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Melanie Lynskey: ‘It’s such an exciting time for roles for women and one of our greatest actors is not here to make the most of it'

Yellowjackets and The Last Of Us star Melanie Lynskey’s on her inspiration, Katrin Cartlidge, and why her big issue is 'obscene' inequality

Melanie Lynskey

Melanie Lynskey. Image: New York Times / Redux / eyevine

On screen and off screen, Melanie Lynskey is a great survivor. Almost 30 years since her astonishing breakout debut performance as a true-life teenage killer opposite Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures, Lynskey is in the middle of a long and ongoing purple patch. She is so hot right now.

Much of her recent work has focused on trauma and / or survival. Whether it is 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 – Lynskey’s career renaissance has been in films and on TV shows that really speak to these difficult times.

“It’s not anything I’m seeking out,” says Lynskey, when she meets The Big Issue during a flying visit to London promoting season two of Yellowjackets. “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.”

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

On this, Lynskey may just be wrong. Because she has established herself as the very best in the business – especially when it comes to playing the simmering rage so many carry with us.

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.

“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 says, of her hot streak of big hits and enlightening stories.

Lynskey began alongside Winslet and continued her journey with Drew Barrymore on Ever After. But asked who most inspired her during her early years in the business, Lynskey talks about Katrin Cartlidge, who died just three years after they filmed The Cherry Orchard in 1999. There are tears, fuelled by a cocktail of emotion and jetlag.

“I was working with Katrin Cartlidge when I turned 21 and she was the biggest inspiration,” says Lynskey. “I absolutely worshipped her as an actor and as a human being…”

The tears begin. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to burst,” she continues. “But she was such a wonderful person. My dream for a career was to do the kind of work she was doing.

“She taught me so much about being creative. She was such a smart actor and so fun. Katrin would improvise at the top of every scene. Before we walked into the room, she would do a little bit of play about what we’d been doing before the beginning of the scene.

“She was endlessly inspiring. I was like, gosh, if I can one day have a career that looks anything like that.”

Lynskey pauses to catch her breath.

“Sorry, I’m very jetlagged. But she was my dear friend and I’m just thinking of what she could be doing now,” she says.

“It’s such an exciting time for roles for women. And one of our greatest actors is not here to make the most of it. She would have just been doing such incredible work.”

Melanie Lynskey’s performance in season one of Yellowjackets bagged her an Emmy. More awards will surely follow. In recent episode Digestif, when Shauna and Jeff were car-jacked, the return of the ice-cold killer hidden beneath the gentle suburban mom exterior was played to perfection.

Drew Comins, executive producer on Yellowjackets, explain why Lynskey, as Shauna, has been so compelling, so brilliant.

“Melanie brings an emotional sophistication and dimension to Shauna that is beyond what we  envisioned for the role,” he tells us.

“She neutralises you with her charm so much that you forget this is a very dangerous woman. Her performance in Episode 3 had us floored, she feels alive in the moments that scare us most.”

I have to say that the big issue that The Big Issue is working on is one of the most pressing – there is such inequality in the world

Melanie Lynskey

As well as being one of the best, Lynskey is widely acknowledged as one of the nicest actors in the business. People go out of their way for her. She explains how Cate Blanchett and Sarah Paulson took care of her on set of Mrs America, filmed just after Lynskey’s daughter was born.

“They had things, contractually, that I did not have. So they would let me be in their rooms to breastfeed,” recalls Lynskey. “Sarah didn’t use her trailer one day so I could have my daughter in there with me. It was genuinely kind.”

And on Yellowjackets, working with Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci, Tawny Cypress and, for season two, ex-Six Feet Under star Lauren Ambrose, has, she says, been particularly special.

“It’s been such a joy,” says Lynskey. “My female friendships are such a huge part of my life. 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?’”

As her star has risen to new heights in recent years, Lynskey remains committed to the causes she believes in. Asked for her own big issue, she is quick to answer.

“I have to say that the big issue that The Big Issue is working on is one of the most pressing – there is such inequality in the world. It feels really obscene,” she says.

“I just don’t think life should be as difficult as it is for people. Thinking about that, I guess a lot of the causes I’m most passionate about and the places I have volunteered are to do with feeding people.

Project Angel Food is a big one for me in Los Angeles. It delivers meals to people with HIV and AIDS and I was a driver for them for many years, delivering meals.

Child hunger also really breaks my heart. People are struggling so, so, so, so much. I wish things were more equal. It’s kind of disgusting. In America, it’s so common for people to start a GoFundMe when they’re having a medical emergency. Imagine your child’s in hospital and you have to ask people to help you financially? Nobody should be put in that position…”

The full interview with Melanie Lynskey, on bonding with her Yellowjackets cast mates and hanging out with Keanu Reeves is in The Big Issue magazine. On the streets from May 15.

Melanie Lynskey stars in Yellowjackets on Paramount+

Sign up to the Big Issue newsletter to read behind-the-scenes details from our big interviews and don’t forget to find your local Big Issue seller so you can get a copy when the magazine goes on sale. If you don’t have a local seller, keep an eye on the Big Issue Shop or take out a subscription to make sure you never miss an edition.

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