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Melanie Lynskey Has Never Been on a Set as Overwhelming as The Last of Us

Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Spoilers about episode five of The Last of Us, “Endure and Survive,” follow.

Melanie Lynskey has earned a reputation as one of the sweetest actors in Hollywood for her generosity toward younger co-stars, public tributes to the nanny who “allows me to go and do my work,” and self-identification as a crier. (“She might be the nicest human being on this planet, literally speaking,” Jessica Biel told Vanity Fair last year.) But sweet is the last word you’d use to describe her role as Kathleen on The Last of Us.

Invented by series co-creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, Kathleen is a no-nonsense, unapologetically cruel resistance leader fixated on avenging the death of her beloved brother. Outwardly composed but internally ruthless, Kathleen’s unassuming presence and soft-spoken fury make for an unexpected authoritarian in a dystopian hellscape, an issue that became a talking point on social media this week when onetime America’s Next Top Model winner Adrianne Curry suggested Lynskey’s body did not fit the mold of a postapocalyptic warlord. Lynskey tweeted back, “I’m playing a person who meticulously planned & executed an overthrow of FEDRA. I am supposed to be SMART, ma’am. I don’t need to be muscly.”

Lynskey’s conversation with Vulture took place prior to that Twitter flap, but she did discuss the motivations and choices that made Kathleen such an intriguing challenge for an actor. She also admits she was a little hesitant to sign on to The Last of Us with her busy work schedule, but thankfully her husband Jason Ritter, a video-game aficionado, talked her into it.

Kathleen is not in the game. How was she described to you, and how much did you know about the game before doing the series?
I knew about the game because it’s my husband’s favorite game of all time. I had heard him talk about it with this absolute reverence. But I’ve never been able to play video games or focus on them. I tune out a bit.

But I knew Craig personally. He called me and said, “I’m going to ask you to play a war criminal.” [Laughs.] He said, “Imagine if you were Jesus’ sister, and your brother was this wonderful person whom everybody adored and respected. And you were fine, but nobody really felt that way about you. Then he’s brutally murdered, your world is upended, and you’re forced to step into this position he had.”

I was interested in the idea of this very ordinary person discovering her own heartlessness and the fact that she could do pretty terrible things and not really think about them afterward. Because of this quality she’d always been ashamed of in herself, she managed to overthrow the government in a way that her sweet, wonderful brother had not been able to.

I wonder if having a sibling who is so revered would push her further toward ruthlessness. Maybe she’d have a sense of resentment about it.
I think a lot of close relationships are a mixture of reverence and resentment. She had all those feelings. I wanted her to carry herself in a very unassuming way and for her voice to be kind of small. She’s been a person who’s been overlooked, literally — who’s been next to her brother a million times and had people not even introduce themselves to her. I thought, What an interesting thing for that woman to be placed in this particular role, then find herself filled with that power.

Did you build an idea in your mind of what she was like when she was younger?
I think she had a colder view of the world. She wasn’t a person who connected easily. It’s complicated being the little sister of somebody who connects with people, inspires people, is a wonderful human looking out for everyone else. On one hand, he kept her safe through a chaotic childhood and the end of the world. But at the same time, she looked at the way he was doing things and was like, It’s not going to be effective. You’re not ruthless enough.

When Craig described Kathleen, were you immediately onboard?
I mean, I’m never immediately in because I’m so tired all the time. [Laughs.] I was doing Candy — I was in the middle of crazy stunt rehearsals for the big ax fight at the end. The Last of Us is Calgary in the winter. But Jason was like, “Are you insane? It’s the greatest video game of all time.”

Craig sent me this amazing email that was like, “Here’s fun stuff to do in Calgary.” He was like, “I’m going to make this as easy as possible. Do you need to bring your nanny? Do you need a house? Do you need to be right by a playground?” Then he sent me a link to a story about my best friend, Clea DuVall’s show High School, which was shooting there. I was like,Okay, when you sent me the scripts, I was sold.” Sometimes you just push through your exhaustion if it’s worth it.

How did you know Craig before this?
I met him at an in-person Mafia game at Steve Zissis’s house. We really hit it off. Every time I had a party, he would come over. At the beginning of the pandemic, he and I put together Zoom Mafia games that were increasingly elaborate. We did ones where everyone was a special character. We had special Slack channels to communicate with everybody. It was really fun.

Did you know upfront that Kathleen would be killed?
Yes, I did.

What was it like to shoot the scene where she’s killed by one of the infected? I assume that was a real person jumping on you.
It was a child — like, an acrobat, an actual little girl. Everyone was a stunt performer or an acrobat covered in makeup that had taken hours and hours. It was one of the most overwhelming, incredible things I’ve ever experienced. I just wanted to clap. People had been training for weeks, and there was coordinated action. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever been part of.

The death was actually pretty easy to film because things were running so smoothly. The first assistant director, Paul Domick, was so on top of it. He really knew how to run a set. It was freezing cold. He didn’t want people to be out in the cold all night long, and he coordinated it in a way that was seamless.

Did you use a stunt person for yourself at any point?
There was a stunt person for the hit and the fall backward.

Did it feel scary when you were filming it?
It was disgusting, honestly. It looked real — the level of detail of the makeup. There are things that look like rivers of blood running through and turning into these mushrooms. People’s whole faces are covered. It looked awful, and it was scary. There’s a tiny child covered in fungus flying as fast as she can at your face.

I kept looking at things and being like, You could do a close-up of anything, and it would be absolutely perfect. It was meticulous. I feel like the show was made with so much humanity. Like the third episode — people were talking about it when I got there because they had just finished that episode and everybody was so in love with Nick and Murray. Then, just seeing it, I couldn’t believe how profound it was.

Kathleen is so focused on finding Henry that it becomes her entire life’s purpose. If she hadn’t been killed, what was her plan for when she found him? Then what would her purpose become after that?
That was the thing. In that moment, when he comes out from behind the car with his hands up, I hoped to convey a feeling of, somewhere in her heart, she knows this is not going to fix it. It’s not right. She’s just like, Fuck, that’s my brother’s best friend. That’s this person whom I loved, and what am I doing? But she’s so single-minded, she ignores everything. She ignores the fact that all these infected are coming up from the ground.

Then the moment she sees him, she’s like, Oh, this isn’t it either. But she decides to do it because here she is. That was such a sad moment.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Melanie Lynskey Was Overwhelmed by The Last of Us Set