Melanie Lynskey is the type of actress who, if you’re talking to a friend who doesn’t follow films much more closely than in a detached, blockbuster-of-the-month manner, you have some trouble reminding them in what they might have seen her. (If you run through a half dozen respected big screen credits and then proffer the role of deranged neighbor Rose on Two and a Half Men, you can only inwardly sigh when they finally register exclaimed recognition.) It can be frustrating, but it’s a testament to Lynskey’s considerable talents. She has a unique ability to mine vulnerability in the most exquisitely bittersweet of ways, so if you feel the punch or melancholy of her characters’ predicaments more than the force of her own individual talent, well, that’s the point.
Lynskey’s latest film is Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas, in which she plays Kelly, a wife, mother and blocked writer who experiences an upswing in both creativity and exasperation when her younger sister-in-law, Jenny (Anna Kendrick), upsets the quiet domesticity of she and her husband Jeff (Swanberg). Recently, Paste had a chance to chat with Lynskey one-on-one about her movie, sex talk, pajamas worn in the daytime, and the national psyche of her native New Zealand.
Paste: I understand Joe met you for Drinking Buddies, figured that he didn’t quite have a part for you in that film, but still wanted to work with you. But I didn’t know that you have a background in improvisational work, which came into play here.
Melanie Lynskey: Yeah, I never went to drama school, but from high school, or really the age of nine, I did this drama class with a local teacher, and it was almost completely improvised, which is weird. I haven’t really heard of anything like that. We would put some scripted plays on, but it was really unusual in that for most of it she would give us a scenario and we would improvise. I also did what we call theater sports, with improv. I had a team that did well in New Zealand, so it was kind of what I was most familiar with. It wasn’t training, really, but I was very comfortable with it.
Paste: The film, to my mind, is a character study that wears the thematic issues it addresses fairly lightly. Part of it is about the changing nature of what you feel most strongly about, and how that can be disorienting. Since the film doesn’t address the issues head-on, though, do you have discussions with Joe about capital-T theme, or does he basically just say, “These are the characters, and this is the sandbox I want to play around in?”
Lynskey: It’s more the second thing. Joe said, “Here are some things I’m interested in: I want to tell a story about when my brother came to live with us and was a disaster, and I also want to make a movie about how [my wife] Kris is feeling.” I think for Joe it comes from his own personal experience, and everyone brings what they can bring to it.
Paste: The film touches on the whole sub-genre of so-called “sexy mom fiction,” so did you do any deep-diving into that literature, or have a wealth of previous knowledge?
Lynskey: Oh no. When I was a young teenager, or 11 and 12 and starting to discover that, my sexy reading was like D.H. Lawrence. (laughs) I was such a dork. There were also some very sexy parts in Bob Geldof’s autobiography. (laughs) I feel so embarrassed. But I never really read that kind of stuff. I thought about reading some before the movie. I knew that Anna had read some so that she knew what she was talking about, but I wanted to be surprised if she quoted something from it because Kelly wasn’t supposed to have read it. But I’m curious now, so I might read it.
Paste: This may seem an odd question, but since you play a Kiwi in Happy Christmas, was the film unexpectedly emotional in any way? Because part of Kelly’s backstory seems to be that she had success in New Zealand with her first novel, but it hadn’t necessarily translated to the United States, and that part of her [emotional waywardness] was a sense of wondering how to find her creative way in a bigger world.
Lynskey: Yeah, I had a couple of specific examples in mind of people in New Zealand who were such a big deal to me, and thinking about how New Zealand is such a tiny place and how in the rest of the world people have no knowledge of this band or this writer or teacher. For me, it’s kind of a different thing, because Heavenly Creatures was released over here and people were aware of it. But it does happen a lot, that there’s a celebration of something in this tiny place and it [disappears] … New Zealanders are good at reminding each other to not get too excited about yourself: “You think you’re going to go to L.A. and people are going to care.” People can be quite cruel in New Zealand. So I thought that Kelly probably carried all of that with her, in a way. It’s kind of a cultural thing. You come over here and think, “Well, who am I to try to make a go of it or say, ‘Look what I did,’” you know? I think it was easy to slip into that other role.
Paste: You could speak to this much better than I ever could, but [what you’re describing] seems like the flip-side to Australia, which is close by, but seems to have a cocksure attitude that seems to travel with a lot of Australians that come to the United States.
Lynskey: Yeah, it’s a very different thing, and I’m not sure where that comes from culturally. Maybe they’re just a bigger country. They’re such different places, socially. We have a really hard time as New Zealanders letting ourselves be okay with things. I just did an interview with an Australian journalist and was trying to explain that concept, because she’d asked what advice I would give a young actor from New Zealand or Australia and I was saying something about confidence, because that was the hardest thing for me—and not listening to all the people who were telling me it wasn’t going to go well, and that I was going to be embarrassed. And she didn’t really get it. (laughs) And I thought, “Oh yeah, right, because you guys are different.” I’m sure there are some shy Australians, too, but I feel like they’re usually like, “Why not, I’ll give it a go!” I think that New Zealanders expect that you’re never going to have heard of New Zealand, and Australians expect that you know they’re from the greatest country in the world. (laughs) There are all those Flight of the Conchords episodes that get into that, and are so funny.
Paste: You have a really deft touch with vulnerability that never bleeds over into sad-sack caricature [and] Kelly feels like an innately knowable character—you understand the tension and melancholy in her life regardless of your own circumstances. So I guess my question is, when are you going to do a great romantic comedy, where it’s all sunshine and flowers and everything is happy?
Lynskey: (laughs) That’d be fun. I did a romantic comedy with my friend Simon [Helberg], who wrote a script. But it wasn’t all sunshine and flowers. It’s kind of a crazy story based on his own experience, and I knew him while he was going through it, so the whole thing was odd. (laughs) It was dark at times, but the movie (We’ll Never Have Paris) is a comedy. But it would be fun to do something really light. It would be nice.
Happy Christmas has a funny anecdote about pajamas worn in the daytime. And I don’t know when the sociocultural tipping point was, but I feel like Southern California was its epicenter because when I’m out in the middle of the day I’ll stop by the grocery store and regularly see folks clearly in their pajamas. So where do you stand on pajama tops in public?
Lynskey: Yeah, I see that, too. I’ve put a hoodie on top and gone to the 7-11, in need of milk desperately. But that story in the movie was stolen from my best friend. I’m the godmother to her children. Her husband works in an advertising agency and has a very exciting job, and they have two sons. One evening he was telling her a story about this lunch that they had that was so stressful and long: “We were drinking at lunch, so we were so tired all the rest of the day.” And she was like, “Oh yeah? Fuck you.” (laughs) She said she realized halfway through the conversation that she never took her pajama top off, that she’d put jeans on, but this bit (indicating her top) never happened. She was like, “Oh yeah, tell me, did you get the salmon? That’s nice, that’s great.” I thought that story was so funny, and I was happy I got to use it a little bit.
Paste: The film’s post-credits crawl amusingly extends a sex talk among women, which I think is a topic of endless fascination amongst guys because I think there’s this great disconnect between the sexes and the way they think the other [gender] talks. So do you hate filthy sex slang and synonyms for genitals?
Lynskey: No, none of that is true. I like hearing any dirty thing—I love it, I love it. It’s my favorite thing. There’s no offensive word you can throw at me. I’m like, “Yes! That is so awesome.” But I know a lot of my girlfriends have more delicate sensibilities, and I feel like Kelly would be a little bit like, “Oh, I don’t feel comfortable with that.” But I think all men and women are different, you know? I feel like some dudes sit around and share stories, and then there are some men who are like, “Well, I don’t want to get into it, but I had a nice time.” And I guess my friends and I are somewhere in the middle. We mostly talk about sex with each other if it’s life-changing or problematic—like if something is going wrong, then we’ll get into real specifics.
Happy Christmas opened in theaters Aug. 1, 2014, and is also available across VOD platforms via Magnolia.