In her new movie, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, Melanie Lynskey plays a woman named Ruth who not is just having a bad day, but a bad adulthood. “Everyone is an asshole,” she says. The only thing that perks her up from her nihilistic mood is searching for the people who robbed her modest house when the cops won’t help.
“I feel like in any part, it’s something I relate to and I know it’s within me somewhere. I generally try to be more positive and more hopeful, but there’s definitely a part of me that does feel worried for humanity at times,” she tells Co.Create, “especially recently in all this horrific stuff that has been coming up. It’s easy enough for me to tap into this feeling of, ‘Why are people so selfish? Why is all anyone is interested in is taking for themselves and not giving or being kind, or thinking what’s coming behind them?'”
The New Zealand native has done so well with these roles that many people have forgotten that she was in one of the most popular sitcoms of the aughts, Chuck Lorre’s Two and a Half Men. In the CBS multicam, she played Rose, the highly intelligent and manipulative neighbor of Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen) who stalks him after they have a one-night stand and may or may not have been responsible for his death.
But early in the show’s run, both Lynskey and Lorre had the foresight to know she wouldn’t have been happy with the 22-episode grind.
“I was a guest for the pilot. Then, they decided they wanted to make the character part of the show,” she says. “I had never done a TV show before. At the time, I had been doing supporting parts in movies. I wasn’t super excited about where that was going, although I had just done a movie that I really, really loved. I had never made money, and it wasn’t like a huge amount of money because it was my first TV show, but I said, ‘It sounds nice to have some stability.'”
But after the first season ended in 2004, she wanted something different. “I had a long conversation with Chuck Lorre at the end of the year where I said I feel like I’m just like the wacky neighbor, and that’s not something I want to do. I love this character. She’s really weird, she’s really funny, but I’m feeling a really stuck.” When he told her that season two would reveal more of Rose’s story, she stuck around. But she still had concerns that she might get typecast, so they had another conversation after that season.
“I went back to him again and said, ‘I can’t have this be my whole life,’ because it is a big time commitment. I think you have two or three months free a year when you can fit a movie in there, but I was passing on other opportunities that had come up. After just two seasons, he let me change my whole contract, so that I could come and go. For the last nine years of the show, I was able to build a career. Some years, I’d do four episodes, and some years, I’d do eight episodes. It enabled me to live. It enabled me to do independent movies and be able to afford to make those choices. I really owe it to Chuck Lorre that I have the independent movie career that I have.”
She doesn’t underplay Lorre’s generosity, either. “He didn’t want to change one element of his super successful sitcom. He didn’t want to lose an actor and not know when he could get them, but he did that for my sake so that I could build my career. He really heard the concerns that I had. I didn’t want to sound ungrateful or anything like that. I really knew. I was like, ‘If this is the only thing I’m able to do for however long this show was on, I’m not going to get a chance to do other work.'”
Because she wasn’t a series regular, of course, she didn’t cash in during later seasons when the regulars negotiated new contacts. But Lynskey would gladly make that trade again. That simple change in her sitcom contract allowed her to do roles in movies such as Flags of Our Fathers, Win Win, and The Informant!, along with a number of voice roles. She also continued as Rose, appearing periodically on Two and a Half Men through its final season.
“When I was doing Flags of Our Fathers, I was like, ‘Wow. I wouldn’t have been able to do this if I hadn’t stood up and said I need to change the terms of this contract,'” she says. “Everyone around me, my manager, my agency said I was nuts because I didn’t want to do it, and I had to really talk them into it.”
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, which won a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year, debuts on Netflix today. The film is quirky to say the least; it starts as a character study of both Ruth and her weird neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood), who helps her in her search for the people who robbed her, then it turns into a hostage and chase film, with Ruth holding a gun while two addicts (David Yow and Jane Levy) try to rob a drunken socialite (Christine Woods).
“I don’t love movies where there is a massive tone shift, but it did it so seamlessly and the emotional continuity of the characters just made so much sense to me,” she says of the role. “As I was reading it, I just felt the suspense growing and the story was taking all these turns, and I was so into it. The characters just really spoke to me on a pretty deep level. I really wanted to do it.”
It’s one of a half-dozen movies that are in the pipeline, including a role in XX, which consists of four horror vignettes that are written and directed by women. And once again, she’s playing the type of unglamorous, “regular Joe” kind of roles that have become part of her signature, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I never have felt a great pressure to hold up any sort of standard of beauty or anything like that,” she says, “I think it’s kind of bullshit anyway that women are held to this standard. Also, my very first job when I was 15 years old [opposite Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson’s acclaimed film Heavenly Creatures], I literally I had not a stitch of makeup on my face. I was very frumpy. I was just playing a character. I think there’s such a freedom in starting out like that. You’re not presenting something that people expect you to keep looking like.
“I really feel for some woman who have been glamorous and beautiful their whole careers, and you get older, and that’s just what happens,” she continues. “People feel like they have to keep looking a particular way. Society is so nasty, so horrible to women. I just feel like I have a freedom from that with the things that I’ve chosen to do.” Will it help her in the future? “I hope so, because nobody is going to be like, ‘Oh my god. Look at what she used to look like, and now . . .’ I’ve always looked normal. I’m just going to keep looking normal.”