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‘The Last of Us’ Actors Took Advantage of Happy Moments While Filming the Saddest Episode Yet

For Lamar Johnson and Keivonn Woodard, playing Henry and Sam meant capitalizing on their fast friendship and one of the series' most impressive sets.

Last of Us Episode 5 Sam Henry

Keivonn Woodard and Lamar Johnson in “The Last of Us”

Liane Hentscher/HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Last of Us” Episode 5, “Endure and Survive.”]

“The Last of Us” is not a particularly easy show to watch. It’s not a particularly easy show to make, either. Weirdly, one of the things that has made the HBO show such a runaway success is how those two ideas have merged to build something that feels like an achievement. The physical and emotional toll that Joel (Pedro Pascal), Ellie (Bella Ramsey), and all the other characters go through has distinct weight to it that makes the show overall impossible to ignore.

One of the best examples so far of how this show has thrived under almost impossible circumstances is in the case of brothers Sam and Henry, brought to the screen by actors Keivonn Woodard and Lamar Johnson. They arrive with a faint air of hope, that their help and determination can not only get them out of a post-revolutionary Kansas City, but Joel and Ellie, too. But, as anyone familiar with “Last of Us” lore knows, their journey reaches a tragic, too-soon end.

When Johnson had a chance to watch the episode for this time, his response was one of pride rather than fear or sadness.

“Will I go back to it? Yeah, it’s a great episode. You get everything. You get the emotions, but you also get the action and the character building,” Johnson told IndieWire. “Those those big scenes that ultimately I was quite nervous about, I’m happy with how everything came together.”

Part of what makes it worth that rewatch is seeing how well Sam and Henry are connected. The two actors who brought them to life in this series said that the process of becoming on-screen brothers was a quick bonding experience.

“Day One, the first day that we met, we were in the production offices running around and playing tag. We connect a lot over video games, things like that. So it really was not hard. He’s such an enthusiastic kid and energetic and just very talented. It was really easy to build that relationship with him,” Johnson said.

Keivonn Woodard and Lamar Johnson in Episode 5 of "The Last of Us"

“The Last of Us”

Liane Hentscher/HBO

“The two of us, I feel like we got along really well. We connected. We would talk. I feel like we always had that connection,” Woodard said, via an interpreter.

For as heavy as the episode begins and eventually becomes, Woodard had plenty of opportunity to play around. As Henry and Joel have their deep conversations about what families owe to each other and the importance of protecting another person, there’s Sam and Ellie taking their precious chances to goof around and be kids. Woodard and Ramsey were essentially getting to do the same thing.

“We’d be working all day and all night, and I would make jokes and talk with people. I really enjoyed my experience and I think there was a good balance there,” Woodard said.

“If it wasn’t Ellie playing soccer with him, it probably would have been Henry,” Johnson said. He definitely still wants Sam to to have some form of innocence. I think Henry wears a lot of the weight on his shoulders and just lets Sam try his best to be a kid in such a tough world. Whatever opportunity he could, I’m pretty sure Henry would be able to would want to give that to Sam.”

Before that fateful ending scene, the memorable part of Episode 5 takes place in a (mostly) abandoned neighborhood. When the rebel recon team accidentally pokes through the city’s sealed-off underground defenses, it unleashes of a horde of Infected that swarm Kathleen, drive the three younger members into a run for their lives, and result in Sam getting bit. That one location became the site for a grueling set of evening filming. But for Johnson, it was a fully realized world that they could walk into.

“It was literally a massive parking lot that they built the full cul-de-sac on. I think it was 14 homes. It was just insane,” Johnson said. “They put up trees and grass, and it looked like a neighborhood. I was the most impressed when I first walked onto that cul-de-sac and saw the amount of work that they put in. Even the cars are old and molded and the windows are cracked. They didn’t spare any detail.”

The Last of Us Episode 5 Henry Sam Keivonn Woodard and Lamar Johnson

Keivonn Woodard and Lamar Johnson in “The Last of Us”

Liane Hentscher/HBO

It’s that immersion that, despite the demands of filming, kept Johnson around set for the pyrotechnics even when he wasn’t directly involved.

“I actually have a video on my phone of the explosion. It was amazing how practical everything was. They actually blew the car up. That’s a massive, ‘OK, cool. That’s what we’re doing’ moment. It was two or three weeks of nights. So, tough hours. But it was a lot of fun,” Johnson said.

The morning after Sam and Henry’s escape from the neighborhood, the unthinkable happens. Sam, now Infected, tries to attack Ellie. Henry shoots him to protect the rest of the group. Realizing what he’s done, he turns the gun on himself. The sequence is another in a long list of heartbreaks that fans of the original game knew were coming at some point. Henry and Sam’s deaths in “The Last of Us” retroactively add a poignancy for their short time on the show, a sign that (along with Frank and Bill) characters can make an indelible impression quickly.

Still, Woodard did try to do what he could to stay on the show a little longer.

“I remember when I was reading the script, and I saw that Sam died and I did not want my character to die. And I had a discussion with the director letting him know, ‘I don’t want them to die.’ But I eventually had to accept it,” Woodard said.

Johnson said that he was aware of Henry’s fate through the audition process, but never wanted to let that ending diminish or get in the way of anything that came before it.

“It’s about not getting ahead of yourself. You understand the arc so that you can inform your choices in that moment, but it’s about just being present in whatever scene it is,” Johnson said. “I knew that Henry and Sam were going to have the that scene, but I tried to not think of that prior to me doing it. I just wanted to be present for Keivonn and for our scenes and really build the relationship before I got to that place where things all crumble.”

“The Last of Us” airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and is available to stream on HBO Max. 

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