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‘Yellowjackets’ Star Melanie Lynskey on Playing ‘Challenging, Interesting, Sexual and Messy’ Women

TheWrap Emmy Magazine: ”I’m not a person who’s ever felt like I deserve anything. My greatest goal for my career was to be able to make a living, to not have to have another job,“ she says

A version of this story first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

By the time the “Yellowjackets” Season 1 finale aired in January, Showtime’s drama-horror-dark-comedy had achieved full-fledged phenomenon status. It had amassed near-unanimous critical raves, averaged five million weekly viewers — which made it the second-most streamed series in Showtime’s history, after last year’s “Dexter: New Blood” — and inspired dozens of sub-Reddits bursting with frenzied fan theories.

People were positively obsessed with the saga of forty-something women coping with memories of being stranded as teenagers in the Canadian wilderness following a plane crash. In one timeline, high school soccer players succumb to their most primal instincts as they embrace the occult and inch towards cannibalism; in the other, four adult survivors played by Melanie Lynskey, Tawny Cypress, Juliette Lewis and Christina Ricci grapple with their trauma.

The fervent response to “Yellowjackets” took many cast members by surprise, none more so than Lynskey. Starring as Shauna, a suburban housewife and mother hiding dark secrets, has earned the New Zealand-born actress more recognition than any project in her 28-year career. In March she won the Critics Choice award for best actress in a drama series, which she accepted with the gratitude and humility of an actor unaccustomed to being in the spotlight.

The attention is long overdue. Since starring with Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson’s “Beautiful Creatures” in 1994, Lynskey has become one of the industry’s most gifted character actors, beloved by her peers and regularly singled out by critics for her work in romantic comedies (“Ever After,” “Sweet Home Alabama”), a network sitcom (“Two and a Half Men”), cable dramas (“Togetherness,” “Mrs. America”) and more acclaimed indies than we can list here (“Away We Go,” “Win Win”). More recently, she played Leonardo DiCaprio’s long-suffering wife in the Oscar-nominated satire “Don’t Look Up” and co-starred with Jessica Biel in the Hulu limited series “Candy” as a housewife and mother whose friend murders her with an ax.

“It’s very new to me. I’m used to, you know, going to Sundance and doing three days of press for something and then that’s it,” Lynskey said with a laugh during a recent Zoom call with TheWrap. “I’m not a person who’s ever felt like I deserve anything. My greatest goal for my career was to be able to make a living, to not have to have another job. I’m so grateful for [the attention], but my career has been beyond my wildest dreams. I’m 44 years old and I’m playing characters who are challenging and interesting and sexual and messy. And I feel like that’s enough — like, truly.”

In a Q&A with TheWrap, Lynskey opened up about the success of “Yellowjackets,” her career and more.

TheWrap: ‘Yellowjackets’ is so juicy, unlike anything else on television. Did you have any sense that it would connect with people in a big way?

Melanie Lynskey: I know if something is gonna be good, usually, and I’ve very rarely been wrong. [With ‘Yellowjackets,’] I just felt it. The energy was right. And the scripts were just so good. But you never know. There were [projects] that I felt really proud of that people just haven’t really seen. And so that was the big surprise to me, that people were really watching.

The series is very much about women coping with trauma. The men are on the periphery. Did it feel different, walking onto such a female-focused set each day?

It did. I do have to say that a lot of my scenes were with men. (Laughs) But yeah, the table read is where it would always hit me. It was my favorite part, always, of the episode. And those were the moments where I was like, ‘Oh, this is a show about women, like really, really about women.’ Seeing Juliette’s storyline, Christina’s and Tawny’s, and then all the young cast — that was when I would get really excited.

It must have been fantastic when you finally got to shoot with Juliette, Tawny and Christina.

Oh my God, we could not wait. We were all giddy with excitement. And I love working with Juliette because it’s kind of like working with a box of fireworks and some of them are lit. You’re just kind of like, ‘What’s gonna happen?’ Anything could happen. But I know she got kidnapped at the end of the season. I hope she’s not, like, locked away for the whole [second] season.

Yellowjackets
Showtime

Right. She’s thrown in a van by cult members tied to Lottie Matthews, the survivor who seems to have gone all-in on the gory wilderness occult. What questions or mysteries are you hoping that Season 2 answers?

Oh my gosh, I’m so into the Lottie/Van/Misty cult thing that is happening. [Editor’s note: Van is the team’s goalie, played by Liv Hewson, and Misty is Ricci’s slippery character.] For my storyline, I love the place where it left off, where Shauna and [her husband] Jeff were meeting each other for the first time. They’ve been married to ideas of the other person and now they’re really coming together as equals. And I think that’s romantic and sexy.

Are we going to meet Shauna’s wilderness baby? [In the 1996 timeline, Shauna is pregnant.]

I guess so. I need to start asking questions about that baby. It was too painful for me. In between shooting the pilot and shooting the first season, I lost a pregnancy and it was honestly hard to get out of bed. (She tears up.)

I’m so sorry. I went through that as well and I’m really sorry for your loss. It’s so hard.

Sorry. It made me get emotional. (She wipes her eyes.) Anything to do with the baby, I really kind of blocked it out, so I’m gonna have to get a bit braver. If something awful happens [to Shauna’s baby], I’m gonna lose my mind.

I am too. Similarly, it’s not easy to watch ‘Candy,’ when your character is dead and her baby is crying in her crib. It’s even worse to think it was based on a true story.

I know. I know. It’s so awful to think about. All I could think about, for that woman who was murdered in that way, her dying moments, I think would’ve been like, ‘What’s gonna happen to my child? You have a little baby here.’ What an awful story.

What drew you to that project?

The writing was so, so good. And the character, I just really related to. I’m shy. I’ve felt many times in my life like I don’t fit in. I felt awkward and I didn’t have the right thing to say, I didn’t look right. Everyone else is prettier or thinner or more outgoing. And I just really related to that aspect of her just doing her best and people being like, ‘Well, that’s not good enough.’ My heart went out to her.

You have spoken about asking the ‘Yellowjackets’ writers for certain details about the plot in Season 1 so that you could have a holistic view of your character and how to play her. Season 2 starts shooting in August. Have you pumped the writers for information yet?

No. I’m trying to give them a little bit of a break. The pressure of having your first season received the way it was and then having to write the next one, it must be so scary. I know they’re trying to get as much time as they can. In, probably, July I’ll start hounding them. I’ll read a script and I’ll be like, ‘OK, I’m supposed to be remembering this horrible thing that happened, but I don’t know what happened. So you need to tell me as best you can. Like, what am I remembering? What’s this referring to? You know, you say, ‘We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Natalie.’ What does that mean?’

And did they tell you?

Yeah. They always try to be as vague as possible and I’m just like, ‘Hmm-mmm.’ (Shakes her head) And then they get really specific. They’ve been great with that. I’m sure I’m really annoying.

YELLOWJACKETS
Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME

I doubt that. The 1996 storyline grapples with the idea of young women entering into adulthood. Having been a teenager in the 90s, how does 90’ teenage Melanie compare to the girls in ‘Yellowjackets’? Obviously without the cannibalism. I mean, I assume!

Yeah, it was very little cannibalism in New Zealand in 1993. First of all, I would’ve been useless in the wilderness, completely useless. I was not a person who ever went camping or did any of that. I was completely obsessed with boys. (Laughs) Like, obsessed. And I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be an actor and I didn’t want anything else. It was a time in my life where people were trying to talk to me about other career options and I was kind of listening. I think the young version of my character on the show is quite unfocused. I think she has ambitions, but they haven’t coalesced yet. She doesn’t quite realize what she’s capable of or where she wants to go.

‘Yellowjackets’ is dark, but you have some wonderful deadpan comedy moments, like when Shauna talks about her mean daughter. Was the funny always in the script or did you bring it?

There was less comedy in the pilot. [But] the moments that were a little bit funny, I think [the producers and writers] really enjoyed them, so they started to lean into it a little bit more. The writers are really, really funny. Some of the things I got to say, I just laughed out loud when I read them, like, ‘I don’t even like my daughter…’ (Laughs) It’s so funny to say that at this fancy brunch. That tone is something that the writers do so well and I love, love, love it.

Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.

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