“The Last of Us” could have just been the story of two people moving through a fundamentally changed world. Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) are the main figures in both the original game series and this TV adaptation from co-creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann. But the backbone of both versions are those individuals who that pair of travelers meet along their treacherous journey. The “Last of Us” guest stars come in all forms across nine episodes, from family members thought lost to predatory zealots to strangers finding their own best chances to stay alive.
For the people behind some of those characters, those roles were more than just a job. Lamar Johnson took the audience through the world of Harry, a conflicted resident of what’s left of Kansas City, someone just trying to provide for his little brother Sam (Keivonn Woodard). A pair of flashback-heavy episodes set the stage for two other key players. As one half of a decades-long look at life and love spent in the aftermath of tragedy, Murray Bartlett brought patience and warmth to Frank. And when the attention turns to a key part in Ellie’s story, Storm Reid was there to help show Riley’s one last night of an important bond.
IndieWire spoke with all three about what stood out from their time on the show, and the various elements of that experience they’ll shepherd with them going forward in their careers and lives.
One thing that came up over the course of these conversations was the attention to detail that came with “The Last of Us.” Bartlett and episode co-star Nick Offerman were just two of many performers who arrived to set and were instantly reminded of what they were stepping into.
“We were all under Covid protocols, but we could wander around, masked. We had the freedom to explore and imagine what that would have been like if the other 150 people on set weren’t there,” Bartlett said. “I hadn’t really given a thought to ‘How big is this show?’ So when we arrived to that set, where they’d built a neighborhood, I think Nick and I were both like, ‘[cringing sound] Shit, we better not mess this up. There’s a there’s a lot of resources in this.’ Fortunately, they were really determined to not let the beautiful human stories in this show get lost in this incredible world that they created physically. But it was amazing to be able to wander around in this quite vast bunker town that Bill had created.”
Ellie and Riley’s night largely takes place inside the remains of a working mall. Not having to work quite as much from scratch, Reid said that working inside something that was surprisingly close to the real thing certainly made the process more intuitive.
“Of course some of the set scenes we did on stage, but I think it helped that we were in an actual abandoned mall in Canada. I had never experienced being in an abandoned mall. It really laid the ground for what those scenes felt and looked like. Being in that environment, we had the opportunity and all the space to play and find different things,” Reid said. “Each part of the set was so different than the other. You have the arcade, the Halloween store, even when they’re in the the food court and the taco place. I think it was very realistic for the time and especially for the world that the characters are inhabiting, but it didn’t feel foreign or fake in any way.”
Few actors on “The Last of Us” had as daunting a task as Johnson, who had to deliver one of the game’s most heartbreaking moments, a sequence without many words that has to convey all the tragedy and sadness of losing a loved one in the blink of an eye. For all the psychological weight of that morning in the motel, Johnson said that he benefited from being in a practical production environment where so many of the small touches helped to inform his part in it.
“There were stains in the carpets. It felt so lived-in. Even the doorknobs were rusted over. The walls, the ceiling, every single corner, the furniture, the choice of lamps and lighting. Details in that room really brought me to the space that we were in,” Johnson said. “The practicality of everything was there for us. They had prop guns but they also had real ones too, in case I want to feel the weight of the gun. They had all these different things available to us that really were conducive to our performance and helped us get to the places that that we needed to be.”
That spirit of immersiveness and exploration carried over into the off days, too. Amidst the physical and mental prep work for some of these challenging sequences, being on location did offer the chance for decompressing in one of Canada’s biggest cities. Balancing the weight of being ready for those sets and taking some personal time became a key part of the overall process.
“I would do a lot of work in my apartment as well, so my apartment was even attached to some of the work. An opportunity to just remove myself from those spaces, sit down and maybe do some people watching was a big thing for me,” Johnson said. “I’d go out for dinner with myself and maybe have a glass of wine. Just enjoy some time outside of set and put myself in a different space, a different environment. There was a restaurant called A1 in Calgary that was really good and I used to go to a lot.”
“My mom and I are big on exploring wherever we are in the world, when it’s safe to do so,” Reid said. “So on the weekends, we enjoyed trying new restaurants. One weekend we went to the spa and walked around the city. I always love having a balance of enjoying my time, but also resting. I’m big on sleep. Once I got my rest I was ready to go out and explore.”
Each episode demanded attention to some particular key sequences, which all wrestled with profound ideas in their own way. Reid’s episode culminated in a scene after an attack, where both Ellie and Riley assume that their deaths are imminent. Embracing the fact that there was room for hope, even in the bleakest of endings, became an anchoring part of Reid’s experience.
“The scene just being so poetic and so beautiful, but so heartbreaking at the same time, to be able to let audiences have their own interpretation of what happens in those final moments with Ellie and Riley I think is is really cool,” Reid said. “Obviously we end up knowing what happens. But to be able to just have that gentle closing where they’re just in each other’s embrace I think leaves some peace with the audience rather than just emotionally wrecking everybody. I think everybody was already there at that point.”
Johnson spent a majority of his time alongside Woodard, which included some scenes with Harry and Sam talking about death in plain terms. Rather than see that as a burden for each of them, those particularly deep scripted conversations and moments led to a chance for the two to connect.
“Keivonn did such a great job of grasping that idea,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it really took too much for him to understand the circumstance and what’s happening. He took cues from me. There’d be moments where we’d be talking, and we have a scene that we’re doing and it’s quite weighty and he would also see me need time to process and get into the mental space that I needed to. If he saw me in a quiet moment, he would also take that quiet moment with himself.”
The long, long time that Frank and Bill spend together meant that so many of the simplest actions and decisions suddenly carried years, even decades, of weight behind it. Maybe the sweetest scene in the episode finds the two of them tasting a strawberry for the first time after the post-outbreak panic. Bringing that special feeling to the banal and ordinary left a little impression that continued on after filming.
“The beautiful thing about playing that scene of, ‘What if these things weren’t available?’ when you have the chance to suspend disbelief and really taste a strawberry for the first time, it’s extraordinary,” Bartlett said. “There’s such great lessons in this episode and this show about that kind of perspective and really appreciating things. I’m not saying that every strawberry I eat from now on is going to be this orgasmic experience. But it definitely gives me pause.”
If acting is about sharing stories, sometimes that extends to how you take in the finished product. Even though watching yourself on screen can be a complicated, sometimes even fraught, process, there was enough in the show to let their work speak for itself.
“I watched with my family. I didn’t really say too much prior to everyone watching the episode. They got quite emotional, especially at the end there,” Johnson said. “To have my family there and watch me in the show, to have this arc that I did with with these characters, it was really special.”
“I was patiently waiting. I was watching every episode Sunday night or Monday night,” Reid said. “I didn’t know what to expect. And I don’t typically love watching myself on screen, but I was gathered around my family, my friends, my team, so I felt super-duper comfortable. It was probably the most comfortable I’ve felt watching myself in a really, really long time. So I enjoyed every bit of it.”
“I usually start to watch something that I’ve done. Sometimes I continue. And sometimes I’m like, ‘Okay, it’s better that I don’t watch this.’ But I got really involved in this story. You know, it’s probably the only thing that I’ve watched that I’ve been in where I cried. And it wasn’t because of me, it was because I just think it’s such a beautiful story. I cried every time I read the script, and it was very emotional to make the show. So it brought all of that stuff back.”
Part of the breadth of the “The Last of Us” is that its guest stars are all at different points in the trajectory of their careers. It’s offered some a chance to burst into people’s consciousness. For others, it’s a continuation of stellar recent work. In Reid’s case, it was a reminder of what lasting impact this work can have.
“I try to be a part of intentional projects and be as purposeful as possible. Even though ‘The Last of Us’ would be considered a genre piece, we are talking about things that are important. And more importantly, we are depicting lives of people that are real. It’s authentic,” Reid said. “To be able to be a representative of those stories and representatives for young women, young black women, young black queer women, is an honor and something that I’m always going to be forever grateful for.”
One thing that added to Johnson’s time on the show is that he got to see everyone else see the finish line, too. His scenes were part of the last days of filming for the whole crew, the culmination of a years-long process for so many of the people involved.
“Being a part of this show, to have an opportunity to be a part of something so special, maybe it really set me up for disappointment in the future because it was just so special. But at the same time, it made me want to continue to challenge myself. I believe on the other side of challenge is growth, and I always want to continue to grow through my career as an artist. I want to work on things that maybe I might not have thought about stepping into, working with people that I’m inspired by,” Johnson said.
Sometimes there are stories of performers getting to take a memento with them from set after filming wraps: a stray prop, a random bit of set design. In the case of these three, all seemed perfectly content with the idea that they didn’t need any physical reminders. All the positive emotions from their experiences are locked safely away in memories.
That said, Bartlett did get one last taste of something that Frank would definitely appreciate.
“Craig did send Nick and I, as a sort of a wrap gift, an incredible bottle of Beaujolais that should be paired with rabbit. So that was pretty, pretty extraordinary. And great drinking,” Bartlett said.
“The Last of Us” is now available to stream on HBO Max.