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Since her 1994 debut in “Heavenly Creatures,” Melanie Lynskey has been acting steadily while “flying comfortably right under the radar.” Now, for her electric role on “Yellowjackets,” Lynskey has earned an Emmy nomination for outstanding lead actress in a drama series — and a whole new level of fame.
In this episode of “The Envelope” podcast, she dishes on how this year has helped her feel more empowered and less underestimated, arriving at a place of self-love after struggling with an eating disorder, and why roles of women who take up a lot of space appeal to her. Oh, and there’s also a delightful story about a Nick Cave concert and the best Drew Barrymore impression we’ve ever heard.
Yvonne Villarreal: Hello, everyone. Welcome to this week’s episode of “The Envelope.” Our guest today is having quite the year with her turn in “Yellowjackets.” I’m talking, of course, about Melanie Lynskey. But Melanie enthusiasts like myself know she’s been working in plain sight for some time. And Mark, I know you’re a fan — which of her projects come to mind for you?
Mark Olsen: So many. I mean, who can narrow it down? I mean, there’s her debut in “Heavenly Creatures,” obviously. The one I’ve always found to be her kind of incongruous role on “Two and a Half Men.” But my mind also goes to the kind of lesser-known 2009 Steven Soderbergh film “The Informant!” where she appears opposite Matt Damon. She’s great in that movie but I interviewed her for that role, so that’s one that always comes to mind for me.
Villarreal: Oh, I remember that interview. It came up in my research. But I am going to add one more film of hers that’s near and dear to me, and that’s “Ever After.” When I tell you I was obsessed with this movie in middle school, Mark, you would be so embarrassed for me, but that VHS was working overtime.
Olsen: I had always thought of myself as kind of a Lynskey completist but I have not seen “Ever After.” It’s funny how you can feel like you’ve seen a lot of her work, and then you look at her filmography and there’s always so much more.
Villarreal: Oh, totally. After we wrap this episode I will definitely send you my “Ever After” VHS so you could find a VCR and watch it.
Olsen: I have a VCR!
Villarreal: But yes, this year she’s been getting some long-overdue recognition in a big way because of Showtime’s “Yellowjackets.” The show is part psychological horror story, part coming-of-age drama, and it follows the saga of a girls soccer team stranded in the Canadian wilderness for nearly a year after an airplane crash by jumping in time.
Melanie plays one of the survivors, Shauna, in the present. As an adult, Shauna is this bored suburban housewife with obviously a lot of inner turmoil. And Melanie brings so much depth and complexity to a character who, in life, is overlooked and underestimated. So it was a surprise to no one that she scored an Emmy nomination for her performance.
And I have to say, I really enjoyed our conversation — she was so open and honest about her journey in this industry. And a bit of a warning to our listeners: About a third of the way through this episode, Melanie opened up about her struggle with an eating disorder.
Let’s get into the conversation now.
Villarreal: Melanie, thanks so much for joining us.
Melanie Lynskey: Thank you for having me.
Villarreal: Congratulations on your Emmy nomination. How do you feel now that the rush of that morning is behind you?
Lynskey: I feel good. I feel really excited. It was just such a shock on the day. I was not expecting it. It was a very, very exciting day. But I’ve had a little bit of time to process.
Villarreal: We spoke that day not long after you got the news, and I asked you how you were going to celebrate. And you said you had plans with your friend, Maggie Lawson, but before that, you were going to buy a fridge. So how did that go?
Lynskey: It didn’t go well, honestly. We went and we found a fridge. We were super excited. It was supposed to come yesterday, and then it didn’t. And so we were —
Villarreal: Oh no!
Lynskey: Yeah. And we were like, “What’s happening with the fridge?” And they said it’s delayed until mid-September. But maybe it can be my consolation prize after the Emmys or something. It’s like, “Well, at least the fridge is finally coming,” you know?
Villarreal: I had to buy a fridge recently too.
Lynskey: Do you like your fridge?
Villarreal: I do like it, I’m scared to use the water feature just because my fear is a leak, because I had a leak when I moved in. I don’t wanna deal with water damage, but that’s adult life, I guess.
Lynskey: It can be hard for us to trust again.
Villarreal: Well, let’s get into the real reason why we’re here, Melanie, which is to talk about “Yellowjackets.” It must be exciting that everyone became so obsessed with it. I’m curious what that experience was like for you.
Lynskey: I’m someone who cares very deeply about critics and what critics think. So I’m on Rotten Tomatoes, reading every single review. Like, I care, you know, I respect these people. And so that was already, I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing. It got such a good response.” And then, I never know about numbers or viewers or any of that kind of thing. It’s not how my brain works. So I wasn’t really sure how it was doing. But just week after week, people were tweeting at me. Old friends were reaching out to me. My group chat with my best girlfriends suddenly just became all about “Yellowjackets.” Which, I was like, “I come here to escape my life.” I said, “You guys can start another —” We have a chat that’s only about “Real Housewives” that one of our friends is not on. So like, I was like, “Do this for me with ‘Yellowjackets,’ just take me off.” But they all thought I was gonna give the secrets away.
Villarreal: What was going on in your life when this was presented to you?
Lynskey: I was doing “Mrs. America.” “Mrs. America” was the first job I had after having my daughter. And so I had a newborn child in Toronto. I didn’t have a nanny because I’d just been doing it by myself with Jason [Ritter, my husband]. Jason was working in Vancouver on a different show. I was hiring babysitters on a daily basis. It was just a very, very stressful and difficult time. and I just said to my agent, “I’ve got to take a break until I understand how I can do this, and I’m so tired.” And she said, “OK, I just, you know, this pilot just came in,” and then I read the pilot and I was like, “Oh no, that’s so good.” And then everything started kind of falling into place. I agreed to do the pilot. I met someone in Toronto who became my nanny and life just kind of got a bit easier.
Villarreal: What do you remember about reading that pilot? Was there a scene or a moment or a piece of dialogue that really drew you in, that you were like, “This is something I need to be a part of”?
Lynskey: I liked for Shauna — I liked the scene. There were a couple of moments where I was like, “Hmm,” because she wasn’t in the pilot that much. Well, here’s my child. Hi, baby girl. I love you. I’m just on here talking. Do you want to say hi?
Lynskey: Hi! This is Kahi.
Lynskey: Where’s Dada?
Villarreal: Hi, Kahi.
Kahi: Dada’s upstairs.
Lynskey: Oh, OK. Do you want to go find him?
Villarreal: He’s upstairs?
Lynskey: OK. I love you so much.
Lynskey: Child interruption. It’s my life.
Villarreal: It’s part of life.
Lynskey: OK. When I read the pilot, there were two specific moments, and one of them was like a very tiny moment where Shauna was doing the ironing and watching a show that is not “Jeopardy!” And she like quietly answered the question and then judged the woman for not getting it right in a way that I thought was really funny.
[Clip of “Yellowjackets”: GAME SHOW HOST: Parts of this 1667 epic were dictated to family members by its author. What are you? SHAUNA: I am “Paradise Lost.” GAME SHOW HOST: Yes, Linda. LINDA: I am “The Great Gatsby.” GAME SHOW HOST: Ooh, I’m sorry, the answer we were looking for is “Paradise Lost.” SHAUNA: Oh, Linda. You dumb bitch.]
Lynskey: And then, in the diner with Tawny [Cypress]’ character, with Taissa, she just. She’s been scrubbing s— stains out of underwear earlier in the pilot. And then there’s this moment where she’s just like, “Take care of this for me.” And you can see she has some kind of power that you don’t know about. She’s tougher than you’ve previously thought. And I just was like, “Well, this is an interesting person.”
[Clip of “Yellowjackets”: TAISSA: Shauna. SHAUNA: I saw you on f—ing television, Tai. If someone’s digging, we are all f—ed. Take care of it.]
Lynskey: And the younger storyline in the pilot was just so fascinating to me, the Jackie-Shauna dynamic. The writers talked to me on our initial call about the entire arc of Jackie and Shauna and the younger storyline. And I was like, “Oh, gosh, that’s heartbreaking. That’s amazing.”
Villarreal: What did understanding her emotional state involve for you? Was there work that you felt you had to do beyond the page to sort of figure out who Shauna was?
Lynskey: Not really. If I don’t feel something instinctively, there is no point in me doing it. Like I can read something and understand: This is a well-written story. This is a good script. But if I don’t have that little thing that unlocks in me where I feel like she’s already in there somewhere, I’m fighting against my own instincts where I’m trying to make choices or create something.
It’s much easier if it just kind of bubbles up from inside. And then it’s sort of later that I can put the pieces together and go, “Oh, OK. I understand what parts of me contributed to building this character.” And the main thing that was different to what I usually do is that I was getting to watch Sophie Nélisse, who was playing young Shauna the whole season. We were doing these table reads and I was getting to see her incredible work and what she was bringing to it and this deep intensity and stillness that she has. And so I was just stealing all of Sophie’s stuff because I just, I think she’s so powerful on camera. She’s such a powerful actress. And so that was a very helpful thing for me, to sort of take a lot of her physicality in the moments when Shauna really takes her power back. I was channeling Sophie, I guess.
Villarreal: Did you and Sophie have a lot of conversations about how to play Shauna, or was it strictly through observing her that you found your way?
Lynskey: We had conversations about the things that were important to us about her. It was important to us that she had a lot of fundamental self-esteem, that she wasn’t a person who was secretly like, “Oh, I wish I was as pretty as Jackie,” or whatever. That she was somebody who was like, “F— that. I think I’m kind of great.” That she was somebody who was interesting and sexual and men were interested in her.
And just that she had this sort of core of belief in herself. She knows she’s smart. Just things like that, that we wanted to be on the same page about. I think Sophie’s someone who operates from instinct as well. It comes from very deep inside her. And so neither of us made choices about, like, physical things or anything like that. I think we just sort of made sure that we were playing the same person. And then there was something energetically. The casting directors just did such an amazing job.
Villarreal: Is it a weird dynamic as a performer to play the aftermath of Shauna’s traumatic experience when it’s a different actor who’s portraying the formation of that initial trauma?
Lynskey: See, Sophie and I both think that the other person has the harder job. I think she has the harder job because she’s building it. She’s making a lot of big decisions. Sometimes it’s hard for me because I don’t have the full history of everything that happened in the wilderness, and something will be written for the wilderness time and I’ll be like, “Oh, OK, that’s informative.” Which is why I hound the writers like a crazy person and try to get every piece of information. Last season, the thing I was obsessive about was: What exactly happened to Jackie? Was it an accident? Was it deliberate? Was it kind of a deliberate accident? Did I straight-up murder someone? When I’m having guilty flashbacks, I need to know what the emotion is, you know? So they were good and they told me exactly what happened.
Villarreal: What did you think of that sequence of events of Jackie deciding to sleep outside and Shauna not doing, you know, maybe like saying, “No, no, come back,” or I don’t know. How did you think of what played out?
[Clip of “Yellowjackets”: JACKIE: Must be hard being this jealous all the time. What, you’re so f—ing jealous of me, you can barely breathe. SHAUNA: Are you quoting “Beaches” at me right now? JACKIE: What? No. SHAUNA: I’m not jealous of you, Jackie. I feel sorry for you.]
Lynskey: I thought it was the most tragic possible ending because it’s so human. Teenagers make crazy choices that can have lifelong consequences, and you just don’t think about it at the time. You’re impulsive and you’re bratty and you’re reactive and you just kind of jump into something and it can change you forever.
[Clip of “Yellowjackets”: SHAUNA: Oh I’m sure everyone back home is so f—ing sad to be losing their perfect little princess, but they’ll never know how tragic and boring and insecure you really are, or how high school was the best your life was ever gonna get.]
Lynskey: I had a friend who died when I was a teenager just from having, like, one crazy night. That’s something that’s kind of like haunted me a little bit. Just how quickly he was gone. And so that was really heartbreaking when I read that. It was just two people just being stubborn and never understanding the consequences. Never thinking they weren’t going to see each other again. Not thinking, “I could lose my best friend.” Just being like, “Well, she’s gonna come back inside and then I’ll be able to roll my eyes at her and we’ll go on.” You know? Sophie doing that scene where she finds her. It was just heart-wrenching.
[Clip from “Yellowjackets”: JACKIE: That’s it, you know what, that’s it, get out! Go on, get out! SHAUNA: No. JACKIE: I can’t be around you. I can’t even f—ing look at you right now. SHAUNA: Well, that sounds like your problem. So maybe you should leave.]
Villarreal: Do you think that’s what haunts her more than maybe some of the other things that happened on that experience?
Lynskey: Yeah, I think so. For sure. I think there’s a tremendous amount of survivor’s guilt. Especially the fact that she was sleeping with her boyfriend and then pregnant, And then this person dies and doesn’t come back. And so I think Shauna has guilt about a lot of different things. The survivor’s guilt of coming back when she sort of feels like someone else should have is a huge one.
Villarreal: There are a few moments where it’s clear, like, the depth of what Shauna has endured, but one that really had folks talking for different reasons was the bathtub scene.
[Clip from “Yellowjackets”: NAT: Do you still remember how to do that? SHAUNA: It’s just like riding a really gross, f—ed-up bike.]
Villarreal: The way she can lie and, you know, dismember a body of her lover with an electric carving knife so easily. It was such a striking moment, and oddly comedic. What did that scene reveal to you about her psychologically?
Lynskey: I think something the writers and I were really on the same page about is how much she compartmentalizes and how much she refuses to deal with and refuses to look at. And it’s clear because she’s been married to somebody for 20 years or whatever who she doesn’t really know and she doesn’t think knows her and she’s never discussed it. At the beginning of the series, they’re going to marriage counseling for the first time, and things are clearly in trouble. She thinks her husband’s having an affair and she’s not bringing it up to him. She’s just acting out and having an affair herself and doing — everything comes out sideways with her.
[Clip from “Yellowjackets”: THERAPIST: So tell me, kids, how’s the sex? SHAUNA: Yeah, I. We just, um, we’ve both been very busy recently, and Jeff’s had a lot of late nights at work. JEFF: Yeah, we’ve been having a lot of problems with the inventory database back at the store.]
Lynskey: So I felt like it was an interesting opportunity to just show how fully she will shut her emotions down and just get on. She’s just, like, “Here’s my job today.” He just becomes a body to her. She can’t really think about it. There is one moment where Juliette [Lewis, who plays Nat] is sort of pressing her, like, “Who is this guy? And what happened here?” And she does have a moment where she kind of starts to break down about it and says, “I thought he loved me.” I think some people kind of read that as being a manipulation, and to me it felt like the first time her brain started to be, like, “This is someone you cared about, by the way. This is someone that you thought that you loved.”
[Clip from “Yellowjackets”: SHAUNA: He was lying to me. He was going to hurt me. I thought that he loved me! I trusted him! NAT: Well, I needed answers. So, f—, Shauna!]
Lynskey: She has one little moment where her brain just kind of goes [screech]. She’s so scared of all her lies unraveling, everything falling apart. So that was interesting. I mean, I’m someone who cries. I cry all the time. And so it’s very interesting to me to play somebody who just starts to feel something and just pushes it down until she can’t anymore.
Villarreal: You talked earlier about casting, particularly with Sophie, but it’s so, so crucial to the magic of the series. Fans could not stop talking about how amazing both the casting for the adults and the younger characters playing them was. What has delighted you the most about the sort of sisterhood you have all established? And in what ways has that enhanced or fueled your performance?
Lynskey: Oh, gosh, I think for all of us, it’s been a really incredible thing. I mean, you know, there’s a scene with crazy old Misty. I’m just like, oh please, Christina [Ricci] doing this! Like everybody. Steven [Krueger], who plays the coach. Just, I mean, I’m just going to list every single actor if I keep doing this, but everybody’s so, so, so incredible. And I think everyone was excited to see each other work. We got so close in a way that I think really informed us because we weren’t together all the time. Like, some of us have kids, and we were working in different scenes and stuff like that. So, we weren’t, we didn’t have a physical intimacy. But we have a knowledge of every single person’s history and how we’re all feeling at all times.
Villarreal: You were coming up at around the same time that some of them were. Do you remember having thoughts about them at the time? Like, seeing their careers? Did you have any run-ins with them at auditions?
Lynskey: Tawny, I didn’t know. Juliette, she and I did an audition together once for something. Christina, I knew socially a little bit, but obviously I just was such fans of their work. A lot of the time I would audition for something and I would hear, “It’s between you and someone else,” and it was Christina. And I was like, “I know how this is gonna go.” And that happened to me over and over when I was like in my late teens and early 20s. I was like, “Who is it?” “It’s Christina Ricci.” “Oh, OK, bye. Bye. Bye, job.” Always. And she always did a great job and it was always fun to watch the movie and see how good she was. But that happened a lot. I ran into Christina once at a Nick Cave concert that I went to by myself. And she’s so cool. She’s just really one of those people who’s just effortlessly cool, like Natasha Lyonne. And I always feel like a very tall dork in front of them. And I remember her being like, “Are you here by yourself?” And I was like, “I can’t hear you.” I just pretended I couldn’t hear her. She was like, “It’s not loud. What do you mean, you can’t hear me? Are you here by yourself?” And she just wanted to like, say, “Come hang out with us if you are.”
Villarreal: Come hang out, yeah.
Lynskey: Yeah. But I just felt so dorky. I couldn’t admit, like, “I’ve come to this concert by myself.” Now I think going to a Nick Cave concert by yourself was very cool.
Villarreal: Yes, you should have owned it. Hindsight.
Lynskey: I know. I couldn’t at the time. I was like, “She’s too cool! What if she judges me?” I was a nerdy child, and it’s impossible to get out of that frame of mind. It’s impossible.
Villarreal: Melanie, so, young Shauna’s timeline takes place in 1996, and I’m curious: For you coming of age in Hollywood around that time, what was it like for you?
Lynskey: I remember — New Zealand is a pretty progressive, feminist country. And so I felt very empowered in New Zealand. I felt like a very free person. I felt like I had a lot of agency. I felt like I had a lot of options. I was always sort of the one, like, breaking hearts and stuff like that, being like, “I’m done with you now.”
And coming to Los Angeles, it was just a whole other world for me. Like at that time, I think the first time I came to do auditions, I was maybe 18, 17 or 18, where I stayed for a couple of months. And it was a real shock.
It was really hard, getting a lot of feedback about the ways I was not right. The ways my body wasn’t what they wanted. I didn’t wear enough makeup. My clothes weren’t tight enough. If my clothes were tight enough, my body had problems. People were so thin, and I was a tiny little person at that time, but just always told, like, “Not enough, not enough.” And it was very demoralizing. It was difficult. It sort of stripped me of that confidence that I had. I was shy in a lot of ways. I was filled with all kinds of self-doubt like most young women are, but there was something innate where I didn’t really question myself. And then I got here and it made me really just be like, “Oh, gosh, I guess I am not what they’re looking for.”
Villarreal: I know you’ve talked about how you developed an eating disorder, and I’m just sort of curious: What was the journey like to stop trying to be someone else? What was the turning point for you?
Lynskey: Well, I had an eating disorder from the age of 12, honestly, when my body started changing. And then it just got progressively worse. And then working in this industry and being literally judged against women who were completely different body types to me, which just got worse and really, really ramped up for a few years.
And I met somebody on a movie and moved in with him — as was my way in my early 20s, like, “We live together now!” — and so I had this boyfriend and he, you know, found out that I had an eating disorder because it’s hard to hide. And he was just heartbroken. He was just, like, “I don’t want this for you.” And he was trying to say, “You’re beautiful. You’re perfect.” That stuff, you don’t hear that stuff when that’s not how you feel about yourself.
So he started to do weird stuff where he would cook for me and not let me watch him cook, so I couldn’t control it. And it was really upsetting, but then I would eat it and then he would be like, “Just don’t go to the bathroom.” Because I wasn’t a binge eater, but I would eat something and then I would get rid of it. And I remember one day he started crying and he just said, “It’s so violent, so violent what you’re doing to yourself.” And I thought, “God, that sounds so awful. It is violent. And I do want to be free from it.” And it was a couple of years after that, even after we broke up, I was still working on it. But that was a turning point for me in letting go of some of the crazy control that I had, where I was able to go to a restaurant and like get pasta, you know?
And even then, I exercised obsessively so that my body still looked the way I thought it was supposed to look. And I was very, very, very careful. And I think just over the years I got tired. And also, when I had my daughter, I just was like, any of the stuff that’s lingering, I just don’t, I don’t want it for her. I don’t want her to see somebody talking about their body in a way that’s negative. I don’t want her to see her mother refusing things and being like, “Oh, actually I can’t.” I want her to see me eating things that are healthy. I want her to see me on the Peloton, on the treadmill, running around with her, going to exercise classes. But also I wanted her to see me have a piece of cake or whatever.
And so far — touch wood; she’s only 3 — she’s never heard any comment about her own body other than it’s strong and she’s growing. She tells me all the time how beautiful I am and how soft I am. And my body’s just kind of settled into a place that is healthy. And, you know, years and years of having an eating disorder kind of messes with your metabolism, unfortunately, but I’m just, I’m giving my body some grace and just being like, all right. It’s OK to have a person who looks like a lot of women look. I think it’s healthy for women. And the one thing is, I don’t want to be onscreen, judging my own body. I wanna be onscreen as a free person who’s just living her life in the body that she has, because that’s the reality. That’s what we do. I don’t go around my life just being like, “Oh, gosh, if only I could fit into sample sizes.” I just live. It’s a very long answer. Sorry. But it’s a big topic, I guess.
Villarreal: No, it is. Because obviously the pressure remains. It’s still as prevalent as ever. You shared the experience you had on “Yellowjackets” with a crew member body-shaming you. Do you feel like you’re better equipped to navigate the pressures now?
Lynskey: I think that I am, because I’ve had such a wonderful response from women who feel very seen and who are like, “Oh my gosh, it’s someone who looks like me, who’s not talking about it.” There’s no scenes of Shauna being like, “Actually, I’m on a diet right now.” You know, she’s just having sex with two different people. You know? I think that’s been very powerful. So I feel empowered by that.
At the time when that happened on the set, it was just one person who kind of took it upon themselves. And I think once upon a time, I would’ve really shrunk into myself and gotten really, really upset and tried to starve myself and tried to do what I could.
And I asked the producers. I said, like, “Is this coming from you guys? Where is this coming from? ’Cause somebody said this to me and I just, if it’s coming from you, I would rather it came directly from you.” And they were just mortified. Like, “We love you. Not only are you fine, we’re excited that that’s what you look like. There’s no part of us that’s wanting you to be anything different, so please don’t entertain that.” So that was a relief.
Villarreal: Well, to build on the things that women go through, this show is about girls and women and trauma and survival. And it arrives at such a potent time. I’m wondering how you view its purpose against the current cultural backdrop.
Lynskey: I mean, I feel so hopeless at this point in time. And I wish I didn’t. I wish I felt more empowered. But it just feels like there are people in positions of power who are just choosing to do whatever they want, never mind what the majority of this country believes or wants for themselves. So I just feel like the institutions have to change. There’s such bigger-picture issues, but I do think it’s great, in a moment where women are having their rights taken away, to have a show on television that is full of ferocious, rageful, living, real women who are just feeling things and acting out and doing things and surviving and going through traumas. I think that’s a very powerful thing to be able to watch. I think it’s cathartic.
Villarreal: In addition to Shauna, you also played Betty Gore in Hulu’s true-crime drama “Candy.” Both characters bring psychological complexities to women, to mothers, to housewives, and it’s something you also brought to your character in “Togetherness.” These are women who live in silence with feeling undervalued or lonely or unfulfilled or stuck. What have you found fulfilling in subverting the stereotype? Or what attracts you to that kind of material?
Lynskey: It’s interesting to me to play somebody with hidden depths. As somebody who has felt underestimated for a lot of my life, I like playing those people. I like playing people who are dismissed. I’m a quiet person. I don’t take up a lot of space. And I think there’s something very satisfying about playing women who reclaim the space.
In terms of Betty, something I think that was amazing about her was that she was talking about her feelings at a time when a lot of women were just repressing and just feeling like, “Well, here I am with my husband and my children and I better just stay quiet,” but she was like, “I’m struggling.” She was talking to people around her. She was saying she was unhappy with how things were going at church. A lot of people in that small community in Texas were upset about her approach to things, because they were like, “This woman should shut up and just be grateful.” But she was frustrated and she was talking about it, which I thought was kind of amazing.
Villarreal: Do you still feel underestimated?
Lynskey: I sometimes have times at work still where I just have to, you know, have more of a voice, I think. But it’s been a while, I guess, since that happened. I’m feeling less underestimated. I’ve had a lot of support the last year, which has been nice.
Villarreal: Do you think the roles that you take on in your job have shaped or changed who you are, or do they often run parallel?
Lynskey: I think that there’s always a little thread of something that I need to work out within myself. When I was playing Betty, I realized in between shooting the pilot and going to the series of “Yellowjackets,” I was pregnant and I lost my pregnancy and had a lot of complications afterward and gained a bunch of weight and all this sort of stuff that was hard on my body, hard on me emotionally. And I was in the kind of depression where getting up every day was hard.
And I think to get to go to work and play somebody who was also sitting in a very deep depression just kind of helps you exorcize some of your own feelings and just physically remove them from your body. And by the end of that, I felt quite free in a way that I hadn’t for a long time.
Doing “Yellowjackets,” it’s interesting because I have a younger version of myself on the show, but it sort of forced me to reconnect with my own younger self, who was very confident and passionate and sure of myself. And it forced me to sort of tap more back into her and remember who she was and how she would walk into a room. I think that’s a thing that Shauna sort of finds over the course of the first season.
Villarreal: I want to talk more about your process for a moment, because I read that you used dreamwork as an acting technique. When and how did you become aware of it, and what do you like about it?
Lynskey: I became aware of it — I did a Sundance Lab in I think 2005, and there was an actor there called Tina Holmes. And I’ve never seen anybody as good as Tina Holmes. I was watching her and I just was like, “Who is this person?” I said to her, “Tell me your secrets. What do you do? How are you this good?” And she was, you know, she’s very humble. But she said, “I have a teacher I work with. I do this creative dreamwork. And if you ever want to come to a class.” And I started doing classes. So it’s been almost 20 years.
Villarreal: So how does it come up in your acting?
Lynskey: I had a dream once for, that I had asked myself for another job.
And there was a moment in the dream where I had to really confront somebody, and I did something with my body language where I put my hands on a surface and I put my feet flat on the floor in a particular way. And in the dream, I felt so powerful. I had the sensation through my whole body of being like a queen, and then confronting this person in my dream.
And it’s funny, like when you work through those things and you’re unconscious, it becomes like a little ritual almost. There is a way that I can stand if I need to access a feeling of immense power very quickly. There’s a thing I can do that’s just from this weird dream that I had, where I can just put my hands on something and put my feet down and it comes through my body.
And there are images that you take from your dream. It’s almost like flipping through a photo album sometimes before you shoot a scene. There’s images from dreams and images from your childhood, and you just kind of sit there and go through — it’s like you have flashcards of memory or of emotion, and things that will come up that you put into yourself, and you go into the scene with these things. It’s the most — I mean, I’ve never done any other kind of acting work, so I can’t, I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m sure other things are very informative too, but for me, this way of working is very powerful.
Villarreal: You talked about, you don’t have formal training but you took a dramatic improv class as a teenager, right?
Lynskey: As a child, from 7 to like 16 or something, for years and years. It’s what I did every Friday night. Very cool.
Villarreal: What did that involve? Are there things you learned in that class that you still apply today?
Lynskey: I think the main thing was just to get very comfortable with improv and the feeling of not being able to fail, which you really need when you’re improvising. When they came to my school for “Heavenly Creatures,” they didn’t want to show anyone a script or say what they were doing. They just were seeing if anyone was interesting. And so they said, “Do you think you could improvise the scene?” It was me and my friend, Susie, who was in the class with me.
And they were like, “Do you know what improvised means?” And we were like, “Mm-hmm, yep. we’re good. We’ve been doing this for like eight years. Yeah.” So we just improvised. It’s like second nature to us. So it came in very handy in that instance.
And then “Togetherness” as well. “Togetherness” was, like, mostly improvised.
Villarreal: I didn’t know that. You couldn’t tell. It’s so good. Have you used it often outside of “Togetherness?”
Lynskey: Oh, all the time. Yeah. “Don’t Look Up,” I improvised so much on “Don’t Look Up,” ’cause Adam McKay loves improv. I improvised on “Yellowjackets,” and luckily they were OK with that.
Villarreal: Was there a moment in particular that stands out from the improvising?
Lynskey: When Tawny and I are having a sleepover, the whole story I tell her is improvised, about the editor of the literary magazine. It’s just based on a real love affair I had in college, a true story, a true story of two rivals.
[Clip from “Yellowjackets”: SHAUNA: … and Virginia Woolf. I would meet, like, a floppy-haired, sad-eyed poet boy who ran the school lit magazine. He was gonna be, like, so smart and a little bit intimidated by me. We were gonna be, like, full rivals until we weren’t, you know, that kind of thing? [Taissa laughs] SHAUNA: But then my short stories would make him fall in love with me anyway…]
Villarreal: That’s so good.
Lynskey: It’s just fun to surprise somebody, to be in a scene with somebody and then you’ve done the thing and then to tell a story so they’re listening in a different way. They’re like, “I don’t know this story,” you know, it’s just fun.
Villarreal: As you mentioned, you were famously plucked out of high school to star in Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures.” What’s a favorite memory or the biggest teachable moment you had from that first experience of being on a set and making something?
Lynskey: I was so, so, so lucky in that they gave me a ton of support. My second audition when I went back and I was doing the scenes, they had an acting coach with me called Miranda Harcourt, whose work I still use. And she directed a movie a few years ago and I acted in her movie, and she’s great. She’s amazing.
She gave me a lot of amazing techniques. Like, the character was so different from me. I’m kind of quiet and girly. And she was like, “Can you think of anybody in your life who has this kind of physicality?” And I said, “My little brother [Tom], I guess,” who was 4 at the time, who kind of walked around scowling like this. And she said, “Great. So think about Tom and be in Tom’s body and do the scene.” And so I kind of did an impression of my 4-year-old brother for most of “Heavenly Creatures.”
And I just remember the excitement of, we did a night shoot. It was the middle of the night. And I was up when I was filming a scene outside with all these candles around us and the big lights and the trees. And I just remember it being magic. I just was like, “I love this.”
Villarreal: Oh, I love that. What do you remember about Kate Winslet at that time? And in what ways did you guys sort of lean on each other?
Lynskey: I felt like I was the only one leaning because she was very — she, you know, it was her first movie too, but she had been acting forever in commercials and television. She’d been a working actor, paying her own bills since she was 12, and she was very, very confident. She really had a thing of like, “This is my first movie, and I’m just gonna go up from here,” like, full belief. Which, she’s Kate Winslet, you better have that belief.
And I remember just being like, “Oh my God, can you imagine just knowing? Knowing that and just being so certain of your path?” It was really inspiring to me and very sort of foreign also.
Villarreal: You’ve talked about how Peter Jackson and his wife and the producers of “Heavenly Creatures” didn’t want you to get carried away with show business, right? They felt very strongly, you need to go back home. What did you think about that then? And how do you view that now — their sort of concern about you maintaining a normal life?
Lynskey: I really understand it. They didn’t want to be responsible for somebody’s life going off the rails. I did well in school and stuff like that, and it’s a very hard job. And I think they were kind of like, “If there’s anything else you can do, then you should do something else, because this is difficult. It’s very hard to make a living.” I was 15. I turned 16 the week before the movie ended or something. So I think at that age, it’s very hard to not process that information as being criticism.
So I did understand, like they’re looking out for me, but at the same time, Kate was alongside me and the conversation was so different because she was already an established actress and she already had agents and was working. And so then they were like, “Oh, you gotta meet this person at CAA and you’ve gotta do this and that. And I heard about this script that you would be so great for.” So it was a little bit painful because I was like, “It’s so different.” But then also she’s very beautiful. I think they were just being realistic about her odds compared to my odds as an awkward, chubby 15-year-old who was doing their first ever job. I think they were just like, they just didn’t want me to believe something could happen that was probably not going to happen.
Villarreal: And then it was like a couple years before you did “Ever After,” right? Which, Melanie, that movie changed my life.
Lynskey: Oh, really? So sweet.
Villarreal: I love that movie. Obviously we know what it’s based on, but I still have the VHS that I take with me no matter where I move.
Lynskey: That is so cute.
Villarreal: I love that movie. Me and my cousin were obsessed with it at the time, and we still talk about it. What do you remember about that experience? Working with someone like Anjelica Huston, Drew Barrymore, what did that feel like?
Lynskey: I just remember for me, I was 19 when we did that movie, and I had not done anything since “Heavenly Creatures” and I was petrified. I’d been auditioning and just not getting things, and I just was so scared. And the way that they embraced me and made me feel like a peer and made me feel like they were excited to be working with me. Anjelica and Drew had both seen “Heavenly Creatures” and were both just like, “It’s amazing!”
I just felt so loved. I felt so on their level instantly. And it was genuine. It just let me relax and do the best job I could do because I just was like, “Oh, OK. I don’t have to work to earn their approval.” Like, it’s just a given.
And then Drew at the beginning of the shoot gave everybody different musical instruments. And she was like, “We’re gonna make music together. And we’re a band. So, I’ve chosen something for everybody.” And she gave me a bongo drum. And then Anjelica was just like, she felt like a sister, so loving, so funny. We got very close in a very genuine way. And she just was so present always. And also I was very interested because she knew lighting and somebody would like be setting up a light and she’d be like, “Really? There?” And they’d be like, “Uhhhh, hang on.” And the gaffer would come back and adjust.
Villarreal: When you moved to Los Angeles, what, in your early 20s, what was your plan?
Lynskey: Oh God. I don’t know if I — my plan was to try to get a green card and to try to make a living. That was my big plan.
Villarreal: What kind of actor did you envision yourself becoming?
Lynskey: Because I had just worked with Katrin Cartlidge — she was and is my favorite actor — I was obsessed with her. I had seen literally everything she’d ever done multiple times. And then I did a movie of “The Cherry Orchard’’ and in the room the director said, “Oh, today I found you and Katrin Cartlidge,” and I burst into tears in front of him.
I was just like, “Are you kidding? Are you kidding?” And he said, “No, I cast her earlier.” Every moment I had with her, I just was like, soaking it up, soaking it up. She was who I wanted to be. She was my goal: Work with interesting directors to do great work, play a lot of different characters, challenge myself. That was my dream, to have a career like hers.
Villarreal: Well, I think it’s safe to say you have. What does it feel like to be in your “having a moment” phase? That’s what all the headlines are saying this year, and so many of your fans are saying this is long overdue. We’ve been obsessed with her forever. But what does it feel like for you to get this kind of recognition at this time?
Lynskey: It’s funny, my auntie, who I’m very close with, texted me the other day. And she was like, “I hope you’re doing OK. I know this would be really hard for you ’cause you’re so shy.” It’s really lovely to have people responding. If I’m being completely honest, I’ve been very comfortable kind of being under the radar because there’s less of a fall. You know what I mean? I just feel like I’ve been kind of steadily working and I’ve had options and I’ve been happy. I feel good. I can go to a restaurant and most people don’t recognize me. It’s been a very nice path. And so it’s a bit scary to be exposed in a way that I haven’t been. But also, how wonderful to have people responding, have people watching something and caring about it.
I never dreamed I would be nominated for an Emmy. Honestly, I did not think that the awards stuff would be part of my trajectory as an actor. So it’s like an extra gift that feels very, very special, feels like a huge honor. And I love awards. I’m a person who watches every single awards show. So I’m not one of those people who’s like, “It’s meaningless.” It’s so meaningful to me. It means so much. So it’s wonderful and it’s also scary.
There’s part of me that’s like, “Oh, God, people are going to get sick of my face. People are gonna turn on me.” But I’m just trying to enjoy it without anticipating the worst, which is always hard for me.
Villarreal: Before I let you go: Production on Season 2 of “Yellowjackets’’ will begin at, what, the end of August?
Villarreal: Where would you like to see Shauna’s story go? Are there aspects about her life that you’d like to delve deeper into?
Lynskey: I would love to meet her family, her immediate family. I would like to know, like, who are those people and what’s that? But also, that’s a great thing about working with writers who are as good as these writers are. Last season, I would be like, “Oh, I wonder if this is gonna happen next episode,” and something happened that surprised me every time. Even though they took me through the whole arc of the season, there was always something where I was like, “Oh, wow. OK.” I really think they know the story so deeply that they know the best path to take it on. I trust them so much.
Villarreal: Well, Melanie, it’s been such a pleasure speaking with you and I am so looking forward to what’s to come with Season 2. I really can’t wait for you to get your fridge. So I hope you post about it.
Lynskey: Thank you. I want to see your fridge.
Villarreal: I’ll have to take you there later. Thank you.
Special thanks to Matt Brennan, Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton, Elena Howe, Kayla Bell, Patricia Gardiner, Dylan Harris, Brandon Sides, James Liggins, Sophie Chap, Darius Darakshan, Lauren Rocha, William Dobson, Amy Wong and Chris Price.
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