Melanie Lynskey is tired. "I'm so old and so tired," moans the actress with a twee laugh. She doesn't look it, smartly put together in a black blazer with bedazzled pocket chain and lace-up, wedged espadrilles, but it could be because a car picked her up at 7:00a.m. — "which is early for me," she admits — for a morning show appearance (the same one where Lynskey announced her recent engagement) and because, at the moment, her cup of coffee is simply too hot to drink. "It's not going to happen," she resigns herself.
But the conversation we were having had actually been about her career, one that began when Peter Jackson discovered Lynskey and cast her opposite Kate Winslet in 1994's Heavenly Creatures and later saw her co-starring as the best friend in rom-coms like Coyote Ugly and Sweet Home Alabama. "I think I used to be a lot more panicky that I would never work again when I was younger, and now I think I'm just so tired," she claims, despite having starred in nearly a dozen projects last year — including the criminally underrated HBO series, Togetherness — plus an additional two already released this year.
Her latest is Netflix's I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, a dark comedy from writer and first-time director Macon Blair. The film won the coveted Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last month, marking the first time a streaming service has collected the award. (It isn't yet on display in the lobby of Netflix's Beverly Hills offices, which houses seven Emmys, a Peabody award, and right on down to a Rotten Tomatoes "Certified Fresh" plaque for Daredevil season one.) Lynskey plays a timid nursing assistant who is the victim of a home invasion. "I like the idea of somebody who's expecting their life is just going to go one way, like, 'Nothing exciting is going to happen to me. I'm not even going to be really happy. I'm not ever really going to connect with anyone,'" she says. "Then her life takes such a crazy turn."
Alongside her ninja star-wielding neighbor (played by Elijah Wood), Lynskey's Ruth uses a not very particular set of skills to track the burglars in order to force them to, at the very least, take responsibility for their assholeness. As Ruth reaches a breaking point, Lynskey, who might be even more pleasant in person than you'd expect her to be, lets loose a side of herself not often seen onscreen. "Oh my gosh, I have a rage point in life! I get rage-y! I totally do," she exclaims — in a voice so sweet, it seems impossible — citing that as one reason she signed on to the revenge thriller in the first place. "Because I'm not naturally angry. I don't let myself go there that often. But it does feel good! I think it's healthy!"
I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore came to Lynskey the way so many projects do — from a personal connection. Blair wrote the role with her in mind. That fact, Lynskey is quick to point out, she was not aware of until they were well into shooting. Not that she has difficulty turning down a project that may have been meant for her. Lynskey, who humbly accepts every compliment as certainly as she shrugs them off with a shy, "That's so sweet," reasons, "I actually feel OK about doing that, because I really believe if I'm not feeling it, if I don't have an instinct of what to do with it, then the movie deserves somebody who does."
"And I know it's disappointing when somebody's like, 'I wrote this thinking of you,' and I'm like, This is not my movie... But I always feel OK about it," she reiterates, resting her head on her arm. Why this part, then? "There was something about the character that really resonated with me and as I was reading the script, I started reading it out loud and saying all her lines. It just felt really right to me. "
That feeling of rightness — or as Lynskey otherwise puts it, "something internal that lights up in me" — is often connected to her need to work something out. Maybe it's Ruth's rage. Or, she offers, "Last year, I did this movie [Rainbow Time] that was very, very happy and the character was so sweet and she had crystals and she was so lovely. When I finished the movie, I realized, 'I just needed to be happy for a while!' I just needed to play someone who came from a place of such positivity and gentleness. It was a nice relief, because I've been doing a lot of heavy stuff." She says ending a movie often comes with a feeling of cathartic release. "It's like something internally has...stopped. It's like therapy."
At 39, Lynskey has now been working for more than two decades, and she says, in terms of being a woman working in Hollywood, things are better than they've ever been — crediting more all-around diversity and not feeling "the same kind of body pressure" she once did. "I think women really got excited about seeing people who looked more like..." she trails off a moment, "they...do? And, I mean, women look all sorts of different ways, but the majority of women don't look like Kate Hudson, you know? I think it's really nice to see someone who kind of reminds you of yourself, to be like, Wow, she's not perfect and neither am I. And I feel a little bit better about that today, because I just saw somebody being someone's love interest on a movie screen and not ever talking about it." She's found that more of those fulfilling, complex roles — such as The Intervention, another directorial debut, this time from best friend Clea Duvall — are coming her way as creative control extends beyond solely a "bunch of dudes in baseball caps," with only one steadfast rule that harkens back to that body talk: "I won't do anything where people are like, Look at this fatty!"
Because when it comes down to it, that's not a truth Lynskey believes in. And if there's one thing about her as an actress that rings true, it is her absolute honesty. "I have to feel it in every fiber of my being or I'm not happy. And that's probably also my weakness. Because I get really nitpicky about dialogue [and] about where I'm going to stand and stuff. I'm not the easiest. I'm not, like, a puppet," Lynskey makes clear. "I really stand up for what I want and what I believe and if somebody gives me a note that I don't like, I don't want to try it. Because I'm scared that will be the take that ends up in the movie and it will be me doing something I don't believe in!"
"I'll fight for what I think is right," she asserts, then offhandedly adds, "I'll take a note, but I just have to believe it."
It's a lesson Lynskey learned at 15 years old while filming Heavenly Creatures with Jackson in her native New Zealand. And it's one she has carried with her since. "He's a perfectionist. [And] that's what he required from us," she recalls of the director. "I think I took that away. I wasn't happy until I felt like everything had been wrung from my soul, and then I was, like, 'OK, I think we can move on.'"