Melanie Lynskey finds a niche as a character actress

When Melanie Lynskey was growing up in a small New Zealand town, she dreamed of being an actor. For her, that meant that she might some day move to Wellington, the capital, and perform there, as there was no such thing as professional acting in her hometown.

And then came “Heavenly Creatures.” At 15, Lynskey was plucked from her high-school class to audition for a young director named Peter Jackson. She won the role of Pauline Parker, a teenager immersed in a bizarre, dangerous fantasy world with her best friend, Juliet Hulme (a then-teenage Kate Winslet). The film was released to much acclaim in 1994.

“It was a funny thing,” said Lynskey, in an interview at the Seattle International Film Festival last June. “Literally my dream was coming true, but it was so far ahead of my timeline.”

Since then, Lynskey’s soft voice and bewitching screen presence (she wins you over, instantly, by never seeming to be acting) have been featured in numerous films, most far from Wellington. She’s been George Clooney’s sister (“Up in the Air”), Matt Damon’s wife (“The Informant!”), Drew Barrymore’s stepsister (“Ever After: A Cinderella Story”), Charlie Sheen’s neighbor (on TV’s “Two and a Half Men”), Reese Witherspoon’s childhood pal (“Sweet Home Alabama”), and Chloë Sevigny’s co-worker (“Shattered Glass”), to name just a few of her credits. And now, she’s got a movie all her own: the dark comedy “Hello, I Must Be Going,” directed by Todd Louiso, in which she plays the central character and appears in every scene. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival early this year, and is currently playing at the Regal Meridian.

The role of Amy Minsky, a demoralized divorcee who moves back into her parents’ home, came as a surprise to Lynskey — she’d played the role in a reading of the script early on but didn’t think she’d make it to the screen. “I’ve done a gazillion readings that have gone on to be movies that are made without me,” she said, laughing. But she felt like she knew “exactly what I would do” with Amy, and loved her sense of humor; the role came to her, like an unexpected gift.

For someone accustomed to smaller roles, and to the luxury of time they afford, “the challenge was in keeping my energy up and staying focused the whole time.” With writer Sarah Koskoff, Lynskey crafted an “emotional timeline” for Amy, sorting out why her marriage failed, why she becomes drawn into an affair with a local 19-year-old (Christopher Abbott, of HBO’s “Girls”), how she’s able to end the film with hope. “I think that’s the poignant thing about the movie,” Lynskey said. “By the end, she’s sort of had a rediscovery about what is possible from life.”

Now 35, living in Los Angeles, and married to American actor Jimmi Simpson (who plays a small role in “Hello, I Must Be Going”), Lynskey sounds content as a self- described character actress — a category, she said, that’s actually rather freeing. “I guess I’ve never really had a great desire to be a leading lady, or be seen as an ingénue,” she said. While Lynskey regularly rejects offers for roles that she finds offensive (the slender actress said she’s frequently offered “fat-girl roles” in which the character’s weight is used as a punch line), she’s still finding plenty of work, having recently wrapped “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (opening here later this month), “Teddy Bears” and “Eye of the Hurricane.”

As soft-spoken and sweetly friendly in person as she is on-screen, Lynskey said she looks forward to the release of “Hello, I Must Be Going” but isn’t pinning any hopes of future leading roles to it. “I’ve really learned to let go of expectations at this point,” she said. “Hopefully some people see it and like it. You never know.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or [email protected]

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