HBO is getting ready to debut their upcoming series, The Last of Us. It’s an adaptation of a popular video game for the Sony Playstation that was released in 2013. The game centers around survivors in a post-apocalyptic world when civilization collapsed following an infectious outbreak cased by a parasitic fungus. The Last of Us has been revered as one of the best video game stories of all time. Neil Druckman, who wrote and created the video game also created and executive produced HBO’s live-action adaptation along with Craig Mazin of HBO’s Emmy-winning Chernobyl. Early reviews are already saying the show is as gripping as the game as it stays faithful to its source, but also bold enough to expand from key plot lines.

The Last of Us series features Joel, played by The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal, a hardened smuggler living with grief is charged with escorting Ellie (Game of Thrones’ Bella Ramsey), a headstrong teenager who knows nothing of the pre-infection world. Together, they must face a dangerous path across a post-apocalyptic United States filled with the infected called “clickers.” Their journey together will turn their rocky relationship as strangers into a father-daughter bond.

Variety recently caught up with The Last of Us cast. Pascal and Ramsey, along their co-stars Gabriel Luna, Anna Torv, Merle Dandridge and Nico Parker explain how they brought their video game characters to life in HBO’s upcoming series premiering January 15, 2023.

The Last of Us Cast Interview via Variety

Joel and Ellie (Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey)

Past work: Pascal: “The Mandalorian,” “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” “Narcos,” “Game of Thrones.” Ramsey: “Catherine Called Birdy,” “Becoming Elizabeth,” “His Dark Materials,” “Game of Thrones”
Had you played the game before you signed on?

Pedro Pascal: Before we signed on? No.

Bella Ramsey: No. I’d heard about it. But I hadn’t played it. I’m not really a gamer. So I hadn’t experienced it.

Pascal: I am really, really good at “Mrs. Pac Man.” I was really good at “Mrs. Pac Man.” I can’t even say that I’m good at it now. But I didn’t know of the game. I knew who Craig Mazin was, and was desperate to work with him. I got those scripts. I read them. And then I just begged him to give me the job, basically, and he was foolish enough to do so. And then the world of “The Last of Us” opened up to me and I realized that I had been under its influence in ways I didn’t even know since its release in 2013.

How much for both of you did you want to draw from what had been crafted in the game with these characters versus making them your own?

Ramsey: I mean, I think a lot of that work was done for is by Craig and Neil. Neil being the creator of the story, the game and Craig being such a huge fan that together, they really brought the best of the game into the scripts and just expanded on what was already there. And I think that was really cool, to sort of have it all there for us. Ellie was someone that came very naturally to me. So that was just a cool process. It’s always the dream when you read a script, and you feel like they’re a part of you already. And that was the case for me on this. Most of that is because of the voice that Craig wrote for Ellie that was directly from the game.

Pascal: I thought it was really useful to get a tonal understanding of the source material. With Ashley Johnson’s Ellie and Troy Baker’s Joel, there’s something so exciting about discovering a puzzle and all of the new pieces and different ways of putting it together and not being too committed to a specific process, but learning what the process will be for this particular project. I needed to see what had been done to discover what I could bring to it and also to meet what was on the page and what was already loved by the people that know the game.

What would your characters be doing and if the outbreak had not happened? For Ellie’s sake, let’s just presume that she was born and there was no outbreak.

Ramsey: It’s an interesting question. I think she would be…

Pascal: She would be doing hard drugs, I think.

Ramsey: Probably! She’d totally be an outcast. She’s sort of an outcast in the outbreak world, but she would be in this world, too. She has a strong interest in space and the moon.

Pascal: What if the outbreak is the only thing to have kept Ellie from being a cheerleader?

Ramsey: I would think I would go and jump off a cliff.

Pascal: I think the Joel would have just been a failed musician.

Ramsey: Yeah, actually! Or he’d have a sheep ranch.

Pascal: I feel like he’d have a band. And his body would be pretty broken from working construction. Sarah would be looking after him. Maybe he’d be a grandfather. Oh, this is getting sad!

What would you guys do in a zombie apocalypse?

Ramsey: Cling to each other and cry

Pascal: Cling to each other and probably not make it.

Ramsey: Yeah, we would laugh ourselves into oblivion.

Pascal: I feel like you would [make it], though.

Ramsey: Do you think?

Pascal: Yeah, I do.

Ramsey: I think I might, you know. I think I’m downplaying it.

Pascal: Yeah, you are downplaying it. And maybe I’m downplaying it. The thing is, I haven’t developed any skills in my middle age. So I feel like there’s nothing I really developed outside of opinions.

Ramsey: I can think of a lot of skills that you have.

Pascal: Yeah, like conversational skills.

Ramsey: Right.

Pascal: Well, you can’t really talk to cannibals and infected, fungal, mutated human bodies. Did you see all the different ways I avoided the word “zombie”?

Ramsey: Good job! They’re gonna be pleased with that.

Tommy (Gabriel Luna)

Past work: “Terminator: Dark Fate,” “Hala,” “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

Had you played the game before you signed on? 

I played “Part I” and “Part II” in preparation for this role. It took me about two and a half months, and my whole experience culminated two days before I left for Calgary, so I finished it just in time. My first experience was when it originally came out in 2013. I didn’t play the entire game, but I was able to play a little bit of it at a friend’s house and got to see the prologue of the game and got excited by the fact that the characters were in Austin, Texas, which is my hometown. That stuck with me for a long time.

How much from the game did you draw on for your portrayal of Tommy? 

It’s animated, but he still feels like a person that exists in the world and has for the last 10 years. It’s very similar as if you were gonna do a biopic about somebody. You want to nail down the things that are very important that you know have to be this way, and then, of course, you got to give yourself the freedom to be in the moment. I’m a lucky one, because Tommy is me and I am him and it couldn’t have been a more seamless transition into him as a character.

Did you pull out anything from growing up in Austin? 

Willie Nelson, of course, lives in Austin, and he and Kris Kristofferson were in The Highwaymen. Kristofferson was a big inspiration for me, like a young Kristofferson. The vibe of Tommy is that of somebody who’s really relaxed, a go-with-the-flow guy, which is kind of counter to his experience as a soldier. I think he’s making a concerted effort to be better person and somebody who has left that part of his life behind him. The outbreak happens and he very quickly has to resort to what he knows in defense of himself and his family. I was kind of a consultant in that way, for production design. ‘”Does this look like Austin?” It looked great. There was a lot of University of Texas Longhorns paraphernalia all over the place, which is absolutely accurate.

What would Tommy be doing if the outbreak hadn’t happened?

Once he’s done being a rascal, I’m sure he would have found a nice girl and settled down, fully content to work hard and sweat working his days in construction and come home and crack a beer. Hopefully have a few little ones running around. That’s the dream. He looks up to his brother at the beginning of the story in that way. His brother has what he eventually will. Even in the face of this turmoil, he’s still angling toward the light and wants to create a world where that’s still possible.

Tess (Anna Torv)

Past work: “The Newsreader,” “Mindhunter,” “Secret City,” “Fringe”

Had you played the game before you signed on?

I remember it being a really big deal when it came out, particularly because of the story and the characters. I remember seeing the clip with the song and the guitar, and I was particularly interested in it because I had done a game myself with motion capture years prior. But I didn’t play it; I’m not a gamer. When this show came about, I read all of the scripts first and then went back and then watched all of the cutscenes so I knew the world of the game.

What did you take away from the game for your portrayal of Tess?

We wanted to make sure that you understood and believed that Tess and Joel were partners and lovers and best friends. Yes, I’d say each other’s everything, but primarily because they don’t have anyone else.

How deep into Tess and Joel’s relationship did you and Pedro dig?

We wanted them to have been together for a long time, to love each other, to trust and be loyal to each other. You want to stay true to the characters, so there weren’t that many opportunities to show that, because neither Tess nor Joel would be lovey-dovey in front of Ellie — or anyone, especially not while they’re on this mission. The few moments that we could, we did. The first time you meet them, she crawls into bed and rolls him over and puts her arm around him. You get his response when he sees her black eye.

Who wears the pants in their relationship?

It’s easy to say Tess, but you know Joel ain’t no pushover. It’s a real equal thing. I don’t think either of them would do anything if the other one said no.

If the outbreak hadn’t happened, where would Tess be?

I’d love to see Tess and Joel together. I reckon they would have a really good old time. I could see Joel sitting in a bar, with his beautiful, strong shoulders, and Tess walking in and him turning around and her walking up and saddling up the side. They could sit down and be mates.

Marlene (Merle Dandridge)

Past work: “Station 19,” “Truth Be Told,” “Greenleaf,” “The Last of Us”

Since you’re recreating the character that you played in the game, how much of that did you want to inform what you did on the show?

At the core, I think the themes and the history were fairly similar. But stepping into her shoes in a live-action, prestige HBO series, opposite new actors playing the characters in new scenarios, I do liken it to having an old pal that I knew very well and going for a fresh new ride with her. There was a sense of a untethering myself from some of the things that I knew, and being open for brand new inspiration, which was beautifully drawn by these new scripts.

What was the thing that most surprised you that was new for your character?

A lot of spoilers that I probably couldn’t tell you. But I will say that things that have lived in my heart for a long time that I knew about who she was, what she’d been through, choices that she’d made, to be able to actually walk those things out that we haven’t been seen from Marlene, were thrilling, especially from an actor that thought she knew her so well.

What would your character be doing if the outbreak hadn’t happened?

I think she was an engineering teacher. And I think that she had a family and would be nurturing that with her best friend still in her life. That question made me sad for her!

Sarah (Nico Parker)

Past work: “Dumbo,” “Reminiscience”

Had you played the game before you signed on?

I have never played the video game. I’ve watched extensively prior to being in any way involved in the show. I watched gamers and then silent gameplay a lot when I was younger. I feel like I now should probably play the game as some kind of symbolic, final element of “The Last of Us.”

What did you take away from the game for your portrayal of Tess?

We had more time to expand on relationships, specifically Sarah and Joel. I wanted to use that time and space so the inevitable [storyline] that my character goes through is all the more sad because you see a more well-rounded version of their relationship. I wanted to stay away from the game version of her, which is wonderfully portrayed but I also wanted to have my own version. When I read the script, I read it with my own interpretation of the character so I’m not flickering over to how she says something in the game.

How would Sarah have fared in the outbreak if she had survived?

A lot more useful than I would be in that world. There’s an element of bravery and a grown-up aspect of her that we get to see more of in the show than we do in the game. That makes it so upsetting because there would have been a chance of survival for her. It gets shot down pretty quickly, pardon the pun. I think she’d actually do quite well. I’d do terribly.

What’s the first thing you would do?

Cry and hug my dog. I wish it could be something badass, but I think it would just be to cry and cradle my sweet dog and evacuate to my best friend’s house with my dog and my entire family. She has a really nice house and I feel like it would just be a nice place to chill out and weather the storm.

What would Sarah do if she had gotten to grow up in a normal world?

I don’t know, I feel like my version of her begins and ends with the outbreak. There’s a lot of posters on her wall of music and singing. I think there’s something that isn’t in the show that was filmed at one point of her singing Beyoncé briefly. So potentially: sing. There are guitar picks on the wall, so some kind of music.

The Last of Us premieres January 15th on HBO and HBO Max.

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