Three Women Talk In A Basement: Happy Christmas’ Melanie Lynskey On Improv, Lena Dunham, and Feminism

Melanie Lynskey has built a career on genuine, naturalistic portrayals of women in films like Up in the Air, Win Win Hello, I Must Be Going, and, at age 16, Heavenly Creatures. The New Zealand-born actress’ latest role is Kelly, a former novelist turned homemaker, in Joe Swanberg’s upcoming dramedy Happy Christmas. 

Swanberg’s process saw Lynskey responsible for creating the dramatic tension between Kelly, her sister-in-law Jenny (Anna Kendrick), and Jenny’s friend Carson (Lena Dunham). One of the most memorable exchanges between the trio in the film—a conversation in turns cringe-worthy and sweet—was prompted by just one line in Swanberg’s outline: “The three women talk in the basement.” How did that vague sentence turn into the rich, sensitive scene that appears in the final cut?

For our Summer 2014 cover story, Lynskey spoke about the tricky art of improvisation, her inspirations (including Lena Dunham and Under the Skin), and her passion for revising cinematic female archetypes.

Sean Hood, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How do you decide to work on a movie like this, when there is no script and maybe only a vague concept?

Melanie Lynskey (ML): Well, I like Joe’s movies a lot. I’ve seen a lot of them. Joe said to me, “I’ve been thinking about this: Kris [Swanberg, Joe’s wife] wishes she had more time to do her own work, but we have a little child.” I said that a lot of my friends are in the same situation. They’re creative women. They grew up as feminists and now they’re like, ‘Wait I’m struggling with my instincts and my career that I’ve built over all these years.’ So I agreed to that, and he said “Great! Let’s do it.”

Lynskey and Swanberg. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Lynskey and Swanberg. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

MM: It must take a lot of trust on your behalf to be able to jump into a project knowing that you like the character and the concept, but a lot is going to be developed as you go along. What was it like to create the character and story beats with Joe?

ML: I really liked it. Some scenes were more structured, where the outline said: “Jeff and Kelly talk about how she doesn’t have time to write. Jeff says he’ll take care of the child. Kelly is happy about it.” But then the scene in the basement was, “Three women talk in the basement.” That scene in particular for me was really exciting because I got to tell all of my friends’ stories. I did a whole bunch of research and talked to people with kids. I get to talk about feminism with Lena [Dunham], who’s so smart and wonderful. So it was amazing to have that much freedom.

MM: You’ve done comedy improv before. When you see improv onstage it’s so high energy, so about the joke. Is this completely different?

ML: Yes, well I’m the least high energy person in the world, so my improv… I did it in high school and it was never wacky. It was more like, a situation would happen and it was funny. Also, when I was child I did an acting class and that was only improv, but it was dramatic acting. It was something that I was really comfortable with. My audition for Heavenly Creatures was improvised.

MM: Really? How old were you?

ML: 15.

MM: A lot of independent filmmakers attempt improv with their actors, and so often it doesn’t work. Why does Joe’s process work so well?

ML: I think Joe has a really good sense of the type of chemistry that people are going to have with each other. I think he’s a really good editor, as well, because some of those scenes go on forever and he’s good at cutting. He found a good person in Ben Richardson to work with because he’s so good at moving the camera in a way that allows for transitions and cuts.

MM: I had a conversation with another director, Adam Wingard, who often collaborates with Joe. We were comparing Joe to [John] Cassavetes. One of the things that Adam said was that Cassavetes’ films have very flashy, virtuoso improvisations, whereas Joe seems to be going for almost a kind of non-performance, encouraging the actors to just react to what’s happening in the particular moment rather than create a performance. Does that ring true to you at all?

ML: Yeah. He’s interested in capturing the moments that just feel like people hanging out with each other. I wonder, if time goes on, if he will be more interested in making a movie where it’s really about people’s performances, where people are doing bigger things. I don’t know what he’s going to get into in the future, but I do know that he really loves weird little moments and just feeling like you’re in a room with people.

MM: I particularly enjoy the film’s awkward moments. There’s a great moment with Anna Kendrick when you were going over the idea of writing an erotic novel. 

ML: It’s really fun to be playing a lot of different things in one moment. In that situation my [Kelly’s] sister-in-law [Kendrick] is a bit of a wild card and I don’t feel comfortable with her yet. She’s forcing me into a conversation that I don’t know if I want to have. I’m thinking, ‘How do I not sound condescending to her when I talk about my work?’ There’s a lot going on there.

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Dunham, Kendrick, and Jude Swanberg. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

MM: When you’re working on an ordinary movie set, any time someone fumbles a line, steps on someone’s line, or there’s an awkward pause, someone’s going to call “cut” and then you’re going to do it over. It seems to me on a project like Happy Christmas those are exactly the moments Joe’s going for. How do you reorient yourself to that way of working?

ML: It’s good. I initially put a lot of pressure on myself. I was like, I need to make it very concise, I need to get all the story points out, what did I want to talk about in this scene. Then I was like, I think I have to just let go a little bit and just trust that awkward pauses are fine. He likes all that stuff—sort of fumbly stuff, doing three things at once—so it’s all good.

MM: It seems require an enormous amount of trust.

ML: Yeah, you just have to say, “Did you get it?” I’m very feisty—not in my life, but for some reason when I’m at work I get very, very, very protective, so I’ll stand up for it if I think there’s something better or we need another take. It’s hard when you’re making a movie for $70,000 because you just can’t go again.

MM: How were adjustments made on set?

ML: We would do only one or two takes, so sometimes he’d say, “We’ll just do another one, and now try to talk about this.” It was so loose, and [cinematographer] Ben [Richardson] was really fluid in following us around.

MM: The camera definitely becomes a character. In the scene in which you were all having drinks at the bar, I felt like it was a fourth person sitting there listening.

ML: Yeah, because he [Ben] literally was! He’s sitting there with us and he doesn’t know who’s going to talk when and what we’re going to talk about.

MM: If you were going to give advice to other actors on deciding whether to take on a project like Joe’s, that is very loose and improvisational, what advice would you give?

ML: Gosh, that’s such a good question. I guess the advice that I would give would be: Make sure that you have something you want to say. It’s impossible with improvised work to prepare anything ahead of time because that takes the fun out of it. I’ve worked with actors who have done that, and it’s been really weird when you know they’ve prepared all their sides of the improv. It takes all the spontaneity out of it. You can prepare some if you know your character inside and out, and you know what you want to talk about. It’s like life. You’re not stuck in conversations in life going, “Oh, what do I say right now?” Or sometimes you are.

MM: How is the preparation different than if you’re in a play or on television, when you have a script to work from?

ML: When I agree to work on something, I need an emotional connection to the words that I’m reading. I need to feel something happen as I’m reading it, because then I can trust my instinct and I know I’m going to have enough to bring to it. If I read something and I’m like, “That’s smart and funny,” then I’m not going to have enough life in it. I have been trusting instinct recently and I feel like it’s working.

With this one, first of all, I had to trust that Joe was going to give me enough freedom to talk about the things I wanted to talk about. And I have these girlfriends who are so close to me who are really struggling with the same issues, so I talked to the three women whose children I am the godmother of. I said, “Tell me specific stories about times when this felt weird to you, talk about your sex life, how is everything working for you?” Because I don’t have kids. I also talked to Kris, Joe’s wife. She was so open and helpful.

MM: All of that preparation seems to have given you enormous freedom on set to do whatever occurred to you in the moment.

ML: Yeah. I think Anna [Kendrick] did the same thing, and Lena [Dunham] did the same thing, and Mark [Webber]. I think it’s important that everyone just has a point of view, and everybody knows their characters, and everyone’s excited to be playing the person they’re playing. But then for the movie I did with Joe a couple of weeks ago, I just did a day on it, and he didn’t tell me anything!

MM: What was that like?

ML: I thought, “OK, I know what I want… I know he likes me talking in my own accent. I’m not going to let him use my own accent again.” My goal for that movie was to do something very different to Happy Christmas. I just wanted to create a character who was completely different. It was really fun.

Photograph by Dominic Bonuccelli

Photograph by Dominic Bonuccelli

MM: You said that you’re very feisty in your work even if you’re not very feisty in real life.

ML: Yeah, I’m very feisty at work. I get very protective. It’s a weird thing. I’m trying to be fair in life.

MM: What kind of direction helps you as an actor, and what kind of direction gets in the way that becomes an obstacle to performance?

ML: The thing that I really, really don’t like is when somebody is overly specific, when you walk into a rehearsal and someone says: “Now you walk over here, and you open the cupboard, and you take this out. Then you stand here and you deliver this line.” And they give you line readings. I don’t like feeling like somebody doesn’t trust me to bring what I’m going to bring to it.

My ideal kind of situation is where somebody is just open to seeing what you’re going to do, but they also have a clear idea of what they want. Steven Soderbergh is the perfect example: The first time you do a take, you’re moving where you want to move, you’re doing whatever you want to do. Then he’ll shape it into his imagining of it. But first he wants to see what you’re going to bring to it, so you feel very, very safe. You know that someone really knows what they want from the scene, so you’re not just out there blindly trying to create something, but you also feel really trusted to bring your own instinct to it. That’s my perfect kind of situation. I get really claustrophobic when somebody’s trying to control it, because then I’m like, “Why?  You should have gotten another actor!”

MM: You’re not a marionette.

ML: Yeah, and some people are, you know? Some people feel very safe in that kind of environment.

MM: Joe’s style of filmmaking is a process of discovery. Do you think that is something that is specific to an individual like Joe—someone who can act, but also direct and cut—or do you think that’s an approach that could become more widespread?

ML: I think it definitely could become more widespread because you can be really collaborative. Sometimes, if people have a couple of weeks free and they’re a bunch of interesting people that you want to work with, that’s the thing I really love about it. Joe’s movie now is just stuffed with people. He asked me, “Will you come do a scene with Rosemarie DeWitt, Ron Livingston and Lindsay Burdge?” And of course I said yes. I don’t even care what it is because he can get people together, and I think it’s a thing that more people are going to do. Also, with digital filmmaking you can experiment.

MM: Can you see yourself doing any filmmaking in the future?

ML: No, no. Maybe producing. I like the idea of putting something together with people that I trust, but I would not want to direct.

MM: You’re really engaged in social media; how did that become a part of your career?

ML: I don’t know that it’s a part of my career. I’m a real nerd for film writers and suddenly all the film magazines started dying. I used to get Premiere and all sorts of magazines, and it’s harder now. I realized a lot of great writers were on Twitter and so I started following people, and then it’s nice. You have kind of a relationship. You meet up at film festivals.

MM: There’s a great scene in Happy Christmas when you are with Anna Kendrick and Lena Dunham in the basement and you’re just talking, and I know that Joe really just allowed you guys to talk, and talk, and talk. Once edited together it felt to me like three great jazz musicians just jamming in a circle.

ML: That was such a fun scene for me. It actually was a scene that I was a little self-conscious about, because that was where I wanted to provide the most information about my character, and talk about the things that I wanted to talk about. That was my reason for doing the movie. I found the little moments where I could explore things about women and explore things about feminism, and the scene felt like a really good opportunity.

The nice thing about that scene for me was that Anna’s character and my character had so much tension, especially at that point in the movie, so there would be awkward stop/start conversations, and that was really fun to play. To walk into the basement and just instantly want to leave because Kelly is not comfortable with this person. It was really nice to slowly open up and realize that Kelly doesn’t really have girlfriends. So it felt like a really nice thing for that character to open up, and to be welcomed in that way. So much of that was Lena. She has such an extraordinary warmth to her. Even though she’s a decade younger than me, I feel like a little sister to her. She’s so loving, and she’s so warm, and she’s so capable. She interviews people, because she’s so fascinated by people. I found myself telling her everything about my life.

She’s such an incredible woman. There’s nothing she doesn’t know about and she has such extraordinary empathy, but she’s able to play characters who reserve some of that stuff, which is so interesting to me. There are so many people who are smart, and you don’t believe that they would make bad choices. But she’s so believable as this person who’s just fucking up and being selfish, whereas in real life she’s so much more together. That’s such an interesting thing for me when an actor is able to do that without any judgment on the character, where she just makes people seem human and sweet. I don’t know if people really realize how much she’s capable of because she does make it look so easy. People think she’s playing some version of herself on her show [Girls], which she just absolutely isn’t.

It was also nice in that scene that Anna’s character starts to know me a little bit better. You see those little moments where she’s like, “Your book was amazing.” She’s proud, and I’m like, “Oh gosh, I didn’t even know that you read the book. I didn’t even know that you knew me at all.” That scene was really lovely for a lot of reasons.

MM: What performances have you seen lately or what movies have you seen lately that have been really inspiring to you?

ML: I saw Under the Skin the other day and it made me want to give up. I was trying to decide whether to do a particular project at the time and I was on the fence about it. Then I saw Under the Skin, and I was just like, no, I can’t [do the other movie]. It’s such a perfect work of art, that movie, I think.

At SXSW, I saw Larry Levine and Sophia Takal’s movie, Wild Canaries. I guess it’s a mumblecore movie—even though that’s such a horrible term—but it was like a real sort of caper, and it was funny. There just was so much within it that made me really excited about working with a low budget and with people who are really telling a story. And Joaquin Phoenix. Everything he’s been doing recently has just been so astonishing to me.

Lynskey and Swanberg. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Lynskey and Swanberg. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

MM: You do so many different types of movies and you do a lot of different genres. Is there was a through line to all the choices you make in terms of what kinds of roles you decide to take?

ML: No, I just feel something instinctively. When I read something, I just have a feeling that it’s going to be something I want to or something I can bring something to at that time, more importantly. Recently, there have been people that I’ve wanted to work with, like Joe. I’ve been lucky enough to create something with him, which is really exciting. I really love that way of working, of meeting somebody and saying, “You’re really interesting and I would love to do some work with you.”

MM: Certainly on a movie like Happy Christmas, the reward is not money and glamor. What are the rewards of doing this kind of work?

ML: The reward is you’re really, really creating something. I remember there was one scene Joe and I were doing and then I started talking about ‘Trigger,’ when ‘Trigger’ came to stay. We finished the take and he was like, “Who’s Trigger?” I was like, “My brother. I have a brother. His name is Trigger. He came to stay with us for a month and he was an angel.” He was like, “Oh my God, I love that.” Just the freedom to invent a character and start talking about them and have somebody be like, “Yeah, let’s go with that.” It’s just really fun. I like the challenge of surprising him with stuff.

MM: I get a sense that there is a hunger amongst working actors to find characters and stories that concern ordinary life as people experience it, rather than roles where you have to wear a superhero costume or do most of your work in front of a green screen. Do you notice that kind of energy out there at the moment?

ML: Oh, definitely. I think you have to be engaged in the work that you’re doing.  I haven’t done a lot of stuff in front of a green screen. I’m not really the type of actor who gets cast in those sorts of movies, but times when I have done a bigger budget production, it gets boring. I know that, for those actors who are doing that kind of work, it’s really hard to stay present and to believe in what you’re doing.

When you do these small, character-driven pieces, you’re examining people, you’re examining yourself, and there’s so much that you can bring to it. I think also it’s so much easier to make movies now. I have all these relationships now where I’m trying to get these different projects going with people who I respect and admire. It’s just such a nice way to be working.

MM: Yeah, I can imagine. There’s a real creative reward, a sense of doing work that means something rather than just doing the work.

ML: Yeah, and it’s so rare for me to see women who I can relate to. Our culture has become kind of disgusting around women. There are just so many images that I can’t relate to. I just think about little girls and young women growing up, and just seeing all these images of women who are posed in a particular way, whose bodies look a particular way. To be able to be a woman who looks like a normal human being and tell stories about normal human beings – it’s so important to me that that continues. MM

An abbreviated version of this interview appears in our new Summer 2014 issue, on stands now. Happy Christmas opens on VOD Friday, June 26, 2014, and in theaters July 25, 2014, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Follow Melanie on Twitter @melanielynskey.

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