Yellowjackets is all anyone can talk about right now. Granted, the pulpy psychological thriller – currently airing on Sky Atlantic – offers ample intrigue and material to pore over. The series follows a high school girls’ football team whose plane crashes in the wilderness en route to a tournament, before toggling back and forth between the crash’s violent aftermath and its present-day survivors – played by Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci and Tawny Cypress. The mystery has found a natural home on Reddit where fans discuss theory after theory. But amid the debris of debate, there has been one thesis to emerge that everyone can agree on: Lynskey is a revelation – and always has been.
It’s been easy to take the Kiwi actor for granted. Across a career that spans three decades – including a 12-year run as Charlie Sheen’s neighbour-cum-stalker Rose in Two and a Half Men – she’s quietly and consistently put in the work as a character actor. Lysnkey has made small-time appearances in big-time projects: she’s been the wife (Don’t Look Up, Flags of Our Fathers); the co-worker (Shattered Glass, Mrs America); the friend (Sweet Home Alabama, Coyote Ugly); the weirdo (Girlboss, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World). “Scene-stealing” is the adjective most frequently used to describe her performances. Lynskey has said in interviews that it’s work she is proud to do. But it’s also work that is often, by nature, overlooked. The success of Yellowjackets should finally change that.
The actor plays the adult version of Shauna, a top student who was Ivy League-bound pre-crash. (Sophie Nélisse plays her as a quietly headstrong teenager, who is overlooked for her shinier BFF.) Lynskey’s Shauna is a mild-mannered, small-town housewife who does laundry, rows with her daughter and beheads rabbits using a shovel without thinking twice. You know, normal soccer mum stuff. There’s a practised calm in Lynskey’s performance that belies a curdling rage.
There is something very meta about Lynskey finding her spotlight in Shauna, a character who is initially sidelined before she assumes main character status. It’s a dynamic that the actor is both familiar with and exceeds in portraying. The position of reluctant sidekick, if done well, is complex. There’s an edge of resentment to the affection; a noxious shame mingled with tenderness that Lynskey is so good at embodying. You can see it in her earlier films. Her earliest film, even.
Lynskey made her debut together with Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson’s 1994 drama Heavenly Creatures. She was 15 at the time; Winslet was 19. The film adapted the true story of Pauline Parker (played by Lynskey) and Juliet Hulme (Winslet): a pair of genteel schoolgirls in Christchurch, New Zealand, who became feverishly attached to one another. When Pauline’s mother threatened to end their friendship, the two girls bludgeoned her to death with a brick stuffed in a stocking. Pauline and Juliet were convicted of murder in 1954.
Jackson’s film is haunting. Certainly because of its true subject matter, but also owing to Lynskey’s brooding performance. Somehow at that young age, she was able to telegraph hysteria, hatred, humour, arousal, curiosity, and danger. Right at the end of the film, there is a moment when Pauline and Juliet are having afternoon tea with Pauline’s mother hours before they kill her. One scone remains on the cake stand and Pauline encourages her mum to take it. At first she declines, protesting that she is “watching her figure”. “Go on,” Pauline urges her. “Treat yourself.” Lynskey was an unusually physical child actor, conveying multitudes of emotion in a single smirk or eyebrow raise. As she looks up beneath glowering eyebrows, it’s unsure whether her words are a show of kindness or a taunt made in the knowledge of the murder to come. It’s an astonishing scene in a film that should’ve been the catalyst for Lynskey’s career like it was for Winslet’s.
But even then, Lynskey came up against the sidekick dynamic in real life too. “I was the person who was just sitting there while everyone was excited about somebody prettier,” Lynskey recently told Rolling Stone. Winslet dressed in Gucci at the film’s premiere; Lynskey wore something she found at a shop in New Zealand. The actor recalled being sent home halfway through the film’s press tour because disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein (who was behind the movie) said “nobody really wanted to hear from me”.
The year after Heavenly Creatures, Winslet received her first Oscar nomination for Sense and Sensibility. Lynskey’s next role didn’t come until two years after. But the long stretch of films that came after Heavenly Creatures never utilised Lynskey quite as well. There were supporting roles in the 1998 romance Ever After: A Cinderella Story starring Drew Barrymore, and the cult classic But I’m A Cheerleader a year later. She was cast in the 2000 film Coyote Ugly as Gloria, the fuddy duddy best friend of a fledgling songwriter (Piper Perabo) who gets to chase her dreams to New York City. In the 2002 romcom Sweet Home Alabama, Lynskey similarly plays Lurlynn, the country bumpkin pal who Reese Witherspoon’s ingenue casts aside.
Then came a turning point, circa 2009 to 2012. Filmmakers seemed to wake up to Lynskey’s largely untapped potential and began giving her bigger parts in bigger films. She more than held her own as Matt Damon’s wife in Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! and George Clooney’s little sister in Up in the Air.
It wasn’t until 2012 that Lynskey was cast again as a protagonist. In the indie comedy-drama Hello I Must Be Going, she plays Amy, an unemployed divorcee who moves back in with her parents and begins an affair with a 19-year-old suitor (Christopher Abbott). For the first time since Heavenly Creatures, Lynskey appears in every scene. The part circled an idea which has become central to the actor’s oeuvre: that middle-aged women – routinely shoved to the peripheries of film and society – possess the same complex, interesting, sexual, messy interior life as anyone else. It’s a thread that was taken further by Lynskey’s leading role as the soft but steely Michelle Pierson in the brilliant 2016 series Togetherness. The drama-comedy series –about two couples living under the same roof – was cancelled by HBO after just one critically acclaimed season. Its premature departure remains one of the channel’s stupidest decisions.
Lynskey is mercurial in her acting. In interviews, Soderbergh attested to just how “watchable” Lynskey is. “You never quite know what you’re going to get, you just know it’s going to be good,” said the director. “Her rhythms are really unusual, like her cadence and her reaction times to things, and the way she sort of lays out a sentence.” There’s something about her presence that makes a scene, or even an entire film, more exciting. Anything can happen when she’s on screen. The glimmer of danger beaming beneath her cherubic cheeks in Heavenly Creatures is the same current rippling beneath her placid veneer in Yellowjackets some 30 years later. It wouldn’t have been entirely untoward for her character in the recent Netflix blockbuster Don’t Look Up to pull out a gun and shoot her cheating husband (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the knees –a move, by the way, I would’ve backed wholeheartedly. Lynskey plays her characters on a knife’s edge, or rather like an exposed wire hovering above the edge of a swimming pool.
Until now, Lynskey’s career could be sorted into two categories: small parts in big things and big parts in small things. Across the board, though, the actor turns in award-worthy performances on par with industry greats. A mainstream recognition of her talent is long overdue, but it has thankfully arrived in the form of Yellowjackets. While Lynskey’s name doesn’t phonetically lend itself as easily to a catchy portmanteau such as #Dernaissance or #Hahnaissance – the recent hashtags symbolising the re-appreciation of the historically overlooked Laura Dern and Kathryn Hahn – there’s no doubt we’re witnessing the actor’s resurgence. About damn time.
‘Yellowjackets’ is available to stream on Sky Atlantic; the final episode will be released on 24 January