Melanie Lynskey Finds Light in the Dark

After nearly two decades of critically acclaimed performances, the Yellowjackets star lands her first Emmy nod.

Photographs by Julien Sage
Originally Published: 

Melanie Lynskey as Susan Edwards in ‘Landscapers.’ Lynskey wears look by Alias Costume Rental.
Melanie Lynskey as Susan Edwards from ‘Landscapers.’ Lynskey wears look by Alias Costume Rental.

For W’s third annual TV Portfolio, we asked 21 sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small screen characters by stepping into their shoes.

Ever since she starred in the psychological drama Heavenly Creatures at just 16, Melanie Lynskey has occupied a variety of dark, twisted roles that seem utterly at odds with her soft-spoken and down-to-earth disposition. In just the past year, the native New Zealander has taken on Betty Gore, the real-life murder victim of Candy Montgomery (played by Jessica Biel) in Candy, as well as Shauna, a plane crash survivor with deep secrets in the ‘90s nostalgia hit Yellowjackets. The latter would garner Lynskey both a Critics’ Choice Award as well as her first-ever Emmy nomination. Before jumping back into the Canadian wilderness for the highly anticipated second season of Yellowjackets, Lynskey, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband Jason Ritter and their 3-year-old daughter, spoke with W about the emotional toll of dipping into dark roles, the evolution of the true-crime genre, and being the biggest Olivia Colman stan on the planet.

You chose to portray Olivia Colman’s version of Susan Edwards in Landscapers. In real life, Edwards, along with her husband, famously murdered her parents and buried them in the backyard of their Mansfield, England home in 1998. What drew you to Colman’s take on that role?

She’s my favorite actor in the world. I watched that show and felt like this performance was magic. There are so many layers to this character. People describe her as being fragile, so she has to appear like a broken, damaged person. But she also has this energy that she might be in control of everything. She might be a murderer; she might be very dangerous. The balance that she achieves in playing both of those things in the same moment is crazy.

Melanie Lynskey as Susan Edwards from ‘Landscapers.’ Lynskey wears look by Alias Costume Rental.

It seems like with so many true-crime stories on television these days, shows need something a little experimental to stand out.

For sure. People are getting really inventive with the ways they’re telling a story that may or may not be reality. The Staircase did that in a really interesting way, where they show every possible version of this woman’s death. With Candy, the writer was concerned with having the victim be present even after her death. So I appeared in certain courtroom scenes; I appeared after I was murdered.

Lynskey with Jessica Biel in ‘Candy.’ Tina Rowden/Hulu

In Candy you play Betty Gore who is murdered by her friend Candy Montgomery. As a performer, what attracts you to tragic stories?

It’s not always fun, but it is satisfying to play big emotions and things that are difficult and gritty. Candy was such a fascinating person. It’s really interesting who, culturally, we decide are victims whom we want to believe. This woman [Montgomery] got away with murder because people didn’t care for this other woman [Gore]. Person after person in this small town got up on the stand and said: “She was weird. She was awkward. I could see her snapping, but I couldn’t see Candy doing that.” It’s so heartbreaking; you have to be the perfect victim to get justice after something horrific happens to you. It makes me angry. It’s something that we’re seeing a lot of right now.

Unlike some of the characters you’ve portrayed who have outsized emotional moments, your Yellowjackets character, Shauna, is so restrained.

That’s probably the hardest thing about that character for me. She’s so afraid of the things that she discovered about herself in the wilderness. She’s so afraid of her own rage and grief. She feels like if she lets any bit of it come out, it’s going to overwhelm her and she’s going to be furious or crying forever. So she just tries to bottle it up. It’s a really fun challenge to feel all of that and then push it back down as far as you can and get on with the scene. It’s so fascinating that people can compartmentalize. I love that they show everybody dealing with their trauma in different ways. Juliette’s [Lewis] character [Natalie] is just feeling everything at all moments and lashing out. Shauna never allows herself to do that.

In all of the many roles you’ve played or read in a script, have you ever seen a teenage girl written like Shauna?

All the teenage girls on the show were written in a way that really excited me. They weren’t archetypes or what you expect to see. They were messy, complicated individuals. People fuck up; people make mistakes and do horrible things, especially when you’re a teenager. When the show was pitched to me, they talked about a lot of different things that happened to Shauna in the wilderness. I can’t spoil things, but a big part of her fear in coming home is that she discovered bad stuff within herself—which actually excited her. The small-town, high school girl version of that is sleeping with your best friend’s boyfriend. The trapped in the wilderness, fighting for survival version is something much crazier. So I’m excited for all that stuff to come out.

Lynskey with Tawny Cypress, Juliette Lewis, and Christina Ricci in ‘Yellowjackets. Kailey Schwerman/Showtime

How do you know when a role is right for you?

I have a voice in my head that tells me it’s the right thing to do. I had this therapist once who was like, “I wish you had the same kind of agency for yourself as you do for your characters.” Because I don’t question it. I know what feels right internally. You get a weird feeling in your stomach if something is not exactly right for you. It’s like when someone asks you to go to dinner and you say yes, and you feel like, I’m not that excited about this dinner. Why did I agree to give my time? I’ve never had any acting training or anything like that, so I rely 100 percent on my instincts.

Would you ever consider moving back to New Zealand?

I would love to! My husband’s whole family is here, so it’s difficult, but I’m hoping we’ll move back even just for a couple of years.

What moment in your life or career do you feel most proud of?

In my life, I’m the most proud of my child. She’s beautiful and so kind, and I just love her. In my career, I loved doing Togetherness. There was a lot of improv involved, and I really felt like a collaborator with the Duplass brothers. I loved working with them and Steve Zissis and Amanda Peet. I look back on that show and it was great, a lot of fun.

With so much to watch on television now, do you ever get overwhelmed?

Yes. Don’t you? Somebody told me they were rewatching The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or something. I just was like, imagine rewatching something! I feel like I’m constantly behind.

Hair by Richard Collins, makeup by Kristee Liu.

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