Her first school play, at age six, was a life-changing occurrence. Having words to say and pretending to be a different person bred a confidence she hadn’t felt before. On stage, she was liberated. Her peers began to treat her differently after seeing her act. She sought out every opportunity to perform after that, from community theater to productions at her grandmother’s Baptist church. She found improv comedy to be particularly fulfilling in its ability to take her farthest outside of herself. As a teenager, she started to feel a sense of belonging. She had a group of friends with whom she would obsess over The Cure, The Smiths and David Lynch. She babysat for a neighbor who was a painter and a feminist, who lent her books including “The Beauty Myth” and “Backlash,” which Lynskey credits with giving her an anchor of sanity through the years, particularly while struggling with body image, both as a teen and in Hollywood.
Lynskey was discovered at 15 by Peter Jackson’s wife and screenwriting partner Fran Walsh at a casting call at her high school for Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures.” Initially, she was excited to audition for the role because she thought trying out for a real movie would look good on applications for drama schools. Much to her shock, she was cast opposite Kate Winslet, then a TV actress with a relatively small CV, who was also making her feature-film debut. The pair played Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme in the based-on-a-true-story tale of two teenage girls who become embroiled in an obsessive friendship and a vivid fantasy world they create together, and who, in an effort to prevent their impending separation, decide to murder Pauline’s mother. Both Winslet and Lynskey deliver phenomenal performances. Winslet brings a theatricality to the role that suits her character, and the camera loves her, but Lynskey gives herself over to the role so completely that it never feels like she’s acting.
But even after that breakthrough performance won her Best Actress at the 1995 New Zealand Film and TV Awards, Lynskey’s career failed to take off. She was expected to return to high school, and her parents advised her to forget about acting and pursue something more practical, like law or medicine. They had been “hands off” in regard to “Heavenly Creatures” from the start, not feeling it necessary to become involved in the process or even read the script beforehand. “They saw it and just said ‘Well, that was quite intense.’ ” She added, “Still to this day, if a movie I’m in is on the airplane, they’ll watch it. But they won’t go to the movie theater.” Lynskey observes that while American parents are like cheerleaders for their children, that dynamic isn’t common back home. “I know my mother-in-law would drive two hours to go see a movie that I’m in,” she says. “There’s not much of a follow-your-dreams kind of vibe in New Zealand or my family.”
And while it was clear that Winslet’s career would continue, Lynskey was treated differently by the people she’d worked with on the film. They thanked her and praised her performance, but advised her to return to high school and to not let the experience ruin her life. She assumed the role of Winslet’s proud friend. “Heavenly Creatures” came out during Lynskey’s final year of school, and her peers didn’t quite know how to handle what they’d seen. As she said in an interview earlier this year at Nerdist. “It isn’t a glamorous role, to say the least. It’s not like I was some gorgeous movie star. I was doing this very complicated thing and it was very intense, and a lot of kids just didn’t really know how to process it. I got a lot of ‘You kissed a girl! I saw your tits!’ ” The adults around her weren’t much more encouraging. “People in New Zealand go out of their way to not be impressed by things,” she said. “They were very careful to let me know that it wasn’t a big deal to them. Luckily I had a group of close friends who were supportive.”
Lynskey finished high school and spent a year in college before deciding drop out, go to California and start auditioning. Her work in “Heavenly Creatures” secured her an agent in L.A., who invited her to come and stay for three months while she tried to find work. Shy, foreign, friendless, unable to drive, and completely unfamiliar with the audition process or the acting scene, Lynskey struggled. “I was very different from the other actresses who I was reading with. I was auditioning for all kinds of stuff, and I felt like I was really fat, like I wasn’t pretty. Everybody had such a specific look to them.” It was the late ‘90s, and casting agents were looking for the likes of Tara Reid, Kirsten Dunst and Sarah Michelle Gellar to star in teen-centric movies featuring cheerleader types. “That was the world that I dropped into,” she said. Lynskey declined to wear makeup to auditions for parts where she thought her character wouldn’t wear it. She turned up for a part in a Western appropriately bare faced, only to walk into a waiting room to find her competition fully coiffed and glamorized. Her agent had to step in and instruct her to show up for every part with her makeup and hair done. “So much of it was about what you looked like, and I already had a shaky sense of myself to begin with, so I spiraled into a self loathing that was really intense.”