Melanie Lynskey on How Her Hollywood Struggles Made Her a Better Mom

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

Melanie Lynskey has been a lifelong film and television buff, even before her breakout role in 1994’s “Heavenly Creatures.” The “Yellowjackets” and “Candy” star frequently takes to Twitter to sing the praises of her colleagues—the performances she loves and the roles she won’t soon forget. In our Backstage questionnaire, Lynskey reflects on meeting her idols, the life lessons she has imparted to her daughter, and the most frustrating audition she’s ever done.

How did you first get your SAG-AFTRA card?

You know, I don’t know, exactly! [Laughs] I do remember at a certain point I didn’t have to do the thing where they petitioned; there was a whole process with a petition that said, like: “This actor has to be cast even though they’re not in SAG.” But maybe it was “Coyote Ugly”?

That would make sense. Were you living and working in Los Angeles at that point?

I was living with my boyfriend at the time in London. So I traveled over to do “Coyote Ugly.” I wish I had a clearer memory! That’s the first job I did that I got residuals for, so does that mean that was it?

Maybe so! And that is one of those movies that plays on cable all the time.

Oh, yeah, it’s still playing! So funny. And I’m very grateful to have met Piper [Perabo] through the movie, who I still love. She’s just wonderful—so cool, so smart. I had a really fun time. We went to Vegas for her birthday, which is on Halloween, and it was one of the craziest nights of my life.

What’s one screen performance every actor should see and why?

Oh, my gosh, how do I narrow it down? Lars von Trier’s “Breaking The Waves” was a very big movie for me. Emily Watson in that movie; it’s crazy what she does. Also Katrin Cartlidge, who is my favorite actor who I then got to work with [in 1999’s “The Cherry Orchard,”] was so beautiful in that movie, as well. I just remember watching that movie and it being full of performances that I was so blown away by and heartbroken by. That was a very big one. 

And then also “Waiting For Guffman.” For any actor who has an interest in comedy, that’s a must-see. Everyone’s doing such good character work, but it’s all seamlessly fitting into the story. Everybody’s at the top of their game. Catherine O’Hara in that movie is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.

What’s the experience like when you come face-to-face with an actor whose career you admire? Does that make it easier for you to connect and work with them? 

Yes. I had this experience—I wasn’t working with them, but I hope to one day—but Brian Tyree Henry is one of the greatest actors working. I saw him on Broadway in “Lobby Hero,” which he seemed to be surprised by. Everyone was really great in that play, but he’s next-level. He’s trained in theater; absolutely brilliant. And I just was like, “Oh, my god! I loved you in that and ‘Atlanta’ and ‘If Beale Street Could Talk,’ and…” It was one of those occasions where I just sounded like a crazy person talking to him about what he means to me. [Laughs] But yeah, hopefully it’s nice for people to have their work be appreciated. I love to talk about it; I love to tell people what work of theirs has impacted me. It takes me a lot to get to that point though; I’m so shy. Brian Tyree Henry is one of the rare people where I just spilled it all at once because I just couldn’t help myself. That’s happened, like, five times in my life.

What’s your worst audition horror story?

I did an audition once for a Western. The [character] had gone through something terrible, and the casting director said to me, “She’s catatonic.” So I was like, “Yes.” And I did the audition, but she seemed frustrated and she said, “No, she’s catatonic.” And I was like, “Yeah, OK.” So I had this blank expression on my face and was saying the lines, and the only note she gave me was, “She’s completely catatonic.” She didn’t use a different word! She was getting angrier and angrier and she just kept saying, like, “How do I say this? She’s absolutely catatonic.” By the end of it, I was barely moving—I just was saying the words. And then the feedback she gave my agent—she was like, “She wasn’t doing anything. She was completely blank!” And it felt very unfair to me. That was kind of like: Well, if I’m not doing what you want, choose a different way to say it. I don’t know what else I could have done in that situation. 

What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done for a role?

I had to kind of learn to strip for “Away We Go.” I didn’t do anything too much—I ended up taking my shirt off when I had a tank top underneath, so it wasn’t really [stripping]. But I had to do stripping classes, which was very fun, and learn how to do stuff on the pole. And I learned a lot more than what was shown in the movie. So that was a fun special skill that I had for a while that I was like: I hope this comes up again. Because it was really fun! But it’s also really hard; it’s so satisfying when you get it right. It’s beautiful. 

What’s the one piece of advice you would give your younger self?

I think a piece of advice I would give is: You’re OK. I try to visit my younger self sometimes and just go, “I’m sorry. You’re all right. People love you.” I just felt very much like I wasn’t enough a lot of the time, in regards to my work and in a lot of ways. I didn’t get a lot of positive feedback that I was enough, and it makes me sad, you know? That’s one thing I’m trying to raise my daughter to know—that she’s absolutely perfect just as she is, and she’s very loved. And she’s so confident. The other day I told her she’s cute, and she goes, “And smart and funny.”