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'Lord of the Flies' with teen girls? 'Yellowjackets' actor leans into the role

Melanie Lynskey has been nominated for an Emmy for her role as Shauna in the Showtime series <em>Yellowjackets</em>.
Kailey Schwerman
Melanie Lynskey has been nominated for an Emmy for her role as Shauna in the Showtime series Yellowjackets.

Actor Melanie Lynskey is still intimately connected with her inner, awkward teen.

"I wasn't a very light teenager. I was quite sort of depressed a lot of the time," Lynskey says. "If you've ever been shy, if you've ever been awkward, it's almost impossible to stop feeling that way."

Lynskey gets to channel some of that teen angst in the new Showtime series Yellowjackets. Inspired by Lord of the Flies, Yellowjackets tells the story of the members of a girls' high school soccer team who go down in a plane crash in 1996, and have to survive in the wilderness for over a year. Lynskey plays one of the characters who, years later, is still dealing with the consequences of the terrible things she did to stay alive.

Lynskey says she was drawn to the series because of its powerful storytelling and the complexity of the characters. "None of them are sort of stereotypes," she says. "It's not like the brainy one, the slutty one. They're all interesting people who contain multitudes. And that was kind of rare for me to see in the writing of a group of teenage girls."

Lynskey got her start in 1994 playing a different — and also complex — teenage girl in Heavenly Creatures, a dark film based on the true story of two girls whose obsessive friendship leads them to commit murder. She credits that film's director, Peter Jackson, with teaching her the technical aspects of acting.

"They gave me a free day where I got to learn how to hit a mark, how to not look at the camera, how to find your light, just technical things, because they didn't want to hold themselves up waiting for me to learn all this stuff," Lynskey says. "And what a gift. ... I just feel so fortunate to have had that experience. It was pretty incredible."

Interview highlights

On Yellowjackets being inspired by Lord of the Flies

I've heard [the show's creators] tell the story at a panel where they were reading the comments on Deadline or something, and people were like, 'Oh, you can never do an all-female Lord of the Flies because what are they going to do? Compromise to death?' Like all these things about women: about women not being vicious, women not being violent and not being willing to do what it takes to survive. And Ashley [Lyle], who's one of the show creators, was like, "These people have never met a teenage girl!" And then they got inspired to tell this particular story.

On being a shy kid and finding comfort in acting

When I was really little, like 6, I was so painfully shy, I could not hold a conversation. I was just so shy. And I remember I did this thing that was completely out of character for me, and I auditioned for a play. ... I didn't get a very big part in the play. But as I was doing it, my couple of little lines, I felt this freedom; I felt this lightness, and I just was like, "Oh my gosh, I don't have to be me in these moments! I can just do whatever I want. I can be free. I'm in another person's body. I'm speaking as another person." And I got kind of addicted to it. And then I just did everything. I did plays at church, I did plays at school, I did the local theater, and then when I was a teenager, I started to say, "Well, that's what I want to do for a living." And people just thought it was crazy.

On her breakout role in Heavenly Creatures and being in such a dark film

There was a lot going on in my life, in my head. So it was actually an incredible experience to get to go to work and learn how to channel my actual emotions into acting and kind of free [myself] from them. It can be very cathartic going through things in a performance, because your body is going through the emotion, your body's feeling all the anger, your body's releasing tears and it can really help you process things in your own life. And at that stage, I wasn't talking to anybody. There was a lot of stuff that I was kind of holding on to. And so I found it really incredible emotionally. And then, also, [it was] just so fun. ... I remember doing a night shoot in the middle of the night and we're doing the scene and there are huge lights set up. And I was like, It's 3:00 in the morning, and we're shooting a movie. I just couldn't believe my luck the whole time. It felt incredible.

On the frustrating parts of her early career

It was difficult hearing all the things that you weren't — and it would change from job to job, you know. Oh, they're looking for somebody who's skinnier. In the '90s and the early 2000s, nobody had any issues telling you what was wrong with you physically. And that wasn't very fun. It was mostly a feeling of being appraised and falling short again and again that I didn't like. And then some of the stuff I was going out for was just not challenging, not interesting. Some of the stuff my agents were asking me to go and audition for was outright offensive, like "the fat friend." I was like, "I'm not going to do that part. I hate that this part exists. You've got to stop sending me scripts where there's a lonely girl eating a chocolate bar on the outskirts of the group!"

On being told she wasn't thin enough for roles and developing an eating disorder

It was a very common thing in Hollywood, people having eating disorders. Nobody was ever thin enough. It was very frustrating. I was working as hard as I could to be as thin as I could. I was eating 800 calories a day, never anything over, writing down everything I ate. If I did eat anything over that, I would throw it up. Very restrictive. First of all, that's horrible for your body. It's horrible for your brain. It's horrible for your metabolism. Now as a woman in her mid-40s, I'm cursing that person who made those choices, with empathy. Like, I understand why I felt the way I did about myself. But it was very hard to be literally starving and still being told "It's not enough. It's not enough. You're not thin enough." ...

It's a journey that I'm still on. There are still days where I wish I looked different. But having a daughter now, I think it makes it a lot easier for me to model positivity, try to be positive around her, and try to not ever criticize myself in front of her or say anything. I don't think she's heard the word "fat."

On how the industry has improved for women since the '90s and 2000s when she started out

I think there's still a long ways to go in some respects. ... But it also has come a long way. Like, I do feel like casts are a lot more diverse than they used to be. ... And I feel like women who are older ... your mid-40s — when I was starting out, that felt like the end of a career. There were so few people who were working past that point. And now there are TV shows and movies that are centered around women in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and there's an audience for them. And, you know, the creators of my show are excited about me being an average-size woman. Nobody's pressuring me to look a different way. They're excited about it, and that's something that I did not think would ever be possible.

On not playing the lead but having dimension to the character

It's hard for me to read a script where the character is just kind of a conduit for somebody else's experience and doesn't really have a personality of their own. I have a hard time with those characters because I don't know what I can bring to them. You find yourself kind of doing tricks and trying to make something interesting when it shouldn't be. And it's a frustrating place to be. ...

In Don't Look Up, I was technically the wife who gets cheated on, but I really felt like there was a lot to the relationship that my character and Leo [DiCaprio]'s character had, and there was a lot to the history. And we got to do a lot of really fun scenes together. So I think on the page, if you read the character description, you'd be like, "Huh?" But then the actual performance of it and the role itself was very, very fun. So yeah, I am drawn to things that have more to them than just sort of a surface level.

Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ann Marie Baldonado is an interview contributor and long-time producer at Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She is currently Fresh Air's Director of Talent Development. She got her start in radio in 1997 as a production assistant at WHYY and joined Fresh Air in 1998. For over 20 years, she has focused on the show's TV and film interviews. She became a contributing interviewer in 2015, talking with comedians, actors, directors and musicians like Ali Wong, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cho and Jeff Tweedy. In 2020, Baldonado hosted the limited-run podcast Parent Trapped, about the struggles of parenting during the pandemic. She talked to Julie Andrews about encouraging creativity in your kids, and comedian W. Kamau Bell about what to watch with them.