It’s coming on 20 years since Melanie Lynskey appeared in her first film, but she cannot get used to seeing herself on screen. “It’s awful. Awful,” she says in her kiwi accent, characteristically wide open and soft spoken, over iced teas in Manhattan’s East Village. She has a new movie coming out, “Hello I Must Be Going,” in which she’s the lead and is in every scene -- a first for the actor. Her work in this film is widely being referred to as her breakout performance, which could be a frustrating identification for anyone who saw her in “Heavenly Creatures,” almost two decades ago. Many are hoping the label sticks this time, but after so many years in movies and television, Lynskey refuses to have expectations about where her career is headed.
In “Hello I Must Be Going,” she plays Amy Minsky, a woman in her mid-thirties who, blindsided by her husband’s request for a divorce, finds herself living with her wealthy parents in Westport, Connecticut, deeply depressed and directionless, having abandoned all of her own interests while building her life around her successful husband. She begins an ill-advised affair with the 19-year-old stepson (Christopher Abbott of HBO’s “Girls”) of her father’s business associate after they unexpectedly kiss while their parents have dinner in another room. Despite the age difference, both characters are at a crossroads in their lives, and their union helps them each find direction. Lynskey explains, “I wanted their connection to be something that was kind of unexplainable. They make an impulsive decision to kiss each other and something chemical happens during it, and they’re just like ‘what the fuck was that?’ And then their lives change. I feel like that happens, and that’s so romantic to me.”
The film is funny, sexy and affecting, and Lynskey is excellent. Her performance is singular and subtle, creating an authenticity that inspires effortless emotional investment from an audience. You’re not watching Melanie Lynskey play Amy Minsky. You’re simply watching Amy Minsky, and you could watch her for hours.
One of the things that sets “Hello I Must Be Going” apart from most other romantic comedies is that there isn’t anything “Hollywood,” physically or otherwise, about its star. When I bring this up, Lynskey tells me about a conversation she had recently with Amy Poehler on the set of David Wain’s upcoming film, “They Came Together.” Despite the fact that they were about to shoot a scene that involved a workout video, they both opted for a second piece of pizza. “[Pohler] said ‘You know what? Most actresses don’t eat for a reason.’ We were about to jiggle around in this spandex. And I think it’s so awesome that she’s eating pizza. I told her that whenever I’m filming something I’m like ‘Fuck it, someone needs to look like a human being.’ ” If Lynskey feels that her character would not wear makeup, and that her character’s hair would be a mess, she shows up bare-faced and unkempt. She’ll walk around in an exceptionally unflattering outfit for the first half of a movie if it seems like something her character would wear. But when she sees herself on screen later, she is horrified. She knows there’s a middle ground, what she calls a “movie version of being unattractive.” And after the fact she will ask herself why she didn’t shoot for that aesthetic compromise, why she didn’t go on a cleanse, or whatever it is that Hollywood does.
“I think it’s good that there are some people on screen who still look like the people in the audience. I feel weird when I go to the movies and everybody’s faces are perfect. But it’s hard to be the one person who doesn’t look like that.” At another point in our conversation, Lynskey mentions that the film has been dismissed by certain male reviewers as unbelievable, as they feel she isn’t attractive enough for the role. “I feel like that says more about men [than it does about me], but at the same time, that’s how the world is.”
Lynskey’s childhood was defined, in large part, by self consciousness and a crippling shyness. The eldest of five siblings, she was a serious child, constantly worried about things large and small, from her stuffed animals feeling left out if she didn’t sleep with all of them, to the possibility of nuclear war. Her father, a doctor, had residencies that caused the family to move often, making it difficult for the introverted Lynskey to make friends. When she was seven her family settled in the provincial town of New Plymouth, New Zealand, which she recalls being somewhat of a depressed place. She read everything she could get her hands on -- Charles Dickens, Stephen King, Jane Austen and D.H. Lawrence were standouts -- and wrote stories and poetry.