As co-stars in Hulu’s Castle Rock, Melanie Lynskey and Jane Levy seem like they were destined to be acting partners. But for the accident of timing, Levy would have fit right in among the ’90s alt-sorority of Lynskey, Chloë Sevigny, Clea DuVall, Natasha Lyonne, and the like, making queer indies and carving out their own definitions of cool. Lynskey came of age in a cinematic era of dark quirk, but from Heavenly Creatures to Ever After to Sweet Home Alabama to Togetherness to, yes, even Two and a Half Men, she’s an actress for all seasons, and as you track Levy’s career, she seems bound for a similarly dynamic future.
For the time being, these two actresses are residents of Maine’s most blighted fictional town, Castle Rock, where Lynskey plays Molly Strand, a clairvoyant real-estate agent with a pill habit, and Levy is Jackie Torrance, a local cab driver obsessed with her home’s macabre reputation. Now that Molly has been unmasked as actually dead — well, in one timeline at least — and Jackie has achieved her true potential by joining Castle Rock’s pantheon of murderers, Vulture sat down with both of them to talk about why they love each other, why Hollywood can be such a pain in the ass for women, and how TV is helping the industry raise its freak flag high.
You first worked together on I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, right?
Jane Levy: Do you want to know a funny piece of trivia? The first job I ever got, Melanie and I were going to work together. I was 20 years old and Melanie was going to play my mom, which is very Hollywood, because you would have to be 10 when you had me.
Melanie Lynskey: Well, 13.
JL: This was before Shameless, and I actually got the show while we were in pre-production for this movie. I dropped out of it to be in Shameless, and I remember calling my agent crying and being like, “What do you mean I can drop out of a project I signed up for?” And they were like, “Jane, this is Hollywood. It’s business. If they got Shameless, they would have dropped out of their movie, too.” And I was like, “Okay, I guess I’ll do it!”
So I Don’t Feel at Home was your fated reunion.
JL: While you were even saying that I was like, “How did I get to be sitting here with Melanie?” I just feel so lucky that I get to be friends with and work with her. I know it’s embarrassing, but I really mean it. She’s one of my favorite actors of all time. So we worked together on I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore and had the best time. I loved being a part of that movie. I love watching that movie.
ML: It was probably the greatest working experience of my life, that movie.
ML: I loved everybody so much, and [writer-director] Macon [Blair] is such a great collaborator. At first he was very specific with direction, which is not something that works with me. I really started to freeze up, and I just got brave and told him, “I feel so hemmed if I get this sort of feedback.” And he was like, “Dude, I don’t know what I’m doing. I read a book. It said actors like it if you tell them what to do. I don’t know. What do you want?”
JL: He’s one of my favorite people ever.
ML: Some male directors get very defensive if you’re like, “Can I just do my thing and then you can come in and help me?” It’s very difficult, that conversation.
JL: I think that Macon is one of the most feminist directors. His roles are written for people, men or women. The part I play in that movie, I don’t think typically is a role that a woman would play. And you know that he wrote the part for Melanie.
No, I did not.
ML: Yeah. It was lovely. We had a Skype and he was like, “I really want you to do it, but you know how these things are.” I was like, “I know you’re going to have to offer it to famous people. I know how it works.”
JL: I have a friend who’s a producer who showed me a list of the finance-able stars, and it’s shocking. At each age range, there’s like actually five people, and I’m like, “Oh, this is why those people get cast in everything, because they are the five people that are finance-able to the foreign markets.” It’s a really strange system.
Both of you are respected for your independent sensibilities, but does it ever feel exhausting to be paid in admiration when these tiny lists of finance-able actresses exist?
ML: I mean, sometimes it works out and that’s amazing. Macon eventually took his script to Netflix and they were like, “Who’s your dream cast?” He said me and Elijah, and they were like, “Done.” He came out of the meeting and called my agent and was like, “I didn’t know it could be so easy!” So sometimes it’s wonderful. That it works out ever feels miraculous.
JL: Same, but I do spend a lot of time upset. The job of being an actor is being told no all the time and being disappointed a lot. At the same time, I am also extremely grateful that I get to work as an actor. Even when you do get a job, I never feel like it’s actually going to happen until the first day I’m on set, because so many times it falls apart. Even after you did all the crazy hard work to get the job. It’s kind of a miracle that I even got two jobs, and then three.
Especially for women in creative industries, it’s so hard to reach that place where you aren’t just as good as your last job. Like, your body of work can stand on its own and you can trust more work will come.
JL: A hundred percent, but I say no to some things sometimes.
ML: It’s still hard to say no. It’s really hard.
JL: I have to say, though, it sounds like I have a lot of control over my career, but I feel like I have very little. I’m always struggling with myself where I’m like, “Give yourself some credit, you did make some of this stuff happen,” but at the same time I think these are the roles that come to me for a reason. “Why did these creators think of me for this part? What is it in me that I can bring to this person?” And through that, I’ve learned a lot about myself as a person and as a performer.
As actors, do you feel like you have access to better material than you did earlier in your careers?
JL: I’ve only been a working actor for eight years. I feel like I don’t have enough history to be able to say whether it’s changed anything for me.
ML: I’ve been doing it for 25 years. That’s a depressing sentence. But yeah, I do think it is different. I started out in the ’90s and there was such a prescribed look for women. There were ingenues and character actresses and everybody was very concerned with what box you are going to fit into, and it really freaked me out and upset me. I was always like, “I’m a character actress, I guess. It sounds like the most interesting of all the options.” And then people were like, “Well, don’t say that! Then you won’t get to play the lead!” It was so bizarre, and now it does feel different.
Do you feel like those prescriptions have loosened a bit?
ML: Definitely. I also had a very old-school agent when I started out, who had been around for a long time and really believed in telling it like it was. So I believed it was going to be difficult for me for my whole life, because of what I look like. She was nice about it. She’d just seen a lot.
That just makes me so mad!
ML: I know. It pisses me off, too, but I also was like, “Fuck that!” I just decided I was never going to take a part if somebody said something derogatory about my body or my face or anything like that. It was very important to me to never play the fat friend or whatever, which is a role that kept coming to me over and over — even when I was anorexic, basically. I just was like, “How do I sidestep this thing that people are trying to put me in?”
Jane, it seems like you didn’t arrive in Hollywood trying to walk that ingenue path. Was that a deliberate choice?
JL: I feel really blessed to have grown up with a mother who never, ever taught me that any part of my value had to do with what I looked like. This is obviously a career that’s in a visual medium. It’s all about the human face, but I am not interested in roles that are going to necessarily make me look good. I also have a kind of a perverted sensibility, so that’s why I’ve veered towards horror films and comedies and things that push boundaries.
I read an old interview where you said, “I’m also a little bit obsessed with morbidity and darker stories and fantasy and the underworld. I’m into secrets. I’m into gossip, and I’m in the dark side.”
ML: [Laughs.] You are my favorite!
JL: I mean, those things are true!
What was it about Castle Rock that grabbed you guys by the guts?
JL: I did do this really dorky intention-setting thing at the beginning of last year when I was feeling dejected and didn’t feel like I was playing the parts that I wanted to. Someone was like, “Why don’t you write down your dream roles?” I am a huge fan of Alexander Payne, and Citizen Ruth and Election are two of my favorite movies of all time. So I was like, “I want to play Tracy Flick.” When they sent me the Castle Rock script, it said that my character was Tracy Flick meets Ed Gein.
As in the serial killer?
JL: Yes. It’s such a funny combo, and I was like, “This is exactly my sensibility.” If only Jackie was, like, fucking her teacher in the TV show. It would be that much better.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.