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[This story contains spoilers for The Last of Us season one finale.]
Fans of The Last of Us video game got a special treat in the season finale of the title’s HBO adaptation: actress Ashley Johnson, who portrayed Ellie in the game, playing Ellie’s mother in the episode’s opening sequence. In a role unique to the show, Johnson’s character gave birth to Ellie just as she was bitten by Clicker, suggesting the cause of Ellie’s unique immunity to the Cordyceps infection.
“It does hint at and give some theories as to why Ellie immune, even though we don’t answer that conclusively,” notes creator and showrunner Neil Druckman.
“Ashley sounds like Ellie and Ellie sounds like Ashley,” showrunner Craig Mazin adds. “So she’s already like quasi-mythological creature to me. To see her giving birth to herself, in a sense, and to create that genetic connection between her performance as Ellie and the origin story of Bella Ramsey as Ellie was just profound.”
Below, the 39-year-old Johnson breaks her silence on the series, her unique role and the surreal experience of watching Ramsey inhabit in live action a character she established in the 2013 game.
When did you first find out you were going to be a part of the show and what was your reaction?
I got a text from Neil and he said, “Hey, Craig and I were talking and would you like to play Ellie’s mother?” And I just burst into tears. Of course I would love to. It’s a shock because when video game adaptations move to film or TV generally, the voice actors or motion capture actors aren’t usually brought along to be part of that project. So I was just shocked, it’s not the norm. Being able to still be a part of this story and this world and to also be the first character that fights for this character to live means the world.
Did you have any conversation with Bella before she started or no?
They didn’t want them to see any parts of the game because they wanted them to be able to bring their own thing to it. I think they might have actually watched some secretly. But also, I want them to have the space to be able to put their own imprint on it. I first met Bella on set and she’s Ellie come to life from the game. She has the essence of Ellie. She has the strength. I instantly felt a connection with her because we both care so much about this character. I don’t feel like anybody else could play this part as well as her, because so much of her already is Ellie.
How did you feel about the idea of literally giving birth to the character? And did you previously have any theories of your own about why Ellie was immune?
I had theories. But it wasn’t the important part of the story. So much of the focus was on the connection of these two people finding family in this terrible world. It’s not lost on me the layers of being able to play Ellie’s mother and be the one to literally give birth and bring her into the world.
It was a super intense dark scene. What was that like to shoot?
For being such an intense scene, it was incredibly fun. And the stuntwoman, Kelsey Andrews, who played the Clicker was terrifying. And being able to do scenes with Merle [Dandridge] and having that reconnection from the scenes we did in the game. Just being on set and seeing the Clickers in person and having all the prosthetics, it was a really fun time shooting this.
So what’s it been like for you watching the episode and watching somebody else play the character that you’ve made so iconic in the game? That had to be surreal.
It’s surreal. But because Troy [Baker] and Neil and I have been a part of it for so long and because there were different versions trying to be made to put on the screen, we were always like, “Is it really going to happen?” And then when I finally saw the first episode, I was like, “OK, this is real officially, this has been made into a show.”
Of course, it’s strange to see characters you love played by somebody else. But I feel like with Bella and Pedro [Pascal], I feel like they’ve elevated the characters. They’ve brought their own imprint and I’m so glad that they’ve had the space to make it their own and play the characters how they see them. I’m so blown away by Bella, I think she’s absolutely incredible. I think this would have been hard if it was someone that was not great.
Was there any choice she made along the way you particularly admired?
Mostly it’s been like, “God, what an incredible way to do that and approach that scene.” But there was a moment when Joel had finally given Ellie the gun. She gets this look on her face where she starts smiling because she feels so cool but she’s also trying to keep it under wraps. Like, “I’m chill about this.” I took a video of it and sent it to Bella and I was like, “Dude, this is hilarious.” That’s the other thing, there’s the comedy aspects of the show, what she can do, and then the whole other end of the spectrum when we see her moments with David and her anger and the violence — which becomes such an important part in Part II. So in season two, I feel like they set it up well for her and I’m so excited to see where she takes it.
What’s been the reaction from fans like since the show started airing, and how has it been having a new legion of fans discover your original performance?
There’s so many people now that are getting to know this story and characters because of this show. Most of my family, besides my sister, are not gamers. So they knew nothing about this and finally my family knows what the game was — “Wait, you played the girl?”
I’m sure that some online must make comparisons between your performance and Bella’s — because that’s what people online do. Is that annoying at all?
The only thing that would be annoying is if Bella [didn’t feel] she has the space to make it her own. When having to remake something iconic — I don’t know if that’s the word that I would use — but there’s a lot of pressure there. I don’t want either of them to feel that. I want them to be able to take this story and not feel married to a previous performance or telling of it. People compare us together and they’re like, “Oh, my gosh, they’re so similar.” I love it. I feel like [the character] is my kid in a weird way and there’s a part of me that wants to be like, “Don’t pay attention to the bad stuff.” The only frustrating part is when I’m like, “Just let them do their thing.”
What was a creative choice the show made that surprised even you?
A lot of the scenes are word for word from the game. Other scenes have had moments where Ellie is able to stand up for herself or say things to Joel or other characters that I never got to do. So there’s something cathartic about the character coming into her own and being able to stand up for herself more.
As Joel is going through on his rampage in the hospital, that was all gameplay in the game. With the show, it was hard to watch an audience member as opposed to just making your way through the level. It hit a lot harder. Also knowing the story of the second game and knowing who these people are that have been trying to find this cure and how they’re good people too.
Which brings up the question: How do you feel about Joel’s choice in the finale? Did he do the right thing?
It’s funny. I feel differently after watching it in the show than I did in the game. The most important thing in this world is a connection with somebody. We see humanity has gone and the terrible things that we do. When you find somebody that you made a connection with, it’s so rare that I can’t imagine what I would do to fight for that. I don’t know if I would be able to go on a rampage. But I think about if it was one of my nieces and nephews or somebody I deeply cared about, I would do everything I could to get them out of there.
See also, THR’s interview with The Last of Us showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann about the finale.
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