Slovenly Creatures

A Life in Film chat with Letterboxd fave Melanie Lynskey about fart jokes, comfort comedies, foundational film idols and her obsession with Kevin Hart.

Not all the plot points have to tie together, it doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t have to be perfectly sharp. It just has to be funny, that’s all.” —⁠Melanie Lynskey

Search through Letterboxd and you’ll find that New Zealand-born Melanie Lynskey has a special place in the hearts of film lovers. Lists dedicated to “my favorite actress”, “the least-appreciated currently working character actress”, “lovely Melanie Lynskey films”. Reviews that consist mainly of Melanie Lynskey’s name, over and over again. And so it is with her latest film, Lady of the Manor. Reviews of the ghostly, farty buddy-comedy are united on one thing: Melanie Lynskey.

Her secret involves a smart straddling of the indie-mainstream fence, one foot in comedy, the other in drama, and a weathered eye on the politics of her industry. Follow her Twitter account, and you’ll see that Lynskey’s tastes and influences are wide-ranging. She is a hungry devourer of recaps, a staunch ally of the marginalized, and generous with her praise of great work (including those she works with).

But for Letterboxd fans, it is simply about what Lynskey herself brings to every role, whether that be character parts in cult camp like But I’m a Cheerleader and Coyote Ugly, or as a devoted participant in 21st-century indie fare, often involving the Duplass brothers, and often with long, existential titles, or as a rock-solid addition to A-list ensemble adventures such as Up in the Air, The Informant! and Mrs. America.

Melanie Lynskey sparks up in Lady of the Manor.
Melanie Lynskey sparks up in Lady of the Manor.

“I have said it before and I will keep saying it until I lose my figurative online voice,” writes Lynskey stan Fred, “Melanie Lynskey is one of the best working actors and Hollywood needs to catch up yesterday.” She has been serving lesbians since her 1994 break-out in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. She is the Queen of Indie. She is a gift. She can do no wrong. She is our spirit animal.

For Lynsksessives, a new Melanie Lynskey season is upon us. A Showtime series, Yellowjackets, in November. In December, she will be seen in Adam McKay’s starry new astronomy caper, Don’t Look Up. And right now, those hunting for a charming indie comedy led by our favorite goofball need look no further than Lady of the Manor, from brothers Justin and Christian Long.

“I wanted ghost Judy Greer interacting with stoner Melanie Lynskey and I got ghost Judy Greer interacting with stoner Melanie Lynskey,” writes Owen, of the supernatural buddy comedy in which hot mess Hannah (Lynskey) is haunted by prim and proper (and probably murdered) Lady Wadsworth (Greer), while trying to hold down a job as a tour guide at Wadsworth Manor.

In order to help Greer’s uptight apparition find peace, Hannah must solve the mystery of the manor’s ownership. That, however, requires her to overcome an extreme lack of ambition, terrible personal hygiene, and sleazy advances from a toxic and horny Ryan Philippe. Angela Alise and Luis Guzmán pop up in somewhat underwritten supporting roles, but Lady of the Manor is, above all, a buffet of physical comedy delights for Lynskey lovers.

Letterboxd editor-in-chief Gemma Gracewood jumped on the line with Lynskey for a laugh and a cry about David Lynch movies, the late Katrin Cartlidge, teen obsessions, and being a responsible Academy voter.

Lady Wadsworth (Judy Greer) serves some manners to her re-enacting dopplegänger, Hannah (Melanie Lynskey).
Lady Wadsworth (Judy Greer) serves some manners to her re-enacting dopplegänger, Hannah (Melanie Lynskey).

Lady of the Manor feels like a Pygmalion situation, you know? My Fair Lady, but you are Eliza Doolittle and Judy Greer is Professor Henry Higgins, and the transformation is actually not that huge: Hannah goes from this complete stoner to still a complete stoner, but maybe with a few additional life goals.
Melanie Lynskey: That was the thing that really sold me on the movie, honestly, was that she just didn’t really change that much. The moment that I was, like, ‘I’m going to do this movie’ was when she’s all inspired—“I’m going to return the house to its rightful owner” —⁠and she marches off purposefully, and then it cuts to her at the bar and she’s just wasted again. It was so funny to me. ‘Oh wow, they’re really letting her be a mess. They’re not trying to redeem this person.’

You and Judy Greer have an insane chemistry. Can you share some insights into that working partnership?
It was so much fun. We’ve never gotten to work together, because it’s always: she’s doing the role, or I’m doing the role, or Kathryn Hahn is doing the role. There’s usually one part that’s right for us in a movie, and so, to have two different roles that are right for both of us, it was such a dream.

A lot of it is on the page, because Justin and Christian worked so hard on the script, and it was at a point that they were really, really happy with it, and they were very fond of a lot of the jokes. We did get to add little things here and there. We got a lot of freedom and a lot of room to improv.

Who is the best movie ghost, apart from Judy Greer?
All I can think of is Ghost. Oh, Beetlejuice. There you go. That’s an amazing ghost, that’s a great movie.

What else should we watch Judy Greer in?
Who can name only one favorite Judy Greer performance?! She’s so incredible! The ones that come to mind are Adaptation, The TV Set, Jeff Who Lives At Home and Three Kings. She is a marvel—beautiful, funny, kind, smart, an amazing improviser and a great friend.

What is the film that first made you aware that filmmaking is something you could do, as opposed to watch?
I don’t really know what film made me aware of what filmmaking was! I always knew I wanted to be an actor, since I was about six years old and did a school play. I didn’t really watch a ton of movies as a kid. My parents were not really movie-goers. When I was about thirteen I started watching Twin Peaks, and from there I saw Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart, and that was the beginning of me realizing what kind of work really excited and interested me. So for 30 years now, I’ve had a dream of working with David Lynch.

And I started to try to watch everything that certain actors did. I got very obsessed with Katrin Cartlidge, who became my favorite actor. I loved her in Mike Leigh’s Naked and Career Girls, in Lars Von Trier’s Breaking The Waves, Lodge Kerrigan’s Claire Dolan and Milcho Manchevski’s Before The Rain. Through following Katrin’s career I started to piece together what I wanted my own to look like. She made incredible choices and was just so different and so good in every performance.

I was lucky enough to work with her before she passed; we did a movie of The Cherry Orchard and worked together for three months. I will cherish those memories forever. She was maybe an even more amazing person than she was an actor, and that is really saying something.

A publicity still from The Three Musketeers (1993) with Oliver Platt, rear left, as Porthos.
A publicity still from The Three Musketeers (1993) with Oliver Platt, rear left, as Porthos.

What was the first film that gave you teenage feelings?
Well, I was a bit of a goth as a teenager. When I saw Alison Maclean’s short film Kitchen Sink, that was a big moment for me. I was like, wow. If I could make a movie that would express my soul at this moment, it would be this film. And I have loved all her movies since that one. The Rehearsal was so good! And Jesus’ Son. I keep hoping I’ll get to work with her.

As a teen I was very swoony over Oliver Platt. He was my number one crush. So any Oliver Platt film had me feeling some things—Flatliners and The Three Musketeers, especially. I’m still swoony over him today, to be honest.

What is the next hidden gem that you think Letterboxd members should watch?
My two favorite movies in recent memory are Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth and Remi Weekes’ His House. Eliza Scanlen is absolutely glorious in the former. It’s a really deep and beautiful performance. Her parents are played by the incomparable Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis, both of whom destroyed me. The whole movie destroyed me. But my favorite performance in the movie comes from Toby Wallace, as the young-but-older love interest of Eliza Scanlen’s character. My god, this is an electric performance. He’s unbelievably good in it. Emily Barclay is great in it too. The movie is funny, heartbreaking and beautifully directed. The music is amazing.

And His House is just great. A really creepy, twisty thriller with a very tragic story at its center. It’s about a refugee couple who have escaped from South Sudan and are moved into housing in England, and the house is torturing them. It’s the most compelling movie I’ve seen in such a long time. The two leads, Wunmi Mosaku and Sope Dirisu, are flat out movie stars. You can’t take your eyes off either of them and the performances resonate on a thousand different levels. They’re astounding, and it’s incredibly accomplished filmmaking. Please please see these movies.

Because you’re from New Zealand, we’d be remiss not to ask what’s a must-see New Zealand film in your opinion?
If we’re talking about silly, fun comedies, and also women being funny and silly, I really love The Breaker Upperers. That was very, very, very charming and hilarious to me. I hope that more people see that.

Katharine Towne, Clea DuVall, Melanie Lynskey and Natasha Lyonne in But I’m a Cheerleader (2000).
Katharine Towne, Clea DuVall, Melanie Lynskey and Natasha Lyonne in But I’m a Cheerleader (2000).

For anyone still sleeping on Letterboxd favorite But I’m a Cheerleader, in one sentence, why should they watch it?
Oh, because it’s a campy romance with an amazing cast. It’s Clea DuVall and Natasha Lyonne falling in love with each other, it’s sexy, it’s sweet, it’s genuinely funny. It’s beautiful to look at. That’s not one sentence, that’s about twelve sentences, sorry. I’m so proud of that movie, I love that movie so much.

It’s an interesting one. It’s been growing in stature around here over the years, and I love to see it.
Yeah, very much. The reviews were outright negative when it came out.

What was the last film that made you cry, either because it was so sad, or because you were cry-laughing, or any definition of tears being shed?
Mm, gosh, the last film that made me cry… Oh, do you know what? I really cried at the end of Another Round, where he’s dancing.

That ending.
I’m going to cry. Sorry, it really got me. And also knowing what Thomas Vinterberg had been through, just the joy that was in that moment, the idea that you can just go through all this, and still have these moments of joy, and return to this person that you were before all this life happened to you. Just the purity of that moment really, really got me.

And not to mention just the sheer joy of Mads Mikkelsen dancing.
Yeah, god, just the beauty of that man in that moment and, ugh, god, what a great movie.

What mindfuck movie changed you for life?
It would probably be La Cérémonie. I had kind of a one-two punch of being introduced to Isabelle Huppert with La Cérémonie and Amateur, and it’s been true love ever since. I was like, who is this and what else can I see her in immediately??

I don’t know if La Cérémonie is a mindfuck but it’s definitely very dark and it gets really crazy! Sandrine Bonnaire is amazing in it too. But the first time I got to see the incredible intensity and commitment of Isabelle Huppert is really a moment I’ll never forget. It feels like there is a before and after for me.

Finally, some Letterboxd members have described the joy Lady of the Manor has brought them in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. As Robert writes, “I’ll watch Melanie and Judy ham it up for an hour and a half, and be fine with that. Some of the lame jokes in this have made me laugh harder than most films I’ve seen this year.” When it comes to the role of comedy in a crisis, what are the cozy, comfort re-watches that have kept you going through the pandemic?
Aw. I have a toddler, so we’re not watching too many movies. Around the time of the Academy Awards, I really buckled down, because I wanted to be a responsible voter, and I tried to watch everything. So, that was the most movies that I’ve done in a concentrated period of time, but none of that was really “comfort” feeling.

The movies that I do return to, when I feel like I have time to just chill out: Wet Hot American Summer is a big comedy movie for me. Justin did this really weird movie called Strange Wilderness with Steve Zahn and Jonah Hill years ago that is so weird and funny, I really love that one. All the Christopher Guests, like Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, those are my go to.

And then Kevin Hart. I’m a big, big, big Kevin Hart fan. There are times I’ll be on a plane and I’ll think, “Oh, I should really watch this movie that I’ve been meaning to watch.” But if there’s a Kevin Hart movie, no chance, that’s what I’m going to watch. I’ll go to the movie theater opening weekend to see a Kevin Hart movie. Kevin Hart right now is making a movie with Regina Hall. I’ve seen it on their Instagrams, and I’ve never been more excited for a film.

What is it about Kevin Hart for you?
He is a comedic genius. He is absolutely brilliant, and he will do something in almost every scene that surprises me, and it’s crazy. He can be doing something that’s a real rote, by-the-numbers movie—they’re not all masterpieces—but he makes it new, and interesting, and surprising. Nobody reacts better than Kevin Hart, he is such a funny reactor. He’s always in the moment, I think he makes other people funnier and better. I’m obsessed, I love him.

It’s reassuring to hear you say “they’re not all masterpieces”, because I think comedy is so hard. It is so hard to reach for a five-star comedy, but the truth is that we’re all happy in a sort of three-star comedy world. Those are the films we return to again and again.
Of course! Yeah, and that’s all you’re hoping for with, especially, a silly comedy. You just hope that there’s enough moments that people laugh, and feel like they’ve got a good laugh, and they’ve relaxed for a while. Not all the plot points have to tie together, it doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t have to be perfectly sharp. It just has to be funny, that’s all.

Lynskey, as Hannah, with Lady of the Manor director and co-writer Justin Long as Max, her academic love interest.
Lynskey, as Hannah, with Lady of the Manor director and co-writer Justin Long as Max, her academic love interest.

On that note, the Long brothers call this “a fartwarming comedy”, and several Letterboxd reviews comment on Lady of the Manor having “the single best fart joke in ages” or “just the right amount of fart jokes”. Why are farts so funny, Melanie Lynskey?
Do you know what? I don’t find them funny at all, I really don’t. I’m a little bit prissy and there are things in this movie where I was like, “You’re just going to have to tell me exactly what to do.” Like the farting in the room, and burps and stuff like that, I’m not good at that stuff, but people think it’s funny. I don’t know. It’s kind of beyond me…

Wow, so you really exercised your acting muscles on this.
Exactly, exactly, it’s the greatest performance of my life!

Lady of the Manor’ is available now on VOD, Blu-ray and DVD. ‘Don’t Look Up’ is in select theaters from December 10, and on Netflix on Christmas Eve.

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