Based in America since 2000, Melanie Lynskey has covered a wide range of roles, from drama to comedy, requiring different accents. This time around, she’s in Melbourne’s west for Sunshine, where she’s playing Zara Skelton, a local lawyer who takes on a racially charged case when Sudanese teenager Santino (Autiak Aweteek) is charged with violent assault.
What made you want to come to Sunshine?
I had not seen the story told about this community in any part of the world, let alone in Australia. I feel like it really opened my eyes to a world I didn’t necessarily know existed. I felt like all the characters were so really well drawn. All the teenagers are so interesting and the family life was really moving.
For me, it was also a different character. I’ve never played somebody who’s just as straightforward as this. I usually play people who are kind of a mess and she has it together in most ways. I liked that aspect of her.
There are a lot of comedic actors involved. Does that come through or are you playing it straight?
I feel like you play comedy the same way you play a drama. The more realistic and specific it is, the funnier it is – if the writing’s funny. You try to be sure you know who the character is, then react how they would react, then it’s funny.
So far [on Sunshine] I haven’t done anything that’s been very funny. I actually have to keep trying to get all my crying done in rehearsal because [director Daina Reid] keeps saying, “Come on! She’s just here for the facts!” I’m like, “I know, but it’s so sad!” I’m so moved by all the stories and Zara’s not as emotional as I am.
What else can you tell us about Zara?
She’s a very interesting person, quite accomplished. She’s obviously worked very hard to get to where she is, but she has a real sense of right and wrong in justice. I think part of it has to do with being raised in the home that she was adopted into. Her parents are very good people. Even though she considers herself to be a little more slick than they are, more of a city person, she still has a very good sense of what the right thing to do is even when she doesn’t want to. She keeps getting dragged back to make things right.
She’s interesting. There’s a little puzzle piece inside her that’s missing because she doesn’t know a lot about where she came from and eventually identifies with Santino in that way, just feeling a little bit like an outsider.
I think she’s also very aware of her own privilege, how lucky she is to be white in this world and to have the opportunities she’s had. She’ll go out of her way, I think, to help her little brother just because she’s very aware of the ways in which the world isn’t fair for him.
Are you playing her as an Australian?
Did that take much research?
We’ll see how that goes. We had a wonderful guy here working with us. He worked with all the kids as an acting coach and he helped me on my accent because my accent, as it is, is such a mess. Some sounds are American, some sounds are New Zealand. He helped me mellow it out. The thing I’ve learned is to not think about it too much. If I feel like I’m doing an accent then...
Is there anything specific about playing an Aussie character?
I think there’s a little less apologising. I don’t know if this is an Australian thing, but certainly with this character, the way she moves about the world and ask questions of people, she’s just not apologising for it. She’s like, “Well, here’s something I need. I need to know about this. I need this information. I want to be here at this time. I want you to give this to me.” It’s different from how I am and from how most New Zealanders are which is very like, “I’m sorry. Sorry to bother you.” That’s been fun.
There’s kind of a spectrum from New Zealand to Australian to American.
Yeah. Americans definitely don’t worry about asking for what they want.
Do you think this is a very Australian story?
I do, definitely. I love that it’s going to be on Australian television. I think there seems to be a little bit of a lack of diversity in some storytelling so this is really exciting and great. One of the makeup artists was telling me she hasn’t done makeup on a black actor on an Australian production, just an American production because they shoot here.
I was like, “Wow!” It’s a big deal, so it’s good that it’s beginning. Hopefully it continues.
Sunshine will air over two big weeks, premiering Wednesday 18 and Thursday 19 October at 8.30pm on SBS. You can watch an encore screening on SBS VICELAND at 9.30pm or stream it online on SBS On Demand.