After more than two decades of working in Hollywood, New Zealand-born actress Melanie Lynskey is in a really good place. Since her 1994 debut as a manipulated, murderous teen in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, she’s built a diverse film and TV career that has included a role in 2009’s Oscar-nominated Up in the Air and a recurring part on CBS’ Two and a Half Men. Her current starring role on HBO’s Togetherness, which is written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass, follows four friends navigating a funny, messy adulthood. In it, she plays stay-at-home mom Michelle—disaffected and disappointed until she finds her passion in helping a divorced city councilman bring a charter school to the neighborhood. Here Lynskey touches upon sexism in Hollywood and why she loves working with the Duplass brothers.
You do some improvising on the set of Togetherness. How is that incorporated into your performance?
I love improvising. When I was in high school I had this acting class with this teacher who would just sit in a chair and smoke cigarettes, and tell us to make up a scene. But (Jay and Mark Duplass) hate rehearsing so we don’t typically go to rehearsal. Sometimes it’s wonderful because the first take is spontaneous and great, then sometimes it’s tricky because you’re like, “Where’s the camera? What am I supposed to be doing right now?” A lot of the time, especially when Jay is directing, the last take will just be whatever you want it to be. It doesn’t have to even be what the scene is about, it’s just whatever feelings have been brought up, and that’s always really interesting and fun.
Togetherness really digs into the realness of relationships, including the messiness of Michelle’s marriage to Brett (played by Mark Duplass). What do you enjoy most about playing her?
A member of our crew said to me the other day that she thought it was so awesome that I was the one who got the sexy storyline last year. I hadn’t really thought about it, but she was like, “I feel like most shows would just have Amanda (Peet) be the one who’s doing all the sexy stuff,” because, obviously, she’s Amanda Peet—she’s gorgeous and perfect. And I thought about how I love that Michelle is unapologetically herself. I love how I got to play someone who’s unraveling without having to be like, “Sorry, guys. She’s kind of a mess.” She’s just like, “This is what life looks like.” I got to do all of that without having to be cute or sweet. And she got to be sexual, she got to have wants and needs.
What has working with Jay and Mark Duplass been like for you?
It’s been so incredible. I mean, it’s really spoiled me, because you do get so much of a say in who your character is, even what you want to say in a scene, where you want the scene to go. To be able to participate that much is really exciting and they’re just such sweet, gentle, good people. They’re just trying to make something that feels honest to them, and make something they think they would want to watch. It feels simple and easy. They are good people to be around.
The series really shows a different, more everyday side of Los Angeles. Is the L.A. of Togetherness closer to your own experiences living here?
There have been a lot of shows set in L.A.—Entourage is so fun, but I would watch that show like such an outsider. That is not my experience (here) as a working actor, who’s going from job to job and trying to pay her mortgage and not being a movie star. So, yes, the experience of living in L.A. that they give in the show feels really real to me, and so many of my friends have Brett and Michelle’s life. I’m not married and I don’t have kids, so there are parts of it that I can’t relate to, but literally, I have friends who live in Eagle Rock and have two kids and that’s their life. They’re all like, “My god, you’re playing me on your show.”
As an actress in her late thirties, have you run into the kind of sexism Maggie Gyllenhaal did when she was told she was “too old” to play opposite a 55-year-old actor?
I think everybody has run into it. It has been kind of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” sort of thing, and I’m really impressed with Maggie for talking about it. The thing that I’ve come up against time and again is they always want to cast the guy before they cast the woman so that they can see what you would look like next to him. People have concerns that you’re not hot enough, you’re not thin enough, you’re not young enough. The only way I have found I’ve been able to have some measure of control is I made a vow to myself that I was never going to play a woman who was apologizing for her body. The reality is, I’m a size 6—that’s how crazy our industry is, where I look like a giant. If every character I play is somebody who is happy with their body, then at least women can watch me and be like, “There’s somebody who looks somewhat like I do and she’s not eating candy bars and crying.”