Casting director Victoria Thomas talks about Murray Bartlett, Nick Offerman, Melanie Lynskey, and the show’s swing-for-the-fences approach to guest stars.
Whether in its first-person action sequences, the period detail that puts the early 2000s on blast, its deeply creepy zombie makeup, or its immaculate use of Linda Ronstadt, “The Last of Us” is dominating TV lovers’ conversations. HBO’s post-pandemic apocalypse story of a smuggler named Joel (Pedro Pascal) bringing a potentially virus-immune girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) to people who could potentially create a cure examines the nature of relationships under the most extreme circumstances. As Joel and Ellie cross the country, they encounter other survivors as well, people who sometimes have wildly different but always intelligible responses to the end of the world. Each episode demands a roster of incredible guest actors, each conveying the sense of having lived through calamity.
Much of the show’s success is a credit to the writing, but some of it has come through the show’s approach to casting. “The Last of Us” blurs the line between guest and supporting and star roles. “A lot of the actors that we cast for the show don’t usually do one-episode guest spots,” casting director Victoria Thomas told IndieWire. “I think we all wanted gravitas and really good actors from the beginning. You know, in my first meeting with Craig, [we discussed that] we want to cast, not even good, we want to cast great actors. We were all on the same page about reaching for that.”
Melanie Lynskey is the latest of these ringer additions to the series, introduced in Episode 4 as Kathleen, a leader in (tenuous) control of Kansas City 20 years after civilization’s collapse. While fans of “Yellowjackets” are likely thrilled that Lynskey has a post-apocalyptic war band to order around, the actress embodies Kathleen neither as the frustrated woman with a polite exterior she plays on the Showtime series nor as the kindly, wry, everywoman she’s made a career out of playing in film. Kathleen has forged her bone-deep sadness into iron authority, her voice the final word for the men she’s leading, no matter how soft and Midwestern it sounds.
“The Last of Us” utilizes Lynskey’s persona to great effect in Episode 4’s interrogation sequences, upending our expectations of Kathleen’s problem-solving approach. “[The role] is a chance to get a really great actor [and] to maybe get to do something that they haven’t done before,” Thomas said. “This was a chance for her to do something a little bit different.”
The chance to flex and do something a little bit different applied equally to Nick Offerman’s and Murray Bartlett’s roles in Episode 3. The story of Bill and Frank, told more or less as a tangent from the series’ ongoing plotline, is a departure from the original game, where a (somehow) even grumpier Bill butts heads with Ellie, and Frank is long dead.
If a show with a passionate fan base is going to meaningfully deviate from its source material, announcing that fact with a tender love story that is almost a feature-length, zombie apocalypse-themed response to the opening montage of “Up” is an authoritative way to do it. Offerman’s and Murray’s month-long shoot expanding and evolving those characters allowed them to stretch their dramatic muscles, while the presence, gravitas, and graying beards they brought to the roles made that evolution feel all the more intentional and meaningful.
Thomas said that for key guest roles and the recurring cast, it was important to keep one foot planted firmly in the source material and one foot in the ways the television show would expand on the world of the game. “We started from scratch. There were no [limitations] except for the characters we had to cast,” Thomas said. “[We were able to] honor the fans and honor the actors, obviously, and then also introduce new characters, new actors, and just hopefully make sure that the relationships work.”
Regardless of the size of the role, the pitch Thomas made was pretty consistent: “‘This is really special, and it’ll have an impact. And it’s Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann. And this is a cast we’ve assembled so far, and we really would love for you to be a part of it,’” Thomas said. “And you just go for the best actors you can.”
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