The Examined Life of Melanie Lynskey

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — “I am a quiet person,” the actress Melanie Lynskey said. “I’m a shy person. I’m not a person with a big resonant voice or a big presence.”

This was on a weekend evening earlier this month at an upscale vegan restaurant. Lynskey, inconspicuous in a cobalt cardigan, was installed at a table in the far corner of the patio, eating as quietly as she could. (She has misophonia, specifically an aversion to “mouth noises.”)

Polite almost to the point of pathology, she worried over whether to ask a manager to turn the music down and a heating lamp off. She speckled her conversation with minimizers: “kind of,” “sort of,” “a little,” “a bit.” After she waved at a busboy she recognized from another vegan eatery, she agonized over the possibility that he thought she was summoning him.

Offscreen, Lynskey is a very nice lady. Unnervingly nice. Onscreen she specializes in a ferocious deconstruction of that same type. For the past decade, and particularly in the past couple of years, in shows like “Yellowjackets” and “The Last of Us,” she has embodied women who seem innocuous on the surface — breathy, meek, bland — only to reveal limitless anger and desire just beneath their suburban separates. (“The Last of Us,” on HBO, recently concluded its first season; “Yellowjackets” returns for its second on March 26 on Showtime, with its first episode available on streaming two days earlier.)

Sitting opposite her, I was reminded of raptors I have seen and certain small, sharp-clawed mammals, with plumage and pelts so precisely matched to their surroundings that they seem to disappear. Until they strike.

Lynskey understands the usefulness of this kind of camouflage. “I have been cast a few times as somebody who is supposed to surprise you,” she said, taking a sip of a spicy margarita. Then she put the margarita down, because she had another theory. Yes, her characters are surprising, but maybe almost any woman is surprising, deep down.

“Maybe it’s just about unraveling the inner lives of women who are not usually examined,” Lynskey said.

Lynksey in the new season of “Yellowjackets,” which premieres on March 26 on Showtime.Credit…Colin Bentley/Showtime

Lynskey, 45, born on the west coast of New Zealand, entered the industry early and somewhat by chance. She had always loved acting, which offered her a reprieve from what she described as an acute self-consciousness. But she had only ever done plays at school or church when a casting director for Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures,” a 1994 film inspired by a lurid murder case, came to her high school.

Lynskey, who was 15 at the time, was cast opposite Kate Winslet, as a teenager who conspires to murder her own mother. She is thrilling in the role, with a scowl that burns through the celluloid and a dark, mordant energy. That predilection for women with turbulent inner lives, women who strain against social norms — it was there from the start.

For a long time, though, Hollywood ignored it. After finishing high school and trying college in New Zealand, Lynskey moved first to London and then, in 2000, to Los Angeles, where she spent a decade playing anodyne supporting roles in mainstream films (“Sweet Home Alabama,” “Coyote Ugly”) and the occasional indie (“Shattered Glass”). Casting agents and her own representation saw her as the sister, the stepsister, the friend and, rather more vividly, as Charlie Sheen’s erotomaniac neighbor in “Two and a Half Men.”

She was slender in those years, though not perhaps as slender as the industry prefers: The scripts she received were typically for “the fat friend or the jokey kind of fat person,” she recalled. “There was one thing I read where the person had a candy bar in every scene.”

In her 20s, she was almost never seen as either the subject of her own story or an object of desire, which felt strange. She was shy, yes, but she wasn’t dull or unloved. “In my own life, I had a lot of romantic drama,” she said. “It was impossible for me to stay single.” The typecasting as wallflowers and frumps confused her.

“It was kind of a strange disconnect,” she said. “I felt like I was pretending when I was going in and auditioning to play these dowdy people.”

After two years as a series regular on “Two and a Half Men,” she asked to be downgraded to a recurring character in the hope that she might pursue more substantive roles. She wanted more time on camera — less for egotistical reasons than because she envied the actors who never sat down all day. And she wanted to give herself over to women with a few more facets.

“She is drawn to complicated characters, flawed characters,” said the actress and director Clea DuVall, Lynskey’s friend for 25 years. “She doesn’t want to just play one thing.”

In her mid-30s, having finally changed agents, new roles came, often in independent films like “Hello I Must be Going,” “Happy Christmas,” “Goodbye to All That” and “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore,” as well as in the HBO series “Togetherness.” The characters she played were struggling, adrift, deeply sad.

To animate these roles, Lynskey began to engage in what she calls “dream work.” After reading a script she will write a letter to herself, asking for a dream. The next morning she records the dream and determines, in ways both practical and symbolic, how it might apply to the character. Beyond that she operates on instinct. “Somebody comes out of me,” is how she put it. When the process works, it feels like magic, she said.

Lynskey’s characters often conceal profound anger and desire. “I have been cast a few times as somebody who is supposed to surprise you,” she said.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

“She’s pulling from a place that’s deeper and bigger than anything that’s happening on camera,” Jay Duplass, a creator of “Togetherness,” told me.

Duplass described her as a woman without emotional blocks. But for a long time, Lynskey contended with one particular block, an unwillingness to feel or express what she referred to, elliptically, as a lifelong anger. “It was a weakness in my performances, I was afraid to dip into it,” she said. Even after encounter therapy involving a foam dummy and a baseball bat and five years of psychodynamic group sessions, that fear remained.

Then, in Toronto, where she was shooting the FX mini-series “Mrs. America,” nursing her newborn daughter (Lynskey’s husband is the actor Jason Ritter) and half-crazed with exhaustion, she received the script for “Yellowjackets.” Its pull was undeniable.

“Yellowjackets” is set in two different decades: in the 1990s, when a plane carrying a girls’ varsity soccer team crashes in the Canadian wilderness, and in the present as the survivors stare down past and present traumas. Lynskey was being offered the part of Shauna, once a star student and now a restless New Jersey housewife. (The actress Sophie Nélisse plays the character as a teen.)

The adult Shauna has few lines in the pilot, but Lynskey felt drawn to the character’s power and palpable discontent. Here, finally, was a part that demanded and would reward her anger. Also, as she realized later, she knew what it was like to experience a seismic event as a teenager — the making of “Heavenly Creatures” — and then return to her former life having to pretend that nothing much had changed. Making that movie had been a disruption not a trauma, but it meant that she could relate to some of what Shauna had gone through.

Karyn Kusama, who directed the pilot episode, admired Lynskey’s approach to the character, which she described as both electric and raw. “She just lives in this simmering rage,” Kusama said, “a rage that is met halfway with helplessness.”

The adult Shauna’s personality, as imagined by Lynskey, is a grab bag of contradictions and bad ideas. Underestimated, manipulative, impulsive, she’s as comfortable skinning a rabbit as she is defrosting a roast. Shauna embarks on an affair with a much younger artist, telling her husband that she’s busy with her book club.

“I do think she’s very invested in seeming like a person that is not going to bother you,” Lynskey said of Shauna. But Shauna does bother other people — sometimes she bothers them right in a major artery.

In “The Last of Us,” she played the murderous leader of a resistance movement. Credit…Liane Hentscher/HBO

Onscreen, Lynskey melds these incongruities into a single, terrifying personality. “One of her magic tricks is the common everywoman quality, how unassuming she is,” Juliette Lewis, a “Yellowjackets” co-star, said of Lynskey’s performance. “Yet she’ll be savage in her behavior.”

Lynskey brought a few of the same paradoxes to Kathleen, her character in the breakout HBO thriller “The Last of Us.” Kathleen is the flinty leader of a resistance movement, tough as tungsten nails. A typical line, delivered to an underling: “When you’re done, burn the bodies. It’s faster.”

Another actress might have played Kathleen with explicit viciousness. Lynskey pitched a different attack, believing Kathleen should be more delicate, less self-reliant — “fluttery” was the word Lynskey used. She recalled that Craig Mazin, one of the showrunners, reminded her that Kathleen was a child killer. She told him that she understood that. He gave her his blessing.

The darker corners of the internet have not always been so understanding. Lynskey’s performances have been scrutinized on social media largely (and irrelevantly) because of her size, which remains smaller than that of the average American woman though greater than the Hollywood norm. Lynskey has complicated feelings about this.

It’s a funny irony that Lynskey has proved her worth to the culture at large mostly by playing undervalued women.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

“I very much want to be onscreen representing an interesting person who’s not paying attention to what her tummy looks like,” she said. But she is troubled by the misogyny, the callousness. And though she has an elegant way with a clapback, she wishes that her perfectly ordinary body wasn’t so unusual for prestige television.

“If there were more people who look like me, then I wouldn’t have to talk about it as much,” she said.

Still, even intermittent trolling hasn’t diminished her pleasure in roles that let her crack open the nice lady exterior and show the violence underneath it. She hasn’t been able to apply this ferocity to her own life. (Later, when that busboy entered her orbit, she apologized for having waved.) But she can play it all day, which she described as “real freedom.”

It’s a funny irony that only through playing undervalued and overlooked women has Lynskey finally proved her worth to the culture at large. And she has shown why none of us should turn our backs on women like these. That nice lady? She might be holding a knife.