like, “Okay, let me see what I can do.” But when I’m working, I always have an iPod with me, and it usually turns out that one particular song will become my theme song. So every movie I’ve done I have a particular song I keep going back to that puts me in the right emotional place. For Win Win it was the Pixies’ “Gouge Away,” for whatever reason. For this movie I had two songs because half the time I had to be crying and emotional and feeling horrible about myself, and then half the time I had to be in this romantic ecstasy. So I had “Let Down,” that Radiohead song, and then my happy song was “Running Up That Hill,” by Kate Bush, because it’s very sexy.

You share an awkward first date in the movie with real-life husband Jimmi Simpson. Did you ever have any dating experiences where it was that awkward a mismatch?
Yeah. But we don’t really date a lot in New Zealand. You usually just go out with a gang of people and then you end up going home with someone if you like them. [laughs] It’s a little looser in New Zealand than it is here.

I think that’s the way a lot of guys would prefer it.
I prefer it, too. It’s a lot nicer to just hang out and say, “Well, I like you, do you want to do this or not?” Dating is so uncomfortable. When I first came [to Los Angeles] I got asked out by an actor who called my agent and asked to take me on a date. And he was super-cute, so I said yes. I guess he’d seen me across the room at a party or something. But it was a little awkward, and the whole thing was too weird. I said, “I’m not cut out for this.”

You’re on Twitter. Was taking a more public face via social media an easy decision?
It felt weird. Not that anybody cares or is about to impersonate me, but some friends of ours had people pretending to be them so initially I was like, Let me just get my name, then maybe I’ll see what this is like. Then it became fun, and then I got addicted. And I’ve developed friendships on Twitter, people that I then met in life because we had an online relationship, like, “Oh, are you also at this film festival? Let’s get a drink.”

Christopher Abbott plays a very different kind of guy in this than he does in Girls. He's still a sweet guy, but he at least isn't a total pushover. Have you seen the show?
Girls had not yet been on television when we started working. He’d done a lot of theater [but] I hadn’t seen him. There was an actor who was supposed to do it (Chronicle’s Dane DeHaan), and we had done the reading together and had a great chemistry. But he had to drop out, and everybody went into a crazy panic. Then Todd sent me [Christopher’s] audition, and I just started crying while I was watching it, over how great he was and the relief that I felt. I was like, “If we can get this person then our movie is fine. Here’s somebody who’s legitimately amazing.” Later, when Chris told me he was doing the show with [Lena Dunham] I was like, “That’s awesome, she has a show?” And then it really became something that people responded to, which makes me excited for the world.

Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images