The new movie Rainbow Time is uncategorizable — part romance, part drama, part dark comedy. Written, directed, and starring Linas Phillips, it originated with a character Phillips developed years ago after working with mentally disabled children. Phillips plays “Shawnzi,” a 40-year-old man with an unnamed mental disability who is prone to inappropriate sexual comments, is obsessed with Fonzie from Happy Days, and has intense sibling rivalry with his neurotypical brother, Todd (Timm Sharp). Melanie Lynskey gives the film its heart as Lindsay, Todd’s girlfriend who is finalizing her divorce with her husband (Jay Duplass), and who finds herself the object of Shawnzi’s misplaced attentions. In an act of both pervy behavior and brotherly love, Shawnzi takes it upon himself to help Todd convince Lindsay to participate in Todd’s kink — making homemade porn. The plot goes somewhere you wouldn’t expect and makes for a surprisingly nuanced and touching finale.
I sat down with Lynskey and Phillips last week, just before Rainbow Time premiered — it’s available now on iTunes as well as in some theaters — and talked about Shawnzi, sexuality, and more.
I know Rainbow Time has been in the works for quite a while. Could you walk me through it?
Linas Phillips: I’ve been coming up with different storylines for the main character for years. I worked with special needs kids, and in some ways, the character is inspired by that time, even though he’s a grown-up and way more inappropriate than any of the sweet kids that I worked with. But I saw how hard it is on families when there’s a neurotypical sibling. I didn’t know what was interesting about movies until this one day when I saw this boy hugging his brother; they were fighting all the time. And then I was like, “That’s it, I can make movies.”
Melanie, at what point did you get involved?
Melanie Lynskey: Linas had done an episode of a show I was on and we didn’t work together, but he became best friends with someone I was working with. So we were friendly, and I knew what a wonderful person Linas was, so I was excited to get the script from him. When I realized what it was about, because I was familiar with this character that Linas had created, I was nervous that it would fall into traps. I was worried that it would be sentimental, or nasty, or patronizing, or any number of things, and it just wasn’t. It just remained completely original, really sensitive, really funny the whole way through, and it just felt right in my soul.
There’s a lot of controversy in general about having mentally disabled characters played by neurotypical people. How did you approach that?
Linas Phillips: I’m terrified that people will think I’m doing something bad. I feel like I’ve put a lot of work into this story, and it’s very personal to me because I’ve known a lot of kids with learning disabilities. In general, I think it would be great if there weren’t neurotypical people playing characters like this. But part of what’s so fun about being an actor is getting to play a part that’s not you, so it’s hard to balance that with this other conversation about opportunities and representation. It’s hard, too, because you have to find someone who is an experienced actor, especially with the budget and time constraints we have. I don’t want to say someone couldn’t do it, but it was a role that I had been preparing for years and years. I hope this film won’t feel offensive in 10 years, but I understand that’s part of the changing times.
I don’t want to apologize for it, but it takes some sensitivity. I feel like the biggest argument is, “But I do it really well!” I think that the main thing is that the performance is very subtle and truthful, but also that movie is trying to portray the person in a real way. Sometimes that’s not making them look in the best light all the time, because you don't do that with the “normal” characters.
Melanie Lynskey: I think it would be amazing if you knew an actor who was right for it. It’s a weird thing because the character is so, so, so specific, and I can’t imagine anyone else playing it. But of course, there should be opportunities. It’s tricky because you get asked about this kind of thing a lot, especially with independent films. I made a movie a couple of years ago, and we got asked a lot about why everyone was white, and the reality is we had a casting list that had black actors and Latino actors and all kinds of actors, but you get the actors who said have yes and are available in this time and that your finance people have approved. It’s tricky to go back and be like, “Well, this person declined, and this person dropped out at the last minute.” It’s a really important conversation to have, but it is funny sometimes that there’s an assumption that people didn’t think about it.
I really liked how the sex videos subplot, because I feel like so often you only see that in media with teens or college age people. Could you tell me about having that be a subplot with adult characters and an adult relationship?
Melanie Lynskey: Oh, I loved it. I thought it was really interesting, and I really liked playing a woman who gets to have a conversation about what feels good and doesn’t feel good to her surrounding her sexuality. There’s no “Oh, she’s a prude because she won’t do this.” I just really loved that she had such ownership over it, and that when she does start doing things with him, it’s because she feels comfortable and she makes the choice. It’s unfortunate that there’s other elements involved! But it felt really nice to me to play a woman who felt in charge of her sexuality in that way. It would be nice if all women could feel that way.
Your character is also very New Agey with the oils and the crystals. What was it like to play that?
Linas Phillips: It’s all based on Melanie.
Melanie Lynskey: It’s based on me and my life and my crystal shop. I believe in all kinds of alternative things, but I don’t really know a lot about crystals. Linas gave me a lovely crystal at the beginning of shooting, and now I take it with me when I’m working because it’s for creativity. And something about it feels really nice, so when I’m in a hotel room on a job, I keep it on the bedside table.
You shot this very quickly, does it feel like doing promotion is longer than the filming?
Melanie Lynskey: Sometimes it does feel like that. My best friend’s movie the Intervention came out a few months ago, and we went to Sundance with it, and it was so much talking about it, and we shot that in 15 days, same as this one. I remember I did this movie years ago with this director and he went, “Ugh, I hate this bit.” And I was like, “Oh, waiting for the shot to be set up?” But he was like, “No, the shooting. I just hate it, it’s so boring.” Like, why are you doing this then?? I don’t think he’s making movies anymore.
I wanted to ask you about the Intervention, too.
Melanie Lynskey: Well, Clea [DuVall, who directed and co-stars in the Intervention] is my best friend. She said, “I wrote a movie for you,” and I had to do it. There wasn’t really an option. But thankfully, I really, really loved it and I was really grateful. She wrote me such a fun part, and it was so different from anything I’ve really done before. A couple of days in, I was like, I just have to stop crying about how proud I am. She’s my life partner and I’m so happy for her.
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