Culture

Melanie Lynskey: Yellowjackets, zombies, Keanu Reeves and me

The star of Yellowjackets and The Last of Us is enjoying a wave of career-defining roles. After 30 years in the business, Melanie Lynskey's star is still on the rise

Melanie Lynskey as Shauna in Yellowjackets

Melanie Lynskey as Shauna in Yellowjackets. Photo Credit: Lorenzo Agius/SHOWTIME

Melanie Lynskey talks quietly. In a cavernous hotel suite in Central London, her soft voice barely carries across the coffee table. But listen up. Because the star of Yellowjackets, The Last of Us and Don’t Look Up has plenty to say. Lynskey has hit new career highs in recent years. Not that she was doing badly by her own metrics.

“I already felt so fortunate,” says Lynskey, who followed her breakout role in 1994’s Heavenly Creatures as a true-life teenage killer opposite Kate Winslet with a string of fine supporting roles, from Ever After (1998) with Drew Barrymore to Two and A Half Men, Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! and Up in The Air with George Clooney. “I’ve been a working actor for 30 years, which was my only hope when I started doing this. So my wildest dreams had already come true.”

Lynskey left home in New Zealand for Los Angeles many years ago. She is in London on a flying visit to promote Yellowjackets. So far, she has seen hotel rooms and interview suites – plus a visit to Hamleys toy store, on a quest for a present for her four-year-old daughter.

“It’s crazy. Very overwhelming,” she grins. “I got too many toys. I’m terrible.”

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Consciously or not, Lynskey’s most recent television shows and films have all focused on trauma and survival. Whether the fungus-fuelled global pandemic zombie apocalypse of The Last of Us, the imminent destruction of the planet in Don’t Look Up, the origin story for the Christian right takeover of the Republican party in Mrs America or the plane crash survivors in Yellowjackets. Should we read anything into that?

“It’s not anything I’m seeking out,” she says. “But it is interesting there are parallels. This is a whole new experience for me. I’m trying to not just wade through in a blind panic. I’m trying to stop and be grateful. Having had such a long career, I have an understanding that things like Yellowjackets and The Last of Us are so rare. And it’s not going to be forever.”

Well, it might be. The global success of The Last of Us – in which Lynskey played softly-spoken but ruthless resistance leader Kathleen – came between the two series of Yellowjackets, one of the finest original dramas for years. Across two timelines – both equally compelling – it follows a New Jersey high school girls’ soccer team whose plane crashes in the mountains of Canada in 1996. They survive, by whatever means necessary, including chomping on the dead remains of their former captain. Lynskey plays survivor Shauna in the story 25 years later when, united by a horrific shared trauma and still facing down their demons, they come together as their long-buried secrets threaten to resurface.

“Before I signed on, I talked to Karyn Kusama, who directed the pilot, and she said the most intriguing part of the story for her was investigating how people do or do not manage their trauma and the different ways it can impact people,” says Lynskey. “My character is trying to not feel anything at all, to push it down. And that just doesn’t work. It’s going to come out.”

Melanie Lynskey as Shauna in Yellowjackets
As Shauna in Yellowjackets. Image: Colin Bentley/SHOWTIME

Many of the older cast dealt with fame at an early age. Juliette Lewis was Oscar nominated for Cape Fear at 18, Christina Ricci was a child star in Mermaids and The Addams Family and still a teenager when she shot Buffalo ’66. And Lynskey had made headlines for Heavenly Creatures.

“There was something interesting about our casting,” says Lynskey. “Because it does, somewhere in people’s subconscious, put the idea of having known us as teenagers. People are somewhat familiar with me as a young person and very familiar with Christina and Juliet.”

Did they discuss their early career war stories, how they survived fame and an industry that had and has a long way to go on looking after its young talent?

“Early on we did,” she says. “There were pretty strict Covid rules so we weren’t hanging out much, but we got to know each other by doing Marco Polos. It’s an app where you leave a video message, and the next person adds theirs like a chain. I would look at my phone and have an hour of videos to watch while I did the dishes. That was how we shared our stories.”

Like a chain letter of accounts of the pre-#MeToo acting world?

“Kind of. If anyone was able to hack into our Marco Polos… We talked about whether we should delete them just in case. But I love having them. It was an amazing way to get to know everyone.”

As a New Zealander who has been on the fringes of fame for so long, does Lynskey now feel like a showbusiness insider?

“I always feel comfortable at work,” she says. “But I feel less comfortable on a red carpet.”

She recalls herself and Keanu Reeves being the awkward ones at a recent showbiz party. “He asked if I had any pictures of my dog in costume. It was so endearing. So sweet,” she grins.

And did she?

“I did! I was so happy. Just one in a Santa costume, but it was enough for Keanu Reeves. That same day, he went wandering off and when he came back, he was slowly eating a giant ice cream. I was like, this man is living. He knows how to do it!”

Much of Lynskey’s recent work has focused on women’s stories and been told by an ensemble of brilliant women. “It’s been such a joy,” says Lynskey. “There are scenes in the latter part of season two of Yellowjackets where we are all together. And looking around at this group of women in their mid-40s, who are all playing really interesting parts – if 20-year-old me would have seen that she would have just been like, ‘What? That’s possible?’”

She is paying it forward, the kindness and inspiration. You can see it in the way she talks about the younger Yellowjackets cast members – it’s not hard to imagine her channelling Shauna in their defence if necessary.

“I don’t think they need me to be as protective as I am. They’re all very strong people,” she says. “But I want them to know that if anything comes up, I will be with them. Because it’s hard to be a young person in this business.”

We have not, as a society, got a good track record of treating young people – and particularly young women – in the public eye very well. Does Lynskey see that as one of the subtexts for Yellowjackets?

“For sure. Yes. And I am really proud the show is so respectful,” she says. “They’re not asking anybody to do anything compromising. There are intimacy coordinators. It’s a very different time.”

Asked whether she wishes those protections had been there in the early stages of her own career, Lynskey’s voice lowers further.

“Yeah. Yeah,” she says. Quietly, but with real steel. She has, she says, taken elements from the roles she plays – attaching them like pieces of armour to protect herself from an industry that can be so bruising. There is something very freeing as a shy person about playing somebody who is either ruthless – like in The Last of Us – or really doesn’t care about people’s opinions, like in Yellowjackets. There’s something really fun about that,” says Lynskey.

“So I try to incorporate those things. Not the ruthlessness, but there are times when I would like to move through life with more of a shark-like focus.”

When you’re in a crowded toy shop, maybe?

“Exactly. God, what a mess. Now I have to buy a new suitcase!”

Yellowjackets can be streamed on Paramount+

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