The Examined Life of Melanie Lynskey

In series like “Yellowjackets,” the actor specializes in revealing the turbulent emotions of women who seem innocuous and mild on the surface.

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By Alexis Soloski

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — “I am a quiet person,” the actress Melanie Lynskey said. “I’m a shy person. I’m not a person with a big resonant voice or a big presence.”

This was on a weekend evening earlier this month at an upscale vegan restaurant. Lynskey, inconspicuous in a cobalt cardigan, was installed at a table in the far corner of the patio, eating as quietly as she could. (She has misophonia, specifically an aversion to “mouth noises.”)

Polite almost to the point of pathology, she worried over whether to ask a manager to turn the music down and a heating lamp off. She speckled her conversation with minimizers: “kind of,” “sort of,” “a little,” “a bit.” After she waved at a busboy she recognized from another vegan eatery, she agonized over the possibility that he thought she was summoning him.

Offscreen, Lynskey is a very nice lady. Unnervingly nice. Onscreen she specializes in a ferocious deconstruction of that same type. For the past decade, and particularly in the past couple of years, in shows like “Yellowjackets” and “The Last of Us,” she has embodied women who seem innocuous on the surface — breathy, meek, bland — only to reveal limitless anger and desire just beneath their suburban separates. (“The Last of Us,” on HBO, recently concluded its first season; “Yellowjackets” returns for its second on March 26 on Showtime, with its first episode available on streaming two days earlier.)

Sitting opposite her, I was reminded of raptors I have seen and certain small, sharp-clawed mammals, with plumage and pelts so precisely matched to their surroundings that they seem to disappear. Until they strike.

Lynskey understands the usefulness of this kind of camouflage. “I have been cast a few times as somebody who is supposed to surprise you,” she said, taking a sip of a spicy margarita. Then she put the margarita down, because she had another theory. Yes, her characters are surprising, but maybe almost any woman is surprising, deep down.

“Maybe it’s just about unraveling the inner lives of women who are not usually examined,” Lynskey said.

Lynskey, 45, born on the west coast of New Zealand, entered the industry early and somewhat by chance. She had always loved acting, which offered her a reprieve from what she described as an acute self-consciousness. But she had only ever done plays at school or church when a casting director for Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures,” a 1994 film inspired by a lurid murder case, came to her high school.

Lynskey, who was 15 at the time, was cast opposite Kate Winslet, as a teenager who conspires to murder her own mother. She is thrilling in the role, with a scowl that burns through the celluloid and a dark, mordant energy. That predilection for women with turbulent inner lives, women who strain against social norms — it was there from the start.

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