Melanie Lynskey was 15 when the producer and screenwriter Fran Walsh came to the lunchroom at New Plymouth Girls’ High School in New Zealand. She and Peter Jackson were going into production for their film, Heavenly Creatures, but hadn’t settled on an actor to play Pauline Parker — one half of the infamous matricidal pair of Christchurch teens in 1954. They had already found a young Kate Winslet to play Juliet Hulme, the glamorous, imperious foreigner, who kindles Pauline’s wild imagination. Lynskey, dark-haired, pale, shy, and a little bit goth, looked and felt the part. Like her character, she wanted to get out of this town, too. After the audition, Lynskey hung out at the cemetery with her friend Suzy who assured her she got the role. “I was like, don’t be ridiculous,” she recalls.
But Suzy was right, and Heavenly Creatures went on to premiere at the 1994 Venice Film Festival where it won the Silver Lion. It introduced Winslet to the world and established Jackson as a filmmaker to watch. For Lynskey, the movie came and went. Over the next three decades, she had to find her own way past damaging Hollywood ideas about women and their bodies as well as her own self-doubt and eating disorder. Slowly, that has changed. Her best roles often contain that seed of ferocity in Heavenly Creatures: a demure facade masking a roiling interior self, from Sundance indies like I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore to the recent TV hit Yellowjackets, where she plays a suburban mom with a potentially cannibal past.
“I don’t remember a time before food was the enemy,” Lynskey tells me at her home in Los Angeles. She is making dinner for her three-year-old daughter Kahi: sliced cucumber, pasta, and “tofu dip-a-dip” — pan-fried rectangles of tofu she can dip into a peanut sauce. (Kahi is in her own play kitchen making a “stew” out of plastic bananas and crabs.) “My number one thing is that I don’t want my daughter to question herself,” she continues. “It’s important to me that she knows who she is and she likes who she is.”
What was growing up in New Plymouth like?
New Plymouth has always been very beautiful. It’s on the coast. Black sand beaches. There’s a huge mountain. But it’s quite isolated. They almost didn’t go there when they were casting for Heavenly Creatures because it was such an annoying drive. And there’s nothing by it. It was quite quiet growing up. I knew a lot of depressed kids, and there were suicides. It felt like it was the suicide capital of New Zealand for a while?
I was kind of a goth. I liked how it looked. But I wasn’t that depressed or anything. I just dyed my hair black and I wore lacy black things. We used to hang out in the cemetery next to our school. Some people were so hardcore that The Cure was basically pop music. They listened to Skinny Puppy and stuff I had a harder time with. We would hang out with these boys, and they had so many opinions about music. They would just sit there talking, and we’d sit there with our little glasses of wine. One day, I was like, I fucking have opinions about music, I’m gonna start sharing them. It was a very liberating day for me. I said, “I hate this song.” They were like, “Well, this song’s a masterpiece.” I was like, “It’s just not.”
What song was it?
I feel bad saying it, because it’s not a band that’s successful anymore.
So how did you get cast for Heavenly Creatures?
Peter Jackson had all these professional actresses on hold because he couldn’t make his mind up between a few different people — which is why Fran Walsh went driving around New Zealand looking for somebody. They didn’t want to just hand the script out to people or explain what they were doing. They just said, one character’s like this, the other character’s like this. They had us go in pairs and improvise scenes, which was very easy for me. There was a drama class in my town that was taught by a woman called Dawn Ather, who would just sit there and chain smoke and watch kids do dramatic improv.
What was it like meeting Peter Jackson?
He played me Kate Winslet’s audition tape, and he said, “This is a professional actress we’ve cast from England, and this is how good you have to be.” I mean, it was so intimidating.
Do you feel like that was mean?
No, I don’t think he was trying to be mean. He’d seen this improvised thing I’d done in the lunchroom. They weren’t very far out from shooting — he just wanted to show me what the stakes are. I had one day to do this audition. He was also excited. Like, he’d found Kate Winslet, you’re gonna be excited! So I was like, okay, let me work with this acting coach and see what I can do.
The real-life Parker-Hulme murder, in which the two teenaged girls kill Pauline’s mother, Honorah is infamous in New Zealand. Did your parents have any objections to the material?
No. Nobody was with me when we were shooting. I was there by myself. I had an apartment, and I was working adult hours. I don’t remember anyone being like, “Oh, she’s gotta get off the clock.”
SAG rules did not apply.
No, I don’t think any rules applied. It was great. But I’m the oldest of five. So there was a lot going on. Kate and I would hang out, and sometimes we would have a bottle of dessert wine or Bailey’s, which is what we would drink ‘cause we were teenagers. We were like, mmm, delicious.
Was there something about the darkness of the material that attracted you?
So much. Can you imagine, you’re this isolated goth kid who’s like, I’m gonna be an actress. And everyone’s like, Are you joking? That’s not real. Come up with something else. It was incredible to learn how to find an emotion and then how to come back to yourself. It felt like magic.
I remember the night shoots. People were yawning around me, and I was like, This is crazy — it’s the middle of the night! We’re up, we’re shooting something! The most beautiful thing sometimes is seeing everybody finish the last little bit of their job before they say action: the clapper loader, the gaffer making sure everything’s fine, the prop person resetting. Seeing everybody coming together to make this thing happen. It felt huge to me.
Did your relationship with Kate mimic your characters?
It was very sisterly. She was a big sister. Because she’d been doing it for a long time, she really wanted to be there for me and help me learn. Sometimes she would come on days when she wasn’t working to be an extra coach for me. Sometimes it was really lovely, and sometimes I was like, “I’m supposed to be missing you. I don’t want to see you in the corner of my eye.” But it was really sweet.
So it was like the characters where it’s a little obsessive and they never want to be apart?
It was a bit like that. When we were shooting the murder scene, we slept over with each over every night. Usually we would go home and shake it off. But we stayed a bit crazy for three days and didn’t really come out of it. Even when she left, we talked on the phone every other week. For a while, she was living at Emma Thompson’s, and I would call. Emma Thompson would pick up. I’d say, “Hello, it’s Mel.” She’d say, “Oh, hi Nell.” She always thought I was saying Nell. I didn’t correct her, it’s Emma Thompson. I’ll be Nell. But yeah, we stayed very close for a long time.
And do you speak now, or…
It’s not like we don’t speak. But we have not been in touch. It’s just very hard to be so famous, like… she got very, very busy. I was in Los Angeles, and one time she came and we didn’t see each other. And then I stopped knowing if she was in Los Angeles. It just dropped off. The last time I saw her was at the premiere of Away We Go in 2009, because she was married to the director, Sam Mendes, at the time.
What happened after Heavenly Creatures premiered?
Everybody was very careful that I didn’t get carried away. That I didn’t think, Oh, now I’m just gonna get to be an actor and do whatever I want. Everyone was like, Okay, so now you go back to high school, and then you go to university, and then you get a job.
The producers, Peter, and his wife. People did not want to be responsible for ruining my life. It’s difficult in New Zealand. There are a lot of people who do a movie and then don’t do another movie for years — or ever. So I understood it. But at the same time, I was 16 when we finished shooting, and part of me was like, Did I do a bad job? Because everyone was so excited for Kate.
The premiere at the Venice Film Festival was a really amazing night. Kate and I were very emotional. It felt crazy to have a response like that. People were so into the movie and very kind to us. Harvey Weinstein was so excited to see Kate. He introduced her to people, like, “This is the next big thing.” To me he was just like, “Hi.” It was so dismissive. I was like, I think I did a bad job. I’m not the kind of person these people are looking for.
The movie came out. I did not take naturally to doing press. It was overwhelming. I wanted to have a conversation with people, and that’s not really how it works. I was paired with somebody who is very confident and good at that stuff. Every step of the way, I kept going, oh, I’m not… good at this. So many agents wanted to sign Kate. She was getting scripts, she was getting movie offers; it was such an exciting thing to see. I felt proud of her because she wanted it so badly and also wasn’t questioning whether it would happen for her. I remember her saying, “What are you gonna spend your money on?” ‘Cause we made this little amount of money for the movie — like 20,000 New Zealand dollars. Which was huge! I said, “I’m keeping this money forever. This may never happen again.” She said, “More money’s going to come in. More jobs are going to happen.” And she was right. But after Venice, there was nothing. No, “Would you be interested in this part, or I’m an agent who wants to represent you.” I kept getting reminded I was not the things you needed to be.
What were those things?
Thin, confident, pretty. Mostly thin. There was a certain pleasant energy they wanted people to have. Unchallenging. And I wasn’t successful doing that.
When did you stop trying to be those things?
Well, I met a boyfriend, Andrew Howard, who helped me so much with my eating disorder on the set of The Cherry Orchard. The closest thing I’ve had to an intervention was when I was living with him, and he got really intense about my eating issues. He tried to stop me from monitoring my own eating and talked to me about how thin I was. Of course, in my mind, I thought he was nuts. I’d never had anybody care that much. I’d never had anybody be like, This is really painful. The people I had confided in were usually people who also had eating issues, so it would become about swapping tips.
Like early internet anorexic-inspo forums.
Yeah. I had eating issues from the age of 12. When we were young teenagers, like 13, my friend and I used to go to the library. It was very hard to get magazines in New Plymouth. But they would have international Vogue. We would go there and rip out pages of the magazines of the skinniest, most beautiful women. Sorry, library! They were all over my room. I thought you were supposed to have a gap between your thighs. I became obsessed with that.
Were your parents not concerned?
My mother has a lot of issues around food and was anorexic for a lot of my growing up. It was hard for her to look at my body objectively. I think she just saw what she saw in herself.
Was his quasi-intervention helpful?
It changed my life. I stopped throwing up, mostly. It took a while. But that was a big one. I had, for a very long time, been on this diet that was basically 800 calories a day, and if I ate anything over 800 calories, I would throw up. I was never bingey. Sometimes I’d be starving, and I’d have another teacup of Special K. Then I’d be like, Well, now I gotta throw it up.
I was auditioning for the plain girl parts — not the cute lead — for any teen movie you can think of from the ’90s. So I was like, Well, they’re telling me I look like this. Even though my own life was evidence to the contrary. I never had an issue attracting anybody. I was always “very popular,” as my dad called it. I wasn’t sitting around on a Friday like, Nobody wants me. But in my professional life, I was viewed a particular way.
How did you start working in Hollywood in the years after Heavenly Creatures?
It was a couple of years later. Susan Smith called me in New Zealand and said she wanted to represent me. She started to send me things. She asked me to make a self-tape. I didn’t know what that meant, and I was too scared to ask. So I made a tape with my little brother for The Craft. That was the first audition I did. I put a lamp under my face because I thought it would give me the most light. It looked so crazy. My brother was doing the lines, and I thought he sounded like a kid, so I said, “Don’t bother doing them, I’ll imagine them, and I’ll just say my lines.” Susan could not stop laughing when she got it. She was in hysterics. Then I went to the university in Wellington, and these lovely casting directors started making audition tapes for me. So the quality of my tapes improved tremendously. They made my tape for the 1996 movie The Crucible, and it was after that I got flown out to audition with Daniel Day-Lewis. I didn’t get it, but it was a big confidence boost.
How much has money been a part of your decision-making?
Not very much. This is the first time ever in my career I’ve made an okay amount of money. Like in actor terms. People think actors are millionaires, but it’s not the case. But I’ve been comfortable and fine. I put a down payment on a house when I was 27. I had enough money to do that, which was wonderful. I never spent money I didn’t have. I’ve never had fancy cars or other homes. I feel grateful I’ve been able to pay my bills.
That attitude can be more freeing.
There were times when I would be offered things where I would’ve made so much money. TV stuff, especially. It’s hard to say no to guaranteed financial freedom, but I always did. It was something internally, where I was like, Ugh, I feel too weird about it.
In 2003, you joined the cast of Two and a Half Men as Rose, the stalkerish neighbor of Charlie Sheen’s Charlie Harper. You were a regular on the show for two seasons before switching to guest stints. How did you get out of your series-regular contract?
It was the first pilot season I could go out for because I had just gotten my green card. I had no money. I was with an agency that didn’t seem very excited about me. They were sending me out for everything. It didn’t feel like there was somebody shaping a career. It felt like I was on a list of a particular type, and if a role came up, I would audition. So I went out for every single pilot. I got cast as a guest star on Two and a Half Men and I just thought, Do a sitcom — that seems like fun. When the show got picked up, they asked me to be a regular; that was a harder decision. But everyone around me was like, Wow, this is great, congratulations. So I decided to try it on. Also it was nice to be getting a paycheck. It wasn’t huge; it was literally the least they could possibly pay me, according to SAG. I did one season, and I thought, Oh, this is not for me. It felt very hard knowing that most of my year was gonna be this.
I wasn’t in every episode, but I couldn’t do any other work. At the end of the first season, I had a conversation with Chuck Lorre where I told him I wanted to leave. The show was a huge hit, and he just said, “Please don’t. You have this story line and that story line coming up next season.” He really felt excited. Then the next season happened — all of the story lines happened in one episode!
Around that time, I saw Brokeback Mountain. It’s not like I thought I could get cast in it, but I was like, I didn’t audition for this. I’m not in a conversation around movies like this. I’m not doing things I want to do. I said I needed to be able to do other things. And they really tried to talk me out of it. Finally, we came to an agreement where I could come and go. A couple of people were like, You could be a millionaire. I get it. We’re going into the third season, and that’s the time you can ask for a raise. But it didn’t matter. Around that time, I did Shattered Glass. I loved that movie. I had a tiny part. I was with all these great actors, and I believed in the story. Watching it at the premiere, I thought, This is the only way I want to feel watching something I’m in.
What were the parts you kept getting sent out for?
A lot of best-friend parts, which I never booked because I wasn’t good at it. And then a lot of chubby friends. I said to the agency, I have a real problem being a size six — which is what I was at the time — and playing a chubby friend. I hate that these roles exist. I think it’s damaging. It’s weird for little girls to watch this movie and be like, Oh, she’s supposed to be the fat one.
After Two and a Half Men, they would still send me out on a lot of TV things. It was confusing to me. I had worked so hard to get out of my contract, and now you’re trying to put me on a worse show. Wouldn’t I have just stayed on Two and a Half Men and eventually made a ton of money? I felt like nobody was paying attention. Nobody cared enough.
Did you find a new agent?
Yeah. Emily Deschanel, my dear friend, was like, “My agent, Rhonda Price, would love to meet you. She thinks you’re great.” It had been a long time since I felt like anybody else thought I was great. My agency had just sent me some script where there was the sad character sitting in the corner eating chocolate bars while the other girls are getting asked to dance. It was some period movie. That was when I called Emily and said, “Okay, I’m going to talk to some other people.”
Rhonda was very passionate about me. My initial meeting with her was probably like, “I’m sorry. You don’t want to do this. Nobody wants me.” I was really down on myself. But she was excited, and I took a leap of faith. I signed with her in 2007, and she was like, “You just have to wait until it’s something worthy.” That was very hard for me. After a week of representing me, she said, “It’s very easy to get you into the room, by the way. People want you to come and audition.” I was like, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” She said, “I just have to make a call.” So she started making calls and I started to audition for things I liked.
In Hollywood, so much is about managing perception, which often comes from the people surrounding you — agents, managers, publicist. Were there other instances when you felt like someone saw you in a fuller way than before?
I auditioned for the Ginnifer Goodwin part in Mona Lisa Smile for the director Mike Newell. It was sweet, quirky. I read it once, and he said, “I think you’re more right for this other part, Giselle Levy.” She was sexy, confident, and smart. I don’t know if I’d ever auditioned for a part like that. He sent me away with the sides, and I had to come back in and read this other part.
I felt seen in a way I had not been before. My memory is that Maggie Gyllenhaal got offered that movie, and she also got offered Shattered Glass, and she got to choose which one she wanted to do. I wrote Mike Newell a thank-you letter when I didn’t get the part. I don’t know if he ever got it. But I said, “Thank you for taking time and seeing me.” It was a big moment where I realized that maybe I don’t have to be pigeonholed. Maybe more things are possible.
You did these two canonically queer films early on in your career: Heavenly Creatures and But I’m a Cheerleader. Did you ever question your sexuality when you were growing up?
I did. I always wondered if maybe I was a little bit gay. It was a gray area. I made out with my girlfriends all the time. Not for boys to be like, This is hot. Everyone was making out, so we would make out just for fun. It was never a weird thing. When we were doing Heavenly Creatures, I remember Kate being so nervous about kissing a girl and I was like, Oh, interesting. I don’t know why I was so naïve about the fact that some people might be uncomfortable.
And you weren’t?
No, it was like the tenth time I’d kissed a girl. I’m like, I’ve done this every weekend.
What was it like shooting those scenes?
Peter and Fran were always careful to say, “They are play acting with each other.” It wasn’t necessarily a lesbian relationship. I always wondered if it wasn’t possible to explore it further. It was just such a different time — 1950s, New Zealand — the concept of that would’ve been so outlandish. I wondered what the two of them felt about those intimate moments they had. Did they feel like it was sexual? In the movie, we weren’t playing like it was a sexual thing. It was a swoony moment when they got caught up in the drama and the romance of the friendship. I read an interview where Kate said somebody made a weird comment when we were filming, which I don’t remember.
Do you work on sets with intimacy coordinators now?
Just on Yellowjackets. It’s great. It’s good for everybody to talk about what their expectations are. Sometimes men can be more uncomfortable than women. It’s good for men to be able to have that conversation. On Yellowjackets, Peter Gadiot, who played my lover, wanted to be very specific about what was going to happen.
Did you tell the younger actors anything you felt you would’ve wanted to have known when you were that age?
I just said, “If you feel uncomfortable about anything or anybody, I’ll go to the producers for you. I’ll go with you if you want someone to go with you. I am here for any uncomfortable conversation. I’ll be your voice.”
Did you ever have people who helped you advocate for yourself on set when you were younger?
Anjelica Huston was amazing at looking out for me. I was really young and far away from home on Ever After. She was a dream for a young actor. Just someone who checks in and sees how you’re doing. She taught me so much about lighting and stuff I still don’t know. On the weekends, we would have these big dinner parties and drink too much and go to the local nightclub, and I would dance on the bar. It got really crazy. But so fun.
During your speech at the Critics’ Choice Awards, you thanked Celli, your nanny, as “the most important person.” Can you tell me about her?
She is the coolest person in the world. She’s only with us when we’re on location in Canada. She lives in Toronto. I met her during Mrs. America. I didn’t always have a nanny. It had just been me and Jason since Kahi was born. I thought I could hire babysitters, like an idiot. The business we’re in, the hours are so long and the days are so crazy. I was using an agency on days when I was working. I would say, “I need a nanny from 10 a.m to whatever.” And it was impossible. I’d be at work, and people would be like, “So, I need to leave at eight.” Or, “Oh, can I ask for a selfie with Cate Blanchett?” I was like, “I’m so sorry, but you can’t. She’s at work right now.”
At a certain point, Celli was assigned to me. The first day she was with me, we were doing a scene in a park. She was supposed to bring Kahi, and I hadn’t seen her. I looked at my phone, and I had a text from her that said, “I saw you were rolling, so I set up a little picnic behind the monitors, and we’re playing.” I turned around, and my child is just playing on a blanket with this beautiful woman who had all these toys and things for her. It looked like paradise. She had made it as easy as possible — just quietly doing the exact right thing. Kahi knew the whole alphabet when she was 16 months old because of Celli. This is going to make me cry. So I just hired her for the whole time. Production got her a room in the hotel, which was the Four Seasons in Toronto. I was like, If I’m not working, you’re not working. Go to the spa.
You were like, She’s the one.
She’s the one! On Mrs. America, Sarah Paulson got really intense with me. She was like, “You need to do whatever it takes. Bring Celli home with you.” I said, “I can’t. She’s Canadian. She has a life. She has quite a lot going on.” She said, “Do whatever it takes. I’ve never seen you so relaxed. I’ve never seen you like this.” ’Cause she’d just seen me losing my mind breastfeeding and trying to go back to work. I breastfed her for two years.
So after Mrs. America wrapped, you told your agent you didn’t want to do …
Anything, yeah. I was traumatized. It was so hard. I felt like a bad mother. I felt like a bad actor. I did not have a lot of support on that job, unfortunately. There were people scheduling, and the schedule would change. And I was like, “I don’t have someone to look after my child.” On Mrs. America, I had half a trailer, and we were all in there together. Sometimes it was Jason, a nanny, a baby. And I’d have to be preparing. One day, they brought in an extra AD to sit in the trailer with her. You can’t be free and concentrate when you’re not sure that everything’s okay.
Since then, my rules for working have been really intense.
What are they?
I need to be able to have my family with me. I asked to have another side of a trailer that could be a playroom for Kahi if she needed to nap or if Celli was in there with her.
I need to know about the schedule. The thing that was so appealing about Yellowjackets was they told me half the story line takes place in the ’90s, so there would be a younger actress playing young me. I was like, Half the story line does not involve me? Tell me more. You get one week on, one week off. To get a full week where I’m just being her mom, and then a week of really intense work — it’s a dream.
Are awards meaningful to you?
Honestly, I’m fiendish about watching award shows. They make me so happy. I love watching people give acceptance speeches. And I think it is really meaningful. It has not been a big part of my life. I haven’t been nominated for very many things. There’ve been a few times when people have been like, Oh, you’re going to be nominated for a Spirit Award for blah, blah, blah. And then I haven’t been. I’m more comfortable expecting that things are not going to happen.
Is that the New Zealand in you?
Yeah. [Laughs.] It’s how we all operate.
Do you still feel very much like a New Zealander? Or do you feel American?
I love living here, but I don’t feel very American. New Zealand is a more a feminist society, and I sometimes have to be like, Oh, right, things are different here. When I first came here, it was such a culture shock with dating. I was like, I think some of these dudes expect me to be a virgin. There was an expectation to be a nice girl. I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to have all these weird rules about how we see each other and waiting for someone to call.
And then, in New Zealand, there is not as much of a hierarchy in the workplace. It’s more of a sense that everybody’s in it together. You’re all working toward a common goal. There’s not this thing where the actor’s this precious being everybody has to tiptoe around. As an actor, sometimes people try to treat me in a way that makes me very uncomfortable. Like I’m this delicate thing: What do you need? What do you need?
You’re currently starring in the Hulu show Candy, based on the true story of Betty Gore, who was murdered by another suburban housewife named Candy. What drew you to the script?
I felt for Betty because so much of my life I’ve felt like I didn’t fit in. I didn’t know how to go up to a group of people and be confident and comfortable. I still don’t. There was so much of that. She was somebody who was struggling and just didn’t have the help she needed. The weirdest part about the trial was that the victim was basically put on trial. Person after person came to the witness stand and said, “Oh, she was kind of weird. She was awkward. Candy is so wonderful. Everyone loves Candy.” It became a popularity contest.
Did having a child change how you thought about playing Betty?
I think so. Because I really understand the thought of something happening to you or your child. You feel like your heart’s getting ripped out. Betty’s 11-month-old baby was in the house when she was murdered. It feels very accessible.
How did you name your child Kahi?
Kahikatea is her full name. It’s Māori. I had a feeling I wanted to give her a Māori name, but I wanted to be respectful because I’m Pakeha. I checked, and tree and flower names are okay. Kahikatea is a tree, and the roots find each other and help each other grow. It’s a very strong name. She had a tough birth. She wasn’t breathing when she was born. We were like, “That’s it. That’s her name.”