Melanie Lynskey talks bad auditions and how a sitcom helped her stay indie during SXSW chat

Melanie Lynskey interviewed by director Megan Griffiths during SXSW. Photo by Matt Shiverdecker.

I was a senior in high school when Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” rolled into my local art house theater in 1994. My friends and I were thrilled by the story of one of the most infamous murder cases in New Zealand’s history. We saw it over and over again and I knew that we’d be seeing a lot more of the lead actresses in the film – Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey.

Earlier today, Seattle-based director Megan Griffiths (who recently directed Lynskey in a film called “Sadie”) sat down with Lynskey at SXSW for a revealing chat sponsored by SAG-AFTRA. She discussed everything from her first acting role (in a play at age 6) to the way she’s been able to manage an eclectic career in independent cinema while getting paid from a big television gig.

Here are a few great moments from their conversation.

Life was weird after “Heavenly Creatures”: “I stayed in New Zealand. I had two more years of high school, so it was very strange. I literally was living my dream and had the most incredible experience. I’d been telling everyone that I wanted to be an actor and they said, “you have to choose a different job. That’s not a real job.” And then I went off and did it. It was sort of a weird thing of coming back and everyone was like ‘that was fun, good for you’ and now get on with life as though it didn’t happen.”

She’s pretty confident about picking the right roles: “I learned that I operate very much from instinct. It has to come from somewhere that’s very truthful inside of me…”

She’s had some horrifying auditions: “One time, they were making a movie about Janis Joplin. It was years ago and I read the script and I just was like…’Janis Joplin is a step too far.’ I just knew instinctively that it was not for me. I was reading the signs…I can’t do it. But I got talked into it. And later I heard that Rachel Griffiths, an amazing actress had gotten a movie because someone had seen the videotape of her audition for Janis Joplin and she was so great and she had gotten a movie from it. And I was like ‘those tapes are out there.’ It scared me so badly. That the casting director was just like showing the tapes to people.”

Acting on a network sitcom allowed her to keep the rest of her career choices pretty indie: “‘Two and a Half Men’ was like a whole other thing. I did it because it was pilot season and there was a guest-starring role in a sitcom and I was like ‘what’s a sitcom like? That’s interesting. I want to try that.’ And then I became a regular for a couple of years and then after that I got to come and go from the show, which I am so grateful for. I don’t know how people make a living doing independent films. I had this job. I wasn’t getting rich from it…but…I could pay my bills. And I was able to build an interesting independent film career because I had this secret job…that a lot of people didn’t even know I was on…I’m so grateful to the creators of that show.”

The best director she’s ever worked with: “My favorite director I think is probably Steven Soderbergh [Lynskey appeared in his 2009 film “The Informant!”]. He was so great. He wanted it to be so loose and so free. There was a real sense of fun and adventure and just trying stuff that I got addicted to very quickly on that set.”

Melanie Lynskey’s most recent projects include a short film by indie rocker St. Vincent in the female horror anthology “XX” (available now on VOD) and Macon Blair’s Sundance award-winning thriller “I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore” (streaming now on Netflix).

SXSW Film: “The Transfiguration” is a refreshingly original take on vampire lore

Eric Ruffin as Milo in “The Transfiguration.” Contributed by Sung Rae Cho

Michael O’Shea’s directorial debut manages to deliver a story that effortlessly floats between the life of a troubled loner and accepted cinematic vampire mythology. Milo (Eric Ruffin, “The Good Wife”) fully encompasses both tropes.

In the opening scene, it appears as though we are closing in on the stall of a bathroom where two men are having a sexual encounter. The camera pans from a shocked man across the room down into the action, where it is revealed that the situation is far from erotic. Milo is on his knees, but he’s sucking copious amounts of blood spurting from the neck of a severely injured man.

Milo is a loner who wanders around the city, always returning to the safety of his bedroom where he has stacks of VHS tapes scrawled with the titles of vampire movies. From classics like “Dracula” to mid-1990s independent films like “Nadja,” they’re all part of his studies. He is trying to determine what the “rules” are for people like him and stashing away money from his victims.

He lives with his older brother Lewis (Aaron Moten) in the housing projects of Queens. Both their parents have died, and they can only depend on each other. But Lewis spends most of his time passed out in front of the television, avoiding his former gang-related friends outside the apartment doors.

A young woman named Sophie (Chloe Levine) moves into the apartment building to live with her grandfather. Also an orphan, she quickly forms a bond with Milo, unaware of his secrets. Their burgeoning friendship blossoms into romance and, at least temporarily, it appears as though Milo’s affliction may take a backseat to a love story.

The casting of this film is spot-on, and the technical aspects continue to dazzle. Sung Rae Cho’s cinematography offers vibrant shots of life in a big city while also serving up intimate, shadow-filled moments. Margaret Chardiet’s rumbling score helps to telegraph Milo’s most vulnerable and violent instincts. When the surround speakers begin to shake, there’s trouble around the corner.

We’ve had plenty of teenage vampire love stories in recent years, but “The Transfiguration” gives us a melancholy and refreshingly original twist.

It plays again at 9:45 p.m. on Monday and at 2:15 p.m. on Friday, both screenings at the Alamo Ritz. The film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, is out next month in New York and Los Angeles thanks to the independent mavericks at Strand Releasing.

SXSW Film: “Unrest” examines pain-riddled life with chronic fatigue

“Unrest.” Contributed by Shella Films

Once upon a time, Jen Brea seemingly had a perfect life. She was pursuing her doctorate at Harvard, where she had also fallen in love and met her future husband. Then, as if a spell had worn off, things went off the rails.

Her intensely personal and innovative documentary shows us how quickly chronic fatigue syndrome (also known as M.E. or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) can alter a person’s life. For Jen, it began with a fever of 104.7 degrees. She never quite felt better after that and suffered six infections in a year. Her doctor told her that she was just stressed out and didn’t really take her concerns seriously.

After being told by a specialist that it was all in her head, she picked up a camera and started to document the pain. From there, it was a natural progression to connect with other people who could understand what she was going through.

Not willing to give up despite many difficult days and dark thoughts, she began to connect with other people struggling with the disease that affects an estimated 1 million Americans, nearly 85 percent of whom are female. With the help of a film crew to hit up locations and a Skype account to conduct interviews from bed, we’re able to see how Jen utilized the internet to form a network of friends from around the world suffering from similar symptoms. In the process, she becomes an activist against the misconception that chronic fatigue syndrome is somehow a mental disorder.

Fraught with honesty, “Unrest” gives us a raw and up-close look at how a chronic illness can impact a relationship. Her husband Omar sacrifices his time and energy to ensure that she is taken care of, but the situation clearly takes its toll on both of them.

This unflinching debut feature screens again at 3:45 p.m. March 13 at the Alamo South Lamar; 1:30 p.m. March 14 at the Vimeo Theatre; and at 4 p.m. March 16 at the Alamo South Lamar. “Unrest” is expected to air on PBS’ “Independent Lens” in early 2018.

Can Anne Hathaway save the world? It’s ‘Colossal’!

Jason Sudeikis and Anne Hathaway in “Colossal.” Contributed

Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo has defied expectations again with “Colossal,” his new sci-fi tale starring Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis.

It’s hard to explain that opening sentence without giving away some key plot information, but let’s just say that this is one of the most unusual, imaginative tales to come along in quite some time.

Vigalondo’s first film, 2008’s “Timecrimes,” was a sleeper hit on the arthouse circuit, and “Colossal” will probably do the same kind of box-office business, if not more.

Hathaway stars as a party animal who gets kicked out of her swanky New York apartment by her fed-up boyfriend (Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” and FX’s “Legion.”)

Without a job and without any money, she heads back to the home of her childhood and quickly meets an old friend, Oscar (Sudeikis). He owns a bar and offers her a job as a part-time waitress.

It’s clear that he wants to rekindle what he thinks might be a romance, but there’s something amiss. And then a monster begins mysteriously appearing in the middle of Seoul, South Korea, terrorizing the city. For some reason, Hathaway’s Gloria feels a strange connection with the monster.

And one day she discovers that she can influence the actions of the monster if she stands in a specific spot in the middle of her hometown park.

So Gloria thinks it’s up to her to save the world and get the monster under control. Other people, as you might suspect, have different agendas, and that leads to some of the biggest surprises.

Hathaway is her typical charming self, struggling to get her life back together and stop her serious drinking while simultaneously trying to control a monster across the world.

The supporting cast, including Tim Blake Nelson and Austin Stowell, is excellent. So are the soundtrack and the special effects.

It will be interesting to see how the movie is received by critics as well as audiences. It definitely has an independent, offbeat vibe.

The movie is notable, in part, because it’s the first release from a new distribution company, Neon, co-founded by Austin’s Tim League and Tom Quinn, formerly of Radius and Magnolia.

League, the Alamo Drafthouse owner, has been friends with Vigalondo ever since “Timecrimes” debuted at League’s Fantastic Fest in 2007. League has also been friends with Quinn for quite a while, especially since Quinn eventually acquired “Timecrimes” for his former company, Magnolia Pictures.

“Colossal” is expected to open in New York and Los Angeles on April 7 and in Austin a week later. It screens three more times during South by Southwest: 4:15 p.m. March 14 at the Alamo Ritz; 2:15 p.m. March 16 at the Alamo South; and 8:30 p.m. March 17 at the Alamo South.





SXSW attendees, you’re our only hope: Immerse yourself in ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’

By Alyssa Vidales, American-Statesman staff (and resident “Star Wars” expert)

Want to join the Rebellion? Your mission awaits at South by Southwest.

A little piece of the Star Wars universe has popped up at Grimes Studio on 500 E. Fifth St. during the South by Southwest Conference and Festival. The space has been transformed into an immersive experience inspired by 2016’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” the latest film in the Force-filled franchise.

“Rebel Mission – Escape from Scarif” is open to SXSW badgeholders and offers the opportunity to channel your inner Rogue One crew member to steal the plans to the Death Star and transmit them back to the Rebel Alliance before time runs out.

No blasters required for this mission— participants need only brainpower to save the rebellion from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday through Sunday this weekend.

The SXSW installation is an escape room-like experience in which small groups of participants must solve a series of puzzles in order to progress through the course. Sights and sounds from the planet Scarif add to the immersive problem-solving mix.

Be careful not to choke on your aspirations – like all escape experiences, the Rebel Mission is timed. Taking too long to steal the plans to the Death Star just might put you face-to-face with the destiny you weren’t looking for.

Some Rebel intelligence worth keeping in mind before venturing out:

  1. Choose your crew wisely. The tasks aren’t easy and take some teamwork to work though. Don’t get cocky, kid.
  2. Think outside the box. Jedi mind tricks won’t work in this mission, but the cellular one in your pocket just might. That is, if you’re like me and aren’t a math wiz.
  3. Trust the Force. Always.

May the Force of others be with you. You’re gonna need it.

Robert Rodriguez honors Bill Paxton at Texas Film Awards

While the Texas Film Awards Thursday night were about celebrating the many accomplishments of the film industry, organizers paused the celebrations to remember two Texas film industry heavyweights that died in the last year: Debbie Reynolds and Bill Paxton.

Bill Paxton, looking concerned, as Fred Haise in “Apollo 13”

Reynolds, an El Paso native, was honored at the start of the ceremony with a “Singin’ in the Rain” tribute performance by Austin musician Suzanna Choffel, and in the middle of the ceremony, Austin director Robert Rodriguez took the stage to honor his friend, Fort Worth actor Bill Paxton, who died in February. The two worked together on Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (Paxton played Dinky Winks, an eccentric theme park owner). Rodriguez paid tribute to the actor upon hearing of his death, saying working with the Texas actor was a highlight of his career.

PHOTOS: Texas Film Awards red carpet

Rodriguez told a story about Paxton, saying that when they started working together, digital cameras were relatively new and he discovered that he could just “let them run” to catch improvised moments on camera, and Rodriguez thought that would be a perfect scenario for Paxton to improvise funny moments — but when the actor showed up on set, he said, “I’m like an old pony. You gotta walk me around. I need rehearsal.”

Rodriguez was surprised, saying, “You’d think he’s making it up as he goes. He worked very hard at making it look effortless and easy. He was a great man, a great actor, a great friend and a great Texan.”

RELATED: Shirley MacLaine walks the red carpet with Richard Linklater at the Texas Film Awards

RELATED: Wrapping up the Texas Film Awards

Paxton was inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame in 2007, and the Austin Film Society honored him Thursday night by playing his full acceptance speech for the award, followed by clips from two of his co-stars: Kevin Bacon and Tom Cruise.

Both actors got teary-eyed as they talked about Paxton. Bacon, who worked on “Apollo 13” with Paxton, told a story about a time Paxton took off his oxygen mask while filming the movie and got giddy with laughter. Cruise, who starred in “Edge of Tomorrow” with Paxton, started his tribute with this: “He entertained me.” That’s something many Texans will remember about Paxton.

RELATED: Versatile Texas actor Bill Paxton’s career was all over the place in the best way

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Bill Paxton says he’s no “Super Texan” but he still has state pride


Shirley MacLaine walks the Texas Film Awards red carpet with Richard Linklater

Shirley MacLaine, whose legendary film “Terms of Endearment” was honored with the Star of Texas Award at the Texas Film Awards at Austin Studios Thursday night, had someone special on her arm on the red carpet before the ceremony: Austin’s own Richard Linklater.

PHOTOS: Texas Film Awards red carpet

Both were wearing excellent shirts.

They walked the red carpet together, but are they working together anytime soon?

“That would be wonderful,” Linklater said. “Shirley’s not going anywhere.”

Linklater presented MacLaine with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the awards Thursday, honoring the actress’ illustrious career more than 50 films.

RELATED: Wrapping up the Texas Film Awards

RELATED: Robert Rodriguez honors Bill Paxton at the Texas Film Awards

The Austin director, who worked with MacLaine on “Bernie,” called the actress an honorary Texan. He even paid tribute to her with his outfit: his loud bowling shirt had a picture of MacLaine on it.

MacLaine, accepting the award, said she was glad to be there — “I’m glad to be anywhere,” she joked. In her acceptance speech, she gushed about her love for Austin and how great it felt to be in a creative community.

“I think you should build a wall around this city,” she said. “I’m overwhelmed every time I come back here.”

Here are the musical cameos to look for as ‘Song to Song’ opens SXSW Film

The Terrence Malick-directed, Austin-filmed drama “Song to Song” will open the South by Southwest Film Festival on Friday with its world premiere at the Paramount Theatre.

The movie is described as a “modern love story set against the Austin, Texas music scene” and stars Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman.

RELATED: The trailer for ‘Song to Song’ features plenty of Fun Fun Fun

But — because it was filmed in part during several Austin music festivals — there is no shortage of musical artists who made the final cut of the film. Online magazine Pitchfork ran down what cameos you should look for as SXSW gets underway:

Lykke Li plays Ryan Gosling’s ex-lover and the two of them perform Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “It Hurts to Be Alone” together, in a version produced by Nigel Godrich. The Black Lips play Rooney Mara’s band, and, yes, that scene where Val Kilmer chainsaws an amp while Mara plays guitar on stage with them at Fun Fun Fun Fest is in the movie. (Austinite) Dana Falconberry plays Rooney Mara’s sister. (Austin band) Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears play a band getting their record produced by Michael Fassbender.

Other musical artists in the film include:

  • Legends Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and former Sex Pistol John Lydon
  • California’s Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • Alan Palomo, whose band Neon Indian is from Denton
  • Bounce queen Big Freedia and rapper Spank Rock

Not surprising for a Malick film, several big names were filmed, but didn’t make the movie. Pitchfork mentions Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes and Iron & Wine as among those to hit the cutting room floor.