Film

“Did I Just Stop Existing When I Turned 36?”: Melanie Lynskey On Overcoming Hollywood Bullshit

"It does feel like things are changing... I think the responsibility is on us to talk about it and see the films and support the work."

When you think ‘child star’, Melanie Lynskey isn’t a name that automatically springs to mind. Maybe that’s because from her very first role in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures at the age of 16, she exuded the kind of quiet intelligence of someone much older (see also other former teen stars from New Zealand: Lorde and Keisha Castle-Hughes). Or maybe it’s because she hasn’t carved the conventional path since then, mixing critically-acclaimed indies with more mainstream fare over the past 23 years hustling in Hollywood.

As the star of new Netflix original movie and Sundance darling I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, Lynskey has found a film that kind of perfectly encapsulates her as performer: unexplainable in one sentence, combining several elements at once and rich with that mysterious X factor.

The most striking thing about Melanie Lynskey might be her overt sweetness. At the beginning of our conversation, she thanks me profusely for having watched the movie — a task that’s a job requirement for this interview. I point this out and she seems nonplussed, noting that it isn’t always the case and how it’s great to be able to talk about specific plot points without someone’s eyes glassing over. She adds a follow-up “thank you” for good measure.

There’s something hella charming about this New Plymouth girl done good and it’s what makes her role of Ruth in I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore so watchable. When Ruth’s home gets broken into and her possessions are looted — including her grandmother’s beloved silver — she becomes obsessed with the idea of tracking down those responsible. To help her bring them to justice, she teams up with the neighbourhood mullet-wearer (played by Elijah Wood). Depressed, down on her luck and deeply over it, Lynskey’s character isn’t exactly hopeful when we first meet her. She’s someone who is sick of dealing with assholes, being taken advantage of by assholes and being surrounded by assholes.

“That was one of the most satisfying things to me about the movie, because those little things happen all the time in life,” Lynskey says. “At a certain age I just really felt like I became invisible as a woman. Maybe it’s the town that I live in that’s just full of the hottest, youngest girls from all parts of the world but there was a certain point when men would just let doors close on me and just cut in front of me [in line] as if they weren’t seeing me. It was really bewildering, like God, did I just stop existing when I turned 36? What is going on?”

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For Lynskey, now 39, one of the most appealing aspects of the movie was getting to play a character like Ruth who rediscovers their own sense of agency and authority in the face of adversity. It’s at this transitional point the film begins to make an interesting shift: from quirky comedy/drama, to genuinely thrilling crime mystery.

“It’s such a strange one,” Lynskey says, laughing. “When you’re trying to explain it to people who haven’t seen it and they’re like ‘pitch me this movie in one sentence’ and I can’t. It’s a comedy and a crime movie and few other things.”

Lynskey’s love of the flick was instantaneous after she read the script — “I loved it so much” — and from there she began conversations with the filmmaker, Macon Blair. Better known for his work in front of the camera with Green Room, Blue Ruin and other things not directed by Jeremy Saulnier, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is his debut feature. After premiering at Sundance earlier this year, it won the Grand Jury Prize for Drama and was a hit with critics who connected with the dark, complex tale and its look at the intersection of gender and societal norms. As Ruth grew through the film, Lynskey says she found herself getting a little Ruth-ified in everyday life as well.

“She’s just reasserting her existence and saying ‘I’m actually a person’,” she says of the character. “I like when she starts calling people out for that. It was funny because the movie just sort of infiltrated me … I got in this cab in New York and the man was driving crazy. Usually I just sit there and endure and say nothing, but I was like ‘you’re driving like a crazy person’ and I told him ‘pull over, I’m getting out’. Never in my life… usually I’d just accept myself in whatever situation I find myself in.”

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With a career like Lynskey’s, it’s hard to pick just one focal point. From cult classics like But I’m A Cheerleader and Shattered Glass, to mainstream fare such as Ever After and Coyote Ugly, awards season faves Flags Of Our Fathers and Up In The Air, TV shows like Two And A Half Men and Togetherness to even exquisite voice work in animated gem Over The Garden Wall, which has an obsessive following. The joy of Lynskey — from an audience perspective — is that she’s limitless, slipping in and out of categorisation as she bounces from project-to-project.

Even her Twitter bio — “constant portrayer of morose or dispirited types” — isn’t an easy categorisation, but rather a “little bit of a joke”. As Lynskey explains: “Do you know who Jeffrey Wells is? He’s like this deeply sexist film blogger. That was how he described me once, dismissively, when he was reviewing the trailer for Togetherness, which he didn’t respond to. I just thought ‘wow okay, I’m going to re-appropriate that and use it for myself’. You know, I do really think that I’m drawn to morose and dispirited types, because they’re interesting — they have something going on. Women are complicated.”

And being a woman in Hollywood is complicated too. Although Lynskey is a seasoned pro at this point, her success has come down to a combination of her sizeable talent and her ability to spot bullshit when she sees it.

“I guess for characters in my age range, the thing that’s most fascinating is the ones where [in the script] they have to describe when she stopped being sexy. Like ’10 years ago she was a knockout, now she’s holding it together’. It’s so intense.”

Lynskey is still optimistic though. She thinks that the future is looking brighter — and not just for her, but for women and performers of all ages, backgrounds, sizes and ethnicities. “It does feel like things are changing, like, even reading scripts from network pilots. There really is a lot more diversity now — racially in the casting but also in the type of women they’re looking for. They’re casting a wider net… like, yes, there is an audience for that.

“We saw it with the Oscar nominees this year. I think the Supporting Actor category could have just been people from Moonlight — but it’s a wonderful, diverse group of people. I think the responsibility is on us to talk about it and see the films and support the work.”

I Don’t Feel At Home In This World is currently available on Netflix.

Maria Lewis is a journalist on The Feed SBS and author of the Who’s Afraid? novel series available worldwide. She’s also the co-host and producer of the Eff Yeah Film & Feminism podcast.