Melanie Lynskey, like her "Last of Us" character, proves her strength beyond physicality

Having the best ideas has nothing to do with having the biggest muscles, as Lynskey proves post casting controversy

By Kelly McClure

Nights & Weekends Editor

Published February 12, 2023 8:00AM (EST)

Melanie Lynskey as Kathleen Coghlan in 'The Last of Us' (Liane Hentscher/HBO)
Melanie Lynskey as Kathleen Coghlan in 'The Last of Us' (Liane Hentscher/HBO)

Tom Cruise, the 60-year-old, 5-foot-7 actor with dozens of action film credits to his name and several more in the works, has never had a week like Melanie Lynskey just had.

While Cruise, and other male actors like him, are rarely called upon to defend their casting in action roles despite what some could view as physical limitations, Lynskey gave a tutorial on how strength goes beyond build when she was pulled into a position to defend her casting in the role of revolutionary movement leader Kathleen Coghlan in HBO's "The Last of Us."  And she didn't just do it for other women, she did it for everyone who's looked upon as weak because of their outsides rather than their insides, where true strength originates. See the kind of selfless wisdom a life lived without your head being completely up your own crack can bring? 

Fanboys and other likeminded naysayers have sounded off on Reddit and elsewhere since Lynskey was cast in the series adaptation of the popular video game of the same name, but the biggest and most surprisingly unnecessary panning came from model Adrianne Curry, who commented on a photo of Lynskey on Wednesday to say that the actor's body made her a bad fit for the part.

"Her body says life of luxury . . . not post-apocalyptic warlord. Where is Linda Hamilton when you need her?" Curry said about the photo, which was from an InStyle magazine cover shoot unrelated to the character Lynskey plays.

In an initial response that led to a threaded take-down of the "bless your heart" variety, Lynskey retweeted Curry's post and addressed her directly saying, "I am supposed to be SMART, ma'am. I don't need to be muscly. That's what henchmen are for."

After an expanse of others rallied to Lynskey's defense, including her husband Jason Ritter, Curry deleted her account. 

Lynskey, who has battled body-shaming since her debut role in "Heavenly Creatures" at the age of 16, made many good points in her takedown on Curry's comment as to why body shaming is a petty move that says far more about the shame-er than the shame-ee, but there is one that stands out the most that Linda Hamilton, who almost assuredly had to defend her own casting in the "Terminator" role referenced by Curry, would likely co-sign.

"Other than the moments after action is called, when you feel like you're actually in someone else's body, the most exciting part of my job is subverting expectations," Lynskey said. 

The expectation that the most muscular person in the room is the best person to take charge in the sort of fungus-zombie post-apocalyptic hellscape Lynskey's character finds herself navigating in "The Last of Us," is almost as ridiculous as presuming that men are better at problem-solving than women. Ever place an Instacart order and get linked to a man as your shopper? Good luck getting that vanilla almond milk even in the best of circumstances, let alone in a situation where he's being pursued by zombies.

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When we first see Lynskey as Kathleen Coghlan in Episode 4 of "The Last of Us," titled "Please Hold to My Hand," it's after an uprising against the Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA) resulting from a personnel member killing her brother. Taking over for her brother, Coghlan relies on her wits and the manpower of loyal bandits who respect her for what she is, a leader. Using what was once the FEDRA compound as her command center, she focuses on locating a man named Henry whom she views as a traitor responsible for her brother's death, and encourages her team to kill anyone who tries to infiltrate their headquarters or who she suspects is withholding information. 

"Other than getting to work with creative geniuses who I respect and admire (Neil & Craig) the thing that excited me most about doing 'The Last of Us' is that my casting suggested the possibility of a future in which people start listening to the person with the best ideas," Lynskey said on Twitter in defense of her role. "Not the coolest or the toughest person. The organizer. The person who knows where everything is. The person who is doing the planning. The person who can multitask. The one who's decisive."

In a later tweet, the actress goes on to say that she intentionally played the character as "feminine and soft-voiced" because those are characteristics so often categorized as weak and, in her own words, "f**k that."

Melanie Lynskey as Kathleen Coghlan in 'The Last of Us' (Liane Hentscher/HBO)A character that comes to mind while watching Lynskey in this role is that of Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster in "The Silence of the Lambs." As a trainee in the FBI put in front of more seasoned male agents in an effort to charm the cannibalistic killer Hannibal Lecter, Starling also has a soft femininity that provides a compelling juxtaposition to the male-dominated field she found herself excelling in. 

When Starling first meets Lecter, he sizes her up and sniffs her through the holes in his bulletproof holding cell, telling her, "You use Evian skin cream, and sometimes you wear L'Air du Temps . . . but not today."

She had made the decision to dull down her femininity, only to learn that she didn't need to because the brilliant serial killer she was interviewing ended up having more respect for her than her superiors did. Just another example of strength coming from within as something earned, not exercised for. 

Craig Mazin didn't only make a thoughtful casting decision with Lynskey; "The Last of Us" features a vast cast of characters that offer representation to disabled people, members of the LGBTQ community, and a broad spectrum of ethnicities. This allows viewers to better imagine what it would be like to be in the terrifying scenarios shown onscreen as they fully reflect a dystopian version of a life that includes all people, not just supermodels. 

Mazin had a lot of actresses to choose from for the role of Kathleen Coghlan, but he went with the right one. The one we needed to get the job done, not only in the show, but in reminding people like Adrianne Curry that oftentimes the person to do you in is the one you don't see coming. 

By Kelly McClure

Kelly McClure is a journalist and fiction writer who lives in New Orleans. She is Salon's Nights and Weekends Editor covering daily news, politics and culture. Her work has been featured in Vulture, The A.V. Club, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Nylon, Vice, and elsewhere. She is the author of Something is Always Happening Somewhere.

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