Melanie Lynskey

Believe it or not, it’s been 20 years since a little art flick from New Zealand about two dreamy teens and a gruesome murder first introduced audiences worldwide to a visionary auteur and his ferociously talented leading ladies. The film, of course, was Heavenly Creatures, directed by future Academy Award-Winner, Peter Jackson, and starring perennial Oscar-fave, Kate Winslet alongside Jackson’s fellow Kiwi, Melanie Lynskey.

In addition to putting its director on the map, the movie singlehandedly launched the careers of both of its precocious young starlets – each making their screen debut, and while Lynskey’s name might not be quite as familiar today as Winslet’s, she too has carved out a niche for herself in Hollywood as an actor’s actor, bouncing from prestige pics (Flags Of Our Fathers, Up In The Air) to broad studio fare (Coyote Ugly, Sweet Home Alabama) beloved independent dramas (Shattered Glass, Away We Go, Hello I Must Be Going) to must-see television (Two And A Half Men).

Perhaps that’s why indie darling, Joe Swanberg, tapped the skilled chameleon to star opposite himself, Anna Kendrick, and Lena Dunham in Happy Christmas, the delicately measured follow up to his 2013 triumph, Drinking Buddies. No it’s not a sequel, but as Ms. Lynskey herself reveals, everything the mumblecore master does is simply another heaping slice of that veritable pie known as life…

Your director is famous for his loose, improv-heavy approach to filmmaking… Can you talk about the Joe Swanberg experience?

“Yes, it was something that I was very nervous about… I really like a lot of Joe’s movies and I was excited to work with him, but then I got the outline, which was very sparse, and I got so worried, I thought, Oh my God! What am I gonna do? But it’s really interesting, I feel like he needs to feel the chemistry of people and he really needs to see what he’s working with and then he can start putting more of the pieces into place. So it really came together in a great way.”

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Was the story always about the relationship between yours and Anna’s characters – as opposed to the one between you and your husband (played by Swanberg) – or was that something that evolved during filming?

“I think that was pretty much in the outline. I know that (Joe) wanted to talk about that and I don’t know how much he wanted to feature himself, but, I did feel really lucky to have the chemistry that I had with Anna. We’re pretty different people but we really love each other a lot so it was easy to play all sides of it.”

Did you two rehearse quite a bit?

“I don’t think we rehearsed at all because the thing that Joe’s looking for is spontaneity and just trying to get things in the moment, so he would be terrified of something good happening in rehearsal and not being able to use it.”

Your character’s foreign-born status is hinted at through her accent, but never actually addressed…. Was that something you and Joe talked about?

“I was more worried about it than he was because I wanted to do an American accent and he was like, I don’t like people improvising an accent other than their own. And I was like, I’m very comfortable with it, I will be fine. But I said Ok, and then I was so worried, I was like, Don’t we need to explain why I’m here? And he was like, No, people are from different countries; nobody’s gonna be like Why?! What’s happening?! So he really relaxed me about that.”

Her current mindset – somewhere between postpartum and normal parental ennui – is also hinted at without employing your typical movie melodrama. How did you approach the task of conveying that?

“When Joe and I were initially talking about the movie, he said that it was something that he had been thinking about with his wife because she’s a creative person and a filmmaker in her own right, and he said, I make more money and she just ends up taking care of our kid, and it’s not like she doesn’t want to, but it’s a really complicated thing… And it’s something that so many of my girlfriends were going through at the time – women who’ve created a career that they feel really proud of…”

“I have a friend who literally got her dream job and moved to London for it, but she has two young sons and she’s so conflicted. Every day is torture, even though she loves it and is grateful. She’s just like, God my instinct is pulling me in one direction and my ambition is pulling me in another. I think that thing is so complicated for women and it’s something that men just don’t have to deal with; it’s just not the same.”

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You initially met with Joe about a part in last year’s Drinking Buddies, which was a film that also explored the female psyche in ways that were fresh and deliciously complicated yet non-judgmental. So I wonder, where do you think his profound understanding of real women comes from? Is it his relationship with his actresses or is it simply inherent?

“I think he’s really interested in humans and he’s really interested in people fucking up, and he’s really interested in how people react to each other, and he’s really interested in women… but not in a creepy way. He’s also so collaborative. He’s constantly picking up on things that he finds interesting – like interactions between two people, but he’s also very open to people being like Ok, this is how I see it… he trusts the people he works with.”

How does a film that is so universally lauded – such as (2012’s) Hello I Must Be Going -change your career? Or does it?

“Awww, I feel like 9 people saw that. That one is a little bit of a heartbreak for me- I wish everybody saw it because I really loved that movie… I don’t know, I feel really lucky in that I’ve done a lot of projects that I feel good about, that have been really well received without ever having ‘that moment’.”

“I look at Jennifer Lawrence and I’m just like, How do you cope with that? She must be an alien to able to be so levelheaded and really take everything in yet remain herself; most people would lose their minds! So I feel really lucky to have gone under the radar. I mean, there are moments where I wish more people had seen the movies but enough people saw them and liked them to create positivity around them.”

And then you have the flip side, like with (CBS’s) Two And Half Men, which is so Network, so Studio, so Hollywood… Do you enjoy switching things up and working under those conditions?

“Well, I think that’s kinda why I ran screaming from that. I would come back as a recurring character and do a few episodes here and there, but honestly, that kind of attention that the show was getting was terrifying to me, because I know how easy it is for people to just be like, Ok, you’re this!

“And I do still get a little bit of that. There are some people who’ve only seen Two And A Half Men and they’ll stop me in the street and ask if I’m ok, and like, What am I doing now? Or Have I started acting again?… and I’m like, I’m ok, thanks for your concern. It’s actually really sweet, but the show became so popular that I was scared of getting caught up in that and then 6 years pass and you’re like, Wait, when was the last time I did something different? Just creatively, for me, it’s good to try different things and mix it up.”

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And speaking of creativity, does working with Joe Swanberg change the way you approach your next project?

“I got so lucky because the next thing I did was a pilot with the Duplass Brothers for HBO and then we got picked up which was one of the happiest things that’s ever happened. I’m so excited about it!”

“But it was really nice to not have to go straight to someone who’s very controlling – there are some directors who famously don’t let you do anything other than what’s on the script – I’m trying not to say any names… So it’s really great to work with people who are kind of loose and who also like to improvise, because it’s such a treat when you feel like you’re bringing so much to it; so it was kind of the perfect follow-up.”

You’ve done this for basically your whole life… what is it that keeps you in this industry, or more importantly, in love with acting?

“It’s all I have ever wanted to do my whole life. I never had another dream for myself. Sometimes as a child I would watch L.A. Law and be like Maybe I can be a lawyer? But even then I realized that I only wanted to be on a TV show where people play lawyers. I just love acting so much and I get so much from it, especially in recent years where I’ve been able to do some stuff that’s felt very cathartic. I kind of can’t believe it’s my job!”

Last question…I have to know – considering the fact that your character dabbles in this world – what do you really think of fan fiction, especially the erotic kind like 50 Shades Of Grey?

“Honestly, I don’t have any judgment on any form of entertainment, especially if it’s reading. I just think it’s great that people are reading books and buying them. My sexy reading when I was a teenager was D.H Lawrence – I was such a nerd… I will say this; I do have a sensitivity to not great writing though, but I haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey so I can’t say”.