Melanie Lynskey on Playing Gender-Neutral Characters, Having Her Sundance Hit Go Straight to Netflix, and Her Own Experience of Being Robbed

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Melanie Lynskey is known for her compelling dramatic turns in indie films like Happy Christmas, as well as HBO’s short-lived series Togetherness. Now she’s the lead in Macon Blair’s I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance ahead of its debut on Netflix on February 24. In the genre-bending film, Lynskey plays Ruth, a woman who gets robbed and teams up with her neighbor (Elijah Wood) on a mission to make people stop being assholes. In a conversation with Vulture shortly before the movie’s Netflix debut, the actress discussed how the events of the film mirror her own life, her issues with the New Zealand media, and what made this character feel so different.

What is it like to have a film premiere at Sundance and have it be out in the world a month later? That’s a new experience.
Yeah! It’s sort of strange. I mean, it’s super-exciting because everybody is coming up and saying, “Oh I heard your movie is so good, I can’t wait to see it.” And I’m like, “Well you can see it on Friday.” And they’re like, “What?!” It’s really nice, especially because it’s premiering everywhere so I can tell my family in New Zealand and my friends. It’s been a very nice experience.

Did you feel at all that your character Ruth had that kind of Ellen Ripley in Alien vibe where it could’ve been written for a man? With Ruth’s story that seems plausible; it’s not about her as a woman but about her as a human being who is pissed off and wants people to stop being assholes.
It’s interesting because when I read the script for the first time I asked Macon that. I said, “Was this ever written for a man?” And he said, “No, I just thought it would be more interesting for a woman.” Initially I wondered if he’d written it for himself because there was something so genderless about it. As a woman it’s kind of weird to read a female character who is not identified with a man in any way — until she gets her little sidekick — she’s just existing by herself in the world. It really carried on in the costumes they chose and the way she wore her hair. It’s all just really utilitarian. She’s dressing like a dude. What’s the most comfortable, what’s the easiest, how can I be anonymous? It’s not like she’s not wanting people to look at her, but it’s this strange not caring about that that was really exciting.

In a lot of horror movies or thrillers, women are often dragged into danger. Ruth seeks it out. Did you think about the symbolism of that at all?
I really loved that. It was so amazing to me that she was the protagonist and that she was really getting the ball rolling. She doesn’t hear anything from the police and she’s like, Fuck it, I need to act here, I need something to happen here. The ferocity with which she went about it was really interesting; I did really like that. Even when she is dragged into danger later in the movie, she stands up for herself and she’s like, Here’s what I want! Every aspect of it was turned on its head a little bit in ways that kept surprising me.

Have you been robbed before?
Yeah, actually. My ex-husband [actor Jimmi Simpson] and me, when we were living together, our basement was robbed. It was right after we had gotten engaged, so people had given us all this Champagne. Also the basement was where he played video games. Every time he got an acting job, he’d buy himself a video game, so it was years of work. I was like, “Well that feels horrible but we’ll put a new door up.” And he felt so violated and he had a very Ruth-y response to it where he just wanted to find who did it and hold them responsible. I was just so scared and I wanted to leave them alone. He has a very strong sense of right and wrong and he found out who did it, but then I didn’t let him confront them.

How’d you guys find out who did it?
We befriended some local kids and they told us.

Amazing. This is kind of an action role for you. That’s not something we typically see you do.
It was so fun. The thing I loved about it is that Ruth’s life is small before she gets involved in this. She doesn’t move a lot, she drives to work, she drives home. And there’s something [to that] in my own life: I get depressed and the thing I’ve found to combat it is getting physical and exercising, boxing, spinning. So it’s wonderful that as her energy shifts, she’s feeling more focused and more driven — being physical as she’s running through the forest. It really helped me because that’s a connection that I have in my body as a way to have that change happen within myself when I’m feeling kinda down. That connection was fun. Though, at a certain point, it gets not fun when you’ve been rowing for half a day, but it’s also you feel kind of cool.

What was it like to have Elijah Wood be your sidekick? Was that rattail fake?
It was a fake one. It looked very real. It’s funny because he’s an extremely well-dressed man in real life, so it was really funny to see him in that costume. It was great. He’s such a positive force and his eyes just radiate this energy and hope and light. It was a very nice counterpoint to my energy, and I think Ruth and Tony are so funny together.

Much of the reception about the film has been that this title is perfect for the mood some people are feeling after the election.
It’s interesting because I look back to when we were making the movie and we were choosing the title and this was the one that Elijah and I felt very strongly about. Elijah actually found an old copy of the record I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore and gave it to me as a wrap gift. We were fully committed to the title. That was a time of such optimism and positivity, and we thought we were going to have the first female president. It just seemed like a beautiful title for this film of how Ruth was feeling and it’s a really unfortunate shift that’s happened since then.

Have you ever thought about moving back to New Zealand?
I really don’t. I love New Zealand. Ever since I moved here there’s been a part of my heart that always misses it and I will always wish I could live there again. I would love to be a rich person so I could buy a house and go back and forth. I just did this annoying interview with a New Zealand newspaper and I guess they decided that I wanted to move back to New Zealand and so they wrote this whole story that was like ‘Melanie Lynskey Wants Out of Donald Trump’s America.’ I was like, “I did not say that,” and he kept putting things in parentheses in my quotes to make it like that. He was like, “Do you ever think of moving back?” and I was like, “I mean, every day I think about moving back,” and he inserted lately to make it sound like that. I was so annoyed. New Zealand, get it together. But the opposite is true. More than ever I want to stay here and become a citizen.

You also had two movies at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, Folk Hero & Funny Guy and Little Boxes, which was just picked up for distribution. Is there anything people should know about them?
I haven’t seen [Little Boxes], which I feel terrible about. I thought the script was very timely and beautiful. It’s just a story about a family in the suburbs, and it’s a very simple little story. The woman who wrote it, it’s about her own life, and it really resonated with me when I read it, but I haven’t seen it.

What about Folk Hero & Funny Guy, have you seen that one?
No, I missed it! I’m in one scene of that movie and Jeff [Grace], the director, showed me the scene, which is this very long scene that I have with Wyatt Russell who is one of the most charming and sweetest humans of all time. So, I’ve only seen that one scene, but I thought it was so sweet. I want to see that movie.

I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to ask you a personal question. Vulture wrote up the other day that you just got engaged to actor Jason Ritter. Are you excited about that?
I’m super-excited. He’s a very sweet, very funny, and very talented person, and we thought the Vulture article was very cute. It was very funny to us.

Melanie Lynskey on Gender-Neutral Characters, Being Robbed