Melanie Lynskey knew that there was something special in Yellowjackets, but the path to getting there wasn’t easy. A new mother, and a new mother in Hollywood where you’re never expected to stop working, she was exhausted. Early AM call times, 18-hour days, all relatively normal in the world of film and television, was taking its toll and she decided to take some time. She had no nanny (at the time) and a husband (actor Jason Ritter) also working full steam ahead. As kismet in Tinseltown often provides, the pilot for Yellowjackets came in and she decided to read it (“I get asked to do a student film, I’ll read it. There’s nothing I don’t read.”) and suddenly the quick respite was cut short. She had to play Shauna. “I just thought the writing was really good,” she says, “I couldn’t stop reading it.” Turns out she was right, the show is the year’s buzziest Emmy-nominated hit.
One thing to know about Lynskey is she’s a fan first, and it might be what makes her not only one of our most versatile actors, but one of the most liked and respected in the industry. She uses her social media to laud shows she loves and performers she respects and admires. She’s starstruck, even after nearly 30 years in the business with films like Heavenly Creatures, But I’m a Cheerleader and Don’t Look Up and television shows like Two and a Half Men and Togetherness on her resume. But it’s also what keeps her centered. She’s worked alongside Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett, or should I say, Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett have all been fortunate enough to work alongside Melanie Lynskey. She’s thoughtful of the human condition; before recording our chat we talked about COVID and its impact on our families and those around us. She’s personable and personal in the most non-celebrity way possible and now she’s the toast of the town, with a Critics’ Choice win for Best Actress and her first-ever Emmy nomination.
Throughout our conversation, Lynskey and I dig into the psychology and emotional matter of Yellowjackets, the trauma and survivor’s guilt of a situation so outlandish yet so grounded. She talks about her love of her co-stars, her respect for Sophie Nélisse, who plays the younger version of Shauna, and which Yellowjackets character she’d like to play. And I couldn’t leave without talking about her spirited daughter Kahi (she made somewhat of a guest appearance during our chat), who became something of a Twitter sensation earlier this year.
Erik Anderson: Let’s jump in. And obviously, I’m sure you hear it a lot, but I have been such a fan for so long.
Melanie Lynskey: Oh, thanks.
EA: Heavenly Creatures, Ever After, Cheerleader, I Don’t Feel At Home. I mean like everything you’re…
ML: Thank you.
EA: This is a real treat.
ML: Oh, it’s a treat for me too. I think you’re great.
EA: Thanks! And I can’t believe I get to say congratulations on your deserved Emmy nomination.
ML: I can’t believe either. I was really surprised.
EA: I was really pleased, and I know you’re an award show fan. Obviously, I am too. And you respond to people on Twitter about Best Actress. And I feel like we could spend like an hour just talking about award shows.
ML: Probably longer. Yeah. I’m very passionate about it.
EA: Exactly. Before we get into Yellowjackets, I did want to mention too, one of the things I think is remarkable about you is how you use your social media to elevate other people and performers and other shows. You’re a fan first.
ML: I am.
EA: I think that’s what makes you such an easy person to like.
ML: Oh, that’s very nice. I don’t know how easy I am to like. But there’s so much great stuff happening. There are so many talented people. All I want to do is talk about things I love with other people who also love them.
EA: Even your live tweeting of Candy was just a riot. It was ‘Raúl Esparza is amazing.’ It was delightful.
ML: Oh, I love him so much.
EA: Right. Isn’t he great?
ML: Oh, he’s so great. He’s so talented.
EA: Oh, he’s wonderful.
ML: Oh my gosh. I saw him do The Homecoming on Broadway in 2007 or something. And it was life changing.
EA: I was interviewing him for the Sondheim birthday special and we were both crying just talking about it. It was just a wild.
ML: Oh, I love it.
EA: Yeah. He’s fantastic.
EA: All right. Getting into Yellowjackets. Before becoming Shauna, I had read that you had almost passed on taking the role and I think we’re all grateful that you didn’t. What was it about Yellowjackets that made you say yes?
ML: I just was tired, to be honest. I had an infant child. I’d been working with my daughter, breastfeeding. It’s exhausting going to work. And I was on a show where we were doing 18-hour days. One day my call time was 2:00 AM just because the day was so long. And I was like, “I can’t. I need to figure this out. I don’t have a nanny.” So, my agent and I had made a plan that I would just take a beat and just think about what I wanted to do next. And just respectfully say, “No, thank you” to anything that came in. And then she said, “You’re getting offered this pilot. Let’s read it.” Because even so we read everything, obviously. I get asked to do a student film, I’ll read it. There’s nothing I don’t read.
So we both read it. And I just was like, “Oh no, I’m going to want to work. I’m ruining our plan.” And she was like, “It’s just a pilot. We can figure it out after.” So there was something about the character that was really intriguing to me because she’s not in a lot of the pilot, but the scene with Taissa [Tawny Cypress] and the diner where I tell her to take care of it. She’s been literally scrubbing shit stains out of someone else’s underwear and she’s leading this drab existence. But then I was like, “Oh, but she has all this power.” It just made me really interested to see what the dynamics had been. And there was just something… I just thought the writing was really good. I couldn’t stop reading it.
EA: Two writing Emmy nominations!
ML: I know. I’m so thrilled. I’m so thrilled for them. That was the thing. I think that and Christina [Ricci] were the two things that made me extra, extra excited.
EA: Oh, for sure.
EA: And I mean this first season has such an incredible lineup of directors too.
EA: I have to give a shout out to Karyn Kusama. Also an Emmy nominee. I know her a bit and this was just so absolutely fantastic.
ML: Also her first nomination.
ML: Which is insane.
EA: All of this is insane. All of you guys are first time in here in this arena and it’s what makes it really exciting.
ML: Yeah. It’s really exciting. Yeah. Karyn’s amazing. And we had so many good directors. The director of episode two, Jamie Travis, I just love. He’s so brilliant. And he was on for the whole season overseeing the whole thing and being our producing director. So he really, also along with Karyn, shaped the look of it and the tone of it.
EA: It is. It establishes it right away and it keeps that consistency which I think is not always easy to do when you have multiple directors and they have their own vision.
ML: For sure. Especially in the first season when it’s not already like, “This is the thing.” And I think that was challenging.
EA: You and the teen version of Shauna play by Sophie Nélisse don’t have scenes together, exactly. But were you able to spend any time with each other to help inform how you would play?
ML: Yeah, we did. We spent time together and neither of us are actors who decide a lot of physical things. We’re not the kind of people who are like, “This is the line where I’ll raise my hand and then I’ll put my hand back down.” We’re instinctive and we’re in the moment with the actor we’re working with. And so I don’t think we wanted a lot of mannerisms. But there was something energetic that I felt really worked. I think it was such smart casting. And then she and I had a lunch together and we just wanted to get on the same page about who we really felt Shauna was. The fact that we believed she had this innate confidence. She wasn’t really doubting that she was awesome, even though her life had turned out to not really be that awesome.
She has this core of belief in herself and belief in her value and the fact that she’s attractive to men. There are all these things we wanted to make sure we were on the same page about. And then to be honest with you, I just stole a lot of stuff from Sophie when I was watching her in the table read because I’m not naturally confident. I’m quite shy. I’m an introvert. I’m non-confrontational. I would just avoid someone for the rest of my life if there’s something I have to say to them.
And Sophie’s not like that. She’s a very strong person. And there was something she was doing I noticed in the first couple of table reads and, in the pilot, where she has this real stillness to her performance and a strength and a way of holding herself and maintaining eye contact. And I just was like, “I need all of that. I’m going to channel Sophie’s version of Shauna and these moments where Shauna finds her strength and rediscovers herself because I love it.” And I also like the return to the teenage version of you when you were at your strongest and you were at your freest. So, thank you Sophie because she just did so much stuff that was really wonderful. I just think she’s such a talent.
EA: Agreed. And I think that’s part of the duality of the character anyway is a quiet strength and a timidness as well as an outward strength. To be able to feed off of that from each other just makes sense.
ML: Yeah. It’s more me feeding off her.
ML: It is. She is so good.
EA: I’m thinking of that flashback vision scene in the bedroom with young Shauna and Jackie and how complex that relationship is and how it’s such an important part of Shauna’s adult life. And how much do you see survivor’s guilt coming into play with Shauna’s decisions as an adult?
ML: Oh, a huge amount. I think a huge amount of what Shauna does has to do with survivor’s guilt in I don’t think she would’ve made any of the choices she made if she had not had the experience she did. And Jackie literally haunts her. A vision of her haunts her. She just cannot forget how she died. And I felt very lucky that the writers… They were trying to keep some stuff secret, but they were really good about telling me specifically how Jackie died, because I said if I’m going to be haunted by a vision of someone, I need to know did I push her off a cliff? Did she get murdered by a group of people? Did something happen that was an accident? I just need to know the level of… I like to be specific, so they told me exactly what happened, and I thought it was so heartbreaking.
EA: It is.
ML: It’s the saddest version of that.
EA: There’s something about a show with women characters like this that rarely gets made as it is. Men have had shows like this for decades, but women aren’t really offered the opportunity for this type of complexity and I think [show creators and Emmy-nominated writers] Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson just knock it out of the park.
ML: Me too. Me too. Yeah, it’s true. And sometimes you’ll see there’s a cast and there’s one wild woman or one unpredictable woman, but to have so many female characters who are not necessarily likable. There was a time where I was looking on Reddit and then I developed better judgment than that because I keep getting my feelings hurt. I was like “Step away.” But people were so angry. People were so angry at Shauna for having a new fear and just all kinds of things. She’s not nice to her daughter. Well, no, her daughter’s not nice to her. Women aren’t perfect. People act out. People have unresolved trauma. There’s a lot going on with her. And I really embraced the chance to play somebody who didn’t really care about making yourself cute or sweet or lovable.
EA: Absolutely. On the flip side of who you got to work with, you have Juliette Lewis and Tawny Cypress and Christina Ricci. Oh my God. This group is just iconic. What was the dynamic and the bond between you on set?
ML: It’s very sisterly for better and for worse. We’re very, very, very close. Protective of each other, certainly. But then there’s dynamics involved sometimes, but mostly I feel a deep kinship with them. I feel very loved. I love them all very dearly and I think we would do anything for each other. We really did develop a bond that I think is important for people who would’ve spent that length of time together. I just think we needed to know each other very deeply. And because COVID was such a big issue at the beginning of production and people weren’t vaccinated and stuff like that, we didn’t really get to hang out too much. So, we did a lot of talking on our Marco Polo chain that was developed out of necessity because Juliette’s texts are so unhinged. Because she does voice to text and half her words are… The voice to text thing mishears her and then you get this insane text, and you have to be like, “What do you mean?”
So she kept leaving voice memos. And then she was just like, “Can we have a Marco Polo please? It’s going to help me.” And it ended up being this incredible thing because I could watch these videos of these women and it got very personal. Christina and I would do it after our kids were asleep and we were all just sharing with each other. There was a whole day where we talked about our dads. A day, probably three days, where we talked about our mothers. Just talking and sharing and getting to know each other. And I feel like I have a complete history of who they are as people.
EA: In thinking again of how this is a show that deals with trauma and grief, very specifically women’s trauma and grief, in episode six, Shauna tries to self-induce an abortion and I can’t help but think how prescient that moment felt to what’s happening in the United States now.
ML: Yeah. It’s pretty crazy. And the thing I really loved when I read that scene… Ugh, it’s so heartbreaking. I’m grateful that I did not have to go through that as a teenager and make that kind of decision. It would’ve been awful. But the thing I really appreciated about the writing of that storyline is that she doesn’t go through with it because she’s scared for her own life. She’s terrified of something awful happening to her, getting an infection and dying alone in the wilderness.
So she makes the other terrible choice to just continue this pregnancy. And I felt like it did a really good job of showing how impossible the decision is when you don’t have options to do something about it but you don’t want what’s happening to you. And I think unfortunately, a lot of women are going to be forced into that position where it’s the choice between doing something that’s risking their life and very dangerous or changing their whole lives. And I just don’t understand a culture that forces people to give birth. I don’t see how it’s good for society. If a child is unwanted, it’s just not good. I’m a mother. It’s really hard. It’s what I wanted more than anything in the world. And it’s so hard.
EA: And I think to your point, the writing of the show and the handling of that is extremely respectful to all the aspects of that.
EA: I almost think the elevated nature of the show affords the ability to look at it a little differently than if it was a straightforward story where you are not abandoned in the woods hunting each other.
ML: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. You’re so right.
EA: Something I’ve wanted to ask you about is your accent work because it’s always written about and very respected and lauded. And is it something that has been natural for you?
ML: Well, thank you. When I first came here, I watched a lot of movies. I couldn’t afford a dialect coach. And so I just watched everything I could. I tried to learn a lot of different accents. And I’m an introvert, I’m an observer. When people were talking, I remember when I had my audition for Coyote Ugly, where I had to be from New Jersey, I watched some movies that were set in New Jersey, but mostly I did an impression of Natasha Lyonne, who’s not from New Jersey, but she has this kind of New York attitude that I do not have.
And so, there were things like that where you steal from people. You’re inspired by somebody close to you. And then the voice just comes into it. It’s not quite doing an impression, but it’s yeah. So eventually I… On some jobs they would get me a dialect coach and then I would just drill them. I would be like, “Minnesota. Let’s do some…” Because the standard American accent isn’t too difficult. I would try to take what I could and learn everything.
EA: I like that. If you could switch roles with one of your Yellowjackets co-stars, who would it be?
ML: Oh, Misty. I’d play Misty in a second.
EA: Oh, I imagine a lot of people would.
ML: Oh, I didn’t even have to think about it. It is such a fun part. Just sometimes I would read the scripts and just be like, “That is delicious.”
EA: Do you have a bucket list of actors and directors and people that you want to work with?
ML: Oh my gosh, yes. So many. Absolutely. My favorite actors… Regina Hall is one of my favorite actors. I would die to do something with her. I think I’ve made her anxious on a number of occasions saying that. Just fan girling. And she’s like, “Oh, thanks.” Olivia Colman, Jesse Plemons, I love. Sam Rockwell, I love. Oh my gosh, there’s just so many.
EA: I can see all of that.
ML: Yeah. There’s just so many people. I got to work with André Holland a few years ago and that was one of my heart’s greatest desires. I think he’s amazing. And he was amazing. Yeah. There are so many people. And then directors is just endless. Mike Leigh would probably be my number one life dream. Do a Mike Leigh movie and go through that process.
ML: Yeah. That would be…
EA: Yes. From a script screenwriting process, that would be fascinating.
ML: I would love it. I had a friend who passed away in the early 2000s, Katrin Cartlidge, but she worked with him a lot. Yeah.
EA: I remember her well.
ML: Yeah. Yeah. She was one of the greatest of all time. I was so lucky to get to work with her. I really miss her and miss her every day. She was very generous with me, and she talked a lot about what that process was like. And she was always like, “Just write him a letter. Write him a letter.” And I still haven’t been brave enough.
EA: Maybe, maybe.
ML: Maybe, maybe.
EA: We’ll see.
ML: Yeah. He has his pick of all the greatest British actors. So, I don’t know.
EA: I think you’d fit in beautifully.
ML: Thank you.
EA: I won’t ask you for clues about season two of Yellowjackets. I know you can’t and I know you probably don’t have them either.
ML: I don’t have any. I think they’re actually deliberately keeping it from me because they know I have to do press right now and they don’t trust me.
EA: It’s the Tom Holland thing where he would accidentally just drop things during press tours.
ML: Oh, would he?
EA: Yeah, it was pretty funny actually. Which was the opposite of Andrew Garfield who was the best liar during press about Spider-Man.
ML: Oh, how funny.
EA: So yeah, maybe they are keeping it from you. Then I’ll ask this. What do you want to see for Shauna and other character arcs?
ML: Oh gosh. I trust our writers so much to come up with whatever they want to do. I know it’s going to be the best version of the story, whatever they want to do. I do love the dynamic with Jeff, my husband who’s played by Warren Kole. He’s so funny. He’s so funny. And I just think there’s something… I remember probably my favorite director of the first season was Ariel Kleiman who did episode eight.
[At this point, Lynskey’s daughter Kahi begins to cry and we pause to make sure she’s ok. She is fine and with her dad, and we continue.]
ML: Ari was always talking about how much he loved that dynamic with me and Warren and I just think it’s so fun and if there are new people… I don’t know if there are new people coming in, but I hope that I get to work with them.
EA: I think about his, “What? There’s no book club?” line.
ML: Oh my God.
EA: He should have been Emmy nominated just for that delivery.
ML: Exactly. I think he’s very underrated. And Steven too, who plays the coach. I love that there’s such a focus on the women of the show, but they’re doing such good work. And Kevin who plays Travis. There are so many great men on the show too.
EA: Yes. I know by the time this comes out we’ll have the answer for this, but have you thought about the episode that you want to submit?
ML: Yeah, I did. I had to submit something, and it was very hard. I don’t know. I’m not good at watching my work objectively. I just don’t… So, in the end I had Jason decide.
EA: I love that.
ML: I just was like, “Please help me.” And he felt strongly about something and I just… I don’t know. There are moments through the whole season that I felt so lucky to get to play. So, every episode I was like, “Oh, I love that scene. I love that scene.” It wasn’t really one big episode that had everything within it.
EA: Yeah, I was rewatching the season and going, “Okay, there’s obviously the pilot because you have that great kitchen monologue or wait a minute, episode six, you have the birthday brunch.”
ML: Oh yeah. The brunch is good. Yeah.
EA: Episode eight, the kitchen talk with Callie. There’s a lot to choose from.
ML: Oh God. I chose none of those episodes. [“Doomcoming,” where Shauna confronts her strange new beau Adam, was the episode submitted]
EA: There’s more. But it’s Jason’s responsibility, I would say.
ML: It’s Jason’s fault.
EA: Get that credit or blame.
ML: I also think if we’re being honest, for me, this is just a happy to be here moment. I don’t think I’m about to win an Emmy. I think it doesn’t really matter what the episode is. I feel so lucky to be part of something that people paid attention to and watched. And the fact that people voted for me and nominated me, I just… I look at this group of women that I’m in and I just… They’re all amazing. They’re all amazing in these particular roles, they’ve been amazing in other things that I’ve seen, countless other things. It’s just such a strong group and I could make a very strong case for any one of them and a less strong case for myself. I don’t think it’s my moment or whatever, but I’m very, very grateful. I feel very lucky to be nominated. I’m excited.
EA: I love also how starstruck you get by people. Who are you most excited and scared to possibly meet at the Emmys?
ML: The list is endless. It’s crazy. I met Jeremy Strong at the SAG Awards and I was very starstruck by him. I would be starstruck by Sarah Snook. Very much. There are so many people. There are so many people I’m a fan of.
EA: I think you should just hop over to the Succession table and when someone’s in the bathroom, you just sit in the chair.
ML: (laughs) Yeah. That’s my style. Yeah. Just sit on in there. Yeah. But how many great shows like Succession, Squid Game, Severance… It’s crazy.
EA: It is. It’s a lot.
EA: Melanie, I will let you go and say thank you so much.
ML: Oh, thank you so much. This was so fun. I love your green nail polish.
EA: Oh, thank you.
ML: So fun and summery.
EA: It’s glows in the dark too, which is really wild. I keep forgetting and then I’ll lay down to go to bed and like, “Why is there a light on?”
ML: So awesome.
EA: Thank you again. And oh my God, you mentioned your daughter before and now all I can think about is your viral thread with the doll. “That’s my daughter!”
ML: Oh my God.
EA: I say that all the time now.
ML: Do you?
EA: That is a part of my vernacular. ‘That’s my daughter!’
ML: Funny. I had never known her to be interested in this doll. And then I just put it… I was tidying up. “That’s my daughter!” And she’s only ever been referred to since then as “my daughter.” She picked her up the other day and she goes, “My daughter, my friend.” What else? She said, “My daughter, my friend, my twin.” I was like, “What is going on with this doll?” It’s so weird.
EA: That is something. I like that. But keep an eye out for her.
ML: Yeah. I will. She’s such a little character.
EA: I love it. My best to you.
ML: To you too.
EA: And thank you so much.
ML: Thank you. This was so fun. I knew it would be fun.
EA: Oh, good. I hope we could talk again soon.
ML: Me too.
Melanie Lynskey is Emmy-nominated in the category of Lead Actress in a Drama Series for the episode “Doomcoming” of Yellowjackets, currently available to stream on Showtime.