Melanie Lynskey has become a regular fixture on both big and small screens in recent years with her appearances in Up in the Air, The Informant!, Away We Go and Win Win, and her role on TV's Two and Half Men, but when I spoke to the actress this week it was her very first performance I was interested in. Lynskey was just 16 years old and had no screen acting experience when she was cast alongside Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson's true-life tale of obsession and murder Heavenly Creatures. The film is finally released on blu-ray and DVD this week, and here's what Melanie Lynskey had to say about her debut role.
It's hard to believe that Heavenly Creatures is 17 years old now. I watched it again this week and it's still as strange, beautiful and disturbing as ever.
Yeah, I just saw it last night because they screened it at the New Beverly here and I hadn't seen it in ten years. It was so strange!
When you were cast as Pauline you had no acting experience. Did you have acting aspirations or did it completely come out of the blue?
I always wanted to be an actor, it was really my great dream in life. When I was 16 at high school and at the age when you have to decide what you want to do in life, I kept telling people I wanted to act and they would say, "What, are you crazy? That's not a career." I was thinking about what else I might be able to do when they came to my school and asked me to audition and I got the job. I was so lucky.
What was that audition process like? Did you meet right away with Peter Jackson?
It was his partner Fran Walsh who came around and they didn't have a script or anything. They just told us a little about what the character was like and they took two girls at a time and had them improvise with each other. At the time I was doing a lot of improv comedy and stuff like that, so I was used to improvising and it was just fun and easy. A couple of weeks later they took me down to Christchurch to meet Peter and have a long audition, a proper audition on film, and they also showed me Kate Winslet's audition tape. It was like, "This is the professional actress from England who has been working for six years and this is how good you have to be." [laughs]
But even though Kate Winslet had been acting for some years, this was her first feature film role, so I guess she was in the same boat in some ways.
It didn't feel like she was, at all. She was so confident and so sure of herself, she just seemed like an old pro.
How familiar were you with the real story before getting this role? Did you have to do a lot of research?
I was familiar with it because New Zealand is such a small place and there aren't that many murders so you really hear about all of them. [laughs] Peter and Fran had done a lot of research. They had talked to everybody they could and read all the diary entries and there was a huge folder they gave us. We also went around and talked to people, like girls who went to school with her, because we wanted to get all of the physical stuff right, the mannerisms.
It's a very dark and emotionally taxing role. As your first part, was that a daunting character to take on?
I felt nervous just because I was the only person who was a newcomer, and I felt that all of these people were so amazing and I wouldn't be able to fit in with them, but they all made me very comfortable. As for the acting side of it, I wanted to act so much and I was doing everything I could in my own town, like community theatre and so on, so I just felt like it was such an opportunity and it just felt exciting to me. I also felt I was in very safe hands with Peter and I knew he wasn't going to let me go crazy.
It was a real departure for Peter Jackson too because his movies up to that point had been trashy, outrageous B-movies and he hadn't suggested the kind of subtlety and ambiguity he showed here.
Definitely. I had seen Braindead so when they started to talk to me about what the movie was about I thought, "Oh my God, it's going to be awful." [laughs] But as soon as I read the script I saw the sensitivity and it was really a whole other thing.
What was it like to shoot those fantasy sequences?
It was funny. The girls themselves were imagining all of that and it felt like we were in the same sort of situation because we had to imagine all of that was around us, so Kate and I relied on each other's energy and we trusted that we were looking at the same things. It was a funny thing to play, and it was a lot of fun when we did the clay people scenes because they were real people so that was kind of a bizarre situation.
I read that you and Kate stayed in character between scenes. Is that true?
Kind of. I think she said something like that in an interview. I mean, we were definitely very teenager-y with each other and very animated, and we talked and talked and talked, but I don't know if I'd say we stayed in character. There was some times when we did stay in character because it would have been difficult otherwise, like the murder sequence, when we sort of lived for three days in this kind of crazy, oppressive state. It was so upsetting to get into the role and it was easier to just stay in it.
Was it easy to get out of that mindset afterwards?
It was difficult. I remember we had to shower right afterwards. I mean, immediately after the scene we had this little place to shower and it felt very symbolic to get rid of it all. We were at the place where it really happened and Sarah's [Peirse, who played Pauline's mother] performance in that scene was so shocking to me at the time and it was so upsetting. That was really tough.
Filming at the actual site where these events took place must have been very strange.
It was bizarre. Initially, Peter and Fran thought they would film it in the exact spot where it happened, but when they went there they felt too upset and freaked out by it, so they just recreated it in a spot that was very similar.
When you made the film, what were your thoughts on the kind of exposure it was going to get? Until Heavenly Creatures and Once Were Warriors came out at around the same time, New Zealand cinema didn't really have much international recognition.
Not really, I guess there was The Navigator. There were some films that would go to Cannes and I loved film so much that I had an awareness of that kind of thing. The film just felt so personal to me and I had never been part of something that people watched, so it hadn't really crossed my mind, and when people started talking about festivals and stuff like that I just thought, "What?" It was such a weird leap for me to make that people were actually going to see this thing that felt so private, but everybody else on set was so used to it. I remember Kate saying to me, "So what are you going to spend your money on?" and I thought, "What are you talking about? I'm never going to make money like this again in my life, I'm going to save it!" [laughs] She was already off auditioning for other things. When the film came out the way people responded was really amazing. I remember going to the Venice Film Festival and people were so intense about it. It was really crazy.
Did you get a lot of attention and more movie offers straight away? For your second film you worked with Peter Jackson again on The Frighteners.
I didn't get any offers, it was just silence. [laughs] I didn't expect it either. I went back to high school and felt like I had been so lucky to get this opportunity. Nothing else came up and I thought, "Well who do I think I am to believe I could make a career out of this?" and I had really accepted it for a little while. Then I got this agent in America who said I should go over and do some auditions, but I thought she was crazy. I don't know, I felt embarrassed and like I was being laughed out of there, because that role was so specific. Of course, all of these films were happening for Kate and I felt like, that's her thing and I don't have any business trying to do that. After a few years of university studying theatre, I felt that I had loved the experience so much and what if I could do it? I'd always regret it if I didn't try. So I came to LA and started to do some auditions, but it was when I was at university that I did that little thing in The Frighteners. Peter just asked if I wanted to come and do this movie and hang out.
Could you have predicted at the time that he'd be directing Lord of the Rings within five years?
Kind of. It wasn't a great surprise how it turned out for anybody. Some people just have this confidence about them and faith in themselves, and they make you feel that anything is possible. Peter definitely has that and it always seemed like he would do things on his own terms. He kept telling us about all of the movies he was being offered and they were all these really schlocky horror movies, but he stuck to his guns and said, "I want to do the projects that I want to do, and I want to stay in New Zealand." And he did.
You said that it took a few years for your career to take off but you've had an amazing run in recent years. You've been involved in a number of films I've loved, like The Informant! and Win Win.
I love The Informant! and I always love people who love The Informant! [laughs] It's a real 'love it or hate it' movie and I love it. It's my favourite thing I've ever done.
I just picked it up on blu-ray the other day and I love re-watching it. I'm always amazed by Matt Damon's performance.
He's so good in that movie! I mean, he was great in Invictus as well, but it's so weird that he didn't get nominated for that.
They always screw the comedy performances when it comes to awards.
They do, it's so funny. I don't know why they do that. But yeah, the last few years have been so great. I got this new agent because I wasn't really happy with how things were going and I needed to change it up a bit, and this agent I'm working with now is really good about me not working unless it's something that I believe in. It just feels like a different world and I'm so lucky.
What have you got lined up next?
I'm taking a little break because I haven't seen my husband all year so I'm just going to hang out with him for a while, but I'm excited about this movie that I've just finished. I was in Connecticut where I was shooting a movie that Todd Louiso is directing called Hello I Must Be Going. His wife wrote it and it's a great little script that came out of Sundance development, and I hope it comes out OK.