Melanie Lynskey Knows Teen Girls' Angst
The scene-stealing actor is having a full-circle winter with 'Yellowjackets' and 'Don't Look Up.'
Melanie Lynskey knows something about murderous teenage girls. The New Zealand native's first film role was in 1994's Heavenly Creatures, where she and Kate Winslet starred as two real-life friends whose obsession with each other turns vicious when adults stand in their way. Now, she's channeling that brutality again in Showtime's Yellowjackets, playing Shauna, a woman who survived a plane crash with her high school soccer team in 1996 and lived in the wilderness for 19 months, feeding off whatever was available, even her fellow comrades.
"I just remember thinking, 'There's something in this that is so true to my darkest inner thoughts,'" Lynskey says of the Heavenly Creatures script. "It captures so much of what it's like to be swept up in this rush of crazy teenage hormones and love and lust and obsessive friendship and obsessing over music and just all of those things that just really felt real to me. But I feel like Yellowjackets also comes from the same place of identifying something that's very real that's inside teenage girls."
This winter has offered a couple of full-circle moments for Lynskey. Not only has she gotten rave reviews and a Critics Choice Award nomination for Yellowjackets, but she also appears in Adam McKay's celebrity-filled doomsday comedy Don't Look Up as the wife of Leonardo DiCaprio's nervous scientist who identifies a world-ending comet. "Two days in of working with him, I was like, 'You know I know Kate,'" she says. "And he was like, 'Kate who?'" DiCaprio had no idea Lynskey began her career opposite his Titanic partner. "He was like, 'Wow!' Completely shocked." (Leo, by the way, should really check out Heavenly Creatures.)
While differing wildly in tones, both Yellowjackets and Don't Look Up have an apocalyptic edge that suits Lynskey, who is drawn to projects that are darker than her sweet demeanor would initially imply. Though she is widely known for her stint as Charlie Sheen's neighbor on Two and a Half Men, she also has a knack for playing women who spiral, like in the indie I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore. On Yellowjackets, Shauna is trying to maintain the facade of a suburban life with her nuclear family while also casually butchering a rabbit she finds in her backyard. "I have a very hard time in my own life being angry," Lynskey says. "I just let things go, let things happen. People are always like, 'You need to speak up, you need to stand up for yourself.' And so I find myself at work being drawn to people who are figuring out how to express their anger in good ways and bad."
After Heavenly Creatures, Lynskey had a difficult time getting cast in the teen movies that were dominating culture at the time and didn't relate to the kind of perfect Seventeen magazine-ready stars who were dominating box offices at the time. "When I did come to Los Angeles and started auditioning, a lot of the things that were being made were things that just felt very foreign to me," she says. "In my pop-culture world that I was living in, I was obsessed with PJ Harvey. I was listening to Hole and Bikini Kill and all these great bands. And there were women who owned their femininity in a way that felt very wild and interesting. And they were sexual. I felt very free to be a sexual person, to not feel like I had to adhere to some kind of standard." Lynskey did, however, make her mark with parts in films like Ever After and But I'm a Cheerleader.
It's likely no coincidence that three of the lead adults on Yellowjackets, Lynskey included, were known for their portrayals of fucked-up girls in the 1990s. Alongside Lynskey, there's Juliette Lewis of Natural Born Killers as the recovering addict Nat, and Christina Ricci, aka Wednesday Addams herself, as Misty, now a nurse who listens to show tunes while drugging people, dismantling cars, and spying on her ostensible friends. (Rounding out their gruesome foursome is Tawny Cypress as Taissa, a lawyer running for public office. Cypress did not start acting on-screen until the 2000s.)
Lynskey knew Ricci through mutual friends during the era but remembers being intimidated by her. "I had tickets to go see Nick Cave—I don't know when it was, probably 2002 or something like that," Lynskey remembers. "And nobody wanted to go with me, so I just went by myself. I remember I saw her there, and she was like, 'Are you by yourself?' And I said, 'It's so loud. I can't hear you.' And she was like, 'It's not that loud.' I just thought she was the coolest person in the world. I didn't want to admit I was there by myself even though now I look back and I'm like, 'Going to see Nick Cave by yourself is perfectly cool, don't be worried about it.'" Despite her own storied career, Lynskey still gets starstruck. On the Don't Look Up set, she was shocked to find herself bonding with DiCaprio over Zillow—"we were obsessing about the houses that I can't buy that I'd look at for fun, but houses that he can buy"—and the party game Mafia. Mafia even worked its way into an improvised take in a scene.
Lynskey is cautious about sounding too much like a "pretentious" actor, but she explains that she did make co-creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson tell her what exactly happened to the Yellowjackets when they were stranded, even though Lyle and Nickerson were trying to parcel out the information. "I need to be thinking of a real thing," she says. "I can't just have the emotion, like 'guilt' or 'shame.' It's kind of a weird witch's brew. Part of it comes from old shame of my own that comes up, but then I need the character to be thinking of something really, really specific."
That means, provided the writers don't suddenly go in a different direction, Lynskey knows all of the show's secrets and has been using them to tap into Shauna's psyche. "I think for Shauna, things that she realized about herself were really scary, and I think that, for me, the hardest thing is letting in those flashes of rage and coldness and calculating and those things where she is very capable at being quite cold," Lynskey says. "For me, that's hard. I'm so careful in my own life, always being warm and sweet and making sure everybody knows 'I love you. I'm great. I'm a nice person.' So to just turn that off and not care at all about being a nice person is fun, but it's definitely the biggest challenge, and I think that those are the moments where Shauna is at her realest."
Lynskey's charm is one of the reasons her performance in Yellowjackets is so chilling. You can see traces of the teenage girl in Heavenly Creatures so consumed with her own world that she plots to kill her mother. And why does the actor keep coming back to brutality? "That's the kind of stuff that I like to watch, and I love it," she says. "And as an actor, I feel like it's…I don't know how to put this. In therapy, you kind of return to the same issues over and over. And you're just like, 'Oh god, I guess I'm still trying to work this out. Oh well, maybe one day.' I feel similarly in terms of the things that I'm drawn to. Sometimes I'll read something and I understand that it's good and it's probably going to be a good movie, and nothing feels prickly inside of me when I read it. Nothing ignites, and I can't. I don't know how to do that and do a good job."