Melanie Lynskey's Quiet Confidence
"I just want to get to know people. I want to hear everything. I guess I'm fascinated by humans."
Melanie Lynskey would get nominated for two Emmy Awards in the time between the date this interview was conducted and its publish date. Both of her Emmy-nominated series, Yellowjackets (for which she’s earned a Best Actress in a Drama Series nod) and The Last of Us (Best Guest Actress in a Drama Series), are up for Best Drama Series. She also recently starred as Betty Gore opposite Jessica Biel’s Candy Montgomery in Hulu’s Candy, a dramatized account of the real-life murder of an elementary school teacher by her friend and neighbor. Perhaps you’re like me, and you’ve seen all three.
Or, perhaps you’re really like me and also know and regard her for her roles in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, Ever After, But I'm a Cheerleader, Coyote Ugly, Sweet Home Alabama, Flags of Our Fathers, Away We Go, Up in the Air, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, or her most recent role in Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up. I love Melanie in everything she’s in; she no sweat, piece ‘a cake commands that sort of adoration. For me, it began with But I’m a Cheerleader, a teen rom com in the vein of John Waters that both satirized conversion therapy camps and gave a sincere — and ultimately even a little saccharine (in a good way!) — look at a burgeoning young lesbian romance. Lynskey played Hilary Vandermueller, one of the few campers to shrewdly choose abstinence as an excuse to circumvent same-sex intercourse. A true progressive mind! My gay, extremely online brain immediately after typing that: “Where’s her spin-off?”
But she’s not beloved soley for her acting. From her Drew Barrymore impression to thanking her nanny during her Critic’s Choice win to proving to be the ultimate troll annihilator to rightly declaring, “The homosexual agenda should be pushed at all times” during a recent interview, Lynskey has proven just as watchable in a role she doesn’t even need to rehearse for — the role of herself! I’m grateful to have spent this time with Melanie, an actor who proves the potential of never seeking the limit.
(Note: this interview took place before the SAG-AFTRA strike.)
You and I share something in common. I heard you articulate it during an interview and it pinged really loudly for me; you spoke about not liking compliments.
I think I don't know how to receive it. I love giving compliments, so I do understand people wanting to give compliments. I think it’s so lovely.
I find them challenging because the only real follow-up that it invites is “thank you,” so it doesn't really have a natural place where we go from there. It's sort of just like, “Oh, great. Thank you.” And then: What's next? That's my issue with them. I obviously understand the necessity of them, but…
I know! Because you can't go like, “Oh, I know! Yeah, I really was great!” [Laughs] The weirder thing is when someone comes up and just says, “I saw you in this,” because then you can't even say “thank you,” so you're just like, “Okay?” [Laughs]
I have a question that I have been wanting to ask you for so long: I wrote a book two years ago about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and when I was interviewing Sarah Michelle Gellar, she told me that Joss Whedon (the creator of Buffy) had envisioned you for the role of Willow when he first wrote it but there was some issue around your visa that prevented you from coming to audition for the show. Is that true?
It is basically true. It was kind of a visa issue, but not really; I also was not sure about doing television at that time. It was very early in my career. I had a very old-school agent who was like, “TV? That’s for has-beens!” and I was like, “I don't think it is anymore.” Certainly now things have really changed, but I just wasn't super into it at the time. I had a dinner with Joss and I don't remember if it was an offer or if it was like, “Would you come read for it?” or what it was, but we stayed in touch after that. And then I guess they were replacing the person from the pilot at a certain point and I had stayed in touch with [Joss], and he said, “Now do you think you would want to do it?” And I had seen the pilot and I was like, “Oh, this is good,” and I kind of took my agent into it. And then, it became this whole thing of, “Well, now you have to audition.” So I auditioned. Then: “Oh, they didn't like what you were wearing.” It was a whole process. And then I didn't get it! Alyson Hannigan got it, who was absolutely wonderful and all was [cast] as it should have been. That was the actual story.
Thank you for resolving the mystery! I agree with you, Alyson Hannigan was fantastic. It's just sometimes fun, as a fan of something, to imagine other actors in the roles. It's not to say that you wish that one wasn't in it and another one was instead; it’s more just like theater where we get so many interpretations of a Mama Rose in Gypsy, for instance, and with film and television, it’s like: What if we were afforded this opportunity to see multiple actors play this role that we love? That's sort of where my head goes.
It's funny to me because when I was younger, I used to kind of get pressured into talking about things I’d auditioned for or decided not to do and I was trying to be a good interview subject, and now I really passionately feel that if you didn't do the job, it was never your job.
We live in a culture with pull quotes where someone says, “I was up for this role” and then the headline reads “so-and-so was meant to do this role” and blah, blah, blah. Again, you know this well, but more often than not, actors are prompted to answer these things, but when they're in a pull quote, it makes it seem like the actor just offered this up and that there's some sort of bitterness around it — that's sort of the insinuation there. And really, the actor was just baited into it.
Clickbait culture is my least favorite thing right now. I've had it so many times recently. I just had one yesterday that was so annoying because people don't read or watch the interview or get any kind of context. There's just one little quote, and then it's spun off into headlines. There's a whole thing that’s like, “Oh, the actress from The Last of Us is pitching a prequel.” I was like, “Noooo! I'm not! Never in a million years.” I had to text [the show’s co-creator] Craig Mazin to say, “Sorry about this, dude.” He texted back, “This sucks,” and I was like, “Do you know that I'm not pitching pretty?” and he was like, “Of course, I know. It's taken out of context.” Someone said, “Would you do more episodes?” and I was like, “Well, I died. So, no,” and they were like, “What if there was a prequel?” and I said, “Sure!” You know, I'm not going to be like, “No, thanks!” So it’s just exhausting that things get taken out of context and then people just read a headline.
To contextualize pull quote culture, it was something that was born out of the 2010s digital media boom in which actors did these long-form interviews in places like Vanity Fair or The New York Times and again, they were asked about things — sometimes even baited into saying them. Other times, I think the interviewer was genuinely just trying to do an expansive interview of the subject. Then, a Page Six or a Daily Mail picks up a single quote and runs with it. I imagine that this phenomenon makes you more guarded, but at the same time, you want to be able to just be yourself and speak freely because it creates this whole other layer where you have to be careful about saying something that's innocuous — which, when taken out of context, can take on a life of its own. You don't want to spend your time having to self-edit. Is that challenging?
It is, because I’m a very open person. I'm not a guarded person. I want to have a conversation with somebody. And I'm okay to talk about a specific instance because it’s always good to clarify: On the Happy Sad Confused podcast, [the podcast’s host Josh Horowitz] asked me, “Was it hard being so close with Kate Winslet and then the friendships and what happens on set doesn't always translate into real life,” and I would be doing a disservice to that friendship if I said, “Oh! It was fine.” That was a formative time of my life. I was 15 years old and it was my first job. You know, the reality is, not all relationships last forever. You don't stay in touch with people. It's very hard when you live in different countries. It's a thing I know so well now. And there are people I've lost touch with. It's just life. But I was just like, “Oh, God, I just loved her!” and for me, I meant it to sound like a loving thing about the time that I did have with her and how precious that was to me. And then it turns into something that it just wasn't and I'm like, “Do I say something about it?” Do I say, “Actually, it's not accurate how it's being portrayed?” Do I just let it go and wait for the next news cycle to come in? It's so new to me!
Unfortunately, I think it's very “damned if you do, damned if you don't,” because if you respond to it, it makes it seem as though you care enough to issue a response. But if you don't respond, then you're basically allowing these things to go on.
I love reading a long profile. I love getting to know somebody that way. If Alex Yung interviews somebody, I'm gonna sit down as soon as I see that come out and read the whole thing. I don't want people to be guarded. There’s also a laziness that really bugs me where people are not reading the actual piece. They're just reading a headline; could you be any lazier? And then sometimes people will write the clickbait things in a way that’s make be like, “You didn't even read it!”
I actually think the Kate instance you were describing is something that people even outside of the entertainment industry are probably very familiar with; that feeling of having formative friendships in our youth, whether it be summer camp or Sunday school or what have you. And then life just happens. But you're in a unique position where you keep seeing this person because of the vocation that you both are in, whereas for most of us, that’s not the case. I don't know where my camp friends are now! I'm not driving down Rodeo and seeing a billboard with my camp friends on it. So I imagine that's an odd thing. And I think a lot of times, these pull quotes are done in bad faith and that's the issue. What you're talking about highlights that lack of media literacy that we have right now. It's almost like some people want to propagate that and continue that.
The bad faith thing is the thing that drives me absolutely crazy.
I will say you had one pull quote from a recent interview that you did that I love, which was the quote “the homosexual agenda should be pushed at all times.”
Well, I stand behind that one. [Laughs]
That took on a life of its own! I was a big fan of that one.
Another actor that recently did an interview was Stanley Tucci, and he told Entertainment Tonight that he would never again play his serial killer role in the 2009 thriller Lovely Bones. He explained, “It's a wonderful movie, but it was a tough experience simply because of the role.” Have you had an experience like that? Is there a movie that you don’t necessarily regret making or a role you don’t necessarily regret playing, but an instance where taking on and living with that character was something that you wouldn't necessarily do again?
I think the closest feeling I've had to that is probably The Perks of Being a Wallflower, because I was playing a child molester and that's the most horrific thing I can imagine. So to kind of get in the mindset of that person — I actually couldn't. I was just like, “Okay, so here's a person who's in denial that she's doing anything wrong, so let me just lead with that emotionally. I can imagine how she's feeling in that she's full of self-loathing and she's full of conflicted feelings.” But then I wouldn't not do it [in hindsight], because I think it's a beautiful movie.
Now, I want to talk about your recent appearance on The Drew Barrymore Show because it was so incredible and I love that moment when you were joined by your husband, actor Jason Ritter. It was so powerful having him talk about his experience with alcoholism and from what I understand, you didn't even know that he was going to come on and share that. You obviously knew about your husband’s experience, but there's something about sharing it in that medium and then having Drew share her own experiences that I think has the power to really affect people — both those currently in the throes of addiction as well as those that perhaps lack an empathy around it. What was it like for you in that moment, being surrounded by that conversation?
I felt so proud of both of them. We did our pre-interview separately, so I didn't know what he was gonna talk about. And also, because that was the third time I've done Drew’s show, I knew that very rarely does anything that happens in the pre-interviews go to the actual interview; it's so unscripted and in the moment, so I didn't ask Jason, “What are you going to talk about?” I was just like, “Well, we'll see what happens.” I did not know he was gonna bring it up. And I've been on the whole journey with him. There was a time where it was really tough for him to talk about it. I think for a lot of people with addiction issues, it's very hard to own it. And so for him to be so public and so okay with whatever the response was gonna be — the response was incredible and I do think it really helped people. And then of course, Jason is in his comments replying to every single person who writes to him about their struggles because he's such a beautiful human being. [Laughs] But for both [Jason and Drew], I just felt like, “Gosh, how incredible that you are both at this point in your life! You're such kind, empathetic, wonderful people and you're sharing this together.” It felt really moving for me. I've known Drew since I was 19 years old. There are moments in time where I think, “If I could have had a time machine and flash forward to see this particular moment when I first met and knew Drew, if I could have seen that moment happening, I would have just been like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’” The fact that we're all mature adults and knowing each other better and knowing ourselves better — it was really incredible.
We were talking earlier about how guarded people can be now, and I feel like Drew has this power to her.; it's like she gets inside of you and she makes you want to share yourself without fear. I went on her podcast several months ago and we must have talked for longer after the interview than the actual interview just because you don't want to be away from her because when you're with her, life feels better.
I know! I had a similar experience. I had to go do another talk show and I just was like, “I don't want to leave this little bubble of just sitting on the sofa in the green room with you.” I don't know when I'm gonna see her again, and I just treasure it. She used to have these huge parties, and I never came away from one of those parties feeling like I hadn’t connected with her. Sometimes [with parties], it can be like, “Oh, I didn't really get to see them but they were hosting.” But I always felt like I connected with [Drew] at her parties; I had seen her, I'd spent time with her — and I think every single person felt that. She cares so much and you can't be dishonest with her. You just can't!
It's not even an option.
It’s just not!
How many people even have that effect on others in general? And especially people in Hollywood, who often distinctly come in with armor on — yet Drew always manages to disarm. Speaking of people you love: What is it that you love most about your husband, Jason Ritter?
Well, now that we are parents together, it's beautiful to see him with our daughter. He’s so wonderful. He's such a sweet dad to a little girl. He's just funny and weird and silly. She and I will just have laughing fits about some ridiculous thing. There was one night where it was so late and she should have been asleep, but he kept making fart noises. [Laughs] It's so silly, but he was like, “Okay, we really have to try to go to sleep now” and then he would make a fart noise and we were crying with laughter and he later said it was like those things in a movie where someone's lost their family and they look back at running on the beach or something, and what they really would be watching is a video of the time they made fart noises and their family couldn't stop laughing. [Laughs] The thing that attracted me to him immediately was just how kind he was. I love him. He's also soooo cute.
So cute. Well, I want to bring in our first surprise guest, which is appropriate considering we were just talking about him!
Hi, Melanie. It's Jason. I have a two-part question for you: The first part: Is there something about the human condition, being human in general, that is fascinating enough to you that it made you want to do a job where you study this creature and you pretend to be these things for your life's work? The second part: Will you marry me (again)? Please get back to me as quickly as possible. Thank you. Bye!
[Laughs] That's cute. That's a little inside joke because the first time he proposed it wasn't great, so he re-proposes all the time to make up for it, which is really cute. What a sweet question! I guess I don't know how to answer it. It's a very complicated question. I am fascinated by people. I would rather just sit and talk than do anything else. I don't like small talk; I want to just get to know people. I want to hear everything. I guess I'm fascinated by humans.
I think honestly, sometimes those complicated questions don't necessarily require complicated answers. I think it's as simple as the desire to listen, watch, and study people. And it's interesting you say that because I have this sense that as the generations go on, people become more and more talkers and less listeners, with everyone wanting to make content and “here's a video of me eating my cheeseburger” or whatever it may be. It becomes so much more about ourselves and less about understanding other people. I think that's one of the sacred things about acting: Not just the actual acting itself, but oftentimes that capability to really clue into some of the nuances of humanity.
Did you just come up with that in this moment? That was so beautiful and amazing.
Thanks! Now, you love Real Housewives, correct? I feel like so many actors love Housewives, and I think that there's something there. And as we're having this conversation right now, we're talking about acting and listening and humanity, and it's like there's something about Housewives, which is seemingly so the opposite of acting because it’s just people being people, but I kind of understand why so many actors gravitate towards the women because they're people just being their most unfiltered selves. Then on top of that, there's the “talking head” aspect where the housewives go into this room and they're also the narrators of their lives, so there’s that sort of “God complex” aspect to it. What is it for you that particularly fascinates you about Real Housewives?
I only really watch Beverly Hills and I've watched some of New York. I also love Top Chef and The Bachelor. We're watching Love Is Blind right now. Sometimes, watching a scripted show, it's very hard to be completely taken in by it because sometimes you know some people on the show or you auditioned for the show or you read the pilot — there can be other complications. It's a wonderful feeling to get into a scripted thing and just lose yourself in it. That happened when I watched Broadchurch, where I was just like, “Take me into this world! This is incredible.” But there's something about reality television that feels so far from my own life. There is such an authenticity to it. People try to put on a show, and they just can't at a certain point. You're being filmed all the time; you can't fake it. I love it.
When I watch Love Is Blind and watch all these men on the show, especially the ones in the early stages that don't necessarily advance on, it does not make me hopeful about the gender of men as a whole — especially when it comes to their proclivities around romance. When you watch it, do you ever think, “Thank God the guy that I got is nowhere near any of these men on this show?”
When we watch anything, we turn to each other all the time and just say, “Thank God! Thank God, we're so lucky.” I don't want to curse our relationship, so I'm nervous to keep talking about how wonderful our relationship is, but Jason and I have been together through a lot of different seasons of life and I don't look exactly like I did when I met him. He genuinely doesn't give a shit. I don't think he notices. It's so genuine. It feels like unconditional love. I think it is unconditional love. I really feel like I can be myself. I can be annoyed if I want to be annoyed. He loves me with no makeup on. He loves me with all the makeup on. These men with these conditions and these expectations and “women are supposed to look like this for me and do this for me and tick all these boxes” — it's like, “What boxes are you ticking, by the way?”
Right! I think one of the great things that Real Housewives gave to the culture was this idea of “life is not over at a certain point.” I think a lot of people — not just women — have this conception in their mind that “I've done everything and it all goes downhill from here,” and I look at some of these women and where they started on the show and then where they've gone, and this show proves that there's a second act; there's even a third act! There are so many more acts of life. In a weird way, it makes me hopeful about the future, despite the fact that some of them are not great people. It makes me hopeful about this idea that life doesn't only go on; life can be whatever you want it to be.
Yeah! And I've had a lot of younger actors come up to me and say, “You make me feel excited about aging,” which is kind of like, “Thank you?” [Laughs] But it's a compliment because — never say never, I don't know what the future holds for me; I might suddenly start wanting to do stuff to my face — but so far I haven't. And I do think it's probably comforting to look at somebody and be like, “Oh, can you just kind of be yourself? Can you just keep looking like yourself and not have to try to look like you're 25 years-old? Am I allowed to go through the process of life and still keep working?” And it's like, “Yeah!” I didn't know this was possible.
Cynthia Nixon recently shared some pictures on Instagram, and it’s just so striking to see a truly human face! It’s so beautiful, but part of me thinks it’s a little reductive of me to have such a reaction to her simply sharing authentic pictures of herself.
It’s the culture! So now, whenever I see someone’s face moving on TV, I’m like, “Thank you. Thank you!” It’s so great to see some expression. It's important. It's part of our job!
Now, you are one of those actors that I imagine when people come up to you — because of the range of not only the work that you've done, but the work that's really touched people — that when they come up and do the “I saw you in this,” I bet there's really a gamut of things they might have seen you in. Is there an actor for you whose career trajectory you look at and sort of emulate in that same sense of thinking, “They really just do it all.”
A big one for me is Olivia Colman, because she's so, so funny and she's so beautiful. Her dramatic work is so gorgeous. She really tries a lot of different things and just nails them all, and she can be funny and heartbreaking in the same moment — and to me, that's an actor. Also, Regina Hall I love so much and has a similar thing where she can be in Scary Movie and she can be in Support the Girls. She's a movie star. She's a character actress. To me, that's an interesting career; somebody who's just changing it up and doing a lot of different things. Also, Catherine O'Hara! There's so many people. I could just keep saying names.
Well, there were two actors that I sought out that are fans of yours that wanted to ask you questions:
Melanie! It’s Kristin Chenoweth and as you know, I'm a humongous fan of yours. I have been for many years. I respect the way you do comedy and drama, and I get asked all the time what I like the best and I say both because it's called life and you just embody that in your work so beautifully. Speaking of life, something that I struggle with and I've been asking a lot of my friends in the industry about and I'd love to hear your answer: What do you do to balance the work-life situation? I'm a workaholic and I have a feeling you might be, too. What do you do in your spare time? How do you calm down and relax while you're waiting for a shot? That's kind of a two-pronged question, but inquiring minds want to know.
Okay. [Laughs] I can’t believe Kristen Chenoweth just asked me a question! I'm not good at work-life balance. Part of the reason I liked the script for Yellowjackets so much was I was like, “Half of the timeline is a younger version of me, not played by me? Sounds great!” [Laughs] So at least I know that half of the time I'm going to be able to be with my child. Once I had a child, I had to really settle my priorities a little bit, but I'm still not good at [balancing]; I never do anything for myself. I'm so happy when I'm exercising every day, but I don't do that. I do it when I can. But it's a tough one. I don't think it's easy to get the balance. At work, I am pretty good about asking to step away for a moment. Everybody knows I'm not one of those actors who's going to just disappear; take an Uber and go to the bar or whatever. [Laughs] I sometimes need to be by myself. I'm an introvert and a lot of activity around me before I have to go do a difficult scene can be really distracting, so I sometimes just say, “Hey guys, I need a moment.” I interact with everybody, I'm giving a lot emotionally, so I think just asking for the space and knowing what you need. Sometimes I'll put headphones on but I won't be listening to anything. [Laughs]
That's great. That's acting! Well, I have another acclaimed actor that wanted to ask you a question as well.
Hi, Melanie! Hi, Evan! It's Lily Rabe. It is such an honor to ask you a question, Melanie. I’m such a lover of your work and you're so mesmerizing and incredible and it's such a gift every time. My question is: You've played a number of real people — we, in fact, just played the same real person; is that something in your career that you have sought out? Do you feel that once you had done it once, it sort of started to come your way? Do you think it's totally arbitrary? When a job that is based on a real person comes your way, is that a bonus? Or is it really just: “Do I like the part, do I like the script, do I like the director, is this shooting in a place that works for my family and during a time that works for my family”? All the things that might go into your decision making process. How much does it being a historical figure or a character based on a real person factors into that decision? And in what ways? I can't wait to hear your answer! Sending so much love.
Oh, my gosh. I love her! Yeah, it's funny. We did play the same person in two different miniseries based on the Candy Montgomery case, and I would love to actually talk to her about that and what that experience was like. I feel a deep responsibility playing real people — like, I’d rather not. [Laughs] I'd rather not, but sometimes a story draws you in and you're excited about it, and that was the case with Candy. I had lost a pregnancy and then I had to jump into a season of Yellowjackets, and I did not have time to process my feelings; I was just going to work every day. And I think I read a script where somebody was sitting in a lot of grief and feeling a lot of things and having a complicated time, and it really resonated with me. I was like, “I think I need to get this out through this particular person.” But I felt such a deep responsibility and there's still a part of me that feels kind of horrendous about having stepped into the shoes of a person who lost their life in that way. It's such a tragic thing for her family, I can't imagine what it feels like to have a story told about it. And I know the writers did a lot of research and were very responsible, and it's always a complicated thing because you have to kind of let it go at a certain point and say it's the job of the writers to get the facts right and to try to tell them as accurately as possible, and then, I have to interpret it.
I think about the blowback following the recent Dahmer series on Netflix because the family came forward and said, “We don't want to revisit this trauma.” I also think about Pamela Anderson with Pam and Tommy, where she's like, “Wait a minute, you're telling and profiting off of my story without me.” It's complicated. There's so much nuance to it. Is it simply art or is there a responsibility to accurately tell the story? But as you said, I think it's good to put that onto the writers and the directors and the producers and have that sort of be their job, and you approach it as the actor embodying the role.
If you can't meet the person you're playing, you're guessing. I talked to somebody who literally wrote the book about the case and he told me everything that people had told him about [Candy Montgomery]. I felt like I had an understanding of what she was going through, but I'm also not her. If I like something but it’s a real person, it's a harder choice for me to do it than when it's not.
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