Melanie Lynskey on Playing an Action Star and Wearing a Vomit Machine in Her Netflix Movie
Melanie Lynskey was surprised when she learned her latest role was written with her in mind. In Netflix’s I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, Melanie Lynskey plays Ruth, a depressed nursing assistant who appears to be your average woman in a quirky indie comedy. But Macon Blair’s (Blue Ruin) feature directorial debut isn’t interested in average or familiar, and Lynskey’s character morphs into a badass action star.
Fed up with the world and intent on finding the thieves who broke into her home, Ruth goes on a brutal vengeance spree with her oddball neighbor (Elijah Wood). I Don’t Feel at Home isn’t just violent, it’s straight-up nasty. There’s broken fingers, blown-off limbs and old dudes getting punched in the face.
“I think a lot of the time, if there’s a girl running and being a badass in a movie, they tend to be a little skinnier,” Lynskey said following the premiere of the film at the Sundance Film Festival last month. She was surprised Blair wrote the character with her in mind, and even a bit scared that she wouldn’t be able pull it off. (Note: She does. And I will be first in line for her next action comedy.)
I caught up with the actress at Sundance last month to talk about the film, which debuts on Netflix on Friday, and the biggest difference she’s noticed when working with female directors. Lynskey also told me about filming one scene in I Don’t Feel at Home where she had to wear a vomit machine. (Spoiler alert!)
After the opening night screening of the film at Sundance, Macon said he had written Ruth with you in mind. Did you two have a relationship beforehand?
No, I didn’t know him at all. My agent just told me about the script. She said, “I think it’s amazing,” and I read it and I was obsessed with it. So I had a Skype with Macon because he lives in Austin. He didn’t say he had written it with me in mind on the Skype. I think he didn’t want to make me any promises because you’re just so happy to make an independent movie. So he was saying very nice things like, “I’ve always thought you would be wonderful. If I had it my way, you know.” I was like, “I get it, don’t worry about it.” I think they offered it to other people. That’s my sense. I think they were trying to get it put together. They went through the rounds. And then they had a meeting with Netflix a year ago and he was like, “Here’s who I want,” and they were like, “Sure.”
I know! Thank you Netflix, thank you for my job.
Has anyone ever come to you like that where a script written especially with you in mind?
Well my best friend wrote a movie for me, but that’s kind of different.
Clea DuVall’s The Intervention?
Yeah, The Intervention. So I heard the whole time that she was, you know, “I’m going to put this in the movie because I think it’s kind of funny. I think it’s funny when you pretend to be drunk. I think that’s another thing that’s funny.” And that was a nice surprise when she’d written it. It was so great. There have been a couple of other times when people have said that they were thinking about me when they were writing, which is just so nice. It’s crazy.
Since Macon wrote Ruth for you, did you feel any connection to her when you read the character or could you get a sense of why he wrote her for you?
I mean, it’s a hard question to answer. First of all I was so flattered because he’s such a great actor, and then there is so much to do in the movie. So that a person thought that I can handle that, it felt wonderful. It just made me feel great. I was like, “Oh my god, he thinks that I can pull this off. I hope that I can.”
But at the same time it’s very hard for me to do anything if I don’t have an instinct. Like something just clicks and I know. It’s like a physical thing where I just know that I can do it. And I’ve tried before [when] I haven’t had that feeling, and it’s always a mistake. For me I need to have that little voice in my head.
What was the biggest challenge with this movie that made you question whether you could handle it?
I guess it’s just general insecurities. I worry about what people are going to say. There is a different type of female actor who gets to do action type stuff, which is what this sort of accidentally turns into. It’s not like [Macon’s] like, “I think she’s the next Emily Blunt!” It just accidentally turns into that. So it’s kind of nice to have sort of a regular person going on this journey. But you know there is a part of my mind that’s like, “Are people going to believe it? Are people going to want to see me in so much of a movie?”
I think they do! During the Q&A you said you were surprised when you read the script because badass female characters in films are often skinny, typical Hollywood types.
It’s a type of body that I think people want to see in movement, which is – sure, some things are just aesthetically pleasing to the general population. But I just think, especially in this day and age with things that are happening in the world, I just think more diversity is the most important thing. Diversity in the casting of women, different types of women, and letting women do different things, not being like, “Well now you’re this age and you look like this, so now you’re just someone’s mom.” Right? And all types of diversity, not just women, but you do tend to be hemmed in at a certain point.
Do you feel like you’ve been hemmed into certain roles or offers over your career?
I feel like because I have not placed a huge importance on making money, I’ve been able to defy it because all I’ve been in is independent movies. So there’s more opportunity to explore and play interesting characters. I think it’s easier if you’re under the radar. It’s trickier if you’re a movie star and there’s an image and a lifestyle, and you have to make particular choices. There’s just not that many roles in studio movies.
This film has the energy of an indie comedy, but adopts a much darker tone with brutal action sequences. What was it like to blend those two in one movie?
It’s fun because it happened so organically in the script. Things just start piling up on top of each other. It’d be difficult if there was a sudden shift and you’re like, “Wait, what did this movie just turn into?” But when you really feel the tension mounting and it just getting away from there, it was easy to track it because of that.
The craziest scene has you throwing up in the corner throughout an entire shootout sequence. What was that like to shoot?
Horrible. It was horrible. I had this contraption, and the special effects people were amazing. Those days were very hard for them because there was so much makeup, people’s injuries they had to track, and then they built this vomit machine for me. [laughs] Which is this huge tube that had – oh my god, it had like creamer in it. Coffee creamer, which is disgusting, and some oatmeal. I was like, “What has she been eating?” It had to go into my mouth, and it was coming from this special canister to it was freezing cold, coffee creamer. It looks good. When we were filming I was like, “I don’t know about this.” [laughs]
Your character has a lot of existential dread and she’s always thinking about death. Did you develop a backstory for her and how she arrived at this place in her life psychologically?
Yeah, Macon and I talked about that a little. Just about how she was raised, the fact that she was pretty much raised by her grandmother. She’s been kind of a solitary person. We thought that her grandmother who had passed away, recently-ish. She didn’t really realize until she was gone what a connection she was for her, what a big part of her world she was. So that moment in the film where she sort of prays for guidance and sees her grandmother in front of her is so beautiful.
I weirdly have a similar thing, I was so close to my grandmother when I was a child. I would stay with her sometimes and still have a thing in moments of crisis, instead of praying to God, I think of my nana. I ask my nana for help, so when I read that in the script I was like, “Ohhhh. Crying.” It was very specific and intense.
At one point a character asks Ruth what she wants and all she says is, “Everyone to not be such an asshole.” She’s sort of a superhero in a way who takes it upon herself to correct immorality of the world.
The most ordinary superhero. Yeah, I think it’s second nature to her. When you see her at the beginning and she’s picking up stuff that people dropped or people who’ve gone in front of her [in line]. Just doing things to make other people’s lives easier, and then she’s just, I think it gets exhausting at a certain point. Just like, “Wait, am I getting any of this in return?”
You’re also in Annie Clark’s segment in the horror anthology XX. What was it like working on her directorial debut?
She’s so other-worldly. She’s very down to earth and she’s really cool and easy to get along with. But there’s something about her face and her presence where you’re like, “Oh my god.” I’ve known her a little through friends. My best friend is friends with her, but she’s just so wonderful to be around. She did a really great job. She was really – I kept saying to her, “You’ve got this. You’re really good at this.” She was very natural, she was hands off when she needed to be. Her notes were always something really interesting that made me think of it a little bit differently. And that’s hard to do because I can be quite set in my ways because I just operate from instinct. So for someone to be able to be like, “Oh what about this?” And me be like, “Well alright.” She was really good with it. I haven’t seen the rest of the film, but I’ve seen her movie. I think it’s so great.
Do you think she brought something different the film as a director coming from a music background?
For sure. Because she has such a sense of ... I want to call it style, but it’s something deeper than that. She just has a vision of how everything is going to look and feel, the tone of something. It felt like working with an artist. It was really beautiful. It looks amazing. I look crazy, my hair’s like Elizabeth Taylor and I’m wandering around in this robe and this crazy hair.
You’ve worked with so many great female directors over the course of your career. What’s been the biggest difference for you working with female directors versus male directors?
This isn’t going to be the most popular thing to say, but I think women a lot of the times are better at decision making. There are some male directors who are great at not bringing their ego into it, a lot of really great male directors where it’s very collaborative. But there are some times where somebody’s ego is so involved that it takes them a long time to concede anything and there’s this sense of, “No, no, no. I know what’s best. Thanks for your input.” I’ve just never felt that [with female directors]. Jamie Babbit, who I’ve just worked with on a TV show and But I’m a Cheerleader, she works really fast. She’s a great decision maker. Her instincts are impeccable, she knows what’s the funniest thing always. She’s just very clear and she doesn’t let anybody mess around with her.
I’ve also worked with really amazing female DPs. I’ve worked with Ellen Kuras and I’ve worked with Mandy Walker and I’ve worked with this woman Polly Morgan twice. There’s just an ease. The setting up of a shot happens in a different way where you feel very included. It goes quickly and everyone is just more relaxed. It’s just a different thing.
Would you ever want to direct?
No. I would not like it.
So just acting?
Just acting. I feel maybe at some point I could be like, a coach or something. Sometimes I’m working with kids and it’s fun to help them bring their performance out and not be so nervous. That’s something that’s been really fun for me. But, no I don’t want to be in charge.
It’s such a shame Togetherness ended. Do you think you’ll return to TV any time soon?
Oh I know. Dream job, it was the greatest. I would love to. I keep using this analogy, but it feels like my heart was broken by the love of my life. I was like, “Oh my god, this is the person I want to marry. I’m so happy.” So I needed some time. People were like “Just read some pilots.” It’s like “Just go on some dates!” I don’t know. But I’ve read some things that I like, and I feel ready now.
It just needs to be the right material?
Yeah. It’s hard once you have something like that. Every script, every episode, there was something that made me feel terrified and excited. That’s such a rare thing.
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore hits Netflix on February 24.