'Yellowjackets' Star Melanie Lynskey: 'Motherhood Has Opened My Heart'

The 'Yellowjackets' and 'The Last of Us' star talks to Parents about upending expectations and how much she truly loves her nanny.

Melanie Lynskey

Courtesy of Showtime

Melanie Lynskey is used to being that actor. You know, the one where you know her face, but might not know her name. She was the other stepsister in Ever After. And the woman with the baby at the bar in Reese Witherspoon's Sweet Home Alabama. And as Rose the neighbor on Two and a Half Men. And as Leonardo DiCaprio's put upon wife in Don't Look Up.

Except that now, thanks to star turns on Hulu's Candy, HBO's The Last of Us, and Showtime's Yellowjackets—for which she earned an Emmy—you know exactly who she is.

It's a fact she's got a love-hate relationship with. On the one hand, she and her husband Jason Ritter (son of John Ritter and star of shows like Parenthood, Girls, and Raising Dion) keep a very low profile by Hollywood standards—you won't even find her 4-year-old daughter's name in the press, and that's very much on purpose.

On the other hand, she confesses, it feels kind of awesome to challenge the way people think, especially when it comes to their preconceptions of middle age and motherhood.

Case in point: her Yellowjackets character Shauna Sadecki, a 40-something mom turned gun-wielding murderer with a messy, storied past that echoes Lord of the Flies in its level of drama and depravity.

Parents caught up with the New Zealand-born actor to chat about career highs and upending people's expectations.

Last month, there was a lot of controversy about your The Last of Us character, Kathleen. And on Yellowjackets season 2, you're quite gleefully covering up murders. Are you enjoying leaning into the darkness?

It's always just more fun to play somebody who's doing stuff, someone who has agency, and has a life of their own. And is making choices, even if they're terrible choices a lot of the time.

People look right past middle-aged women, if they're not like Heidi Klum, you know? And they're not especially interested, I think, a lot of the time in finding out what is actually going on inside. So you know, could be anything. People contain multitudes. And that's the thing I'm interested in examining.

We see Shauna as a teenager. And then we see her as the the mother of a teenager. Her daughter has so many judgments against her. That's so true to real life.

Murder not withstanding. Yeah.

You're a relatively new parent yourself, but playing parent to a teen on Yellowjackets. Where are you drawing from?

I have so many friends who have kids in all different stages. Like when I did this movie Happy Christmas, I was playing a new mum. So I talked to a couple of women who were very newly in that experience. And a friend of mine said, there was one day where she put jeans on and she went about her day. She went to the supermarket and did all this stuff. And then she realized at the end of the day, she never took her pajama top off. And that sort of captures it all, doesn't it?

Most of my friends are pretty well-adjusted people. So they have great relationships with their children and even their teenagers. I have a friend, Zoey, in New Zealand, who has two teen daughters. She's the parent that I strive to be. Her daughters love her. They're very open with each other. It's really sweet. So I'm hopeful that my relationship with my daughter continues, I'll be able to do that, too.

Melanie Lynskey as Shawna on Yellowjackets

Colin Bentley/SHOWTIME

No spoilers, but just the moment when Shauna looses it over the stuffy says so much about motherhood. We're all just hanging on by a thread.

I think, at that moment, she's grappling with this idea that she might not be a good mother, and she might not even be a good person. And so the stuffy becomes a symbol of so much more. It's a symbol of clinging on to some last hope that she might actually be a good parent. She's like, "I remember that she loved this little stuffed animal. I remember that this was important to her. I remember his name, even if nobody else cares." Part of her is just so filled with rage. And then part of her is really wanting to prove something to her daughter and to herself.

It's just that moment where we're all on the brink of losing it. You have to let it out somehow.

And she is really is enjoying that gun, I think, in that moment.

Shauna's wielding a gun, and on The Last of Us, Kathleen is the leader of the resistance. On both shows, you're literally burning all the bodies. Is it fun to lean into that?

It is fun, I think especially because people have this notion of what power is. People have this masculinized idea of it, where if women are very tough or very buff, or commanding, they have no power. It's bullshit, because people say, "Women need to have all these qualities to be a good leader." But then, even if women do have these qualities, they are picked to pieces; there's nothing that women can do to make a certain percentage of the population believe that they're going to be a good leader. So for me, the thing that's fun, especially in The Last of Us, is really subverting that notion of remaining very feminine, and being quite delicate, and being this person who you would never expect to be in charge of all these people. But you know, it's the apocalypse. I loved the idea of entering into this world and being like, "Wait, who is this person? What's going on?" It just was so fun to me.

Parents wrote a piece on how of course, moms would be the leaders of the resistance, because that's literally what's happening in the United States right now.

On The Last of Us, it's a desperate situation. And so they're forced to rely upon the person who actually has the information—like she's the one who knows the codes to the safe. She's the one who knows the underground tunnels. She's the one who holds it all together because she was helping her brother with all this stuff behind the scenes. What an interesting thing to walk in on a story when this person has been on the sidelines for so long and put in charge. And actually, like overthrows the government in like 10 days. I was like, "Yes, it would be somebody like that." You'd be forced to turn to the person who actually knows what to do, who's managing all the things in their head. Like, that's every parent ever. We know, on a week-to-week basis, that's what's happening. Literally, you're keeping the show running.

And it really takes a village. When you made your Emmy speech last year, you thanked your nanny—and we were all right there with you.

Every working parent needs help. I'm from New Zealand; I don't have family here. And we also travel for work. So you need somebody. My husband's amazing; he's made a lot of sacrifices for me to be able to work as much as much as I have been working.

But my nanny is everything. She's just the most incredible human being. And she brings so much to my daughter's life. The amazing thing about my job, especially on Yellowjackets, is that half the storyline does not involve me, so the workload per episode is actually really light. I do have a lot of time to be at home with my daughter and be a mom. And then my nanny, Sally, has a lot of time to recuperate and have her own life and go to ballet class and whatever she wants to do. So it's a good balance for everybody. But I don't know what I do without her. And also, to have a person who loves my daughter, and is very invested in my daughter's happiness is amazing. If my husband's away, I can text Sally and say, "I'm so sorry, I'm gonna be three hours later than I said I would be." Or whatever. And she just rolls with it. When when she's not with us, I miss her. Like she's not with us right now. And I'm just like, "Sally. I miss you. Come back."

Does your daughter get what you guys do for work? Or does she think you just play for a living?

I don't think so. [My husband] Jason has done a lot of animated stuff, so she can hear his voice. But I don't think she understands. Sometimes she'll put on my high heels and be like, "I'm going to work," because these days mostly she sees me having to go to events and stuff like that. She sometimes will play a game where she's me at work and she will say she's sitting in the trailer looking at a paper because that's all she's seen. Also, you know, because of COVID, she hasn't actually been on set with me since Mrs. America. I would have her there a lot of the time in a little room and I would just go in between takes and get to hang out. But it's been a while since I've been able to do that.

In the past few years, as you entered your 40s, you've experienced a lot of work firsts—breakout roles and Emmy wins.

I feel so lucky that this time has happened at a point where I know myself very well. And I feel like I have so much more to offer than I ever been before, just in terms of life experience. Motherhood just deepens your performances and the fact that I have a child, I feel like my heart has expanded. Motherhood has opened my heart. And I have a greater understanding of life. I feel really, really lucky. And it's very tiring; it's tiring to have a baby and have that coincide with the greatest time in your professional life. But it's definitely incredible to be so happy in every way. It's really astonishing.

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