By Anthony Breznican
January 20, 2012 at 10:10 AM EST
Greg Gayne/CBS

At one point in the Sundance opening-night movie Hello I Must Be Going, Melanie Lynskey strips naked and sings the Canadian national anthem to a 19-year-old lover during a playful skinny-dip in the family swimming pool.

There were more passionate scenes where that came from: late-night sex in her parents’ car, a tryst on a couch at a family party, sneaking into her young boyfriend’s room when his folks (who mistakenly think he’s gay) are away…

After the movie’s debut late Thursday, the actress known for playing sweet, soft-spoken supporting roles in movies such as Up in the Air, Sweet Home Alabama, and The Informant looked a little vulnerable onstage as she spoke to the nearly 1,000 moviegoers who just watched the raunchy and comedic love affair play out.

“I’m a character actress, and I’m very grateful for all that I’ve gotten to do,” she told the crowd. “But this was just something that was so fully realized, a complete journey that this person makes. It felt like such a gift…. It was a really nice feeling.”

Lynskey, who shared the lead with Kate Winslet in a very different story of scandalous teenage romance, 1994’s Heavenly Creatures, stars in Hello I Must Be Going as a 35-year-old who, after getting dumped by her husband, finds herself living back at home with her mother and father (Blythe Danner and John Rubinstein) and wallowing in misery — and the same faded T-shirt — while she tries to pull her life back together.

The best antidepressant turns out to be the 19-year-old son of her father’s business colleague, who can’t get enough of her.

“It’s really romantic,” says Lynskey. “I was just in my hometown in New Zealand, and there’s something about being back there that makes you remember all your first teenage romances and what they felt like and how strong those feelings were, and sneaking out and all that stuff. [The character] is 35 and was married, but she’s experiencing all this stuff again at her parents’ house.”

That puts her and her 19-year-old lover (played by Christopher Abbott) in similar stages of life, despite their age differences. Both are trying to map out futures while struggling with pushy, overbearing families.

Director Todd Louiso, whose wife Sarah Koskoff wrote the screenplay, says Lynskey was overdue for a chance to carry her own film. “The story’s about characters who take a back seat to others,” he said. “[Lynskey and Abbott] play the people paying attention to the narcissists. Much like character actors, they’re always in the background, giving their attention to the leads.”

Louiso has worked as a character actor in High Fidelity and Jerry Maguire, so he was happy to give someone else from that world a chance to be the star. “Melanie didn’t know she was going to get the part,” he said. “She thought she was just doing a reading, and said to me, ‘I’ll be so happy when I see it made, and Michelle Williams will get it, and I’ll get to say, I once read that part.'”

But nope — that’s her up there, skinny-dipping for all to see. Though, you know, the movie manages to keep things somewhat discrete.

NEXT: Where else you’ve seen her — Two and a Half Men, Win Win, more…

For more Sundance news, follow @Breznican.

‘HEAVENLY CREATURES’

Melanie Lynskey’s first role was as obsessive, 1950s New Zealand teenager Pauline Parker, who developed an intense and deadly relationship with schoolmate Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) in 1994’s Heavenly Creatures. While retreating from the world to their own fantasy kingdom, which was elaborately staged by director Peter Jackson (in his first non-horror/comedy film), the two resort to violence to keep the real world at bay.

Lynskey was only 16 when filming began, and recalls going to its Venice Film Festival premiere but had to skip its run at the Toronto International Film Festival because she’d already missed too much school. “I wasn’t allowed to leave,” she says. “I’d taken too much time off.”

NEXT: Lynskey and Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama

For more Sundance news, follow @Breznican.

‘SWEET HOME ALABAMA’

Lynskey put on a deep-fried Southern accent for her role as Reese Witherspoon’s childhood friend, who stayed behind in their small town while Witherspoon moved off to New York City. “Look at you!” Witherspoon’s character declares, reuniting for the first time in years. “You have a baby…! In a bar.”

NEXT: Lynskey goes shady in Win Win

For more Sundance news, follow @Breznican.

‘WIN WIN’

Last year, Lynskey was at Sundance with the movie Win Win, playing the drug-addicted, careless mother of a young wrestler who bonds with coach Paul Giamatti. It was an intense change of pace for Lynskey, who can often be the go-to character actress for sweet, shy, or buttoned-up characters. In writer-director Thomas McCarthy’s dramedy, audiences got to see that more dangerous and manipulative side of her again.

NEXT: Lynskey and husband Jimmi Simpson

For more Sundance news, follow @Breznican.

A COUPLE OF CHARACTERS

Here she is attending last year’s premiere of Win Win with husband Jimmi Simpson, a fellow character actor (Date Night, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) she met when they made the 2002 Stephen King miniseries, Rose Red.

Simpson turns up in Hello I Must Be Going as a dull man who asks her out on a date, and their awkward dinner ends with an even more awkward kiss. “It was amazing, we never acted [together] before, so it was total fun. We met on Rose Red, but we didn’t have any scenes together,” she tells EW.

As for that kiss… “I’ve been kissing him for 11 years! I had a really hard time not kissing him,” she told the audience at the premiere. “That’s the only part in the movie that truly makes me cringe. I think, ‘Oh no, that looks awful …'”

NEXT: Lynskey and George Clooney in Up in the Air

For more Sundance news, follow @Breznican.

‘UP IN THE AIR’

It was a small, but memorable role as the little sister whose impending marriage to Danny McBride serves as a stark wake-up call to older brother George Clooney that time is passing more quickly than he realized.

While she turns up for only the memorable wedding sequence (seen here with Clooney and Amy Morton), Lynksey spends a lot of screentime in the film by proxy, traveling the country with Clooney’s professional downsizer as a cardboard cutout he’s supposed to photograph in the places he visits, since the newlyweds can’t afford to travel.

NEXT:  Lynskey murders Charlie Sheen …

For more Sundance news, follow @Breznican.

‘TWO AND A HALF MEN’

She had a recurring role on the sitcom as Charlie Sheen’s stalker neighbor, and when his character was written off the show due to Sheen’s bizarre offscreen meltdown last year, it was implied that her obsessive character finally bumped him off.

“Sure our relationship had its up and downs – and the occasional restraining order,” her character says at his funeral. “In the end, we ran away together to Paris, where he asked me to marry him. I said yes, and the next few days were the happiest of my life. Nothing could spoil it. Not even when I came home from shopping and found him taking a shower with another woman … But I forgave him, because I loved him unconditionally. So you can imagine my horror when, the very next day, he slipped on the metro platform and fell in front of an oncoming train. I just want you all to know that Charlie didn’t suffer. His body just exploded — like a balloon full of meat.”

For more Sundance news, follow @Breznican.

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