Actress Melanie Lynskey on Charlie Sheen, Trump and The Changeover

by Diana Wichtel / 28 September, 2017
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Melanie Lynskey. Photo/Getty Images

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”.

Lynskey with Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures.

Lynskey with Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures.

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 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.”

Lynskey as Ginger Whitacre in The Informant (2009).

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 threatening 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.

With Elijah Wood in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore.

With Elijah Wood in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore.

There are fewer laughs in her haunting new local film, The Changeover, based on Margaret Mahy’s young-adult 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.”

With Angus T Jones in Two and a Half Men.

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 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.

This article was first published in the September 30, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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