By Anthony Breznican
September 22, 2012 at 03:13 PM EDT

The girl of Hollywood’s dreams has been right in front of it for a long time.

 

But like the clichéd end to some silly rom-com, she’s just been overlooked as “the best friend” all this time.

 

Shy, sweet, and hilarious, Melanie Lynskey made her debut in 1994 as the scowling teenage murderess opposite Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, and since then has become a familiar face in movies and TV as the step-sister (Ever After), wacky neighbor (TV’s Two and a Half Men), doe-eyed housewife (The Informant!) teary bride-to-be (Up in the Air), and messed up mom (Win-Win). She’s the type of character actor who makes you snap your fingers and say, “Oh yeah … that girl.”

 

In the new bittersweet and funny love story Hello I Must Be Going, her name is no longer on the tip of your tongue – it’s above the title.

 

In the film, which expands nationwide this weekend, the New Zealand-born actress, 35, stars as Amy, an out-of-work divorcée who moves back in with her parents and begins reliving the life of a sullen teenager, until she meets an actual teenager (Christopher Abbott, of HBO’s Girls) who is looking for someone more worldly than the kids his own age. A sweet and sexy romance blossoms. So does Lynskey.

 

Check out the trailer below. And find a theater showing it here.

 

 

 

“It is an amazing thing to be able to carry a character through an entire storyline,” Lynskey says over coffee near her home in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. “Amy starts out the movie and she’s nothing. She’s just a shell of a person. She doesn’t even have a hobby. She doesn’t belongings. She has a T-shirt! And a pair of denim cut-offs.” By the time things heat up, she ends up casting off both for a steamy (and funny) skinny-dipping sequence with Abbott.

 

Finally getting to be sexy onscreen was a nice change for the actress, who recalls being described in reviews for Heavenly Creatures in terms no 17-year-old wants to hear. “It was like: ‘Dumpy and overweight Pauline …’ I was like, ‘Oh. … Well.'” She swallows hard and purses her lips, nodding slightly with wide eyes.

 

Winslet and Lynskey in 1994’s “Heavenly Creatures.”[/caption]

 

At that point, Lynskey had never acted before and was recruited from her high school by Jackson during an open casting call. She was playing a real person, Pauline Parker, who had committed the brutal and notorious 1954 murder of her mother in New Zealand. When the Heavenly Creatures reviews came in flattering Lynskey’s performance, but undermining confidence in her looks, she tried to reassure herself by thinking, ‘”Well, I was playing a character. And people are just describing the character. It doesn’t mean anything about me.’ It was a good lesson in letting go of vanity.”

 

I tell her that’s sort of like complimenting an insecure teenage boy by saying: You are perfect for Jeffrey Dahmer!

 

“Well, at least he’s handsome,” Lynskey says, then puts a hand over her eyes, fearing she’s made a fatal interview mistake. “Oh God. … ‘She thinks Jeffrey Dahmer is the hottest thing ever!’” she says, quoting another kind of description no actress wants to read in an article about herself.  (For the record, Lynskey just meant no one spent much time criticizing Dahmer’s aesthetic qualities.)

 

THE RIGHT LOOK

 

When she visited Hollywood seeking work after Heavenly Creatures, she found the audition process to be just as withering. “My first-ever meeting with a casting director, she was like, ‘I don’t know why you’re here. You’re not going to work in America. You don’t have the right look. You’re not pretty enough …’ I was 18 at that time.” She sighs. “It was a horrible feeling of just trying to not cry.”

 

Despite the acclaim of Heavenly Creatures a few years before, breaking into the business was no easy feat – partly because Lynskey admits she had no idea what she was doing.

 

1996’s “The Craft” … NOT starring Melanie Lynskey[/caption]

 

Her agent asked her to make an audition tape for the 1996 supernatural teen-drama The Craft, reading lines from the script in a performance that could be mailed to the producers for consideration. “[The agent] was like, ‘Put yourself on tape for this,’ and I was too scared to ask her what that meant. So with my little brother, I set up a lamp and put it directly under my face so the light would be in my face, but it looks like when people hold a [flashlight] there.” Lynskey leans on the table and covers her face. Again.

 

The story gets worse.

 

“I was having my brother read the scene with me, but it was apparent it was a child reading. So I was like, ‘Nevermind, you sound like a kid! I’ll just imagine the lines and have nobody read them.” So she started monologuing … half the script.

 

How did the agent feel about her tape? “She was like, ‘Okay, some notes: THAT WAS A TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE TAPE.’ You don’t hold a lamp under your chin like you’re telling a scary story.”

 

Luckily, things got better. And fast. And stayed that way.

 

NEXT: Lynskey’s second act …

 

ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME

 

Lynskey’s first major role after that was as Drew Barrymore’s sweet step-sister in 1998’s Ever After, and she landed number of supporting parts in films such as Detroit Rock City, But I’m a Cheerleader, and The Cherry Orchard (all 1999.) Lynskey says her key confidence-building moment was getting to audition for The Crucible with Daniel Day-Lewis – even though she ultimately didn’t get the part. “That was the point where I thought, ‘All right. If I’m allowed to go read with Daniel Day-Lewis then maybe I have a chance.”

 

2009’s “Up in the Air”[/caption]

 

A decade of steady work followed. She met her husband, character actor Jimmi Simpson, when they both worked on the 2002 Stephen King-scripted TV movie Rose Red, and was one of the no-nonsense  editors in the 2003 journalism scandal film Shattered Glass. Remember her as Reese Witherspoon’s vaguely trashy hometown friend in Sweet Home Alabama? George Clooney’s soon-t0-be-married sister in Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air?

 

Lynskey found herself experiencing a phenomenon common among character actors. She had groups of fans, but each group seemed to know her for a particular role while remaining completely unaware of the others. “A lot of people come up to me and think I’ve never done anything except the thing they’re recognizing me for,” she says.

 

As Rose, the sweet-natured but obsessive neighbor on the CBS series Two and a Half Men, she was known to millions from that top-rated TV show – but few of those sitcom fans knew her from, say, Heavenly Creatures or The Informant. “Within the [film] industry, nobody brings that show up to me. But if I’m in an airport, people get very excited because … ‘It’s Rose!’ I love being able to do that and also do a tiny, tiny indie movie. That’s kind of my dream.”

 

Lynskey in “Two and a Half Men” — Greg Gayne/CBS[/caption]

 

Her most recent scene-stealing work can be found in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, also opening this weekend, playing the disturbed aunt of the main character – who does some unspeakable things that make even the actress squint her eyes and shake her head. “I love the movie, and I’m really happy to be in it,” she says. “But yes, it makes me very uncomfortable.”

 

A starring role is also every actor’s dream, and Lynskey credits director Todd Louiso for fighting to keep her as the lead in Hello I Must Be Going, even though casting someone more famous would have meant a bigger budget.

 

Louiso is a character actor too, having appeared in High Fidelity, Jerry Maguire, and Thank You For Smoking. “That was definitely a part of it,” Lynskey says. “He’s me. His career is me, and we’ve talked a lot about how it’s frustrating and difficult — and how nice it is to have a chance to do something on a bigger canvas.”

 

“He understood what a big deal that would be for me, and also thought ‘this is interesting. This is a person who hasn’t been seen a whole lot and I can show them the character in a different way. It’s like finding something new.”

 

THE PERKS OF NOT BEING A WALLFLOWER

 

Sundance 2012 — CHRISTOPHER BEYER FOR EW[/caption]

 

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 at Sundance last January, where the movie debuted. “[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.”

 

As he, Koskoff, and Lynskey were workshopping the script, he says he realized the actress thought she was only temporary. “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,’” he said.

 

Instead, Hello I Must Be Going gave Lynskey not just a long overdue lead role, but a long overdue opportunity to be gorgeous on screen, too.

 

This observation makes the actress roll her brown eyes and raise a finger in the air as she reminds: “Not in the beginning.”

 

Follow @Breznican

 

Read More:

 

“That girl” Melanie Lynskey: A gallery of her best-known roles

EW Movie Review: ‘Hello I Must Be Going’

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