In an interview with Deadline, Ashley Johnson (Blindspot, Critical Role) talks about her role as Anna in HBO Max’s The Last Of Us and what it was like to work with costar Bella Ramsey (Game of Thrones, Hilda). Johnson voiced the character of fourteen-year-old protagonist Ellie in Naughty Dog’s 2013 video game of the same name. Ramsey portrays Ellie in the TV adaptation, alongside Pedro Pascal (The Mandalorian, Game of Thrones) as Joel, Anna Torv (Fringe, Mindhunter) as Jess, and Gabriel Luna (Terminator: Dark Fate, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as Tommy, among others. This article may include spoilers for the season finale of The Last Of Us.
The Last Of Us takes fans through a heart wrenching journey following Joel, a bitter survivor, and Ellie, who is immune to the Cordyceps infection that has infested the world for twenty years, as they travel across the U.S. in hopes of manufacturing a possible cure.
After taking on the mantle of Ellie for ten years, Johnson discloses how it felt to jump back into the apocalyptic world of the franchise: “There’s a part of me that’s never really left. And I think so much of that is because games take so long to make. Especially the second game; I think that was over four years, maybe five. So, you get close with people, and I’m close with some of the people from Naughty Dog, Neil [Druckmann], and Troy [Baker]. And it’s working on these games and being a part of the story and these characters; it’s still, to this day, one of my favorite things I’ve ever worked on and one of the most creatively fulfilling projects I’ve worked on as an actor. Because it was collaborative and through the decade of building these characters together, that’s a rare feeling. As an actor, you work on a lot of projects that are so fun. Generally, you don’t get as much say sometimes. And I think this was the first project I worked on where it was like, ‘Hey, let’s talk about this and create a lot of stuff together.’ Now that it’s a show, there’s been so many different versions of this coming to screen over the past decade, when I saw the first episode, I was like, ‘OK, this is real. This is happening. They are making a show.’ And it’s great because so much of my own family are not gamers, so they know nothing about The Last of Us. So, people who don’t know anything about the game can now experience the story and the connection these two characters have over this journey.”
The show, brought by a collaboration between the video game creator Neil Druckmann (Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Uncharted: Eye of Indra) and two-time Emmy winning showrunner Craig Mazin (Chernobyl, The Hangover: Part II), stays fairly true to the game but expands on a lot more storylines within the world. One such development is the backstory for Ellie’s immunity, which is explained in a flashback to the moment of her birth. Ellie’s mother, Anna (portrayed by Johnson), is bit by an infected creature seconds before cutting Ellie’s umbilical cord.
Johnson mentions how she was offered the role as Anna: “I’ve been talking about this where usually when a video game is adapted to screen, the voice-over actors or motion capture artists aren’t brought into the fold. So, I got a text from Neil, and he said, ‘Craig [Mazin] and I have been talking, and we would love, would you like to play Ellie’s mom.’ And, of course, just projectile tears. I was like, ‘Are you serious? Oh my God.’ I was nervous, but I feel so happy that I’m able to bring this character to life and be the first character and person in Ellie’s life that fights for her to live. The layers of that are certainly not lost on me. It makes me emotional pretty much every time I think about it because this world and this project is so important to me and has been for a decade.”
Johnson also discusses how she decided to portray the character, saying, “I feel like what I just wanted to have come across is, I played her kind of similar to my performance of Ellie in a way because I feel like there’s, with getting to know Bella [Ramsey] and hanging out with her, we have a lot of same mannerisms, and we’re similar in weird little ways, and I tried to watch a little bit of her [in the show] to try to match some of her mannerisms. And in the game, there’s a letter that Anna writes that Ellie keeps in her backpack. And I wrote that letter out and just kept it in my pocket as kind of a reminder to myself of where this character came from and sort of the history of that. But most of it was just like, you know what? I’m going to bring my version of what I did with Ellie [in the game] and also little bits of Bella. That was it.”
Additionally, the actress praises Ramsey for her performance as Ellie: “Yeah, it has been such a joy to watch her because she’s so good. And I feel like there’s been so many scenes that have been elevated because of her capabilities and her talent. And it’s also, she was exploring sides of her that will make sense for Season 2 because where the second game goes is even darker and heavier. It’s hard to watch because I’m watching these characters — Pedro [Pascal] and Bella’s version of these characters — and falling in love with them. And it’s heartbreaking because I know that life doesn’t get better for them, and she is just so beautiful to watch because even in just these subtle moments, there’s so much going on. And I feel like there’s been so many moments and scenes where Ellie’s been able to stick up for herself or say things that didn’t happen in the game that feel good for me to watch. I’m blown away by what she’s done, and I’m so excited for her to have a space to make this character her own and to put her own imprint on it, in addition to bringing a character to life that she’s excited about and telling the story that she wants to tell within the character. And I’m sure there’s pressure for anybody to take on a character that people know well, and I think she’s killed it.”
The series has already been renewed for a second season, which will cover the events of the 2020 video game sequel. When asked about her expectations for season two, Johnson had this to say: “In thinking about Episode 7 with Storm Reid and Bella going to the mall and having that moment of being able to be kids … you get to see them smile and be happy. I’m excited to see those moments in Season 2 with Dina and see Bella’s version [of that romance]. Bella was so beautiful in those moments that she would steal while looking at Riley and the moments of overwhelming feelings that she’s having in her body until she just has to look away [from her]. I can’t wait to see how she does that with Dina and how that relationship is going to come to life onscreen.
“And also, after seeing all that [intense] stuff with David in Episode 8, we can see that all that anger and violence is still there. And, I think that’s something that if you know the second game … I feel like that was set up very well. And even in the last episode from the hospital and seeing what Joel does, the fact that the show is not the gameplay, watching it as an audience member, I was devastated at what he was doing. Because we know who those people are now, and that group of people [related to the hospital incident] were just trying to do good in the world. So it was harder for me to watch [the ending] because it wasn’t like I was playing though, and then I would die, and then I’d have to come back and die again. So you lose yourself a little bit in the story of the show, and it just hit me in a really hard way where even knowing that this ending was coming, it still hit me hard. I can’t imagine what it’s like processing that ending for somebody who doesn’t know. Anyway, I am excited for Season 2 and what they do with it.”
Both Johnson and Pascal shared behind-the-scenes photos from the set on Instagram, featured below.
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The Last Of Us is streaming now on HBO Max.