SPOILER ALERT: The story includes details about Episode 9 of HBO’s The Last Of Us.
Even in the Season 1 finale of The Last of Us, bosses Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann had one more surprise in store. The introduction of Ellie’s (Bella Ramsey) mother, Anna, played by none other than Ashley Johnson, who originated the role of Ellie Williams in the video game series, is quite a big deal. In the game, not much is known about Ellie’s mom, Anna, as she died shortly after giving birth to Ellie. Nor do players know why Ellie has immunity to the Cordyceps infection.
In deviating from the original source material, Mazin and Druckmann further enrich the world and lore of The Last of Us. In the show, Mazin and Druckmann provide eagle-eyed gamers, and general viewing audiences, with answers to Ellie’s mysterious immunity by showing us a brief glimpse at the final moments of Anna’s life that got cut short by a rogue encounter with an infected person, which having been bit just mere moments before cutting Ellie’s umbilical cord, seems to allude to why she has natural immunity.
Here Johnson talks about her new role in the series, watching Bella Ramsey, and her excitement for Season 2.
DEADLINE: This year marks the 10th anniversary of The Last of Us video game, along with the third anniversary of the game sequel. And considering that you’ve originated the role of Ellie in arguably one of the most iconic characters in video game history, how has it been stepping into this world for you, or has it felt like you never really left?
ASHLEY JOHNSON: 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.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about your journey in this episode. You play Ellie’s mom, and holy moly that’s so layered. When exactly did you find out you’d be involved in the show? And when you were offered this part to play the mother to a character you originated — did you cry immediately?
JOHNSON: Oh my God, of course. 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.
DEADLINE: We don’t know much about Anna outside of stories from Marlene or notes scattered throughout the series. However, your portrayal of her seems to mimic Ellie’s toughness. What went into your performance to bring this character to life?
JOHNSON: 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.
DEADLINE: What has it been like watching Bella Ramsey embody this character? Has there been anything in particular that has changed your perspective on Ellie in the series?
JOHNSON: 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.
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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.
DEADLINE: Looking ahead to Season 2, what are you excited to see adapted?
JOHNSON: 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.
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