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Melanie Lynskey on Her Alien Childhood and the Importance of Picking Up Dog Poop

7 minute read

Where Melanie Lynskey grew up, on the North Island of New Zealand, people were nice. So nice, in fact, she figures they probably wasted precious hours of their lives on the “please” and “thank you, ma’am” decorum requires. When she moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago, people were—with some key exceptions, of course—decidedly less nice. But it’s not just an American thing, she says. “People are rude everywhere, I guess.”

It’s not that the actor, 39, is on a personal quest to reeducate the meanies and bullies of the world. But in her latest role, as a nursing assistant named Ruth Kimke in Macon Blair’s directorial debut I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore., the disintegration of common decency becomes a fixation on a grand level. Part crime drama, part black comedy, the movie—which won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize last month and hits Netflix on Feb. 24—is a kind of catharsis for the fed-up, the pissed-off and the boiling-over.

In the film, Ruth comes undone as mundane offenses accumulate. There are the line-cutters and the book-spoilers. The dog owners who fail to scoop poop and the muscle truck owners whose disregard for emissions regulations are slowly sucking the life force from all humanity. And the burglars who took off with her dead grandmother’s silver and several bottles of antidepressants which she, well, needs. The last straw, their brazen disregard for her own humanity, finally compels Ruth to seek justice, as one half of an unlikely vigilante duo with neighborhood weirdo Tony, a rat-tailed (and delightful as ever) Elijah Wood with an arsenal of nunchucks.

I Don’t Feel at Home joins a sturdy list of beloved (or soon-to-be so) indies, like Hello I Must Be Going and Win Win, that feature Lynskey as all manner of regular person. She’s doesn’t star in biopics of Joan of Arc or float in a spacesuit through futuristic spacescapes. Time and again, she plays your dysfunctional friend, or your struggling sister, or some version, perhaps, of you. When she read Blair’s script, it was a simple, human connection to Ruth that compelled her to take the part: like Ruth, Lynskey prays to her dearly departed grandmother—her “person,” as Lynskey describes her—in moments of personal challenge.

She also chose Ruth like she chooses all her roles: as a chapter in a kind of makeshift therapy. “I read a script and there’s just something that lights up and I’m like, I need to do this movie right now for whatever reason.” When she was feeling low a couple of years ago, she chose a role that would put her in a happier place. And when Ruth came along, she says, “I just needed to find my voice a bit more and be a bit tougher.”

That sentence could describe Lynskey’s entry into performing more broadly; she was once a painfully shy 6-year-old who ate lunch in the teachers’ lounge to avoid facing her classmates. “I couldn’t talk to kids, I couldn’t play the games they were playing, I just felt like an alien,” she says. Then she was cast in a play, and when she went onstage, the angst vanished. “The freedom I felt, standing there and saying something that had been written for me and getting to be in someone else’s skin and not having to be Melanie…” she trails off. It was the escape hatch she desperately needed.

Her film debut came at 16, in 1994, opposite Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. Though the performance won her Best Actress at the New Zealand Film and Television Awards, doors didn’t open in exactly the way she might have hoped. “When I was a teenager in the ’90s and I was auditioning, I was told, ‘You’re a character actor. You are not the ingenue,’” she recalls. “There were all these names and labels that were just given to me, so I was like, OK, I better work within this box.”

After moving to the U.S., she had the repeated frustration of seeing the same kind of role, which she describes as the “fat friend,” come in her direction. “It’s not vanity—I don’t have any illusions about what I look like,” she says. “But it’s such an ugly character to just be there as—‘Ugh, imagine if some guy had to deal with this person.’” She landed a high-profile role as Rose, dedicated stalker of Charlie Sheen’s character on Two and a Half Men, but got out of her contract to avoid being tied down by what would become one of the most popular sitcoms on air.

That freedom put her on a path that led to roles opposite George Clooney in Up in the Air and Matt Damon in The Informant! and the Duplass brothers’ critically revered but short-lived HBO series Togetherness, whose brutally candid depiction of the ups and downs of a modern marriage (between spouses played by Lynskey and Mark Duplass) was too real for some viewers to bear.

Lynskey typecasts herself, in her Twitter bio, as a “constant portrayer of morose or dispirited types,” but if there’s one thread that connects the majority of her characters, it is that they are messy. And though their messiness can be challenging for viewers—even pure Ruth, in her quest, stoops to the kind of behavior she seeks to eradicate—there is something about Lynskey’s quavering half-whisper and bone-deep sweetness that makes it difficult not to shovel empathy toward her by the bucketful.

The action in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. may pivot around some silver spoons and canine feces, but it will feel, to many viewers, surprisingly timely. “It feels so much more about how people are willing to treat other people,” Lynskey says of this political moment. “I don’t understand when this happened—when people having health care, people being taken care of, how that threatens other people. Don’t we want to make the world better?” She knows the question sounds naïve, but she genuinely means it. “It’s little things, but it’s just people not thinking that someone’s going to have to pick the poop up, that there’s someone working in the supermarket who’s going to have to put the chips you dropped back on the shelf.”

The film takes its name from “This World is Not My Home,” a 1965 country gospel song by Jim Reeves. Its lyrics tell the story of a man preparing for his eternal home, angels beckoning, saints shouting victory. Lynskey says she’s not the churchgoing kind. But she offers a form of spiritual release for believers and nonbelievers alike. By reflecting our own mistakes and humiliations back to us, she does what performers do at their best. She makes us feel a little more at home in this world.

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Write to Eliza Berman at eliza.berman@time.com