When it comes to New Zealand-born actress Melanie Lynskey, it seems that audiences have never quite grasped the thread of her career, starting with her big-screen debut as a murderously besotted teenager in Peter Jackson’s 1994 film “Heavenly Creatures” -- Lynskey was plucked straight from her high school classroom for the part -- up to her recurring role as a kooky neighbor on the hit CBS sitcom “Two and a Half Men.”
“People don’t even connect them all really, like, ‘Oh, that’s you? And that’s you too?’ ” she said.
But that all could change this fall. At this year’s Toronto International Film Festival she has roles in three of the festival’s most talked-about movies: Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” Tim Blake Nelson’s “Leaves of Grass” and Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!”
The roles are small but pivotal. In “The Informant!” she plays the incredulous, loving wife who stands by her corporate whistle-blowing husband (Matt Damon) even as it becomes increasingly clear that he’s in over his head. For “Up in the Air,” she plays the sister of George Clooney’s troubled corporate hatchet man, her upcoming wedding (to a character played by Danny McBride) causing him to reevaluate his priorities. Her character in “Leaves of Grass” is married to one of two brothers (both played by Edward Norton) and she persuades her husband to try to stop dealing drugs and go straight.
After taking some time after “Heavenly Creatures” to finish high school and give college a try, she eventually moved to Los Angeles in 2000. Since then she’s had a string of supporting roles in such films as “Coyote Ugly,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Shattered Glass” and “Flags of Our Fathers” that have kept her working but not always noticed.
“When I tell people I cast Melanie Lynskey,” said “Up in the Air’s” Reitman, “they ask, ‘Who?’ and then I say she’s the girl from ‘Heavenly Creatures’ and they go, ‘Oh, my God, yes.’ ”
Soderbergh has also had his eye on Lynskey since that breakout performance and was happy to add her to his ensemble cast for “The Informant!,” a film that keeps audiences off-balance with its narrative sleight-of-hand and oddball tone.
“She is so watchable,” Soderbergh said. “You never quite know what you’re going to get, you just know it was going to be good. Her rhythms are really unusual, like her cadence and her reaction times to things, and the way she sort of lays out a sentence. It’s just really, really interesting.”
For Lynskey, the key to her role in “The Informant!” was the internal decision as to whether her character knew what her husband -- a white-collar agribusiness executive -- was really up to when he starts working with the FBI to help expose a price-fixing conspiracy. Soderbergh acknowledged the question as essential as well, but admitted the two of them never discussed it directly, as he left the choice up to Lynskey.
“It was easy for me to decide,” she said. “I felt she didn’t know anything about it. And I hope that comes across in the movie, all I get is what he’s telling me. It’s filtered through him.”
Her off-kilter screen presence, at once dreamy but grounded, gives her an uncanny ability to disappear into a role, which is what helped land the parts in her other two Toronto-bound films. Her particular knack for adopting American accents -- Reitman says she is the first non- American actor he has cast in one of his films for a role as an American -- has also been a plus.
Recalled “Leaves of Grass” director Tim Blake Nelson: “Melanie came in and read for me and though she’s from New Zealand she was by far the most credible version of an Oklahoma girl I saw. And I probably auditioned 50 actresses for that role.”
In addition to her trio of films in Toronto, Lynskey recently shot an episode for the upcoming season of the cable TV show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” She was also seen earlier in the year in Sam Mendes’ “Away We Go,” with John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, in which she performed what may be the most genuinely heartbreaking and emotional pole-dance ever in a film.
With her current run at the Toronto Film Festival and her onscreen mix of innocence and knowingness, sadness and hopefulness, it is likely that audiences may finally put together whatever became of that girl who did more than just hold her own opposite Kate Winslet in “Heavenly Creatures.”
“Her eyes remind me of Ellen Page’s eyes,” Reitman said, comparing Lynskey to the star of his previous film, “Juno.” “They seem constantly joyful and constantly on the verge of tears.”