Rainbow Time is about Shonzi, a developmentally delayed middle-aged man who spars and sparks with his neurotypical brother Todd (Timm Sharp) and Todd’s girlfriend Lindsay, challenging them and their relationship by crossing boundaries in ways that are sometimes disturbing, sometimes funny, and sometimes both at once. The film opens today at Brooklyn’s new Alamo Drafthouse, where I talked with writer-director Linas (prounounced LINN-us) Phillips, who plays Shonzi, and Melanie Lynskey, who plays Lindsay. The film is executive produced by Jay and Mark Duplass, and Jay plays a small role in it.
Phillips, who lives in Crown Heights, began in comedy and experimental theater before switching to film in 2006. His first feature, Walking To Werner, won him the attention of Filmmaker Magazine, which named him one of that year’s 25 New Faces in Independent Film, but the writer-director-actor is still so indie he holds down day jobs.
Lynskey is an established indie star, though she probably earned her greatest fame (not to mention her biggest paycheck) in TV’s Two and a Half Men. Getting cast in her brilliant debut at age 15, opposite Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures was, as she explained yesterday, largely a matter of luck. But as an adult in L.A., she has exhibited as fine-tuned a talent for choosing parts as for acting, bringing her trademark mixture of grounded good sense and emotional nuance to smart, interesting movies and TV shows like But I’m a Cheerleader, Shattered Glass, Up in the Air and Togetherness. We talked about Lynskey’s love of movie and TV critics (seriously), how close she is to her siblings, how Phillips’ work with special needs kids led to this character and film, and how your looks affect your career in their line of work.
[To Lynskey] New Zealand, where you’re from, seems to be producing more than its share of really talented actors and filmmakers, for such a small place. There are directors like Jane Campion and Peter Jackson, the special effects people at WETA, and the group including Jemaine Clement and Bret MacKenzie and Taika Waititi who switch between acting and directing and producing in a lot of different kinds of projects that are funny but emotionally true. And there are actors like you and Cliff Curtis and Sam Neill. Did you feel all that growing up? How easy was it to find teachers and mentors and opportunities to perform?
Lynskey: I come from a small town that’s quite isolated, and nobody that I knew was an actor. It just wasn’t a career choice that was viable. Everybody told me, “Oh, you’re crazy,” “That’s not how it works,” “That’s not a real job.” And I kept saying that was all I wanted to do, from [the age of] maybe five. I did my first school play, and I was like “this is it.”
I was really shy, like painfully, painfully shy. I had no friends. We moved a lot—my dad was a student—and it was really nice for me to be able to be confident and say words that somebody had written. And then when I was 15, I got a job working on a movie that just happened to come to my high school to audition people.
Lynskey: Yeah. So it fell into my lap a little bit. I was like, “See?” but even then, people were kind of like, “You got lucky that one time.”
Taika and Jemaine and Bret I’ve known since I was 17, I think. We met in my first year of university in Wellington. And just to see what they’ve all done has been so amazing.
You haven’t ever worked with them, have you?
Lynskey: No. But I would love to work with them. They know that I would.
You seem to have found somewhat similar constellations of people here, like the Duplass Brothers, who you’ve worked with a couple times and who are part of a big group of indie film and TV people, and with Clea DuVall and the circle of friends that made The Intervention. Do you feel like part of an artistic community now?
Lynskey: Yeah, I guess so.
Phillips: You seem to really nurture that. You host a lot of get-togethers with people, with your friends. That’s kind of how we met, because I came to one with a friend who brought me there.
Lynskey: Yeah. I do have a lot of get-togethers. And when I meet somebody that I love who I’ve worked with, I want to try to maintain the friendship, because it can be really hard; everyone’s traveling all the time. So I try to like, “Let’s have a reunion!” two months after we wrap. [Laughs] I’ve been trying to think about this, since somebody else said that I work with the Duplasses, and I think this is only the second Duplass-adjacent project that I’ve done [after Togetherness].
Linas, is it your second also? I know you did Manson Family Vacation with them—or at least with Jay.
Phillips: I had also acted in a scene in a movie with Mark years ago, and he was an executive producer on this film I made called Bass Ackwards
Lynskey: And you did a part in Togetherness.
Phillips: Yeah, I did a part in Togetherness. So I’ve been, like, Single White Female-ing them for many years. [Laughs]
You’ve been playing Shonzi for a while, right?
Phillips: Yeah, in different versions. He started as this character I called Rimas, which is another Lithuanian name, like Linas. I started doing him, like, ten years ago. At first Shawnsie, spelled S-h-a-w-n-s-i-e, was another character, but then I called Rimas Shonzi—S-h-o-n-z-i because of the Fonzie thing. His “real” name is Shawn.
I saw a short film a friend made about this man with Down syndrome who had Fonzie posters all over his wall. He loved that Fonzie was just, like “Aaay” all the time. It was just such a comforting, constant presence in his life.
You also worked with special needs people for a while. It says on IMDB that you were “babysitting” them. Did you work at a group home, or what?
Phillips: I was like a manny, a babysitter, for years, with different kids. Mostly in New York. I worked at a special needs school too, for a year. And right now I’m working with this autistic young man—
Is that Nick, who you did the videos with that are on your Vimeo page?
Phillips: Yeah, yeah. So I just kind of keep falling back into doing that.
So is that why you started doing the Rimas/Shonzi character?
Phillips: Yeah, in some ways. I mean, wanting to tell a story like that. But Shonzi’s very different too. I feel like he probably comes out of my weird perversions [Laughs], or my wanting to play a character that’s very different but that’s kind of inside of me.
Like what actors often say about playing a villain, that it can be freeing to do things onscreen that you would never actually do but might kind of wish you could on some level?
Phillips: Yeah. And I think I can really relate to someone who’s so sensitive and yet has to cover it up. I think a lot of people can. He has had a lot of trauma, I guess. He can’t even enjoy people because he’s trying to scold them all the time for not doing something. He feels like he has to bust on his brother all the time because he feels like everyone’s doing that to him. It’s, like, a very raw emotional place that he lives in, which is sad.
I can’t think of another movie that has a developmentally disabled person as a main character and develops him that fully. Are there movies that you’ve seen that have done that, that you took as a model or a point of departure?
Phillips: I Am Sam is pretty good, even thought it’s, like, a Hollywood movie. Sean Penn is an incredible actor. It’s strange because he’s playing a character who has Down syndrome and I would never do that because you can’t play a physical thing. Sorry, Sean. But there’s a movie I was very inspired by called Me Too. That’s a Spanish movie that I saw in 2010 at Sundance. There’s a Down syndrome character who falls in love with a neurotypical woman, and it’s so beautiful. [To Lynskey] I probably should have showed that to you.
Lynskey: I’ll have to find it.
Phillips: So yeah, I think that helped inspire me. But it’s really based off of real-life situations, even though it wasn’t directly lifted from working with special needs kids. It was like, this boy I worked with has a younger brother who didn’t have special needs, and that dynamic of having the big brother that you look up to but has all these issues and can get violent, I saw how hard it is on the family. So yeah, I wanted to say something about that.
[To Lynskey] How did you get involved with Rainbow Time?
Lynskey: Well, I knew Linas, and he sent me the script and said “Will you be in my movie?”
Lynskey: Yeah. [Laughs]
Phillips: You didn’t have to do very much!
Lynskey: And I really, really liked it. It’s always difficult when you know somebody and they go to you and ask—
Oh, yeah. Because you might not like it.
Phillips: Oh, right! I’m sorry I did that.
Lynskey: I know. My agent really doesn’t like it when people do that. But she likes you. I really loved [the script]. It felt really unique to me, and I just trust Linas a lot and I felt very good about it.
You’ve been very good at picking interesting parts in good projects, but you’ve talked about how it can be hard to say no to the wrong part when you don’t know when the next good one might come along. I imagine that gets easier as you get older and gain confidence, especially since you now have this great body of work, so people—like Linas—are asking you to work with them. But does getting older also make it harder, in a way, because it’s scary to trust that there will be enough good parts for someone who’s not in their 20s?
Lynskey: Yeah. Yeah. It’s really scary. I feel really fortunate that there still seem to be opportunities. But it helps that I will work for free, essentially. [Laughs] When people are making movies for a very small amount of money, I think they have more freedom to cast whoever they want to. Definitely in studio films the opportunities are limited for women to begin with, and they get more and more limited [as female actors get older], which is a whole other conversation.
But yeah, I feel really, really fortunate. Something has to really resonate for me to say yes to something. Because I also feel like it’s not fair to the filmmaker and the other people who are making a project together if you’re just kind of like, “I think I could do this.” If it doesn’t feel 100% right to me, then I think they should find somebody who will give it everything they have, where it really resonates with them, because they’ll give a better performance.
You’ve said you would like to be a film or TV critic, which almost nobody ever says, especially actors. What do you think you would like about doing that?
Lynskey: Well, I’m such a dork for critics. I get really starstruck.
Which ones do you like best? Or do you not want to say?
Lynskey: I do get in trouble sometimes, because I say someone and people are like, “Oh, really? Not me?” There’s so many. I follow so many people on Twitter, and I go to their page and read everything they’ve written about movies and television. There are some people I just admire so much. I think it’s such an art, good criticism. It can open up your understanding of a piece of art in such a beautiful way. I think people think of critics and they think of someone saying, like, (in a deep, bullying tone of voice) “This is good!” or “This is bad!” But when people have an emotional experience and they can translate their own experience and give you an idea of what your experience might be, and they can discuss something in the most beautiful way. There are some people, like Wesley Morris, who can write about something and make it like about everything. And you read it and you’re like, “God, this is a piece about the world, and it’s also about this, like, Kevin Hart movie.” It’s incredible to me. It would be kind of my dream. I don’t think I have the talent for it, but that would be what I would probably have pursued if I wasn’t acting. Or maybe I’d be a therapist.
Phillips: You kind of are, as an actor.
Lynskey: Yeah, always talking about feelings. That’s basically my job.
Linas, the only feature films of yours that I’ve seen are Rainbow Time and Manson Family Vacation, which are both funny, emotionally honest stories about semi-dysfunctional family dynamics, especially between brothers. Is all that just a coincidence, or is any of that a vein you want to keep mining?
I was cowriter [of Manson Family Vacation]. Me and Jay Duplass and Jay Davis, the writer-director, all worked on the script in different ways for two years or so, so it felt very collaborative. But the brothers, that came from Jay Davis. He grew up being obsessed with the Manson family, so it was all kind of based on him—the two sides of himself, really, because he’s a family guy and pretty normal and has two kids but he’s kind of a weird guy in his interests.
But, yeah, I have two brothers and it’s kind of a thing. Whenever I’m writing a story or reading someone’s script, I’ll have like a red flag if there’s two characters starting and they don’t know each other. I’m like, if they already knew each other, it would be so much richer, because they’d have like a backstory. It’s just a thing in my life, I guess: How do you move on in a relationship and forgive them for past stuff? Maybe that’s just my own personal issue. [Laughs]
No, I think siblings are really influential for everyone who has any. It’s interesting to me that sibling relationships aren’t the focus in movies more often. There are so many stories about parents and children, but not so many about siblings.
Phillips [to Lynskey]: You have tons of siblings.
Lynskey: I have so many siblings.
Phillips: And you were kind of like a mom to them.
Lynskey: My siblings and I are so close. We go on vacation together, we have this constant Facebook thread where we all write to each other about the crazy things our mother is doing on Facebook and our lives. Those are my most important relationships, for sure.
[To Phillips] So, based on the two movies of yours that I’ve seen, I’m guessing you are not angling to become a Hollywood matinee idol. What kinds of roles are you interested in playing?
Phillips: I figure I look like a weirdo, so I might as well play the weirdo. I think I read weirder on camera.
Well, you look very different in both of the movies I’ve seen. But in both, you make your character look like an outsider.
Phillips: Yeah, I like outsiders. I like the underdog. I like guys who have been misunderstood. I grew up not feeling a part of things. Maybe there’s some past life stuff where I was even more of an outsider, because I can’t really explain my affinity for that. Just because I was picked on a little bit as a kid? Because it wasn’t really that bad. But I’d like to play things with more range, too: A regular guy, scarier parts, people with authority. I don’t usually play that, so that would be fun.
[To Lynskey] I have this totally unscientific theory I’m developing, just based on people I happen to be interviewing, that people who wind up being actors or filmmakers may be more likely than average to have had really young parents. Your parents were very young when you were born. Do you think that could have prepared you for an artistic life in some way? Maybe because things were always a little chaotic or unstable, so you’re used to that? Or maybe they encouraged your creative side and played with you more than older parents might have?
Lynskey: I think it is the instability, because a lot of people just can’t handle it. A lot of people study acting and go to drama school, and when they actually get into the industry, they’re like, this is not for me. Because the rejection is very hard for people, and being disappointed, and the chaotic lifestyle. But if you grew up like that, you’re like “been there, done that.” It’s just not a big deal.
The first time I didn’t get a job, I was like, “Why didn’t I get it?” My agent was like, “Oh, uh, you know,” and I was like, “No, just tell me honestly what they said. There’s nothing I haven’t heard already.” She was like, “Well, they didn’t think you were pretty enough.” and I was like, [briskly] “Thank you!” I would rather just know. It’s better for me. If it was something to do with my performance, I would feel bad or want to make changes, but if you just didn’t like my face, it’s, “All right.” I guess I could change my face, but …
No! Please don’t do that.
Phillips: You’re choosing not to.