It would not surprise me if Melanie Lynskey had deliberately matched her pale blouse to the pale curtains behind her, and her pale complexion, the better to blend into the background. After 30 years of critical acclaim, but not mainstream fame, Lynskey is getting noticed and it feels very, very strange to her. Her show, Yellowjackets, has steadily become a hit. Lynskey is not quite the lead in this ensemble piece, but near enough, as one of four fortysomething women who survived a plane crash as teenagers, and went through some savage stuff, involving murder and almost certainly cannibalism.
Likened to a mix of Lord of the Flies, Lost and Mean Girls, with a pleasing amount of 90s nostalgia, it has become one of the most talked-about shows of the moment. “It’s funny to be on something that people are watching,” Lynskey says with a laugh. “It’s a different experience.”
A concerned friend recently texted her to ask how she was dealing with that. “I said, I actually feel very nervous,” she says when we speak over Zoom (she is in Atlanta, where she is filming a crime drama with Jessica Biel). She is low-key and gentle. “It’s a lot easier to stay under the radar, have people be like, ‘You should get more attention, you should have more roles’ or whatever. It’s weird to have been doing this for 30 years and then all of a sudden …” She smiles. “I didn’t think this would happen. I thought if it was going to happen, it would happen in my 20s. So I’m grateful, and it’s really nice to have choices. But it feels vulnerable.”
Lynskey has worked a huge amount, in a career that might have lacked attention but not quality – she was in the HBO series Togetherness and the recent BBC drama Mrs America, and independent films such as Hello I Must be Going and I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. I suspect this is how she likes it. She is wary of fame – until now, one of her most high-profile roles was as a stalkerish neighbour in the sitcom Two and a Half Men, but she left when she felt the role might provide too much exposure or threaten to typecast her, and went on to infinitely more interesting, if much lower-paid, roles instead.
It’s her husband, the actor Jason Ritter (they have a three-year-old daughter), who gets recognised when they’re out. Lynskey is the one who takes the pictures for fans, she says with a laugh. That is surely about to change, but those low expectations can be hard to shrug off, even in the face of long-overdue recognition. “We’ll see,” she says.
She had an astonishing start. In the early 90s, she was a high school pupil in New Zealand when the director Peter Jackson, having exhausted his search of actors for a film, started trawling schools. Lynskey was chosen, and she turned 16 while shooting Heavenly Creatures alongside the then-unknown Kate Winslet, based on a true story about two teenage girls whose intense relationship has catastrophic consequences. One became a megastar, the other … went back to school, then spent years on the periphery of Hollywood, had successful supporting roles (from Coyote Ugly at the beginning of her career, to the recent Netflix film Don’t Look Up), put in some excellent performances in acclaimed indie films, and now, at 44, has become a primetime lead.
“I learned so early on not to have expectations,” says Lynskey. But she liked what she read when she got the script for Yellowjackets (it’s the name of the girls’ football team; they were on their way to a tournament when their plane crashed), and she had a conversation with the creators who had a clear plan for her character and about five seasons’ worth of material. She felt, she says, that it could work.
“I wonder if we’ve all just gone through this collective trauma and everyone’s feeling a bit shaken up and they don’t really know how to put the pieces back together. This plane crash and these people surviving – I feel like people are interested in that. I think people can relate to that kind of general feeling right now. But I also just think it’s fun.”
Lynskey’s character Shauna is unassuming, but it’s a thin, fragile layer – she also has some dubious sexual fantasies, and an unforgiving attitude to pest control (and blackmail). There is something so compelling about the rage of middle-aged women. “It’s very common and it’s also very common to not know what your outlet’s allowed to be for your rage,” says Lynskey. “I think a lot of us were raised having to squash those feelings down, and you get to a particular age and you’re like, it’s coming up and I don’t know how to healthily let go of it.”
Shauna might come across as someone with self-doubt, but it’s not really true, says Lynskey, even if her life hasn’t turned out the way she might have hoped. “I think she still believes: ‘I’m a confident, sexual, interesting person, and I deserve a lot.’” With self-doubt, says Lynskey, “it’s very hard for it not to creep in, in middle age – you’re being told everywhere you look you’re not of any value any more, nobody’s interested. But I think within herself, she believes that she’s worthy.”
Lynskey knew she wanted to be an actor from the age of six. She grew up in New Plymouth, in New Zealand, the eldest of five; her father was a surgeon, her mother a nurse. Lynskey was, she says, “very, very shy. I’m still very shy.” Getting a part in a school play was a revelation. “It was so freeing, having someone give me the words to say and not being myself for a minute. It just felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I wasn’t consumed with anxiety. Then I just was addicted – I did whatever I could.”
When she was cast in Heavenly Creatures, they were already close to shooting. She was given a day on set to learn the basics of screen acting – things like how to avoid looking at the camera – and an acting coach was hired to help her access emotions, but she found the woman’s methods brutal: “It just put me in absolute panic.” Jackson hired another coach, “who was a lot kinder, thank God. But that was how I started out, that was my first day of rehearsal.”
Despite being two years younger than her co-star, and inexperienced, Lynskey gives an incredible performance. She carries the film. Yet it was Winslet’s career that took off. Lynskey remembers the excitement around them. Winslet was ready for it. “I wasn’t. I’d never done anything before, and I was very shy.” She didn’t – doesn’t – begrudge Winslet any of it. “I adored her and I admired her so much. There wasn’t a part of me that thought it could have happened to either one of us. It felt like it was supposed to happen to her. She’s a movie star – there’s a glow. I’d never met anybody like that in my life.”
All the same, she says, “it was a little hard to have absolutely nothing happen for me. It would have been easier if some agents were interested, but there was nothing. It was hard to not feel like I had failed in some way.” She had to learn, she says, “how to be OK with the good things that had happened and not hope for more. That was the beginning of me lowering my expectations.”
She was a cinema geek, though, and for years had been subscribing to serious film magazines. Having critics she respected praise her performance gave her a glimmer of hope, so after a year of university, she got an agent and started going to Los Angeles for auditions. One was for The Crucible, the Daniel Day-Lewis film, which she didn’t get “but it went well, and that built my confidence a little bit”. She got others, including a stepsister in Drew Barrymore’s Cinderella film, Ever After, and weighty films such as The Cherry Orchard “with some of my favourite actors of all time, like Katrin Cartlidge, Alan Bates and Charlotte Rampling. I was so grateful to be working, I didn’t need much – I had been living on nothing. I understood that I was building it from the ground up at that point, and I felt lucky that the door had been opened again.”
But it was also disheartening. “I felt like so much of the stuff I was reading would have required me to really compromise myself in some way,” says Lynskey. “There was so much that was just straight-up misogynistic, sexist, disappointing.” She was, she says, “unhappy a lot of the time”. Lynskey is, as anyone can see, beautiful, but in the late 90s and the early years of this century, the infamous size zero was the look. She kept getting put up for best friend-type roles in dross. “I’d get another script to be like, ‘the fat character just sitting in the corner eating a chocolate bar, while the pretty girls are all at the dance’ or whatever. I was like, ‘No’. It’s so irresponsible that there are scripts like this at all.” She asked her agency not to keep sending her stuff like that. When it did, she left.
Throughout this time, Lynskey had developed an eating disorder, restricting herself to a certain number of calories a day, and if she went over, she would make herself throw up. She was also exercising obsessively. She was living with her boyfriend at the time and says, “it just broke his heart. It was the first time somebody had really noticed and cared. He did this weird thing, which sounds controlling but wasn’t, where he would cook but not let me be in the kitchen.” Or they’d go out for dinner and he would try to stop her going to throw up in the bathroom as soon as they’d finished. “We had fights in restaurants because I was like …” She pauses. “I remember one day, he said: ‘It’s just so violent, what you’re doing to yourself.’” Lynskey broke up with him. “I suppose I was too filled with self-loathing. But I’m very grateful [to him]. That was the beginning of me being able to work my way out of it, and feel worthy. Something about him saying that it was ‘violent’. And I was such a young feminist – I read the 70s feminists, and all the newer feminists that were coming up in the 90s. I was aware of what I was participating in, but I just couldn’t stop it.”
It wasn’t even as if the thinner she got, the more successful she became. She couldn’t win. “Even me at my sickest and thinnest, I looked pretty normal. I’m just built a particular way and that was exhausting, where it doesn’t matter how hard I exercise or how little I eat … I really had to learn to start being OK with how I was made.” It also made her angry. “To have been so unkind to my own body for so long, I was furious about how Hollywood was working.” It just didn’t reflect what she saw and felt in real life – the idea that only thin women could be attractive or lovable patently wasn’t true. “They’re telling women that this is how you have to be, and it’s just not reality. There’s just so much about it that infuriated me. I felt a responsibility to not perpetuate it and so even when there was nothing else on the table, and I had no other options, I just wouldn’t play that part.”
There is more diversity now – you could easily argue not enough – but in an interview with Rolling Stone last month, Lynskey said someone on the Yellowjackets production had made a comment about her size, which prompted her co-stars to step in to support her. “Overwhelmingly on Yellowjackets, I felt supported,” she says. At the end of the shoot, Lynskey wrote to an executive to thank them for not making her feel as if she had to lose weight. The executive was confused. “She was like: ‘It never crossed my mind. Everyone thought you looked real and sexy.’ How funny that I feel the need to thank someone. It’s just so ingrained.”
Some of the public response though, she says, “has been a bit interesting”. People online have commented on how she looks (Lynskey took to Twitter a few weeks ago to complain that it was “the story of my life since Yellowjackets premiered”). “It’s trying to tune out that stuff and just listen to the women who say: thank you for just being on screen and not pinching your tummy, or being like: ‘I wish I was thinner.’”
It’s still rare enough to see a woman in her mid-40s having such a rampant sex life on screen, as Shauna does, that it feels refreshing. Lynskey smiles. “I started to get to a point reading the script where I was like: ‘Oh my God, I’m having sex again!’ Then I was like: ‘How great that I’m the one who’s having all the sex!’ Because it happens. It’s just so funny to me, this narrative that you …”
She smiles and says she loves the Amy Schumer sketch about actresses marking their “last fuckable day”, usually somewhere in their 40s. Like so much else popular culture has tried to tell us about women, she says, a hint of rage simmering beneath her preternaturally calm manner, “it’s not a real thing”.