Ahead of the premiere of new Neon drama Yellowjackets, Sam Brooks looks back at the storied career of the series’ star, and New Zealand acting legend, Melanie Lynskey.
The dastardly daughter: Heavenly Creatures
If you’re reading this and you don’t know what Heavenly Creatures is, reassess your life decisions. Hell, if you’re reading this, have seen Heavenly Creatures, but haven’t considered a duo Halloween costume inspired by it, also reassess your life decisions.
Arguably the best film Peter Jackson ever made, Heavenly Creatures is a retelling of the notorious 1954 Parker-Hulme murder in Christchurch, starring Lynskey as Pauline Parker and Kate Winslet as Juliet Hulme. It’s a tremendous watch, thanks in particular to the two towering performances at its centre.
I couldn’t bat for Lynskey’s performance in this harder. It’s one of the most impressive screen debuts ever, a then 15-year-old Lynskey embodying a Pauline who is constantly dancing in and out of the realms of self-knowledge. The closer she gets to Juliet, the better she feels but the less she actually understands, and vice-versa. The drama of the movie is in their friendship and what results, but the beauty of it is in Parker’s doomed journey of self-discovery.
The (best) best friend: Coyote Ugly
Look, this one might be just for me. But if you haven’t watched this uplifting 2000s drama then you should get onto it! It follows Violet (Piper Perabo, at her pipiest), a wide-eyed Jersey girl who moves to New York to make it as a pop singer but who ends up working at a Western themed bar. Hijinks, friendship and setbacks ensue.
Melanie Lynskey plays the lead character’s best friend, Gloria, and her performance has all the hallmarks of her best work. She fills the screen with life, and even though she’s only in a few scenes, you sense that the deep love she has for Violet reaches back far beyond the start of the movie, and will continue long after the credits roll.
The one who never got away: Two and a Half Men
Two and a Half Men – which ran for a whopping 12 seasons and nearly 300 episodes, even amid some truly weird cast changes (Ashton Kutcher replacing Charlie Sheen, sure!) – might not be your cup of tea. In this day and age, a laugh track is akin to listening to French tips dragging down a blackboard. I get it.
But regardless of what you think of Two and a Half Men, it’s hard to deny how integral to the series is Melanie Lynskey’s strange, offbeat performance as sometimes girlfriend, sometimes stalker Rose. I can’t speak to later revelations in the character – it’s best not looking up what happened in the finale – but during the middle seasons Lynskey peels back the deeply strange layers of Rose to reveal the sweet, sad, lonely soul at her core. It’s a credit to Lynskey that Rose is probably the show’s most memorable character, all these years later.
The quietly tortured wife: Togetherness
Justice for Togetherness! This HBO series about a married couple (played by Lynskey and Mark Duplass) and their very tight inner circle was as delicate as a falling leaf. It was immensely profound and generous in how it detailed the shifting dynamics of even the most intimate group. It shouldn’t have just had another season, it should be still running now.
Alas, two seasons are all we’ve got, but they’re gifts in themselves. The show’s biggest asset, you won’t be surprised to learn at this point, is Lynskey. In the series’ standout episode (‘Advanced Pretend’), Lynskey plays against her inherent warmth, filling the space between her and her husband with ambiguity and years of things unsaid. She was rightly nominated for a Critic’s Choice Award for Best Supporting Actress for the role.
The right hand: Mrs America
Cate Blanchett is one of those actors who the camera simply eats up. If you were holding a phone in her general vicinity, you’d end up pointing it at her due to her pure magnetism.
That’s why Lynskey’s performance in Mrs America is so notable and worth singling out: She’s holding her own against one of The Greats™. Mrs America took a tense, fascinating view of Phyliss Schlafy, arguably one of the architects of the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, casting her as villain protagonist and encouraging us to interrogate the reasons behind her near cartoonish evil. Blanchett amped up Schlafy’s sliding surfaces, deferential when necessary and firm when absolutely pushed.
Lynskey’s performance as Rosie Thomson, one of Schlafy’s right hand women, stands in for a lot of Schlafy’s followers: women won over by Schlafy’s charisma, women scared of change, and women who silently questioned whether they were doing the right thing or not. It’s the ideal “supporting” performance, casting a different light on the lead character, while also giving a window inside her own character’s struggles.
The survivor: Yellowjackets
This new series follows the saga of a team of top-shelf high school girl soccer players who become the survivors of a plane crash, deep in the wilderness. Yellowjackets cuts back and forth between their struggle to survive with (and against) each other, and the lives they attempt to put back together nearly 25 years later.
Lynskey plays the adult version of Shauna Sheridan, who seems like the most reluctant of the survivors. In the trailer, she spits through gritted teeth: “We agreed: Say no more than we had to. The truth is the plane crashed and a bunch of my friends crashed. Then the rest of us starved, and scavenged and prayed until they finally found us.” Based on that alone, you can tell it’s one of Lynskey’s meatiest roles yet, and I can’t wait to see her get into the acting ring with fellow heavyweights Christina Ricci, Juliette Lewis and Tawny Cypress.
Yellowjackets starts on Neon today. A new episode will be available each Tuesday at 1pm.