There’s some slight yet delicious irony in seeing Melanie Lynskey play a woman who doesn’t have it all, as she does in “Happy Christmas” since as an actress, it’s always been the opposite. A soulful presence whose gentle spirit has long been tempered by a fierce gaze, Lynskey is often the best part of any film she’s in, often infusing the smallest of roles with brilliant sparks of life. In recent years, this has been particularly wonderful for fans of indie cinema since Lynskey has generously used the cache of a career that began with Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” and continued with steady work in studio films and a lucrative turn on a long-running TV show (“Two and a Half Men”) to take roles irregardless of size or budget so long as the material is strong.
So far this year, she’s been able to leave an impression whether she’s been onscreen for just a few moments as in David Wain’s “They Came Together,” supporting turns in the festival favorites “Goodbye to All That” and “We’ll Never Have Paris” or a full-fledged co-lead in “Happy Christmas,” the latest film from Joe Swanberg, who originally wanted to cast Lynskey in “Drinking Buddies” before the two came to the mutual conclusion she wouldn’t be right for his last film. Yet Lynskey makes an ideal foil for Anna Kendrick’s emotionally stunted twentyomsething coming off a bad breakup as the sister-in-law who begrudgingly puts her up, envious of her freedom while she has to tend to a baby boy (played by Swanberg’s son Jude) and the other responsibilities of married life.
It’s a fascinating film within Swanberg’s filmography since it plays the past against the present considering Kendrick’s Jenny would seem to fit right alongside the some of the aimless protagonists of his early films such as “Kissing on the Mouth” and “Hannah Takes the Stairs” while Lynskey’s Kelly, slightly restless with domestic life when her previous life as a novelist still beckons, seems to reflect where the filmmaker is now as he continues to make movies as his wife Kris, whose pursuits have run the gamut from making films to small-batch ice cream, has had to stay at home. For her part, Lynskey was able to incorporate plenty from her own experience into the role and shortly before “Happy Christmas” opens in theaters, the actress spoke about digging into the heavily-improvised film with such strong personalities as Kendrick and Lena Dunham, having the real life of the film’s director all around her and the thrill that came with taking control of her career.
There’s a great line in the middle of a scene relatively early in the film where you’re talking to Anna Kendrick and Lena Dunham’s characters in the basement of the house and you say, “Having it all is a very dangerous concept since it means you end up doing everything.” It seems to be a defining line for the character, but since I understand the film was mostly improvised, is that something you were working towards or something that just came up on the spot?
That was what I was interested in talking about because I don’t have children myself, but I’m the godmother to a lot of my friends’ kids and it’s something that they’ve really, really been struggling with — just trying to balance this instinct that they have and then also their career. There’s just too much and nobody can do everything.
The scene was supposed to be [Anna and Lena saying], “You need to have more time to write.” Then, I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to ask my husband if I can have more time to write.” But the thing that I really like so much about that scene is Anna and Lena both really approached it from the place of these girls in their mid-20s, who are just like, “I don’t really get why you can’t be writing another novel.” There’s that kind of naiveté that neither of them have in real life, but a lot of girls in their mid-20s do, where it’s just like, “You’re creative. Why aren’t you doing it?” And you’re just like, “Do you not understand the reality of life and responsibility?”
Did you actually know what kind of novel your character would write?
Yeah, I felt like Joe had three different ideas [in mind for the film]. He was like, “I want to make a movie where you guys are writing an erotic novel, I also want to make a movie about how Kris [Swanberg, his wife] is feeling and I want to make a movie about when my little brother came to stay with us.” I was like, how are you going to do that? But it really came together in a really nice way. When he brought up the erotic novel idea, I was like, “Oh, dear,” but, it came out naturally.
Is it more comfortable for you to use your natural voice like you do here or do you like having the distance of putting on an American accent?
I like to have the distance. It’s weird for me to use my own accent, but it did kind of work. A lot of the time, people will say, “Oh, just use your own accent.” But if it’s something that’s scripted and they’ve written it for an American, it’s a different way of speaking, so It’ll sound weird because I’m talking like an American but with my own accent and it’s just off, so I hate doing that. I also do an American accent all the time, so it’s fine to do it. Joe felt like improvising would be maybe a little easier if I was able to talk like a New Zealander, so it was fine.
Is it interesting to be so immersed in a filmmaker’s life as you are here? You’re filming in Joe’s house, playing a role inspired by his wife and acting with him and his son?
It was so strange, and I was really nervous about it. I thought, “Is Kris, his wife, going to feel okay because I’m acting with her husband and her child in her house?” She’s a great actor, too, and as soon as I spent time with her and with them, I felt a lot more comfortable about it.
Did she help you get into the part?
Yeah, she’s why Joe wanted to make the movie, and I talked to her a lot before we started filming, just to make sure we were on the same page. Because there’s not a script, I’m not telling her story. It had to be experiences that I understand that are true to me, or stories my friends have told me, but it was just good to check in with her and be like, “Okay, this isn’t going to feel completely wrong to you?”
What was it like to have their son Jude as a scene partner?
It was so great! He is so cute.
He’s got Joe’s eyes…
He really does. It’s good that he looks so much like Joe because his mother does not anything like me. She’s very exotic and very beautiful, and would not look like my kid if he looked like Kris. There were things that that kid was doing where I was like, “You know what you’re doing.” The scene where I feed him the Cherrios, and he’s like, “Arrrr,” everyone was trying not to laugh and then we reset. He’s just sitting there, and then we did another take, and he was like, “Arrrr” — the same action like he knows. It was really weird.
When you do one of these films that’s largely unscripted, you probably go on for very long takes. Are you surprised how it turns out in the end?
I was so surprised and I was worried at times [since] I could feel Ben [Richardson], our cinematographer, moving around a little bit, and I’d wonder like, “How does he know where to be and who to put the camera on?” or “We’re doing only one take of this?” He knew what he was doing. They cut it somehow, and Ben was everywhere he needed to be at all times. He’s like a weird psychic.
Did you actually have the freedom to move wherever you wanted? It seemed like the camera would follow you.
Yeah, absolutely. Some things, like when the pizza’s burning and the house is all smoky, we needed to be pretty specific about where we were moving because he couldn’t see, but really, he was really just like, “Oh, I’m here.”
It is crazy. I’ve worked with some people who take two hours to set up a shot. It’s amazing. It’s all natural light.
What’s been amazing in your career of late is how you seem willing to take any part in a film of any budget so long as it’s good, which seems unusual since it seems like a lot of actors have different goals in mind, whether it’s primarily being a lead or being in bigger productions. Was there a turning point where you figured out what you wanted to do?
Yeah, I had a frustrating time because I was with agents who I liked, and I’m very, very, very loyal, but I kept saying to them, “I want to do independent movies. I want to work with new filmmakers. I want to see what is out there.” And they were like, “Yeah, great.” Even “Brokeback Mountain, I saw that, and felt like, I could have auditioned for that. I just kept seeing movies and being like, “God, there’s this whole world where good movies are being made, and I have no part of it.”
Finally, I was just brave, and I said I need to work with somebody else because with that agency, I felt like they just wanted to put me back on another TV show. I was just like, “Well, I left the TV show so I could work in movies and do more interesting work.” They put me in “Shattered Glass,” and that was something where I felt like “This is the kind of movie that I love and I feel really good about being a part of.” But then I got this new agent and she’s so incredible. It’s been six or seven years we’ve been working together. She represents Lizzie Olsen and Sam Rockwell and Richard Jenkins, and she’s happy for me to do tiny-budget movies. She’s never made a penny from me, and she’s just like, “Great, I want you to build a resume of things that you feel good about and work with interesting people.” She’s looking out for movies that don’t even have funding yet. “Helena From the Wedding,” I think, was the first job that I did when I signed with this agent. I was like, “Yes, exactly. They’re making a movie for $100,000 in ten days.”
And you actually are going back to television, but with a very indie film sensibility on the Duplass Brothers’ HBO series “Togetherness.” Is it nice to be able to do both that and film?
I’m so excited and so nervous and so hopeful. It’s the greatest time of my life doing it. We did eight episodes and everyday, I woke up just so happy to get to go to work. Everything I had to do was just so challenging, interesting and real. It just was like a dream.
The digital revolution, which made it possible for a lot of these filmmakers that you’re now working with now, really happened on your watch, so has filmmaking become a different thing for you as an actress?
It really is. The Duplasses work differently in that they have a script that’s perfect. It’s been written and rewritten, and people have given notes and then it’s got another rewrite. There’s a real safety net there, but they like the spontaneity. They like you to come up with stuff. They’re kind of bored with their own script for whatever reason. There’s a freedom in that you get to play around with stuff, but you can always just go back to this because you know that it totally works. That’s my perfect way to work. I don’t know what I would do if I went back on the studio movie, and it was someone being like,” Now, walk over here, and now say your line here.” It would be really hard.
“Happy Christmas” opens on July 25th in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theater, Chicago at the Music Box, Denver at the Chez Artiste and Philadelphia at the Ritz at the Bourse before expanding on August 1st. A full list of theaters and dates is here. It is also available on demand at all the services listed here.