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Why Melanie Lynskey is thanking her lucky stars

After decades of being Hollywood’s best-kept secret, the Kiwi actress has finally hit the A-list – and her new role hits very close to home
Melanie Lynskey sitting on a chair in front of tall plants, leaning her elbow on her knee

Afew years ago, Melanie Lynskey was told by a psychic that her career was about to hit the big-time. It was in the early days of the pandemic, during a period when Melanie was feeling particularly “hopeless”, as she put it. The film and television industry was on its knees, and Melanie and her husband Jason Ritter were still recovering from a pregnancy loss. Good news was in short supply.

But a friend of a friend had put Melanie in touch with Fatima, a New Orleans-based psychic, who came through with a big, bold message: “You’re about to enter into a time in your career that you didn’t think was going to happen because it didn’t happen when you were 25.”

In typical self-deprecating fashion, the New Plymouth-born actress thought that maybe Fatima was having an off day. But she was very specific, telling Melanie, “You’ve already done something and it’s going to come back.”

The only thing that fit the bill was a pilot episode she had filmed for a show. She hadn’t heard a single thing about the series in the seven months since. Whether the pilot was good, whether she was good in it or whether it was going to go anywhere.

But Fatima was bang on the money. That pilot episode was for a show called Yellowjackets, a twisty, grisly, darkly funny drama series about a group of 40-something women who are still reckoning with surviving a plane crash as teenagers.

It became a worldwide hit and saw Melanie become the kind of overnight success that rarely happens to a woman in her forties. Multiple award nominations, one Critics’ Choice win and several high-profile acting jobs later, she has hit the A-list after decades of being Hollywood’s best-kept secret.

And now she’s coming full circle as she plays a real-life Kiwi in her latest role, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, almost three decades after she first played a New Zealander.

Melanie leaning on her knee looking at the camera

A heavenly creature

Growing up in Taranaki, Melanie Lynskey was the eldest of five children and a painfully shy child. When she first starred in a school play at the age of six, it brought her a new-found confidence and a love of acting that has sustained her through one of the hardest industries to crack.

The hobby quickly became a passion – she joined the local church just to take part in the plays – and when she was 16, an open audition for Sir Peter Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures saw her cast opposite a young Kate Winslet, telling the real-life story of two teenage girls who decide to kill one of their mothers.

From the minute they met, Kate and Melanie were inseparable – a wholesome version of the feverishly intense teenage friendship they were portraying in the movie. At the time, the English actress described her co-star as being like “the left side of my brain” during the filming process. But once they finished the shoot, their careers took very different paths.

Almost immediately, Kate was identified as a rising star, and inundated with agent offers and film scripts. In the years after Heavenly Creatures, she would go on to star in Sense & Sensibility and then the blockbuster Titanic.

But it was not the case for Melanie, who was still a painfully shy teenager who felt increasingly out of place in the Hollywood machine. It didn’t help that Heavenly Creatures was picked up by Miramax, the film company run by infamous producer Harvey Weinstein, whose decades of predatory behaviour saw him jailed and also kicked off the #MeToo movement.

While Melanie remained relatively unscathed, Weinstein seemed to dismiss the young actress as lacking star power. “I was a hindrance,” she recalls. “Kate was a marvel. I knew how special she was… But whenever there was a fancy dinner, I was treated as if I wasn’t there. That was particularly by Harvey and it was so hurtful.”

That coldness gave Melanie the impression that she was always going to be a Hollywood outsider. This was a thought that only grew when the agent offers and film scripts didn’t turn up for her.

A young Melanie Lynskey hugging Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures
With Kate in Heavenly Creatures.

She returned to Aotearoa and went back to school. However, after a couple of years, things picked up again. It was an audition opposite legendary actor Daniel Day-Lewis that made Melanie realise an acting career might be possible. Even though she didn’t get the role, the fact that she was being seriously considered to star alongside someone so well-known increased her confidence.

Slowly but surely, Melanie built up a career she was proud of.

“I was so grateful to be working, I didn’t need much,” she tells. “Before that I had been living on nothing. I understood that I was building it from the ground up at that point. I felt lucky that the door had been opened again.”

Recurring roles in shows like Two and a Half Men, starring Charlie Sheen, helped pay the rent. Along the way, she worked with some of the biggest names in the business, like Matt Damon, Drew Barrymore, Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney and Reese Witherspoon.

A large part of her career has been spent playing characters that The New York Times described as seeming “innocuous on the surface – breathy, meek, bland – only to reveal limitless anger and desire just beneath their suburban separates”.

As Melanie puts it, “Directors cast me a few times as somebody who is supposed to surprise you.”

And the role in Yellowjackets took that to a whole new level – Melanie plays Shauna, a seemingly stereotypical bored housewife who holds a secret molten centre of murder, affairs, violence and, well, cannibalism.’

Hot on the heels of Yellowjackets, Melanie was cast as a ruthless vigilante in hit series The Last of Us, a role that saw her nominated for an Emmy. It was another kind-faced part that hid a nerves-of-steel core.

While Melanie is a far cry from her murderous characters, her trajectory from playing unassuming best-friend roles to unapologetic female leads has mirrored her own coming-of-age story, as the actress grew out of her shy teenage years and became more comfortable as the leading lady of her own life.

Melanie Lynskey acting in Two And A Half Men
As Rose in Two and a Half Men.

Lucky in love

As well as being a genuinely beloved actor in a famously cut-throat industry, Melanie also managed to pull off another rare feat – an amicable divorce in Hollywood. Her first marriage to actor Jimmi Simpson ended after five years, but the pair remain good friends, often singing each other’s praises in interviews and on social media.

A year after their marriage ended in 2013, Melanie met Jason Ritter – the son of late Three’s Company actor John Ritter – at work and the pair fell in love, welcoming their daughter Kahikatea in 2018, before marrying in a simple ceremony two years later.

From their red-carpet appearances to interviews, it’s clear Melanie and Parenthood star Jason are besotted with each other. “I got so lucky,” Melanie says of their marriage. Both working actors, it’s a juggling act, with the family either separated by screen roles or going together on location.

Because of the chaos, there was another honorary member of the family who got a special mention in Melanie’s Critics’ Choice Award acceptance speech. It was their nanny Sally, who the actress credited for being “the most important” person in their lives.

It was a speech that went viral and spoke to Melanie’s open nature, as well as the reason she is such an adored figure in Hollywood. She’s always ready to give credit where it’s due. A living embodiment of the idea that a rising tide floats all boats, she’s the first to sing the praises of a pal, castmate or crew member. In fact, Melanie’s Instagram page reads like a visual reminder for just how long she’s been in the industry and how many treasured friends she’s made along the way.

But it wasn’t just the nanny mention that saw Melanie’s acceptance speech strike a chord with so many people. She also singled out the show’s creative team who gave her the Yellowjackets job for “letting me be exactly as I am, not asking me to change anything or do anything differently… It means a lot.”

Melanie and husband Jason on the red carpet
With husband Jason.

‘Fat best friend’

It acknowledged an unwelcome thread throughout Melanie’s career: the stifling body-image restrictions that dictate how Hollywood actors are supposed to look.

Let’s make no bones about it – Melanie is a beauty. There’s a reason why she’s been able to work for so long in such a fickle business. But the impact that the size-zero culture of the early 2000s had on film stars – and those watching them – can’t be underestimated. For so long, Melanie says, the only roles directors offered her were those of the “fat best friend”.

She recalls, “I’d get another script to be like, ‘The fat character just sitting in the corner eating a chocolate bar, while the pretty girls are all at the dance,’ or whatever. I was like, ‘No!’ It’s so irresponsible that there are scripts like this at all.”

During this time, Melanie developed a pattern of disordered eating to try to fit into the Hollywood ideal. It was only after she confided in her then-boyfriend and saw how upset he became, telling her how “violent” she was being with herself, that her behaviour started to change.

However, even after her ascent to stardom, Melanie still faced criticism over her body. In 2022, the actress revealed that one of the production team on Yellowjackets was very concerned about her figure and how it would appear in the show’s love scenes.

“They were asking me, ‘What do you plan to do? I’m sure the producers will get you a trainer. They’d love to help you with this.’”

It became an issue this crew member wouldn’t drop, continues Melanie. “It was disappointing because I’d said to that person ahead of time, ‘Listen, I had a miscarriage. I’ve not been able to lose the weight that I gained from being pregnant… I’ve gone through four rounds of IVF since I had my miscarriage, so my body is going through it right now and I’m just trying to give myself some grace.’”

Due to her past eating disorder, Melanie says her first instinct was to “turn on myself”, but instead she went to the producers, who were horrified on her behalf and shut the criticism down. One of the show’s producers actually wrote her a letter, saying, “I wish I’d seen someone who looked like you on television when I was growing up, especially in a love triangle with two hot men. It might have shifted my future a little bit.”

With husband Jason and daughter Kahikatea looking up at them
With husband Jason and their daughter Kahikatea.

Kiwi homecoming

The third series of Yellowjackets is on its way. However, in the break between filming, Melanie has taken on two very different roles – both playing New Zealanders.

One is Pike, which explores one of Aotearoa’s darkest days, the Pike River Mine explosion. Directed by Robert Sarkies, whose film Out of the Blue showed the horrific events of the 1990 Aramoana shooting, it’s written by Outrageous Fortune’s Fiona Samuel and sees Melanie starring alongside Robyn Malcolm.

Melanie moved her family back to New Zealand for the duration of filming. She plays Anna Osborne, whose husband Milton died in the mine. Anna became an instrumental figure in pushing the government to make changes to stop such disasters happening again.

Her second Kiwi role sees the actress bring to life the extraordinary story of Heather Morris, the Te Awamutu-born social worker-turned-writer. Heather’s Holocaust novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, became a global bestseller.

The novel recounts the incredible true love story of Lale Sokolov and Gita Furman, two Slovakian Jews who found each other while imprisoned in Auschwitz. It has sold more than 16 million copies around the world. But “it somehow had missed me”, Melanie admits.

“When producers asked me to do the limited series, I was talking to a friend about it. She was like, ‘How have you not read that book?’ as though I was crazy. But then, of course, I did read it. The story moved me so much.”

In a variation from the novel, the TV drama – now streaming on Neon and screening on SoHo – includes Heather meeting and interviewing present-day Lale, played by Harvey Keitel, as he shares his story for the first time. It’s a clever piece of scriptwriting that helps both to propel the story forward and give relief from the stark scenes set in the concentration camp.

“The level of detail they went to in order to make everything authentic was incredible,” Melanie says of the powerful tale, which was shot during a harsh Slovakian winter. “It’s so hard to watch. And the thought that it’s recent history? You know, it was not that long ago. Just thinking about what people do to each other…

“There are so many things in history where people don’t know the true reality of what happened to people – there are survivors of horrific events. We should continue to talk about the things that have happened to avoid repeating history, if at all possible.”

Melanie Lynskey with fellow Kiwi acting legend Robyn Malcolm in Pike
With fellow Kiwi acting legend Robyn in Pike.

Q&A

‘It’s complicated and heartbreaking’

Melanie Lynskey talks to The Weekly about examining a dark time in human history in The Tattooist of Auschwitz.

Did you spend much time with author Heather Morris to prepare?

I did spend a lot of time with her. She’s such a big personality and really fun. She was so generous with her time. She wrote me a beautiful email at one point where she pointed out that she’s a different person now at the end of this journey. She’s so confident and back then she was just figuring herself out. She had a lot of shyness and a lot of nerves, and wasn’t sure of herself.

What do you know about her relationship with Lale Sokolov, the subject of her book?

The way she talks about him even to this day, it’s one of the most important relationships of her life. They just loved each other so much and trusted each other so much.

What was it like working with Harvey Keitel?

I was so excited before it began. Harvey has such an amazing body of work. He has done so many movies. If you look back over his filmography, there are classics and so many times where he had worked with directors who hadn’t yet proven themselves. Jane Campion when she did The Piano wasn’t the Jane Campion. Quentin Tarantino when he did Reservoir Dogs wasn’t the Quentin Tarantino.

Well, you could say Peter Jackson wasn’t Sir Peter Jackson when he directed your debut film Heavenly Creatures in 1994. Maybe you can count yourself in that club too?

I was in high school – I turned 16 at the end of the shoot! – and I was already a fan of Peter Jackson.

How pivotal was that movie for you?

I don’t know who I would be or where I would be without it. It’s the definition of a lucky break. It’s kind of incredible that that happened to me and everything that came as a result. I thank my lucky stars. Not only getting a professional job at that age, but in a movie that was so special and still lives on to this day, and also working with people who had the generosity to teach me and help me learn. No one threw me into the deep end at all. There was a lot of support around me.

Melanie with her hands relaxed over her sternum, smiling

What sort of support?

Having people who were acting coaches to help me. Then also working with Kate Winslet, who had been doing it for so long. She was so ready to be there for me and be a support system. A lot of people get thrown on to a project and just kind of have to figure it out. They gave me a whole day of filming where I was just learning how to hit a mark. I had to not look at the ground to check where I was, to be standing and not look at the camera, finding out where your light is… What a gift.

Do you have other examples of positive workplace experiences as a young actor?

When I worked on Ever After, Anjelica Huston was so incredible with me. Just so loving, and a big sister who also taught me so many practical things about camera angles and editing. It’s the little things you don’t think about. I worked with actress Katrin Cartlidge as well. To have had women who I got to work with, who wanted to help me learn, has been so incredible. There’s a mantra I love: “I don’t shine if you don’t shine.” I love that. That’s really nice. I don’t understand being competitive or petty.

Back to the series… The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a story of both love and survival. What did it teach you about both of those things?

The thing that fascinated me the most is that it does ask people, “What lengths would you go to in order to survive? And what would you do to protect the people you love?” And the thing that got me – especially when I read the script – were the scenes of Lale really grappling with the truth of that, along with his own survivor’s guilt. His guilt at having made it and the fact that the love of his life also made it. It’s such a complicated, heartbreaking thing.

Did you have any personal connection to this time in history?

Only learning about it in school. I remember being dumbfounded. It felt to me, when I was hearing about it, like it had just happened. It’s shocking.

Acting in The Tattooist of Auschwitz
With Harvey in The Tattooist of Auschwitz.

Before filming, did you do any extra research?

I wanted to approach it as Heather did… I came into it with a little more general knowledge maybe. Just because my history teacher was so great in high school, but I was learning as I was going. Everybody’s story is different. Tali Shalom-Ezer, our director, pointed out along the way that you can’t tell the story of the Holocaust. There are so many stories and so many survivors who went through terrible, terrible things. As a whole, it’s too big to process. When you look at every individual story, there is a life, a family and people who loved each other. I have a five-year-old, so it’s hard for me not to imagine any of these terrible things.

How hard is it for you to leave work behind when you get back home?

It’s actually not that difficult because my little one is such a joyful person. Just seeing her face, I feel such gratitude. Having my husband there – they were with me in Slovakia – sometimes I would just come home and have a big cry. Luckily, my husband is an actor and he gets it.

Is it rare to be able to take your family when you’re working overseas?

My daughter is about to start elementary school, but before that, they came with me everywhere. They have always been with me. We had a rule that whoever’s job is the one that makes the most sense careerwise or financially, that will be the job we prioritise and he has had no ego about that. He’s like, “Yep, your job wins. I’ll go with you.”

Melanie holding a goat on set of Yellowjackets

As Heather is also a Kiwi, you were able to use your own accent in The Tattooist of Auschwitz. When was the last time you were able to do that?

Recently I went home and made a movie [Pike] where I played a New Zealander, but before this? I actually don’t know! I have no idea.

Do you ever think about moving back to New Zealand?

We lived in Auckland for three months while I was making this movie. It was October, November and December, which is when it starts to get warm and lovely. I was like, “What am I doing? Why don’t we live here?” Our nanny who travels with us is from Canada and she was like, “I don’t know what you guys are doing. We should all try to move here!” So I think at some point, definitely, even if it’s just for a few years.

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