Anyone who’s seen Peter Jackson’s 1994 international arthouse breakthrough Heavenly Creatures remembers Melanie Lynskey. In a sensational screen debut, she glared at the camera, dominating the true-life crime story with an intense combination of passion and madness, all the more remarkable coming from a 16-year-old unknown from New Zealand. But while Jackson and Heavenly Creatures co-star Kate Winslet went on to box-office triumphs and Oscar glory, Lynskey settled into a quieter career as an ace character actress.
She has supported star turns from George Clooney, Katie Holmes, Matt Damon, Drew Barrymore, and Edward Norton, survived Coyote Ugly and several seasons as a series regular on Two and a Half Men (she was in the midst of a recurring stint during the infamous Charlie Sheen implosion that nearly derailed the show), and remains a favorite of critics and filmmakers. These are all solid achievements any working actor could be proud of, but because we’ve seen Heavenly Creatures, we know Lynskey is capable of more. She just rarely gets the chance to show it.
That’s what makes her latest film, Hello I Must Be Going, especially welcome. Lynskey is, finally, the star. It’s her movie. And she’s terrific in it. Hello, which was the opening-night selection of this year’s Sundance Film Festival and opens in limited release on Friday, tracks the downward spiral of 30-something divorcee Amy Minsky (Lynskey), who moves back into her parents home and loafs around eating cereal and watching old sitcoms. If that’s not enough to pique your interest, Amy also experiences a sexual reawakening through a relationship with a much younger man (Christopher Abbott of HBO’s Girls).
It’s a light movie with serious moments and surprising sex appeal, and the way Lynskey nails everything required of a leading lady only underscores the question of why it took 18 years after Heavenly Creatures for someone to offer her this kind of showcase. “It’s been a big issue that I’m not a famous person. That’s usually what I’ve come up against,” Lynskey said over lunch in Los Angeles. “I’ll audition for something and then the feedback has been, ‘The director wants you, the creative people want you, but the studio is saying no.’ It’s depressing, but I understand. People are investing a lot of money and they want somewhat of a guarantee; they want someone who’s been on the cover of magazines.”
Even when she helped director Todd Louiso and screenwriter Sarah Koskoff with a reading for Hello, Lynskey assumed she’d never actually get the part. “I thought, ‘It’ll be really fun to do this reading, and when Maggie Gyllenhaal does the movie, I’ll go see it and think she did a great job,’” Lynskey recalled. “But I actually got to do it.” Credit Louiso, a character actor himself (Jerry Maguire, High Fidelity) who realized the potential in looking beyond the usual movie-star suspects.
The film’s three-week shoot was the fun part. It was only afterward that Lynskey realized being the star meant more than just getting an opportunity for increased screen time. “I loved being busy at work, the adrenaline gets you through it,” she said about her lack of nerves on set. “It was more when the movie was finished, when I heard it was opening night at Sundance, that’s when I started to panic. Then I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is on me!’”
That’s a lot of pressure for an actress who can be her own worst critic even in the smallest roles. “If a movie is received badly, and I’m in only one scene of it, I still feel responsible. I feel like it was my fault at all times. If people were like, ‘This movie sucks!’ I’d be like, ‘Well, that’s because I’m terrible.’ ”
Most film critics wouldn’t agree. Even in small roles–the young wife and mother who works through her personal heartache at a bar’s amateur dance night in Sam Mendes’s Away We Go or the dysfunctional addict willing to barter her teenage son in Thomas McCarthy’s Win Win–Lynskey is often singled out as a highlight. Filmmakers are just as quick to praise her. “You never quite know what you’re going to get, you just know it was going to be good,” Steven Soderbergh told the Los Angeles Times in 2009 about directing Lynskey in The Informant! “Her rhythms are really unusual, like her cadence and her reaction times to things, and the way she sort of lays out a sentence. It’s just really, really interesting.”
It’s not that Lynskey is unaware of all that, it’s just that praise has to compete with all the frustrations and disappointments of life in Hollywood. “I’m an actor, I’m deeply insecure,” Lynskey said. “Every job that I’ve gotten that I cared about I’ve had to really fight for.”
She’s quick to admit she’s never been a particularly confident person, and it’s a chicken-and-egg scenario whether that lack of confidence has held her back as an actress, or Hollywood’s lack of opportunities have simply reinforced her insecurity. It’s certainly a stark contrast with her Creatures co-star Winslet, who Lynskey remembers as being on a direct path to stardom even as a teenager. “[Kate was] the most ambitious, driven person I’d met. I don’t think that’s a bad thing—a lot of people are weird about women being ambitious. I think it’s fucking amazing,” Lynskey said. “She just had this confidence, there was no question she would be a movie star. And she has the talent to back that up.”
While Winslet followed Creatures with Oscar-nominated roles in Sense and Sensibility and Titanic, Lynskey was simply trying to figure out what to do next. “Even though I’d just gotten a movie, it seemed crazy to me to be like, ‘Now I’m gonna do more movies!’” she remembered. “I was kind of like, ‘Well, that was lucky.’ Everyone around me said, ‘That was fun but don’t get carried away. Don’t think it’s gonna be a whole thing.’”
Even when she started booking gigs in movies big (Ever After, Coyote Ugly) and small (Detroit Rock City, But I’m a Cheerleader), Lynskey was still made painfully aware she didn’t fit the expectations of how a young actress should look and behave. “I went to a costume fitting on a movie when I was 21 and the costume director had a fit because I wasn’t sample size. He was like, ‘Nobody told me there’d be girls like you on this movie, this is crazy!’” she said in a rare instance of calling out a former colleague for being a jerk. “He sent someone out to go shopping and they came back with clothes that were gigantic. I was like, ‘Seriously? I’m a size 6!’ But he was acting like a monster had just walked in. I’m 21 years old, I had to lock myself in the bathroom and cry for a moment and then come out and be like ‘Let’s get on with this fitting, asshole.’ You have to deal with people reacting that way.”
“When you don’t have a great sense of yourself to begin with, it can be very challenging to deal with that,” Lynskey said. But with time, she’s started to embrace not conforming to an unrealistic “norm.” “I feel so grateful when I see a movie and there’s a woman who looks somewhat like me. I'm like, ‘Thank you, Samantha Morton!’ You know, a woman who feels like a human being. That means so much to me. If I can be that person for someone that’s a much more powerful thing than me trying to starve myself or shrink myself and become something that I am not.”
And yet the anxieties can’t help lingering, and face an all new challenge as Lynskey is thrust into the spotlight for Hello. Usually, she doesn’t have to worry about being on the poster. This time, she’s front and center in a still from one of the film’s sexier moments–a moonlight skinny-dip with Abbott. “I’m not crazy about that photograph of myself,” Lynskey says. “Nobody can look sexy next to Chris Abbott, he’s so beautiful and so handsome, and then there’s like the bedraggled creature next to him with this thin ponytail. I don’t know what they’re thinking but fine, fine.”
She is, however, happy with how Hello turned out. And as long as she’s not staring at a still photo of herself, Lynskey is delighted when people describe the film as sexy: “Seeing us on film together, there’s a chemistry, there’s an interaction. There’s an energy to the movie that’s very sexy and I like that.”
In the near future, Lynskey will be back in supporting roles in this month’s coming-of-age drama The Perks of Being a Wallflower, starring Emma Watson and Logan Lerman, and next year’s satiric romantic comedy They Came Together, with Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd. Whether or not Hello leads to more chances to take the lead, Lynskey has learned to roll with the punches. “I’m doing work that I really like and I feel good,” she said. “If it stays like this, then I feel happy.”