Melanie Lynskey has been a working actor for almost three decades, and until a few months ago, she’d never been invited on a talk show. She was too indie, too niche, not widely known. She came close years ago on an audition for Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show but “failed” the opportunity; the talent booker told her she “asked too many questions” and didn’t talk enough about herself. (“I was trying to have a conversation, I guess, which is not the way to do it.”) Flash forward to this past winter, with Lynskey coming off the most popular project of her career—Showtime’s new drama Yellowjackets. Finally, late-night offers started pouring in. In a cruel twist of irony, though, the actor was too busy to say yes. “I wasn’t allowed to go and do any of those things,” Lynskey says in our Little Gold Men interview (listen below). “I’m always grateful to be working above anything else but at the same time I was like, Ah!”
To be more specific, Lynskey was preoccupied with her next project—the Hulu true-crime thriller Candy, costarring Jessica Biel. Here, Lynskey takes on another rich, complicated lead role; premiering May 9, the limited series appears bound to court as much critical and viewer attention as the show that just launched her profile into the Hollywood stratosphere. For an actor whose IMDb résumé features an array of superb if little-seen performances, the shift in visibility—and, inevitably in turn, opportunity—has felt stark. “It’s been very weird for me, I’ve never had any of this,” she says. But along the way, she’s hitting some life highlights. Of one recent milestone, she says, “How lucky am I to have had that moment in my life?”
Collaborators I’ve spoken with over the past few months wouldn’t point to luck; they’d say Lynskey is overdue. “She might be the nicest human being on this planet, literally speaking,” says Biel. “And she’s a great collaborator and a wonderful scene partner.” Speaking about their work together on Don’t Look Up, Leonardo DiCaprio recently told me, “She’s just a fantastic, fantastic actress, and everything that comes out of her mouth is so truthful.” That film’s casting director, Francine Maisler, added, “Melanie’s one of our best. I know that there are so many stars in [Don’t Look Up], but to me, Melanie’s a star. Her talent is equal to anyone in this. She’s as good as them, and she just hasn’t been given [the opportunity].”
Lynskey has consistently avoided the easy route through Hollywood. She grew up in New Zealand reading movie magazines, admiring critics and the challenging work they championed. One highlight of the excitement around 1994’s Heavenly Creatures, her electric screen-acting debut she completed as a teenager, was Miramax offering to send her reviews of the movie. “I’ve never felt fancier in my life getting faxes of those reviews sent to my dad’s office,” she says with a laugh.
Valuing that art-house corner of filmmaking has guided Lynskey through major shifts in Hollywood, difficult personal periods, and a range of low-budget work she remains deeply proud of. It helps explain, for instance, why she left the popular sitcom Two and a Half Men—her then-steadiest acting job to date, which was on the cusp of delivering her a huge paycheck—after two years as a series regular. (She guest-starred in later seasons.) “The people who were my agents at the time thought I was absolutely crazy,” she recalls. “But there were things I really liked about the show, and things that were not for me 100 percent. And I was the wacky neighbor. … It’s very hard to get out of playing the wacky neighbor.”
In the years thereafter, Lynskey toplined unsung gems like Hello I Must Be Going and I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. “It is heartbreaking when you work so hard, and you love something, and it just kind of gets lost in the shuffle,” she says. “There have been a few of those that I wish more people had seen.” It’s also an experience she’d gotten somewhat used to. Enter Yellowjackets—and the hype frenzy that followed, that few saw coming.