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From 'Yellowjackets' to 'Heavenly Creatures,' Melanie Lynskey Anchors Intense Female Relationships

Shauna may have picked up some new skills in the wilderness, but she doesn't feel 'deserving' of surviving, the actor says.

Danielle Turchiano
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Melanie Lynskey

David Livingston / Getty Images

As Shauna Sedecki on Showtime's Yellowjackets, Melanie Lynskey embodies one half of an emotional and traumatic life. (The other half of that life is played by Sophie Nélisse in a story set in 1996.)

In the late '90s, Shauna survived a plane crash and subsequent stretch of time living in the Canadian wilderness alongside the majority of her soccer team when she was still in high school — and pregnant with her best friend's boyfriend's baby. Twenty-five years later, Lynskey's version of Shauna is married to that guy (played by Warren Kole) and raising a teenage daughter of her own. She hasn't truly put her past behind her — which comes in surprisingly handy as the tension and danger level ramps up in modern day, first with someone stalking four core survivors, Shauna included, and later when she suspected the man she was having an affair with to be a blackmailer and she kills him.

"There are just a lot of decisions being made that are not thought through properly and very impulsive life-changing actions. And it's very fun to play," Lynskey tells Metacritic.

Lynskey received a career first Emmy nomination for her performance in Yellowjackets (in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series category), but she has long been standing out whether she was the lead (such as in her debut role in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures opposite Kate Winslet) or part of a larger ensemble (as in Two and a Half Men, TogethernessCastle Rock, and Mrs. America).

"To be honest, I didn't think anything was gonna happen after [Heavenly Creatures]," Lynskey recalls. "And nothing did for a number of years, so I was like, 'Well, I guess I'll finish high school.' I would have loved to have been working; the opportunities and the interest were not there. I felt lucky and just so grateful to have another job. But I will say, starting out doing something that was so challenging and interesting and deep, I didn't have a lot of time for wishy-washy, kind-of nothing roles. If I signed on to something, I wanted to have something to do."

Here, Lynskey talks about Shauna's poor choices, stoic nature, and potential supernatural experiences on Yellowjackets, and reflects on the intense female relationships in Heavenly Creatures and Mrs. America.

Shauna on Yellowjackets usually doesn't make the most sensible choices, which feels like it could be a challenge to you as a performer, or perhaps a moment to live vicariously. Which one did you find it to be in the first season?

Honestly, it was an exciting opportunity. It's fun to play somebody who is different from yourself. I'm a person who wants to collect all the facts, I'm very non-confrontational, I like to talk things out; I'm very emotional — I cry at the drop of a hat. And she's none of those things. She assumes her husband's having an affair, so she starts having an affair. She assumes the guy she's having an affair with is the one who stole her journals, [and] she cannot have like a normal conversation with him about it; she's completely reactive. I actually hope she does not stop doing things like that. But in my protective state thinking about her, I'm just like, "Oh gosh, you could make it easier for yourself."

Could she, though? It feels like that would be true if she had worked through her trauma, but it doesn't seem like she's really worked through anything. Was there anything you created as backstory for Season 1 in terms of how she tried to process what she had been through, or do you feel like she hasn't tried at all?

I suppose that she had not really tried — or not so much not tried as it felt like it was impossible and [she] tried to bury it as much as possible. She has so much survivor's guilt about making it out of there I think she just tried to reassemble what she thought looked like a normal existence and and just kind of get on with it, but she's really not dealing with anything.

How much of the survivor's guilt do you feel comes solely from her specifically surviving when Jackie did not? Do you think she would be different if they had both walked out of there?

I think it would have been different. I think what happened to Jackie, the continuing story of that, is a huge part of it. And I think the guilt that she had about not being a good friend in the first place — getting into a fight and letting her her sleep outside and she freezes to death — she feels horrible about. And sleeping with her boyfriend when they were still in New Jersey and everything was fine, I think is really a tough one for her, too. She's like, "I was sh---y before we left, I was sh---y out there, and then I got to come home," and I don't think she feels deserving.

And yet, there are some skills that she seems to have picked up during her time in the wilderness that come in very handy all of these years later, such as being able to dismember Adam's body. I don't want to put words in your mouth with that example, but what aspect of the strength or skills she gained in that traumatic circumstance as a teen do you think most helps her as an adult?

Well, the thing that you just mentioned, that is a huge thing. I read a couple of things online where people were like, "She had absolutely no emotion and that was someone she cared about." And if you think about it for a second, she's probably been in a situation where she's had to do that to people she cared about. I don't know what the rest of the plans are for what happens in the wilderness, but my understanding is that's a big part of the story. So, that was my thinking: that she can't let herself weep and wail and be like, "What have I done?" It's done, and now you just have to be as efficient as possible. You switch your brain off to thinking, "Who is this person to me? How much did I love them? How am I going to move on from this?" and you're just like, "Here's the task at hand." I do feel like there's a moment in the finale where she starts to feel the emotion of it, and in the middle of lying to her friends about who Adam is, part of it's true. She says, "I thought he loved me." She did and she loved him, kind of, for a minute — there was a minute where it was a very beautiful thing — and I think there's a moment where she kind of cracks but has to continue on; she can't think about that.

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From left to right: Juliette Lewis and Melanie Lynskey in 'Yellowjackets'

Showtime

You mentioned that you are much more emotional, personally, than that, so were there moments in Season 1 where you did struggle with how much emotion you should let Shauna express?

There was a scene where Jeff is helping Shauna pack up to the journals to go and blame it on Adam and she says to him, "So you read everything? All this time you knew everything?" And it's such a huge thing for her to understand that she has been unconditionally loved; she did not believe that people were capable of loving her or that she was worthy of that, and then to find out that she's had that this whole time — that somebody knows the worst of the worst and is still there with her and is willing to take care of her in this moment, it's so unbelievably powerful. But I think it's that mode of, "Now I have to get my friends over there and clean up this body"; she can't stop and have an emotional moment. But to think about how profound that is, that broke my heart. And so, on Warren's coverage I was crying so hard. And he said it helped him to see someone be so emotional, but I didn't feel like that was right for her to show.

Do you think that nature is truly who she is, or with healing can there be cracks in the armor?

I don't know. I would love to see the cracks in it, I would love to see her fall apart, I would love to see her stop and think about the things she's done and the gravity of it. I just never know what the plan is.

Supernatural elements crept further into the story at the end of the season, both with the post-crash timeline and the reveal of Taissa's ritual in present-day. In the former, younger Shauna has a moment where she's tripping on mushrooms and her voice changes in a dark, scary way. Did you and Sophie discuss whether that was an area to hint at something supernatural happening to Shauna, and how did that moment occurring at all affect how you consider the supernatural in your Shauna storyline?

My memory is that it was scripted like, "Her voice is strangely deep or raspy or terrifying, a strange voice." The scripts are always so brilliant. And then, in my belief, Sophie Nélisse is the greatest actor in the world and she will always do something beyond. I think she had the hardest job of anybody, and it was just beautiful; t's amazing what she can do. But I do think that scene is a tricky one because there is some supernatural stuff potentially, but then they're all tripping and how much is their perspective, and how much of it is Little Javi's perspective, and how much of it is Jackie's perspective, who's not tripping? It leaves it very open for a number of different interpretations. I love supernatural stuff. I think I'm going to have to talk to them about that for Season 2 because I think more of that comes into play, and I do want to know what was Shauna's participation just so I have answers for exactly what you're talking about.

Speaking of Sophie, but really opening this up to the younger cast in general, you have said that you reached out to them when the show began to say you were there if they needed anything. Yellowjackets is not the first credit for those actors, but I do have to wonder if you are inspired to that action based on things you wish had happened on your first job, Heavenly Creatures.

On Ever After, Anjelica Huston did that for me in a very big way and made it very, very clear that she was there for me, whatever I needed and was like a big sister, like an absolute angel, looking out for me. That was my second movie and I was very overwhelmed. Katrin Cartlidge, who I worked with on The Cherry Orchard, was like a mentor to me while we were working in an artistic way and also an emotional way; she was just very, very kind and giving. And it just meant so much to me when I had somebody just kind of be like, "If you need me..." She's the same age as me, but my friend Robin Tunney, when I was starting out was so supportive and always reading scripts and thinking about me, and that was a really big deal, too. So you want to pay it forward. The young cast on this show, they all have so much power, it's really incredible. They're all good at being their own spokespeople, and I'm so proud of them. They know their own value.

What do you attribute that to?

I want to say, "Oh things are different now," but actually, things are getting worse and worse for women in the world politically. But for whatever reason, these young people now are able to have a voice. I wonder if part of it has having an intimacy coordinator on set, having more of a dialogue about things that are compromising, having very explicit language in contracts about what is and isn't OK. There was a lot of just guesswork when I started. I think the young people on our show do feel empowered to speak up, and also our creators are pretty great about never pushing anything on them that might be uncomfortable.

In the years since Heavenly Creatures was first released, there have been some debates around the reasons behind Pauline's attachment to Juliet and interest in the fantasy world. Can you recall what conversations you had on set about motivations?

In terms of whether it was a gay relationship? Because honestly on set, there was a lot of talk about, "Well, that's not how they classify it."

I actually meant in terms of whether she was so attached to Juliet and their shared fantasy world because she really loved her or because she needed a more general escape.

To me, I was like, "She fell in love. She's obsessed with her and they fell in love with each other." But, female friendships can be like that, too; you can get caught up in a fantasy world. They were definitely play-acting and one of them was a man when they were physical with each other. But Peter and Fran [Walsh], who wrote the screenplay were always very, very careful to keep it as true to the facts they had, based on what they had read in Pauline's diaries and stuff that was uncovered in the trial.

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From left to right: Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey in 'Heavenly Creatures'

Miramax Films

And speaking of that, it felt pretty pointed that there was the inclusion of the mention that they got arrested — that the film brought the audience back to a sobering reality and certainly didn't let the audience think they were going to ride off into the sunset after committing a murder.

I haven't seen the movie for so many years, but in my memory when I watched it as a teenager, I thought, "Gosh, I think that's so clever how the darkness comes into the movie." There is this light fantasy world, and even when Pauline gets taken to the psychiatrist, one of the clay guys comes out and stabs the psychiatrist and she's having a whole fantasy moment and none of that feels real. And it starts to come creeping in more and more as she makes this decision to kill her mother, and I think by the time the murder itself actually happens, it looks different: It looks very, very real, the colors are different, and it's just clear this is reality. The scene in the tea shop, there's a shaky handheld camera like you're there with them. I thought the movie was so smart about being like, "Now this is the consequences of this crazy thing that they've decided to do." And it just becomes so dark, I think, at that point. So, I think it is important to include the story of what happened, and part of the crazy thing about what happened was they only went to jail for five years and on the condition of their release was that they never saw each other again.

Which I will admit I am not sure if they actually kept their word on. What you could research about people like that back then is very different than what you might find now. How did you approach the research process for Heavenly Creatures, versus Mrs. America, on which you played someone who also had more limited stories available than Cate Blanchett might have had for her role in the same show?

You're never gonna get a person 100-percent right. And I just had this again when I played Betty Gore on Candy.

Right, and we talked about how she doesn't even have a Wikipedia page.

Right, so you do what you can and then you try to honor the spirit of the person. For me, an important thing has been able to find some kind of human entity and something that feels like myself and something that feels very much in my body in a way of being the person where I'm not judging them. And with all three of those characters, there's difficult stuff: Pauline does this horrific thing and murders her mother; Rosemary on Mrs. America's a really tough person, and it's hard to get inside the head of that person. And I really felt for Betty, honestly. I really had a lot of love for Betty and really felt for her being in the situation she was in. It was just a tragic story to me.

Talking about Rosemary's toughness, it's not only in her beliefs, but also in her attitude at times. She's dismissive of Alice during the 1977 National Women's Conference, to put it mildly. How did you calibrate how to balance Rosemary's sense of power, especially when it came to passing such judgments on the other women around her?

I think it's just making an instinctive call like you do in life. I think you just read the room and sometimes you're playing a character is not great at reading the room and you bump that up a little bit higher than it should be, but this was a character who was pretty sanctimonious from the way she was written and enjoyed calling people out for things and enjoyed being right. I don't know if the real lady was especially like that or not, but that's the material I was given. But it was fun to do that with Sarah Paulson because she's such a great actor and we made each other laugh a lot.

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From left to right: Sarah Paulson, Melanie Lynskey, and Kayli Carter in 'Mrs. America'

FX

When you were filming Mrs. America, there was finally some movement with the Equal Rights Amendment, but, as you mentioned earlier, things have gotten worse for women of late. The show is set in the 1970s and 1980s, but how closely do you feel the sentiments its characters share explain why we are taking steps back today?

I think that the show did a really good job of showing how some people on that side of the argument are willing to compromise in the truth, do whatever it takes to get their point across and to win, [and] say awful things about people on the other side. Phyllis Schlafly was famous for saying that women get abortions like they get tonsillectomies. That's a very cruel thing to say. It's such a complex health issue and there's many different reasons for that being necessary. And just that casual cruelty and soundbites to make a shocking talking point is all stuff that's still happening today. And positioning yourself as this kind of paragon of virtue and this wonderful homemaker, when in fact you're flying around the country, giving talks — you're a professional woman working and criticizing other women for working. That's also a thing that happens a lot: There are women who are at work telling other women that they should be staying home and they should be continuing pregnancies that they don't want to are able to have. The hypocrisy is just crazy.

And yet, you have to find the humanity in the character no matter what as actor. So, what did you hone in on with Rosemary to help with that?

She was a really smart person and she ended up having an amazing career, being quite successful. That's impressive for that time. She was ambitious and she worked hard. She was not doing things that I believe in, but she made her goals happen, and that's pretty amazing, and I relate to that. So, you have to look at things like that. I also relate to being the person in the room who feels less important, less cool, less interesting from everybody else [but saying] I am going to have a voice. There's a very young part of myself, I think, that feels that injustice very strongly from being left out at school. So there are ways like that, and then there are sometimes people who inspire you, but in this instance, I am absolutely not going to say who that is; it would not go over well!