Melanie Lynskey is the kind of actor whose name on a film guarantees there will be at least one performance worth watching. Since her breakthrough debut at age 16 opposite Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures,” Lynskey has amassed an impressive résumé of colorful characters. From playing Charlie Sheen’s stalker on “Two and a Half Men” to appearances in films like “Up in the Air,” it’s virtually impossible for her likability not to come across on screen—she even made a wicked stepsister seem sympathetic in the Cinderella retelling “Ever After.”
Now, Lynskey is earning some of the best reviews of her career stepping into the complex lead role in the Sundance hit “Hello I Must Be Going.” In director Todd Louiso’s drama, Lynskey stars as Amy, a 30-something woman who finds herself without children or a career when her husband abruptly asks for a divorce. After moving back in with her parents, she meets 19-year-old Jeremy, played by Christopher Abbott (best known to audiences as loyal boyfriend Charlie on HBO’s “Girls”). What unfolds is a bittersweet coming-of-a-certain-age story that offers Lynskey the chance to shine as a leading lady.
How did this role come to you? Did you know Todd Louiso?
Melanie Lynskey: I didn’t know Todd. I don’t know who it was, but they were doing a reading of it and somebody suggested me. I was in Toronto and my agent asked if I wanted to come back and do a reading. I didn’t really want to fly myself back for a reading. Then I read it and I was like, “Yes.” I loved it. I thought I would just be reading it that one time, but still I said, “Even if this is the only time I play this character, I will fly myself anywhere.”
Had you been looking for a leading role, or did this just come your way?
Lynskey: The way I’ve always gone about it was just to take whatever my best option is. There was a period of time where I didn’t work for a year because I didn’t like anything. Between “Up in the Air” and “Win Win,” I had a whole year of sitting around. But then I was glad I waited when it was “Win Win.” I don’t know, I’ve never really thought in terms of, “Well, now I need to do a lead role.” Sometimes I read scripts and love the part. I read “Take this Waltz,” for example, and just loved that. But Michelle Williams did it because she’s a genius and everyone wants to work with her, which I totally understand—I want to work with her, too!
You have to go to some intense places with your character. Was that hard being on such a low-budget shoot?
Lynskey: It was very low-budget, but I like that. I’ve done so many of these little indies, I’m good at locking myself in a room and sitting in a corner and not letting anybody come near me to get prepared. It’s kind of a nice thing to stay in the energy and with the group of people working and just keep it going. It really helps your relationship with other actors, too, when you’re forced to have this intimacy.
What are some of the methods that help you get into character?
Lynskey: It really helps when you’re going so quickly that you don’t have time to sit around and think about it. Also, my iPod is invaluable. I load it with appropriate songs so I could quickly get to sad, happy, sexy, whatever I needed.
What’s your sexy song?
Lynskey: For this movie, my sexy song was the Kate Bush song “Running Up that Hill.” I love Kate Bush and that song has such a romantic sexiness, such an intense passion.
You have a great chemistry with your leading man, Christopher Abbot. Did he audition with you, or did you know him before shooting?
Lynskey: No, it was funny because Todd was agonizing over who to cast and I said, “Why don’t I read with your short list?” He was like, “It’s not kind to ask actors to keep coming back in again.” He’s an actor, so he’s very sympathetic. I had seen Chris’ audition tape and was very excited he was cast. I knew he was good, but I didn’t know if we were going to have chemistry or not!
You mentioned earlier that you took a year off from working. That must be scary as an actor.
Lynskey: It was scary! But my agent is very good at saying no to stuff. I was offered a year on a very popular show for an insane amount of money. It almost makes me cry to think about it. I hadn’t read any movies I’d liked or the ones I had liked I hadn’t gotten, so I was tempted. But she said, “No, I am not letting you.” And she was right. She’s amazing; she’s made no money from me because all I do are these tiny, micro-budget indies. It’s always a concern to take time off, but it’s important to me to build a résumé I can feel proud of. To take a job just so I can go on a fancy vacation doesn’t really seem worth it.
“Hello I Must Be Going” opens in theaters Sept. 7.