SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers from Episode 4 of “The Last of Us,” now streaming on HBO Max. 

When “The Last of Us” co-creator Craig Mazin pitched a role in the series to Melanie Lynskey, he started with a bang: “He called me and said, ‘I would love for you to play a war criminal,’” Lynskey recalls. 

When audiences first meet Lynskey’s rebel faction leader Kathleen in Episode 4, Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) are passing through Kansas City on their cross-country road trip — and have already gotten into a scuffle with her followers there. 

She’s in the midst of a tense interrogation with her family doctor (John Getz), desperately seeking the location of her target, Henry, who played a role in the death of her brother. “It’s such a well-written scene. The whole show is so well written! It’s perfect. There’s nothing that you look at, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I feel like I should ask if I can pitch a change,’” Lynskey gushes to Variety

While the conversation between Kathleen and the doctor begins calmly, she quickly becomes frustrated and points a gun at the doctor’s head. She’s interrupted briefly to evaluate the bodies of some fallen allies, who viewers know were taken down by Joel and Ellie — but Kathleen believes they were more of Henry’s victims. She returns to the holding cell and wordlessly pulls the trigger. 

“John Getz is such an amazing actor, and just was so beautiful and broken in the jail cells,” Lynskey recalls. “That was the hardest part: not completely falling apart and just trying to maintain the shred of toughness that would allow her to do it. And I think at the end of the day, she is always just looking at the bigger picture: ‘What does this mean? What is this going to tell people about who I am?’ And she’s quite vicious.” 

The scene evokes what Mazin described in his original pitch. “He basically said, ‘Imagine if you were Jesus’ sister. Your brother was the greatest man, who was just so wonderful to everybody, who you loved and revered, and then he was brutally murdered. And you’re just this ordinary person who knows that they’re not that great of a person, who has to then step into this role and is sort of consumed with wanting to adventure.’” 

Lynskey doesn’t believe that hardened exterior was always part of Kathleen. “If the world had remained as it was, she would probably be a high school teacher who’s complaining about the kids all the time … but she’s forced into this position that she’s quite good at, for the worst reasons.” 

The character is a new creation for the series, which presented Lynskey with a unique challenge. “I know how committed the fandom is. People can be like, ‘That doesn’t look like the person I imagined!’ So I was grateful to not have that. I guess there’s a different level of scrutiny where people are like, ‘We don’t need this character. We played the game without this character. Why is she here?’ But also, none of that is my responsibility. I’m there because I trust Craig. And Neil [Druckmann] is also so brilliant, and was the creator of the game, and he’s on board and signing off on every decision.” 

Kathleen may not immediately appear to have what it takes to pilot an uprising, but that’s just where Lynskey hopes to subvert expectations — both for audiences and for Kathleen herself. “She discovers that she doesn’t have a ton of humanity. She’s able to do things that are quite brutal without really batting an eyelash. And I think that that’s quite a scary thing for her to understand about herself, but also kind of an exciting thing.” 

“It’s interesting when there’s this huge group of people who’ve mobilized to overthrow the government, and there’s been this violent coup…and then you see who’s in charge of it,” Lynskey says. “And she’s just like, ‘Oh, hi.’ I wanted her to be kind of delicate. I wanted it to be surprising.” 

This isn’t Lynskey’s first time portraying someone forced to harden under extreme circumstances. In “Yellowjackets,” for which she was received an Emmy nomination last year, her Shauna must survive when her soccer team’s plane crashes in the forest. So which character is tougher? “It’s very hard to weigh out which is worse: stranded in the wilderness or living through this awful thing. Probably Kathleen. I mean, the world has ended. That’s a lot to deal with.”