There’s a moment in the pilot of Yellowjackets — Showtime’s Nineties-nostalgia-evoking, deeply disturbing cult-hit about a group of high school soccer players who survive a plane crash in the Ontario wilderness — when one of the survivors, Shauna (played by Melanie Lynskey), meets another, Taissa (Tawny Cypress) at a diner. A housewife so profoundly bored by her day-to-day routine that she masturbates to her daughter’s boyfriend’s photo, Shauna has just been approached by a reporter asking to tell her story about her time in the wilderness, which we already know from ominously lit flashbacks of a terrified girl being hunted and then possibly roasted over an open fire was not particularly positive.
“We agreed: Say no more than we have to, stay out of the public eye,” Shauna reminds Tai forebodingly. “If someone’s digging, we are all fucked. Take care of it.” A waitress arrives to refill her coffee. On a dime, Shauna reverts to a sunny, mild-mannered suburbanite, flashing the server a smile. “Thank you,” she says sweetly.
It’s a small moment, but a revealing one: This unassuming woman in her forties who gets pushed around by her teenage daughter and collects ceramic bunny figurines has a deep wellspring of untrammeled rage.
For Lynskey, 44, Shauna’s barely contained wrath hits close to home. “The way I was brought up was to not show a ton of emotion and not get angry,” says the New Zealand native, who grew up in the city of New Plymouth on the North Island’s Western coast. “I’m trying to get better at letting the anger come out at all. There’s so many years of just not knowing what to do with it. I had a therapist once say something about, ‘You’re scared that if you even let a little bit of it out, it’ll just never stop. It’ll just overwhelm you and you’ll just be furious forever.’ Which really resonated with me.”
This juxtaposition — sweetness and light versus somewhat terrifying inner mettle — is integral to the female experience documented in Yellowjackets. The show shines a light on the dichotomy of girlhood, transitioning between shots of the teenagers collapsing in giggles while dancing to Salt-N-Pepa and those same girls wearing fur pelts while hunting flesh. It’s a duality that Lynskey gives off in person, and is key to her inhabiting Shauna so fully, says Karyn Kusama, executive producer of Yellowjackets, who also directed the pilot. While Lynskey has “a kind of serenity and intense gentleness” to her spirit, Kusama notes, “as an actor, she has so much depth that it’s easy to believe she may carry some secrets with her. That kind of range was what we were looking for. It’s an interesting thread through her work, this idea of rage under the surface.”
Perhaps a small part of that rage comes from being criminally overlooked in Hollywood for a time. Though she made an attention-grabbing debut at just 15 in Peter Jackson’s critically acclaimed 1994 drama Heavenly Creatures, Lynskey has carved out a career largely as a character actor, never a leading lady, often serving as the answer to barroom queries of “Who’s the girl who played the girl in that thing?” After some big-screen roles that positioned her as a frumpy second banana to A-listers or more conventionally sexy stars (see: Sweet Home Alabama, Coyote Ugly), she tapped into a niche of playing angry women — mostly in the form of frustrated housewives (HBO’s Togetherness, Away We Go, Adam McKay’s new climate-change disaster flick Don’t Look Up) and quietly deranged girls next door (Two and a Half Men).
Since the November release of Yellowjackets, however, Lynskey is finally having her leading-lady moment. The series had Showtime’s second-biggest streaming debut, and garnered an exceedingly rare 100 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating. With the network releasing episodes weekly, word-of-mouth has built through endless fan theorizing and social media chatter. It’s a phenomenon for which Lynskey was not quite prepared.
“I never expect anything to blow up. I never expect anything to take off. I’ve learned to not have any expectations at all,” she tells me on Zoom, as her three-year-old daughter with her husband, actor Jason Ritter, plays in the background. “[I] don’t know if I’ve ever been part of something where there’s been this kind of response as it’s happening. It’s very different for me.”
To an extent, Lynskey is used to having lingered in the background. The daughter of a former nurse and an orthopedic surgeon who married young, Lynskey was the oldest of five children, and saddled with “a lot of responsibilities” at home. “I was put in an adult position before I was quite ready to be there,” she says. She refers to her parents as “complicated people,” and her mother in particular as someone who found motherhood “really, really overwhelming” — a feeling she’s tried to channel through Shauna’s combative relationship with her snotty daughter Callie. “I don’t think she had a great time,” she says of her mom.
Lynskey, meanwhile, was an anxious, fearful child, worrying “incessantly” about nuclear war and stranger abduction. “It was a general feeling of, ‘Things are not really safe, something could go bad at any minute, and I have to be on the lookout for it,’ ” she recalls, echoing the sense of doom that permeates Yellowjackets like a noxious cloud of department store perfume.
But through acting, she could try on more daring and dangerous lives, as she proved through her breakout role in Heavenly Creatures. The movie adapts the real-life story of mousy teen Pauline Parker (Lynskey) and her best friend, Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), who descend into their own toxic fantasy world and decide to murder Parker’s mother when she tries to keep the two apart. In the film, Parker is in awe of the more worldly and glamorous Hulme — not unlike the teenaged Shauna is of her prototypical prom queen BFF Jackie on Yellowjackets. And though Lynskey and Winslet were close on set, Lynskey says that dynamic very much played out in real life.
From left: Sarah Peirse, Lynskey, and Winslet in ‘Heavenly Creatures.’
“I was the person who was sort of just sitting there while everyone was excited about somebody prettier,” she says, describing the friendship as “very Shauna/Jackie.” “She was very confident, she found it very easy to do interviews. And it was hard for me. I was so shy.” At the Venice Film Festival, Winslet wore Gucci while Lynskey paired Converse with a dress she found in a New Plymouth shop. On their press tour, Winslet would be inundated by scripts and give them to Lynskey to read when she was bored with them. Lynskey was even sent home halfway through the tour, because, she says, Harvey Weinstein, who produced the film, “made a call that nobody really wanted to hear from me.”
“It just felt like [Kate] was somebody who knew how the world worked, and knew how to be a beautiful woman,” she says. “And I felt like, ‘I’m never gonna be that.’ She just felt magical to me.”
After Heavenly Creatures premiered, Winslet’s career skyrocketed with the release of Titanic, while Lynskey’s life resumed as though nothing had ever happened. She graduated from high school, then went to university for a year to study film and television. It was a difficult time for her. “It’s hard to have a dream come true and do this thing that feels so special and amazing and then have to just go back to your pretty small town,” she says. “I felt like an impostor.”
She got an agent, who convinced her to send tapes to Hollywood casting directors. (One of the first roles she auditioned for was in 1996’s The Craft, and she says she often competed with her Yellowjackets co-star Christina Ricci for roles, “though she usually got them,” she says, laughing.) When Lynskey made the move to Los Angeles not long after, she was short-listed for the role of Mary Warren in Daniel Day-Lewis’ production of The Crucible, which in turn helped her land a supporting part in the Cinderella retelling Ever After starring Drew Barrymore. But the audition process was typically an uphill battle. “It was the mid-Nineties and there was a look that was popular,” she says, “and it wasn’t this chubby, dark-haired New Zealander.”
This is somewhat baffling to hear, considering how truly beautiful Lynskey is. (With her alabaster skin, saucer eyes, and rosy cheeks, she resembles an Edwardian-era nanny, or a slightly more beatific Mary-Louise Parker.) Yet the pressure to conform to Hollywood’s punishing physical standards led her to struggle with diminished confidence and disordered eating for years. When she did finally did land a romantic lead in the 2012 indie Hello I Must Be Going — in which she plays a thirtysomething divorcée having a fling with a teenager, played by Girls heartthrob Christopher Abbott — critics’ disbelief at her casting as a sexual being was deflating. In his review, for one, Roger Ebert questioned whether the “cuddly” Lynskey exuded enough “sexual gravitation transcending age” for Abbott’s character to be attracted to her.
“It was a real bummer because I was like, ‘The movie’s about this couple who find each other and have this fling for a summer.’ Like, really, you don’t think an 18-year-old would just want to spend the summer sleeping with me?” she says, laughing. “From experience, some 18-year-olds are willing to sleep with me.”
Though a full decade has since passed, during which Hollywood actresses have become increasingly outspoken about sexism, body-shaming, and misogyny in the industry, this kind of feedback still rears its head. Lynskey says she loves engaging with the fan theories surrounding Yellowjackets, but she’s been somewhat dismayed by those who can’t seem to believe that Adam (Peter Gadiot), the hunky young artist Shauna has an affair with, may harbor genuine interest in her character. “I’m just like, ‘Wow, really? That’s where people’s heads are at, that the most important thing is being thin or young?’ ” she says. (Perhaps more perplexing to her, if amusing: the fan theory that Adam is Shauna’s wilderness baby. “Why would his revenge plot be to come back and fuck his mother?”)
From left: Cypress as Taissa, Lynskey as Shauna, and Juliette Lewis as Natalie in ‘Yellowjackets.’
It wasn’t just online trolls being passive-aggressively insulting. Lynskey says a member of the Yellowjackets production commented critically on her body during filming: “They were asking me, ‘What do you plan to do? I’m sure the producers will get you a trainer. They’d love to help you with this.’ ” Her three veteran co-stars, Cypress, Ricci, and Juliette Lewis, banded together to support Lynskey, with Lewis in particular writing a letter to the producers on her behalf. It all seems to be a litmus test for how, even post-MeToo, Hollywood still views women of Lynskey’s age and size as essentially disposable, something Lynskey feels she has a responsibility to try to change through her role on Yellowjackets.
“It was really important to me for [Shauna] to not ever comment on my body, to not have me putting a dress on and being like, ‘I wish I looked a bit better,’ ” she says. “I did find it important that this character is just comfortable and sexual and not thinking or talking about it, because I want women to be able to to watch it and be like, ‘Wow, she looks like me and nobody’s saying she’s the fat one.’ That representation is important.”
As for Shauna’s story going forward, Lynskey has some idea of where the most salient plot points are headed. Though the second season hasn’t been written yet, Yellowjackets co-creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson pitched the show as a five-season arc, and Lynskey hasn’t been shy about barraging them with questions. “I was really obsessive about it,” she says. “At one point one of the writers was like, ‘Wow, you really don’t give us a break.’ “
One plot point she has not asked about, however, is the fate of the Shauna’s baby. Lynskey says that the pregnancy was one of her “giant blind spots” in learning more about her character and the show, in part because she had suffered a pregnancy loss at 10 weeks, just a few months before she started filming. “Everything looked great with that pregnancy until one day, it just wasn’t,” she says. “I wonder if it was just too painful… I think my brain was just like, ‘La, la, la, don’t think about that,’ because I was carrying it with me. I felt it every day.”
Prior to having her daughter at 41, Lynskey had been conflicted about motherhood. “I wasn’t one of those people who was like, ‘The one thing I know is that I want to be a mom,’ ” she says. But once she came around to the idea, she embraced it fully: “When I was [sure], I was really sure that I wanted to do it. And then I was lucky that it happened.” The experience has made her uniquely able to tap into a deeper emotional reservoir on-camera.
“It’s changed me in a way where my emotion is much more accessible,” she says. “It’s easier to drop into a feeling now, and it’s funny because part of it is about the heart-outside-your-body feeling that you have at all times, but also part of it is about, on set, having a moment alone. I’m so used to this little person being with me and being on me, so those moments of true stillness, where I’m just by myself before the camera rolls, feel so profound and weird and disorienting, to really be able to get into my own psyche and my own body for a minute. Those moments feel so huge for me.”
It’s a quiet kind of satisfaction, one that doesn’t seem to correspond to the outsize success she’s found over the last few months. Yet Lynskey insists very little about her life has changed since Yellowjackets premiered. “My life is so small. I just go to work and I go back to our little rented home,” she says. She’s currently in Atlanta shooting Candy, a true-crime Hulu series starring Jessica Biel, and says there’s one PA who watches Yellowjackets and will approach her on Mondays after the show airs, “being like ‘holy shit,’” she says, laughing. “But it’s just Mike freaking out,” she adds, with characteristic humility. “Nobody else seems to have any awareness of it.”