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Interview: Melanie Lynskey on making it up as she goes along in 'Happy Christmas'

"Happy Christmas" star Melanie Lynskey talks about what it's like to be in the largely improvised films of Joe Swanberg and the subplot they didn't shoot.

Melanie Lynskey plays a recent divorcee in "Goodbye to All That." Credit: Getty Images Melanie Lynskey plays a recent divorcee in "Goodbye to All That."
Credit: Getty Images

Melanie Lynskey is celebrating the holidays a bit early with "Happy Christmas," a mostly improvised drama from director and co-star Joe Swanberg about a couple with an infant son (Swanberg's own baby) who have to cope with the husband's listless sister (Anna Kendrick) coming to crash after a breakup.

How much experience had you had with this particular, improvisation-heavy style of filmmaking before working with Joe Swanberg?

I did a couple of days as a favor for a friend on a movie that was improvised, but I'd never done something like this where I had a bigger part and had to improvise the whole thing. But I have a lot of experience improvising. As a teenager in New Zealand I did this kind of drama class that was all improv, which was weird — like dramatic acting but improv. I mean, I never trained as an actor, but if I had any kind of training that's what it was. I mean, it's like teenage drama class, it's not like going to a conservatory. But that was how I sort of learned to act.

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What were your feelings when faced with this kind of improv challenge?

I felt really excited about it. I felt like I'd had enough conversations with Joe to feel like we were on the same page and we wanted to talk about the same kinds of things. He's really loose. I was kind of worried that he would be like, "Everything's improvised! But I really know what I want you to say, which would be …" You know. [Laughs] But he really was open to whatever happened. We also knew going in that this movie was going to be kind of an experiment. I mean, we made it for I think $70,000, so he was like, "Let's just see what happens."

That has to be fairly liberating but terrifying.

Yeah, I mean it's kind of great because it seems like he genuinely didn't care if it sat on his shelf forever. That's probably not what the investors want to hear. [Laughs]

Melanie Lynskey (cradled by Joe Swanberg) plays a wife and mother coping with her sister-in-law (Anna Kendrick) in "Happy Christmas." Credit: Magnolia Pictures Melanie Lynskey (cradled by Joe Swanberg) plays a wife and mother coping with her sister-in-law (Anna Kendrick) in "Happy Christmas."
Credit: Magnolia Pictures

How much of the plot itself was there for you to work off of as opposed to improvise?

He had the whole plot in place, and he and I started talking about the movie when it was just an idea that he had. So initially he said, "I kind of want to make a movie about how [my wife] is feeling." And then he was like, "I want to make a movie where you and Anna Kendrick write an erotic novel." And then he was like, "I want to make a movie that's about the time my brother came to stay and he was kind of a f--- up." And then he was talking about a movie about a circus as well, so I didn't know how many of them we would be making. I thought it was like four different movies, but I guess it's more like one and a half movies.

Did you keep expecting the circus part to come in at some point?

I did kind of. When he started to talk more about it, I was like, "Oh, he's putting all these things into one movie." But then the circus thing is a whole different one. I wonder if we'll ever do that.

Read out interview with Lynskey's "Happy Christmas" director and costar Joe Swanberg here.

Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter @nedrick

 
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