Melanie Lynskey

Melanie Lynskey Knew Her Main Character Moment Was Coming

The Emmy-nominated star sits down with her dear friend and former co-star Danielle Brooks to talk stepping into the limelight in a whole new way.

Melanie Lynskey
On Melanie: Valentino cape, Christian Siriano dress, Nadri earrings and bracelet. Gizelle Hernandez

Melanie Lynskey is the nicest person in Hollywood. This was stated to me matter-of-factly by someone who's worked with enough of that town to know, and then confirmed with my own eyes and ears when — mid glam-squad makeover in a boutique Silver Lake hotel room strewn with borrowed Louboutins and a glittering Valentino cape that could transform anyone into a diva — the actress talked about everyone else who deserved awards for their recent performances. This one is "just lovely," and that one "so charming," Lynskey says, the "R" utterly vanishing behind the New Zealand accent that even superfans sometimes forget she has. It's a small tell that she isn't just nice, Lynskey is one of the most skilled and compelling character actresses of our time. Her friend and fellow mom-in-Hollywood Danielle Brooks says Lynskey has a reputation in the industry: "People are like, 'She's the real deal. She will deliver.'"

This sounds so crazy, but I talked to a psychic, who I love, and she told me this was gonna happen.

Over the course of her last two projects — Hulu's Candy and Showtime's Yellowjackets, the cultural phenomenon that earned her first lead actress Emmy nomination — Lynskey ushered in a new era of leading lady. She's been so strong as a supporting character for so long the only clear reason she hasn't burst into the spotlight before must be not conforming to the pre-existing image of a star, until Hollywood let her remake that image to fit hers. Though she doesn't tend toward unfettered self-confidence, or trust in an industry that's put her in the background for three decades, she had a hunch it was going to work out.

"This sounds so crazy, but I talked to a psychic, who I love, and she told me this was gonna happen," she tells me on Zoom in July, in the liminal space between when Emmy votes are cast and nominations come out. "It had been months and months since we shot the [Yellowjackets] pilot, and she said, 'That show's gonna get picked up and it's gonna be really big, and you're gonna enter into a time in your career that you thought, if this didn't happen when you were 25, it was never going to happen. It's about to happen.'" Lynskey explains she was almost incredulous, "I was like, I just don't think that's possible. Thank you so much, like, she can't always be right."

Melanie Lynskey
On Melanie: Oscar de la Renta cape, Jimmy Choo shoes. Nadri necklace, earrings, and bracelet. Gizelle Hernandez

That "thank you so much" reveals a through line in much of Lynskey's best work. As Betty Gore in Candy, she demonstrates a seething anxiety that makes that woman's story sadder and harder to watch, somehow, than the blunt-force trauma that ended her life. In the Duplass brothers' Togetherness, she conveys both the awkwardness and familiarity in a marriage strained by lack of sex. And as Yellowjackets' Shauna, she spatchcocks a rabbit who'd been antagonizing her garden and feeds it to her family with a smile. Some subdermal darkness sneaks through even her most regular-folk roles, simultaneously daring viewers to take up space in their own lives as unapologetically, while challenging the structures that had us shrinking ourselves in the first place.

"I was friends with Brittany Murphy, and the way she viewed her self was always really heartbreaking to me — the things she felt she had to change to be a successful actor," Lynskey says. "She was perfect just as she was, but people were trying to cast her as, like, 'the fat one,' because when she was a very young teenager, her cheeks were a little bit round. People tell you that you're a particular thing, and it's very hard to fight back against."

Now 45, Lynskey is happily married to actor Jason Ritter, 42, whom she calls "the world's most adorable feminist" and mom to a 3-year-old girl who drives her desire to break out of any confines the industry might keep her in. She explains that Ritter turns down work that isn't "life-changing" to support hers and spends more time with their daughter on weekends when she needs to recharge; "I know balance is not usually like this and I'm lucky, but this should just be how it is." Also, as fans have noticed, he's outspoken in his love for her.

"Sometimes, my husband will tweet things about thinking I look hot or whatever and a lot of people like it, and I said to him, 'Isn't it funny that if I was a Victoria's Secret model and you tweeted the exact same thing, people would not respond the way that they do?'" she says. "People get excited because I look like I look, and my husband, he's like a cute, young actor, but I am aware that some of the responses to him are like, 'Good for you.' It's like, well, he got together with me because he found me attractive. It's not like he's throwing himself on the sword for the rest of mankind," she says. "And also — he had competition."

Melanie Lynskey
On Melanie: Christian Siriano dress, Giuseppe Zanotti shoes, Nadri earrings and bracelet. Gizelle Hernandez

In January, the actress started tweeting some examples of how she was treated around her performance in Yellowjackets, a show that finds her character in several very sexy situations. A crew member suggested she lose weight for the role, which she declined to do, and viewers had strong responses, both critical and celebratory, of the boldness of existing on-screen in that way in her body. "I'm trying to just say to myself, 'OK, you're normalizing this, and hopefully more women will come along who look like you, and people won't feel like they have to say things like that,' because there is kind of a backhanded compliment."

All bodies are beautiful and I just really would love to get to the point where we can have all different kinds of bodies and it's just not commented on in the way that it is right now.

She wants to take the compliment and not the insult, but also wishes her looks were not so central to the narrative around her rise to prominence. "Sometimes, I get tired of hearing about my body, even when it is positive, I just, you know, feel like I need a break from thinking about it and hearing about it and I think all women feel that way."

Lately, Lynskey's been choosing a quieter, more internal battle against subsuming to those wrong notions.

"I think my default setting is kind of pessimism, and I'm trying to work against it," she says. She wants to believe in the world's capability for kindness and change — both small and big. For example, she wants to live in a world where it's not groundbreaking for a woman like her to be sexually desired on-screen and one in which people don't value guns over others' lives. She mentions two recent mass shootings as particularly devastating to her belief in humanity. "[But] you can't live in despair. You have to have the energy to keep fighting, and despair kind of makes you want to sink into bed and never get out," she says. "So, I'm trying to just have hope and realize there are people who feel the way [I] feel. There are people who want things to get better for everybody."

These unselfconscious expressions of empathy are part of what draws people to her. Danielle Brooks, who stars in HBO Max's Peacemaker, worked alongside Lynskey in the 2018 film Sadie, when she was just making a name for herself as Taystee Jefferson on Orange Is the New Black. Now, they're sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at awards shows between game nights at Melanie's house and share several karaoke memories that simply left us too jealous to print in full. (Here's one: Natasha Lyonne, cigarette dangling, performed "Private Dancer," choreo and all, in what Melanie calls "a life-changing experience" to witness).

Lynskey's also loyal to her longtime makeup artist, who lets her daughter play with "his colors," and says she's still in touch with "some of the babies" from her iconic "baby in a bar" scene from Sweet Home Alabama. It's clear that to know Melanie is to want to stay in her orbit receiving her care and love — but she's not as good at giving it to herself. She says for her baby shower, her friend Emily Deschanel handed her an envelope of cash that had to be used for a postpartum doula. As a mom herself, Deschanel knew Lynskey would need support, and as her close friend she knew she wouldn't ask for it. "I'm not great at stuff like that," Lynskey says.

Maybe it shouldn't be so special that a celebrity is kind and caring, and understands the weight of her role as a public persona in helping other people feel seen and empowered — but it is. And it's vicariously fulfilling to see her have this moment, even if she thought she "made it" long ago. "I [used to think I] would have made it if I didn't have to have another job. That was always my dream for myself and that happened pretty quickly," she says. "I was able to make a living from acting and I just was like, 'Wow. Looks like my dreams have come true.'"

More on Melanie's main character era in her conversation with Danielle Brooks, ahead.

Melanie Lynskey
On Melanie: Oscar de la Renta cape, Nadri necklace, earrings, and bracelet. Gizelle Hernandez

Danielle Brooks: First of all, it's good to see your face. I was so excited when I got to see you at Critics' Choice and sit right beside you. And you got on that stage. Oh, and my heart was so full for you.

Melanie Lynskey: Thank you. I could feel it. You're always such a ray of sunshine.

DB: Your [Yellowjackets] cast was so excited for you, too. I've experienced working with you earlier on in my career, and it can be intimidating when you're working with somebody so seasoned. But it was so easy; you're just such a pleasure to work with.

ML: Oh my gosh. I feel the same about you. It's so funny. I know I'm older than you, but other than that, your body of work is already just so incredible; you have the training and theater, which I've never done and I'm so intimidated by. You can do anything and I just felt like a real one-trick pony [laughs].

Melanie Lynskey
TJ Williams, Jr.

DB: Oh, no. Well, the biggest trick we both pulled off was becoming mothers.

ML: Yes.

DB: How's that changed your perspective being in the industry and trying to navigate motherhood? It was the coolest thing when you thanked your nanny in your Critics' Choice acceptance speech. That was a big deal.

ML: It's so funny. I didn't even think about it. When I think about the people who make [my success] possible, my husband has made a lot of sacrifices and not worked so the family can stay together, and then my nanny: She works so hard every single day. It's a lot of taking care of a toddler.

It is hard to work those long days and then come home and be as present and show your child how much you've missed them. She's all I think about when I'm away. I'm sure you're the same.

DB: Oh, yeah, definitely. I just started binge-watching Yellowjackets, and I have to say, yes, girl power — but Melanie Lynskey for the win! I've just watched the scene when you're taking control in the bedroom with your husband, and I just thought, Go, go, go! because, you know, a lot of women in this industry deal with body-image issues, and then there's this whole other layer when you're a mom and you have a new body that you're stepping into.

Did you feel empowered through the transition of becoming a mom and how it related to your characters and your comfort while playing them?

ML: It's such a struggle, always. I feel like I have two voices in my head. One of them is coming from my heart and my soul and what I know is right, and it's telling me, You're perfectly fine. And then the other voice is just this little voice that's always been there that's like, What are you thinking? Thinking your body's OK. It's not OK. You have to change it, like, What are you thinking, doing a love scene? What are you thinking, being one of the leads of a show?

It's just reinforced so much culturally that there's a different kind of body that is, you know, popular. And so it's a struggle within myself to just say, I feel beautiful. My husband thinks I'm beautiful. And also we look like the majority of women in the world. We're healthy, you know? I think there's this weird shaming of anybody who's not, like, a size 2, and I'm just over it.

DB: Mm-hmm.

ML: Even when there are scenes where it's hard for me to take my clothes off — it's hard for me to do a love scene. I feel very vulnerable. The bigger picture of it is: I want to put this out into the world and show a person who's not having the reservations that I'm having that it's just like, I feel great, let's go.

DB: Normalizing it.

ML: Yeah, normalizing it. It was kind of freeing for me to play someone [sexual] like that. But it's funny. It's really kind when people are like, "Well, you had a baby and your body went through something ... " [But] there are a lot of women who haven't given birth or can't give birth or don't want to give birth, and their bodies should also be fine. It shouldn't just be like, "Well, now, you're a mother, so your body's allowed to not be so tiny." Our bodies should be whatever our bodies naturally are.

DB: They really should be. Society tells us that we're supposed to "bounce back" and be Miss Sexy in two weeks, and that's not reality. It took me a long time to say, "I am OK with not being what society tells me I'm supposed to be."

I know I was really struggling with, like, "Will I get to do the type of roles that I want to do once I have my baby girl?" And then when Peacemaker came up and I had gained 60 pounds in my pregnancy, it kind of affirmed that it is OK to be yourself. Did you feel that way when you got cast as Shauna, like, "Yeah, I'm the right person for this."

ML: Yeah, and I love that you felt that, because also, in reality, you're a very strong woman and you're very physically capable. It's funny that in action shows or action movies, they have these little, tiny women doing all this action stuff [laughs]. It's like — that's also possible! But it's possible for women of all body types to do all kinds of things. It's possible for a woman of my body type to have two men find her attractive.

DB: Did you know you were going to have a lot of sex scenes [as Shauna]?

ML: [Nods] The scripts kept coming out, and there was more and more sex for me.

DB: How was that, because it's one thing to say, "I'm comfortable, I'm good," before shooting, and then you get into it. You're like, "Oh, snap. Actually, I don't want to show my left breast."

ML: It's literally that conversation; they draw up a contract where you're like "I will show this. I won't show that," and then I think I got really lucky that the writers of [Yellowjackets] were not super interested in having everybody be naked. They want it to be more about the emotional connections.

DB: Yeah, I remember on Orange [Is the New Black], we had a scene where Poussey [Samira Wiley] and Taystee were discovering our vaginas [looking in mirrors], and they wanted me to show my butt. And I was like, "No. I don't see the point. Why do you have to see my beautiful body? Unless it's serving the story, I'm not gonna do it." A lot of girls come into this industry not understanding that you do have the power of saying no.

ML: Oh, yeah. There's also so many young actors on [Yellowjackets], and I wanted to really make sure that they felt protected and they got to decide what they were comfortable with.

And I did like [doing Shauna's love scenes] like this. I didn't really gain weight when I was pregnant, but I lost a pregnancy when my daughter was 18-months-old. I was breastfeeding, and hormonally it just was a mess. I gained like 25 pounds and I was only pregnant for about 10 weeks, but my body just freaked out. And then, I tried to do IVF, and the IVF didn't work, and so for me, also, it was like a new body I was in that I hadn't quite made peace with and it was kind of intense to be making peace with it while I was in production on a show.

DB: Oh my gosh. That is tough. I also wanted to ask you, because you've been in this game for a minute, not only having longevity, having respect in this industry — Melanie, like, what are the secrets? Because I'm only 10 years in.

It feels very vulnerable to be public all of a sudden, but I'm very grateful.

ML: Do you look at that 10 years ago and just go, "It is amazing what I've done"?

DB: I think I'm just starting to realize I got some fun things under my belt. I think the pandemic helped me to kind of put things in perspective to not feel like I need it tomorrow or yesterday.

ML: Yeah.

DB: I'm right where I'm supposed to be. I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. But that's me! How many years have you been in this, 30?

ML: I did my first movie when I was 15 and I'm 45 now. I think I've just kind of been under-the-radar, like, it's a bit nerve-wracking for me to be more public now. I've never done so much sustained publicity and interviews, so it feels like a very new arena and I just feel like people are going to get sick of me because [laughs] if anything, I've just been kind of under-the-radar enough to just keep steadily working.

DB: Keeping a level of mystery, right?

Melanie Lynskey
TJ Williams, Jr.

ML: Yeah, and not really by design just because nobody's asking [laughs]. It feels very vulnerable to be public all of a sudden. But I'm very grateful to be 45-years-old and in the body I'm in and to have opportunities and be doing interesting work. It's great.

DB: I think I just admire the kind of projects you decide to come onto and the way you move. From what I have observed, it's about the work and I think that's what has kept you in this industry. People are like, "She's the real deal. She will deliver."

ML: I can't believe you agreed to do this.

DB: No. I'm actually happy that you are stepping into it and letting people see more of you because it's so necessary. I think women, myself included, are inspired by — I don't like using using the word "real" women.

ML: Very thin women are real women. All women are real women. All bodies are beautiful and I just really would love to get to the point where we can have all different kinds of bodies and it's just not commented on in the way that it is right now.

DB: But a more relatable woman, who is not always perfect and is OK with that and just taking care of business and doing all the things. I just want to continue to see you win in everything that you do and I'm so glad that it's like — I feel like it's strange when people say it's your moment.

ML: Yeah.

DB: Because it's sort of like, how are we truly measuring our success and are we always measuring them by somebody's approval of us? But it is so great to just see you continue to be elevated and be celebrated for what you do. I'll say that.

ML: It means so much to me that you did this. Thank you.

Written by Senior Editorial Director Laura Norkin. Photographer: Gizelle Hernandez; Director of Photography: Liam Le Guillou; Style: Jason Rembert; Hair: Marcus Francis; Makeup: Stephen Sollitto; Manicure: Bana Jarjour; Set Designer: Daniel Luna; Beauty Direction: Kayla Greaves; Fashion Direction: Samantha Sutton; Creative Director: Jenna Brillhart; Senior Visuals Editor: Kelly Chiello; Associate Photo Editor: Amanda Lauro; Senior Video Producer: Justine Manocherian; Executive Video Producer: Bree Green; Booking: Talent Connect Group; Special thanks to Genta Carter and the Silver Lake Pool & Inn.

For more stories like this, check out EveryBODY In, our celebration — and send-up — of summer bodies, available for digital download now.

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