Un­chained Me­lanie

More than 20 years af­ter her de­but as that scowl­ing school­girl in Heav­enly Crea­tures, it’s Me­lanie Lynskey’s turn to play a Christchurch mother with a teenage daugh­ter.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Diana Wich­tel

More than 20 years af­ter her de­but as that scowl­ing school­girl in Heav­enly Crea­tures, it’s Me­lanie Lynskey’s turn to play a Christchurch mother with a teenage daugh­ter.

Me­lanie Lynskey is in Los An­ge­les and I’m in Auck­land, but I still end up chas­ing her around her house in a sort of elec­tronic homage to Rose, the ami­able, dis­rup­tive stalker she played in blokey US sit­com Two and a Half Men. It’s the re­cep­tion.

“Maybe I’ll go into a dif­fer­ent room and see if that helps. Maybe I just have to stand in this. Ex­act. Cor­ner.” Even in real life, her speech has its own idio­syn­cratic rhythms. “Her ca­dences are re­ally un­usual,” one of her favourite di­rec­tors, Steven Soder­bergh, once noted. “The way she lays out a sen­tence.” Even she no­tices it when she has to rere­cord di­a­logue. “Why did I pause in this par­tic­u­lar place? The rhythm of this sen­tence makes no sense to me now, but at the time it felt very nat­u­ral and nor­mal.”

Those ca­dences have worked for her. Two and a Half Men made her a sit­com star, as her Rose serenely out-weirded Char­lie Sheen’s sleaze­bag Char­lie Harper.

Char­lie: Rose, I thought you were in Eng­land.

Rose: I was asked to leave.

Lynskey also at­tracts the ti­tle In­die Queen for work in such quirky movies as Hello I Must Be Go­ing and I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Any­more. Be­ing hailed as any kind of queen must be good. “I’ll take it. Un­less it’s, like, Nazi Queen or some­thing. No, thanks.”

It’s not that she wouldn’t like to do more stu­dio movies. She once noted that most of the meaty main­stream roles go to men or Meryl Streep. “In that world there are so few parts for women, still. The parts that there are ask women to look a par­tic­u­lar way – it’s just the re­al­ity – and to be a par­tic­u­lar age. So, not a lot of room for av­er­age-look­ing, 40-year-old women in a stu­dio movie, but there is in ­in­de­pen­dent movies and I’m grate­ful and I want to work, so …”

There’s noth­ing re­motely av­er­age about Lynskey. But even an In­die Queen finds it hard to en­tirely stare down the ­pres­sures on women in her in­dus­try. “I do care, be­cause we all care, be­cause it’s been drilled into our brains since the day we were born. I’m re­sent­ful, be­cause there’s not a part of most men’s brains that is think­ing, ‘What are peo­ple think­ing of my body?’” There are roles she won’t do. “I’ll never play the fat friend, which is some­thing I’ve been asked to do many, many times. I think it’s of­fen­sive that there are fat-girl­friend parts in movies,” she says with a sigh. “The world makes me a bit sad.”

She’s not one to shut up when the world makes her sad. Lynskey joined in on so­cial me­dia when a man’s In­sta­gram post about his “curvy god­dess” came across as self-con­grat­u­la­tory about be­ing brave enough to like larger women. “Oh, curvy wife guy. So an­noy­ing. I had so many an­noy­ing re­sponses to that, as well. Some­body wrote to me and said, ‘Oh, let me guess – you’re still sin­gle.’ The brain of some­body who thinks, ‘Oh, she’s just mad be­cause no­body wants to bang her.’”

She’s not sin­gle. She’s en­gaged to ac­tor Ja­son Rit­ter, son of late, great ac­tor and co­me­dian John Rit­ter and grand­son of singing cow­boy Tex Rit­ter. En­ter­tain­ment roy­alty. They’ve just moved house in LA, as wit­nessed by Va­ri­ety mag­a­zine: “Me­lanie Lynskey Sells Echo Park Bun­ga­low”.

She doesn’t want to say ex­actly where they’ve moved be­cause you wouldn’t.

But wher­ever it is, it’s a long way from New Ply­mouth. Lynskey was 15 when she nearly missed out on hear­ing about ­au­di­tions for Pe­ter Jack­son’s Heav­enly Crea­tures be­cause she was wag­ging school assem­bly. She played Pauline Parker

“I’ll never play the fat friend, which is some­thing I’ve been asked to do many times. It’s of­fen­sive there are fat-girl­friend parts in movies.”

in Jack­son’s mes­meris­ing imag­in­ing of Christchurch’s in­fa­mous Parker-Hulme mur­der, a role that re­quired sweet-faced Lynskey to bash her screen mother to death with a half-brick in a stock­ing.

The movie was an early stop on the road to Hol­ly­wood for Kate Winslet, as Parker’s part­ner in crime, Juliet Hulme. But it’s Lynskey’s face – the sulk­ing child weaponised – you re­mem­ber. She based the scowl, she has said, on her then four-year-old brother.

There was no overnight star­dom. “Af­ter Heav­enly Crea­tures, I was just so shocked. There was a pe­riod of about eight years where every job I got, I just couldn’t be­lieve some­one was let­ting me work again.” Even then, she was picky. “I sort of had fem­i­nist prin­ci­ples, even at 15. I’d read Naomi Wolf and Betty Friedan and ev­ery­thing there was to read. I was very clear about ways I didn’t want to see women de­picted and that guided me for a long time when I didn’t have a ton of op­tions about the projects I could sign on to.”

Her cred­its in­clude Soder­bergh’s The In­for­mant and the Du­plass broth­ers’ binge-wor­thy To­geth­er­ness, a tele­vi­sion se­ries about re­la­tion­ships, yearn­ing and life goals that in­cluded a truly ap­palling pup­pet ver­sion of Dune. It was Two and a Half Men that bought her some free­dom.

“My very first agent was so tough about tele­vi­sion. To me, tele­vi­sion is like a dream job be­cause it’s a reg­u­lar pay cheque.” When she left Two and a Half Men at the height of its pop­u­lar­ity, her man­agers and agents were ap­palled. “They were all say­ing, ‘You’re crazy, don’t do it.’ So it was hard to stand up for what I thought was the right thing to do. But I think it re­ally worked out, be­cause I was able to come back now and then on my terms.”

She left the core cast in 2005 to ­con­cen­trate on film. Sheen left in 2011, dur­ing a very pub­lic melt­down. Lynskey went on to make movies such as Up in the Air: from Char­lie Sheen to Ge­orge Clooney. Not so dif­fer­ent, she says.

“They have a very big sim­i­lar­ity, which is that the crew loves them. Ge­orge Clooney never goes back to his trailer.

He’s on set, talk­ing to every­body, jok­ing. And Char­lie – there were times when he had some is­sues, but most of the time I worked with him he was just very open and warm and every­body truly adored him. He’s a very good ac­tor. He’s a very good man. I saw him do a lot of kind and gen­er­ous things. I think of him a lot and wish him well.”

Rose sounded like the sweet­est soul on Earth – she sounded a lot like Lynskey – but you wouldn’t want to turn your back on her. “It was writ­ten as a kind of threat- en­ing char­ac­ter.” She de­cided it would be fun­nier if Rose just re­ally meant well. “It’s al­most ac­ci­den­tally ter­ri­fy­ing. There’s no mal­ice be­hind it. She’s re­ally do­ing the best she can.” Even if that in­volves ­su­per­glu­ing Char­lie’s tes­ti­cles to his thigh.

There are fewer laughs in her ­haunt­ing new lo­cal film, The Changeover, based on Mar­garet Mahy’s youn­gadult fan­tasy about witches, demons and the meta­mor­pho­sis from child to adult. Lynskey plays Kate Chant, do­ing her best as a sin­gle mother bat­tling grief and bu­reau­cracy in post-quake Christchurch. But it falls to her teenage daugh­ter, Laura, to pro­tect her lit­tle brother from Car­mody Braque (a con­vinc­ingly de­monic Ti­mothy Spall), who feeds on the pain of chil­dren.

Ti­mothy Spall. How was that? “He’s re­ally so, so good. I’m such a fan of ­[di­rec­tor] Mike Leigh so I’ve seen just about every film Tim has done with him.”

In Mahy’s world, the bad stuff has to be in­vited in and

Spall makes that a plau­si­ble propo­si­tion. “He can play a lot of dif­fer­ent things at once. That scene that we have in the ­hos­pi­tal, where he’s pre­tend­ing to be a grief coun­sel­lor, is very creepy, be­cause he has a real un­der­stand­ing that he does have to be men­ac­ing, but he’s also able to be very gen­tle, so you fully be­lieve him. I was ­sit­ting there as my char­ac­ter and I bought it 100%.”

The film is di­rected by Mi­randa Har­court and Stu­art McKen­zie. Lynskey says she was keen to work with Har­court, who coached her on Heav­enly Crea­tures. Lynskey likes her in­tu­itive way of work­ing. “It’s not so much specifics, like ‘Can you stand here? Can you say the line a lit­tle quicker?’ Some­times she’ll come up and she’ll just give a noise as a di­rec­tion or a feel­ing. It’s pretty unique.”

It was good to be work­ing back home, too. “I’m hop­ing that one day we’ll be able to af­ford to have a lit­tle place to just come back to for a month at a time.” It seems New Zealand is get­ting quite fash­ion­able.

“My brother sent me this video of [ac­tress] Bryce Dal­las Howard ­walk­ing through Welling­ton and talk­ing about how great Welling­ton is. I was, like, ‘Oh, she’s a New Zealand ambassador.’ I’ve talked to her about it: her love is real.”

Lynskey’s love is real, too. At the ­men­tion of the gen­eral elec­tion, she all but aban­dons the in­ter­view in a frenzy of long-dis­tance civic duty. “Gosh, thanks for ask­ing this ques­tion be­cause I need to try to get all my pa­pers in order for vot­ing.” (Sounds of fer­ret­ing around.)

She must surely get many of­fers to work in New Zealand. “I don’t, re­ally. Every now and again. I’m very open to it, if peo­ple do want to of­fer me things.” Maybe she’d like to put a call out now. “Sure. I’ll take an ad out in the Lis­tener.”

Mean­while, she loves LA. There’s a trace of Amer­i­can in her speech. She says “got­ten” and pro­nounces

“I had fem­i­nist prin­ci­ples, even at 15. I’d read Naomi Wolf and Betty Friedan and ev­ery­thing there was to read.”

“Char­lie Sheen is a very good ac­tor and a very good man. I saw him do a lot of kind and gen­er­ous things.”

the “t” in “of­ten” She tweets like a na­tive: “Hi! If you fol­low me, & you voted for Trump but don’t think you made a ­hor­ri­ble mis­take, please un­fol­low. Take your evil heart else­where,” she tweeted ear­lier this year. “I re­ally mean that,” she says. “Noth­ing I say is go­ing to be ­in­ter­est­ing to some­body who still thinks it’s a good de­ci­sion to have voted for him.”

We live in strange times. “Oh, God, it’s ­ter­ri­fy­ing.” As is demon­strated in The ­Changeover, you have to be care­ful what you’re invit­ing in. “Yeah, so many peo­ple on Twit­ter are say­ing, ‘You don’t have to choose sides. Why do you need to make it po­lit­i­cal?’ I do feel like not choos­ing a side is a form of invit­ing it in. If you just pas­sively sit there with your door open, it’s go­ing to come in. You have to be re­ally sure to just keep slam­ming the door and say­ing, ‘No, you’re not wel­come.’”

Maybe it’s the zeit­geist. Af­ter The Changeover, she’s back in ter­ri­fy­ing ter­ri­tory, work­ing on the Stephen King ­tele­vi­sion se­ries Cas­tle Rock, which the press notes call “an epic saga of dark­ness and light, played out on a few square miles of Maine wood­land”.

Lynksey can say no more. “I’ve never re­ally done some­thing with this level of se­crecy. So I feel like, if I say any­thing about it, some­one’s go­ing to come and snatch me away and kill me.”

In the end, it’s the PR minder who comes to snatch her away and she’s off to keep carv­ing out, with a cer­tain steely re­solve, a ca­reer with its own unique ca­dences. And to keep speak­ing up when the world makes her sad. “See you on Twit­ter,” she says.

The Changeover is in cin­e­mas on Thurs­day.

Clock­wise from left, Lynskey as Gin­ger Whi­tacre in The In­for­mant (2009); with Kate Winslet in Heav­enly Crea­tures; with An­gus T Jones in Two and a Half Men; with Eli­jah Wood in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Any­more.

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