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

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. The critically acclaimed and cult favorite series "Yellowjackets" returned to Showtime last week. Today we feature our interview with Melanie Lynskey, one of its stars. In "Yellowjackets," she plays Shauna, one of the survivors of a 1996 plane crash. She was a member of a girls' high school soccer team on its way to the national championships. The plane crashes, and the survivors have to spend over a year in the Canadian wilderness. Viewers slowly learn all the terrible things that the survivors had to do to stay alive. The show goes back and forth, showing the teenagers before and after the crash, as well as in 2021 when the few remaining survivors try to carry on with their lives while still living with the memories of the crash and its aftermath.

Lynskey's first movie role was in Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures" in 1994, playing opposite a pre-Titanic Kate Winslet. Since then, Lynskey has starred in many films and TV roles, including "Up In The Air," "The Informant," "Ever After," "Sweet Home Alabama," "Don't Look Up," "Togetherness," "Mrs. America" and as the next door neighbor on the CBS sitcom "Two And A Half Men." Melanie Lynskey spoke with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado last year.

Here's a scene from the first episode of "Yellowjackets." It's in the present day, and Melanie Lynskey's character, Shauna, is married with a teenager and living in the same New Jersey town where she grew up. She's at home when a woman claiming to be a reporter approaches her wanting to tell Shauna's story. The reporter is played by Rekha Sharma.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "YELLOWJACKETS")

MELANIE LYNSKEY: (As Shauna Shipman) I know what you want to hear. But the truth is the plane crashed, a bunch of my friends died, and the rest of us starved and scavenged and prayed for 19 months till they finally found us. And that's the end of the story.

REKHA SHARMA: (As Jessica Roberts) And I think we both know there's a bit more to it than that. I can't imagine what you guys went through out there. Nobody can. And that is worth something. It's worth a lot, actually. I can guarantee you a seven-figure book advance right here, right now. We could write it together, but it's your name on the cover.

LYNSKEY: (As Shauna Shipman) Not interested. Sorry.

SHARMA: (As Jessica Roberts) What if I told you the others were?

LYNSKEY: (As Shauna Shipman) Then I would say that you're lying.

SHARMA: (As Jessica Roberts) So you are still in touch.

LYNSKEY: (As Shauna Shipman) I haven't spoken to any of them in years. I would not know how to get hold of them even if I wanted to. I moved on, and I genuinely hope that they were able to do the same. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm...

SHARMA: (As Jessica Roberts) Shauna, this is the kind of money that could change your life. You were an elite athlete - straight A's, early admission to Brown. Is this really how you thought your life was going to turn out? Sorry. I didn't mean to...

LYNSKEY: (As Shauna Shipman) I don't give a [expletive] what you meant, you smug, little b****. You don't know a [expletive] thing about my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ANN MARIE BALDONADO: Melanie Lynskey, welcome to FRESH AIR.

LYNSKEY: Thank you so much for having me. This is amazing.

BALDONADO: The show is about, among other things, friendships between teenage girls, particularly friendships that are pretty toxic. Was that something that appealed to you or a theme you like to explore because you have a lot of, like, flawed, like, toxic relationships in your work?

LYNSKEY: Yeah, I guess I - that's so funny. I mean, it's always more fun to play because there's just so much there when there's drama and there's hurt feelings and upset. I myself - I'm still friends with pretty much everyone I was friends with as a teenager, so I don't really relate personally. My female friends are the most important people in my world. But I do think it's - I love the storytelling, and I love how complex it is in the show. Also, when I was reading the pilot, I just thought, oh, these all feel like fully developed people. None of them are sort of stereotypes. It's not like the brainy one, the slutty one. It's - 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.

BALDONADO: Yeah, there is an interesting story about what inspired the show creators to make the series about a group of teenage girls surviving a plane crash. And it has to do with a rumored remake of "Lord Of The Flies." Is that true?

LYNSKEY: I think so. I've heard them tell the story at a panel where they were reading the comments, like, on "Deadline" or something, where people were like, oh, you could never do an all-female "Lord Of The Flies" 'cause what are they going to do, compromise to death? You know, like, all these things about women, these - about women not being vicious, women not being violent, not being willing to do what it takes to survive. And Ashley, who's one of the show creators, was like, well, these people have never met a teenage girl. And then they got inspired to tell this particular story.

BALDONADO: Shauna, the character you play, is very vividly, like, every day, dealing with decisions that she made as a teenager - you know, the feelings she had, the relationships she forged. Do you relate to that? You know, I will say that sometimes, I still feel, like, very connected to the awkward teenager I was. Like, I can still access her. Like, do you relate to kind of what Shauna's going through that way?

LYNSKEY: Yes, very much. I feel the same. I think if you've ever been shy, if you've ever been awkward, it's almost impossible to stop feeling that way. I still have a thing when I'm at work, you know, and I have to eat lunch with a group of people, I still get heart-pounding anxiety about what table do I sit at? Who's going to reject me? Because as a kid, I didn't - you know, we moved around a lot when I was really little. And I didn't have friends, and I just never had a group of people I could sit with at lunch. So I think maybe that's why when - once I did make friends, I was, like, you're with me for life. We're never splitting up. I was obsessively loyal. But yeah, Shauna is really - she has a lot of survivor's guilt, I think, about making it out of that situation, not feeling like an especially good person but having survived and feeling very guilty about that. So that's an interesting thing to play.

BALDONADO: You were born and raised in New Zealand. Can you tell us about where you grew up and what it was like?

LYNSKEY: I grew up in a town called New Plymouth in a province called Taranaki. It's on the west coast of the North Island, and it's kind of provincial, I guess I would say. It's a very beautiful place. There's a volcano, and there's black sand beaches. It's now quite a, like, vibrant, little community. When I was growing up, it wasn't quite as great as it is now.

BALDONADO: When did you realize you wanted to be an actor?

LYNSKEY: 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 just had this feeling. And 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 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. That's not really a job, you know? It was really not seen as being, like, a viable career.

BIANCULLI: Melanie Lynskey speaking with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado last year - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CURE SONG, "IN BETWEEN DAYS")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado recorded last year with actress Melanie Lynskey, one of the stars of the Showtime series "Yellowjackets." It's just returned for Season 2.

BALDONADO: Your first big acting role was in the 1994 film "Heavenly Creatures." It was directed by Peter Jackson - you know, "Lord Of The Rings," the Beatles movie "Get Back" Peter Jackson. It was an early film of his. And you co-star with Kate Winslet, and it was her first big movie, too. It's about two girls in the 1950s who are best friends, who fall in love and end up murdering your character's mother. It's based on a true story. I want to play a quick scene. At this point in the movie, the two girls are about to be separated because Kate Winslet's character is moving abroad, leaving with members of her family. The girls want to stay together even though they're just teenagers. And they're trying to find ways to do this. And in this scene, your character is arguing with her mother. And we also hear your character's voiceover. And the actual voiceovers were all pulled from the real girl, the real Pauline's diaries. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HEAVENLY CREATURES")

LYNSKEY: (As Pauline Parker) The Hulmes will look after me. They want me to live with them.

SARAH PEIRSE: (As Honora Parker) Don't be so ridiculous. You're our daughter. You belong here with us.

LYNSKEY: (As Pauline Parker) I belong with Deborah. We're going to South Africa.

PEIRSE: (As Honora Parker) You're not going anywhere. You're 15 years old, Yvonne.

LYNSKEY: (As Pauline Parker) You have to let me go.

PEIRSE: (As Honora Parker) We'll talk about this when you've calmed down.

LYNSKEY: (As Pauline Parker) I felt thoroughly depressed and even quite seriously considered committing suicide. Life seemed so much not worth the living and death such an easy way out.

PEIRSE: (As Honora Parker) Love, you can still write to each other.

LYNSKEY: (As Pauline Parker) Anger against Mother boiled up inside me, as it is she who was one of the main obstacles in my path. Suddenly, a means of ridding myself of this obstacle occurred to me. If she were to die...

BALDONADO: That's a scene from "Heavenly Creatures." How did you get the part in this film?

LYNSKEY: It is so strange to hear that (laughter). It's been so long.

BALDONADO: So long.

LYNSKEY: I just sound like a baby. They came to my high school. There was just one day. Somebody said, oh, some people are here auditioning for a movie. And I thought, oh, this is a good thing to put on my application to drama school, to say I auditioned for a movie, so I have that experience. I don't know what I was thinking. But they were taking people two at a time into a spare room at the school. And they didn't want to show anyone a script or anything like that, so they just had us improvise. And I was with my friend Susie, Susie Schwier (ph). And we just improvised a few scenes together. And we, at the time, were in a dramatic improv class that we did every single Friday night. So we were used to it. It was, you know, kind of second nature for us.

And we were so excited afterwards. It was so much fun. And we couldn't go back to school. So we, like, took off for the rest of the afternoon and went and sat in the cemetery that was next to the school. And I remember Susie saying, you got that movie. They're going to give you that part. And I was like, don't be crazy. That's not how it works. It's a movie, you know? And she said, no, I could tell by how they were looking at you. And then I had to do another very long audition. I'd got flown to Christchurch, where they were filming. Peter showed me Kate Winslet's audition tape and said, this is how good you have to be. This is a professional actress from England who we've found. And she's this good. And I said, all right. Let me give it a try. And I did another audition, and I got the job. It was, really, a very, very lucky thing to have happen.

BALDONADO: Well, it's interesting that your career started with this - you know, we didn't call it toxic friendship back then, but, you know, it was this toxic friendship between teenagers that leads to murder. And I remember seeing this movie at the time and loving it because it was about these girls. It was dark. You know, it was a different take on an adolescent girl's story. What was it like making this movie that was pretty dark? You know, it's - creepy is not - dark is kind of the right word - particularly at such a young age, as a young teen?

LYNSKEY: I wasn't a very light teenager. I was quite sort of depressed a lot of the time. I was - there was a lot going on in my life and 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 yourself from them. It can be very cathartic going through things in a performance.

And, I mean, to be working with somebody like Peter Jackson, who I understood at the time was a great director - he's so meticulous. You know, some takes we would do 25 times. And the learning I got to do - 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, you know, things - just technical things. And what a gift. Like, it just took all the nervousness away when we did get into the acting part of it. And they had a coach on set for me who was tremendously helpful in helping me access the emotion and then, at the end of the day, let go of it so I didn't go home and just cry my eyes out all night. It was a very - I just feel so fortunate to have had that experience. It was pretty incredible.

BALDONADO: Well, what happened after you made the movie? Was it hard to go back to normal life? Or did you want to keep acting?

LYNSKEY: I did. I really wanted to keep acting. And I think - I understand what everybody was doing. But everybody around me, the, you know, people making the movie, were very, very worried that I would, you know, suddenly be like, this is my life now. And they knew it wouldn't be easy for me. It was 1993 when we made the film, and I was kind of a chubby, shy New Zealand girl, you know? There's just not roles out there for someone - well, at that time, there was nothing for someone who looked like me. And they were really nervous. They were nervous that they had ruined my life.

And I just remember over and over again, like, I would be so excited. I would finish a scene, and I would be so filled with joy. And they'd be like, uh-oh, she's got the bug. And I was like, well, yes, I do. This is all I've ever wanted to do. It was hard, but I didn't really have - you know, I didn't have an agent. I didn't have anybody wanting to represent me. So it's not like I had other options. I just went back to high school and finished high school.

BALDONADO: Yeah. I could understand - like, the people who made the film, it's like - they put you through, like, a great experience but, like, with this heavy material and then showed you kind of this way of life. And then I could understand how they'd be protective of you and not want you to get hurt.

LYNSKEY: Yeah. They just were like, oh, God, please don't let us be the ones who lead her into a life of misery. And I don't know what else they were thinking. But at the same time, you know, Kate was already a professional actress. She lived by herself in London. She was working steadily. And so for her, it was more of a stepping stone. It was her first movie. And she's beautiful, and she's English. And, you know, she was - started getting scripts, like, before the movie had come out. She got a very high-powered agent. And it was a really, really different experience.

And I think I understood that because I under - I was in awe of her for the whole production and understood I was not at that level, and I had not done the work that she had done. But at the same time, it's hard to have nothing, you know, have everybody be like, good job and now, you know, return to normal and then see somebody just, like, take off in the way that she did. It was a strange mixture of, like, pride and excitement for her and then kind of shame. Like, I felt like if I was prettier, if I was better, if I - any number of things. I just thought, like, I wish I had what it took to also be in that position.

BALDONADO: A few years later - or maybe it was many years later - you moved to LA to become an actress. You've talked about how rough it can be to be a young actor. What was tough about it for you? Like, you worked throughout, but what was most difficult?

LYNSKEY: 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. You know, in the '90s, in the early 2000s, nobody had any issues telling you what was wrong with you physically. And that wasn't very fun. And then 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, like, outright offensive, like the fat friend, you know? I was like, I'm not going to do that part. I hate that this part exists. You know, you got to stop sending me scripts where there's a lonely girl eating a chocolate bar on the outskirts of the group. Like, I don't - I think it's kind of evil. So there was a lot of that kind of thing that I didn't like.

BIANCULLI: We've been listening to the conversation FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado recorded last year with actress Melanie Lynskey, one of the stars of the Showtime drama series "Yellowjackets." The show just returned for its second season. After a break, we'll hear about another series about to embark on a Season 2, the Apple TV+ musical comedy series "Schmigadoon!" in a conversation with one of its creators, Cinco Paul. And after that, I'll review the new season, which I love. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER TEAR US APART")

PALOMA FAITH: (Singing) Don't ask me what you know is true. Don't have to tell you I love your precious heart. I, I was standing. You were there. Two worlds collided. And they could never tear us apart. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.