Scene Stealer Melanie Lynskey on Her First Leading Role and the Problem with Praise

She's perennially a supporting actress, but in the sexy, funny new indie 'Hello I Must Be Going, Lynskey gets to be the star. She's worried you'll hate her.

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It’s been 18 years since Melanie Lynskey made her startling debut in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, in which she and Kate Winslet played teenagers whose intensely passionate friendship leads to murder. The New Zealand native quietly went on to make a name for herself as Hollywood’s unsung supporting actress, a stealth scene stealer who has wracked up a tidy filmography working with the directorial likes of Steven Soderbergh (The Informant!), Sam Mendes (Away We Go),  and Jason Reitman (Up in the Air). If you’re a Lynskey fan, it’s painful that she is most famous for playing Charlie Sheen’s stalker in Two and a Half Men. (At least the money had to have been good.)

Finally, she’s the lead in the sexy, witty indie Hello I Must Be Going, opening this week in limited release. She’s in every scene as Amy, a woman who moves back home with her parents (Blythe Danner and John Rubinstein) to forlornly await the divorce she never wanted. She’s frozen with depression until she starts sleeping with the 19 year-old (Girls‘ Christopher Abbott) son of a business client her father is courting. It’s a sort of feminine flipside to The Graduate, a darkly comic peek into the humiliation and dark terror of being utterly adrift.

TIME caught up with the soft spoken and self-deprecating Lynskey by phone from her home Los Angeles.

TIME: How does it feel, after all these years, to be the star and romantic lead of a movie?

Melanie Lynskey: It’s exciting and terrifying. I’m only really realizing this now. Usually when I am in a movie that is about to come out, if people don’t love it that is fine, I can handle it. But this time, I feel a different kind of responsibility; if people don’t love it is probably because they hate me.

They are more likely to hate Blythe Danner’s character, who is so cutting and cruel to her daughter Amy.

Literally before Todd [director Louiso] was able to say ‘cut’ she would start apologizing to me for being so mean. I’d say, first of all you are acting and second of all, my character is very annoying and very lazy and you should be angry… [Danner] is just such a loving, kind woman, she had a very hard time with it.

You’re playing opposite Christopher Abbott. He must have come aboard before the world knew him as Marnie’s too-nice boyfriend on HBO’s Girls, the one who stands accused of having a vagina.

We had another actor who had to drop out because he had a scheduling conflict. Everybody freaked out… Crazy names were coming up, where I was thinking, I am going to look like a child molester.

Justin Beiber?

Almost! Then Todd (director Louiso) finally narrowed it down to a couple of people. He showed me Chris’s audition tape and I started crying with relief. It was the greatest audition. He did three things that were completely off book and so confident. I have seriously asked him to give me audition lessons.

The two of you have the hottest awkward sex. Was the chemistry immediate?

It was like being set up on a date. He had an afternoon off from Girls and came up to Connecticut where I was working with Todd and Sarah (writer Koskoff). We were very polite—it’s very nice to meet you—and then we didn’t see each other again until we started filming—which was the scene when we kiss each other for the first time. It was a movie kiss. Like, okay. And then we had a little break and I took him aside and said, ‘I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a creep, but I think we have to really go for it.’ So we gave each other permission to [screw] up and do things that might creep the other person out.

You are also in The Perks of Being a Wildflower, which opens in late September. You’ve got a key controversial role in that, right?

Yes, but I’m in it for about 30 seconds. I just worked with [Perks co-star] Paul Rudd on another movie [They Came Together] and we were saying, ‘How good is that movie? Great, right?’ It is definitely geared toward teenagers, but I really loved it. The main thing for me is that kid Logan Lerman is so good, it’s insane. And Ezra Miller [from We Need to Talk About Kevin]. I just call him Kevin. Kevin is so good.

(MORE: Fall’s Most Anticipated Films)

You’ve tended to be typecast: soft spoken, shy nice girls. But in the last few years you’ve landed some different, high profile supporting roles. The Soderbergh, the Reitman, and then in Win Win (2010) you were a revelation, playing a devious drug addict.

Rhonda Price has been my agent for about five years and she completely changed my life. It has been like night and day. She read the [Win Win] script and said ‘This is your movie.’ I was like, ‘I am never going to get it, are you crazy?’ And she said, yes you are and she listed a couple of things in my family history that I won’t go into but that are relevant and said,’ I just want you to make a tape and send it to me.’ So I did and she gave it to Tom [McCarthy, Win Win’s director].

I had a great TV agent, but on the film side of things, for such a long time I was on a chubby character actor list. The fat friend. Just super depressing roles where you are like, really? I remember I saw Brokeback Mountain with Michelle Williams and she was amazing in it. Afteward I was kind of like, there are all these really great movies being made, but I am just nowhere near that world.

(READ: TIME’s review of Win Win)

I just watched the incredible Heavenly Creatures again. You acted in sex scenes with an adult man, with Kate Winslet and then in one of the most stomach-turning depictions of murder ever put to film. You were cast to play Pauline at 15. What were your parents thinking?

[Laughs] They didn’t even read it. I was a very independent teenager. We had a lot of freedom in my household, which was kind of a wonderful thing.

You could so easily have ended up a Hollywood train wreck. Instead you stayed in New Zealand, went to college and didn’t make more movies for years.

It was before a time when there was a lot of media. But also, so many actors had come to America, but I just had no idea how to do it. The [Heavenly Creatures] character was so specific and dowdy and fat it wasn’t like people could see me in a lot of other roles. So I didn’t have a way of fighting for it. Everybody around me was like, that was fun, but go back to high school and good luck.

Also, because they had come around to my high school [and found her at an open call] it didn’t feel real. I felt like I had gotten a very lucky break. It took me a long time to say, what if I could do this? What if I did get an agent and it went okay?

(MORE: Richard Corliss on Heavenly Creatures (Subscription required))

Do you still keep in touch with Kate Winslet?

Our relationship was very intense; it was more intense than some love affairs that I have had in my life.  We developed such a bond that for a long time we couldn’t let it go. We would write each other letters and talk on the phone all the time. We were in constant contact for so long. Then around the time of Titanic her life got crazy because she became a superstar. I was staying with her right after she filmed that and then we totally lost touch at that time. I admire her so much though. She is so brilliant and so brave. I have literally seen everything she has done.

Someone should put you two together in another movie. How about Steven Soderbergh, since he directed you in The Informant and her in Contagion?

I would love that. But now he’s retired.

Does anyone really believe that? I read that The Informant!, in which you play supportive wife to Matt Damon’s whack job, is your favorite movie you’ve made. Still true?

I don’t know. He’s pretty stubborn. But yes, The Informant! is my favorite, still. That movie is so weird. There is just something about it that feels magical about it to me. Making it was the most perfect experience of my career. Soderbergh just kind of does this thing where he is completely in control and has such a clear vision of what he wants, yet you feel like you have complete creative control. So you have this sense of freedom without it ever feeling messy.

I also really like it when a director doesn’t tell me anything nice. At the end of the shoot he can say whatever he wants but I don’t like compliments where they are coming up to me between takes and telling me what they like.

(MORE: Richard Corliss on The Informant!)

What is wrong with praise?

It makes me self conscious; like now I need to try to do that thing that he liked before. I like an environment that feels like work, where we’re tweaking little line changes. I like the feeling of sort of making something togetherNow I sound like such an ass, saying I don’t like praise.

You give a lot of praise on Twitter, where you’re quite active, despite being so shy.

A friend of mine, someone else took her name and started tweeting crazy stuff. That sounded awful, so I took my name just to have it. But then I realized there were all these people on it. Like, oh my god, Margaret Atwood is on Twitter? And all these media people, all these writers I’d been reading for years. You have to understand, when I was a teenager, I spent all the money I had in this world to get American magazines like Premiere shipped to me in New Zealand, three months late. And with Twitter, all those writers are all there. There’s a lot of smart discussion happening. And I like it as a way to support people I love who are doing interesting things.