There is something irresistible about Melanie Lynskey as the New Zealand-born actress arranges herself under the gold leaf of Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace, one leg tucked neatly under the other. Her hair is tied in an unfussy ponytail and she has a definite ‘girl next door’ quality. And perhaps rather belatedly in her career, she now finds herself Hollywood’s supporting actress du jour.
She arrives at the Middle East International Film Festival on the back of a three-day stint in Dubai – her cousin lives there. Everyone seems to have a relative in Dubai, I observe – ‘Yes,’ she laughs, ‘it’s cousin city’. By her own admission, she is a little shy and talks in a delicate, rather wispy Kiwi accent, occasionally slipping into an American drawl when imitating others – she does that a fair bit. It’s difficult not to be won over.
She’s here to publicise The Informant, Steven Soderbergh’s comic ‘true story’ – a male Erin Brockovich with a twist. In it, she plays Ginger, the loyal, wide-eyed wife of Matt Damon’s FBI whistleblower, Mark Whitacre, a low level employee who blew the lid off a biotech rates scandal back in the ’90s. History shows they won the case, but Whitacre landed in jail for fraud and tax evasion as his stories unraveled and the question of a certain missing US$9 million arose. But the film leaves it open as to how much his wife knew.
‘I was never able to talk to Ginger,’ Lynskey reveals, ‘the director didn’t want us to. So I had to make a decision. I decided she had no idea what was going on. She was trusting, she was the kind of wife who thinks her job is to stay in the house and take care of the kids and the family even though some things didn’t necessarily add up a lot of the time. She wasn’t asking too many questions.’
Lynskey plays the doting housewife pitch perfect, right down to the hairspray bouffant. Mrs Whitacre stayed with her husband, even after he was exposed. Melanie wouldn’t have been as understanding, she says. ‘God no. I’m not quite as forgiving as her.’ There would be thrown objects? ‘There would definitely be an angry side,’ she confirms. When she did finally meet Ginger at the premiere, she was terrified she’d be the one on the receiving end, but the pair actually got on, she says.
Lynskey is quick to praise Soderbergh, but he is a director who tends to divide audiences. Surprisingly Melanie agrees. ‘He doesn’t make it easy for people,’ she says. ‘He likes to experiment.’ Actors love him, critics less so. ‘It’s an interesting thing,’ she muses. ‘I’ve learnt when working with him that he isn’t worried about the outcome.’ Surely a comment to send a shiver down any studio exec’s spine. ‘Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and he’s the first to admit it,’ she says. The Informant works, largely because of the cast and largely because Soderbergh is willing to experiment.
So what is next for Lynskey? ‘It’s been really nice working on things that are good,’ she laughs. Yes, crap is never fun. There is a feeling that she has never quite filled her potential as an actress. Back in 1994, the then 16-year-old starred alongside an unknown Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson’s cult classic Heavenly Creatures. At the time she was still at school when casting coaches scoured New Plymouth for – in her words – ‘a dumpy little New Zealand girl’ to play real life teen murderess Pauline Parker. It was a critical hit, but didn’t launch her career in the same way that it did Winslet’s. Only recently has she slipped back into the limelight.
It’s the great acting dilemma: to play a supporting role in a great film or star in something lousy. ‘I’ve done it,’ she confesses to the latter. ‘It’s horrible to go to a premiere of something and go, “Oh, I’m in this?”’ I’ve always wondered if actors are ever tempted to slink out of the auditorium. ‘No, you’ve got to stick it out,’ she bemoans. ‘I suppose it’s the good thing about being a supporting actor. It never really falls onto
For the moment, there is no question of slinking anywhere. The Informant is just one of a number of big films for her. Next comes Jason Reitman’s Juno follow-up, Up In The Air (out Feb), starring George Clooney. She gushes over the talented ‘younger’ Reitman and claims ladies man Clooney is actually rather shy, but the quiet Kiwi is finally hot property again. So has her time finally come? She goes quiet on questions of lead roles. ‘I don’t know. Maybe sometime,’ comes the barely audible squeak. We hope soon.
The Informant is out in cinemas on November 5.
Truth or scare
The Informant is all about distinguishing the truth. We asked Melanie Lynskey to tell us two things about herself: one is a lie, the other is something she’s never told anyone. But which is true?
1. ‘I deliberately pushed my brother off a trampoline when we were children – just to see what would happen.’
2. ‘I accidentally put a cat in the dryer.’