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Melanie Lynskey: A Look at Her Amazing Journey From Character Actress to Leading Lady

Learn how the New Zealander became Hollywood's go-to for playing complex women

Melanie Lynskey is one of the most fascinating actresses working today. The New Zealand-born star, who burst onto the scene in 1994 with a powerhouse performance in Heavenly Creatures, spent much of the decade as a scene-stealer in supporting roles, and has recently become more popular than ever, thanks to her starring role in the haunting thriller series Yellowjackets. Lynskey projects a captivating mix of intensity and relatability, and has established herself as a truly fearless performer. Here’s a look at the actress’ unique journey to stardom.

Melanie Lynskey’s breakout performance

It’s not often that an actor’s very first part makes them famous, but that’s what happened with Melanie Lynskey. At just 17, she made her debut in Heavenly Creatures, playing a troubled teen who develops an intense friendship with another girl (a then unknown in the US Kate Winslet) that culminates with them committing murder. The film was based on a shocking true story, and Lynskey won acclaim for the nuance she brought to such a difficult role.

Related: 14 Best Kate Winslet Movies, Ranked

Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet in 'Heavenly Creatures' 1994
Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures (1994)@cultmovies_/Instagram

Lynskey was shy and favored a goth style, which made her very different from the typically perky teen actresses of her day. While Heavenly Creatures brought her recognition, it didn’t grant her immediate A-list status. As she recalled in a Vulture interview, “I was auditioning for the plain girl parts — not the cute lead — for any teen movie you can think of from the ’90s.” By the late ’90s, she had supporting roles in movies like Ever After, Detroit Rock City and But I’m a Cheerleader.

Melanie Lynskey in 1998
Melanie Lynskey in 1998Eric Robert/Sygma/Sygma via Getty

A reliable presence

In the ’00s, Lynskey didn’t necessarily achieve household name status, but she worked consistently, with roles in Coyote Ugly, Sweet Home Alabama, Shattered Glass and Flags of Our Fathers. She was also cast in the popular sitcom Two and a Half Men, playing Charlie Sheen‘s chaotic neighbor. As the ’00s continued, she acted in movies like Away We Go, Up in the Air, The Informant! and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Melanie Lynskey in 2006
Melanie Lynskey in 2006Toni Anne Barson Archive/WireImage/Getty

The fact that Lynskey didn’t typically star in films led her to be known as a character actress, rather than a leading lady, but that would soon change. In 2012, Lynskey reached a turning point when she starred as a woman going through a difficult divorce and starting an affair with a much younger man in the indie movie Hello I Must Be Going. She earned raves for her performance and began a second act starring in quirky low-budget films like Happy Christmas, The Intervention and I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore.

Melanie Lynskey in 2012
Melanie Lynskey in 2012, the year she became an indie film starAnn Summa/Getty

Lynskey also continued to make a name for herself in TV, starring in the 2015 relationship dramedy Togetherness and the 2018 horror series Castle Rock. In 2020, she starred in the ’70s-set miniseries Mrs. America, and the next year, in 2021, she was cast as the adult version of a teen who survived a plane crash in the ’90s in Yellowjackets.

Yellowjackets goes to some seriously harrowing places, and while the series isn’t for the faint of heart, the brilliant casting of the teen characters and their adult counterparts has been widely praised, and the series, which will return for its third season next year, has offered an excellent showcase for Lynskey and her fellow underrated ’90s and ’00s actresses Christina Ricci, Tawny Cypress and Juliette Lewis. The show has brought her to a new level of stardom. As she joked in a 2022 interview, “It’s funny to be on something that people are watching. It’s a different experience.”

Melanie Lynskey in 'Yellowjackets' 2023
Melanie Lynskey in Yellowjackets (2023)@msmelanielynskey/Instagram

Melanie Lynskey gets real

We love Melanie Lynskey not just for her performances, but for the way she presents herself offscreen. In a world of divas, she’s known for being one of the entertainment industry’s genuine sweethearts (The New York Times called her “Unnervingly nice“), even though she specializes in playing complicated women.

Melanie Lynskey in 2022
Melanie Lynskey at the Emmy Awards in 2022Frazer Harrison/Getty

Lynskey has also been refreshingly honest about some of the challenges she’s faced throughout her career. She’s spoken openly about the body-shaming she received early on and her struggles with an eating disorder in the ’90s.

After being called in for one too many “chubby best friend” roles, she took matters into her own hands. As she described it in an interview with The Guardian, “I’d get another script to be like, ‘the fat character just sitting in the corner eating a chocolate bar, while the pretty girls are all at the dance’ or whatever. I was like, ‘No’. It’s so irresponsible that there are scripts like this at all.” She admitted, “To have been so unkind to my own body for so long, I was furious about how Hollywood was working,” and has made a point of tuning out rude comments and portraying multilayered women who are impossible to look away from.

Lynskey is married to fellow actor Jason Ritter (yep, John Ritter‘s son!) and the couple has a young daughter. The actress has said she hopes to raise her with a positive outlook on body image, telling NPR, “Having a daughter now, I think it makes it a lot easier for me to model positivity, try to be positive around her, and try to not ever criticize myself in front of her or say anything. I don’t think she’s heard the word ‘fat.'”

Melanie Lynskey and Jason Ritter in 2022
Melanie Lynskey and her husband, Jason Ritter, in 2022Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty for WarnerMedia

While Yellowjackets isn’t coming back right away (which may be for the best, as we’re still processing some of the series’ more disturbing moments!), we’re always happy to see Melanie Lynskey, and she’s someone who inspires us onscreen and off.

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