The fable of Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us is one simple premise, says Merle Dandridge: “The core of this story is about love and what you do for love. How love can completely demolish you and also bring you the greatest joy. And that is universal.”
The actor, who voiced Marlene in Naughty Dog’s critically acclaimed, award-winning video games—The Last of Us: Part I (2013) and Part II (2020)—has reprised her role once more in HBO’s anticipated Last of Us television adaptation, which premiered on January 15, 2023.
The Last of Us is set 20 years after the collapse of civilization. Much of the global population has been decimated by a pandemic, a mutant strain of parasitic fungus that, when it invades a host, gradually replaces the host’s tissue with its own over the course of days. It infiltrates their brain quickly and ultimately takes over completely.
You could call “the infected” zombies, but that wouldn’t really be doing them justice—Neil Druckmann (co-president of Naughty Dog) and his team of artists went to “great lengths to create a full biological cycle for these things” and the level of detail is astounding.
What’s left of humankind is restricted to authoritarian quarantine zones (QZs) where disobedience is harshly punished. Weapons smuggler Joel (played by Pedro Pascal), is still mourning the loss of his daughter, Sarah, two decades later. On a mission with his partner Tess (Anna Torv) to recover a stolen car battery and weapons cache, they bump into Marlene (Dandridge), the leader of the rebel militia group, the Fireflies. Marlene approaches Tess and Joel with a proposition: Smuggle a 14-year-old by the name of Ellie (Bella Ramsey) out of the QZ to a remote Fireflies base and in exchange, Marlene will double their supplies.
What is so special about this opinionated teenager, who Joel and Tess are risking their lives for? They quickly learn she’s somehow immune to the disease and that could help researchers find a cure. Thus, they embark on a long and perilous journey across the country. The real heart of this story, however, is not the dangers Ellie and Joel encounter along the way but the relationship that forms between a grieving father and another young life he’s sworn to protect.
Some people will watch this show without having experienced the games, which is unfortunate in this writer’s opinion, but you certainly don’t have to have played the game to enjoy the show. In fact, actors in the show who hadn’t played it were encouraged not to. Those who have played the video games, however, will be absolutely floored by how faithful and sensitive the show’s creators Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Druckmann have been to the source material. Dandridge was, too. “I get emotional just thinking about it because, reading every script, I felt a moment where my entire spirit rose to it,” she reflects. “I will tell you that there were times when I would walk on set—I did a lot of hanging out because I just couldn’t believe how wonderful and beautiful it was… I could not believe the accuracy.”
You’ve played this character twice before—once 10 years ago and another more recently in the Last of Us: Part II. How did you find out about the HBO adaptation?
I first found out about it through Neil Druckmann, who has been such an extraordinary creative collaborator for the past 10 years. I feel as though when you find a creative collaboration that is so nourishing, you try to lean into that. Tacked on behind that was the idea that he felt very strongly that I should be a part of it.
What did you bring to this character that was new or different from what you’d done previously?
Craig was able to bring a new understanding of Marlene that deepened where Neil and I had left off. He saw a weight and a weariness there. Strength and purpose and a desire to move forward in the cause of leading the Fireflies, as well as being a beacon of hope for everyone. But living in this hopeless environment for 20 years, there’s a heaviness that comes with it.
Any specific details you can share?
Marlene’s wig was a big topic of discussion. Every single detail was so thought out and what I loved was, as soon as we put the first version of Marlene’s wig, Craig immediately came over to the hair trailer, he Facetimes Neil Druckmann and all three of us talked about it. Even to the tiniest degree of how much gray was in the wig, they both went back and forth. I can only imagine if that’s how we talked about just the degree of gray in Marlene’s wig, how many conversations like that happened in every crevice of the show?
Can you tease any Easter Eggs fans should look out for?
I get emotional just thinking about it because, with every script I read, I felt a moment where my entire spirit rose to it. I had several moments where I was like, “I can’t believe what I just read.” Further down in the course of the show, for what was put on the page for Marlene, I could say I had a spiritual moment.
This deep abiding gratitude for myself, for the character, and then also for the fans that understand some of the things they’re going to get to see on the screen that may have been a tiny footnote but a powerful cornerstone to the story. I remember walking to set one day and getting ready to shoot something that I had to emotionally prepare for because I knew it was going to be heavy. And I happened to walk into video village and watch the scene before me. It leveled me.
Because of who was in it?
Because of what was happening. And also, just because I am so attached to the story. Every time I see something new and exciting, I’m extraordinarily moved as a fan. I also carry the attachment of those who love the game.
From what I’ve seen, I was blown away by how accurately the show has recreated some of those environments and it’s absolutely gorgeous. What was it like walking onto the set each day?
When I walked onto that set and what the fans will see when they experience it is that everyone who was brought on board cared deeply and fundamentally about this story. Knowing that there is that kind of cohesiveness, that kind of passion, that nobody was just punching in. Everybody was buying into the power in this world.
I do want to briefly talk about those fans that are so protective of this IP that nothing will satisfy them. Do you ever think about them?
There’s an awareness but you can’t create art anticipating somebody’s reaction. I’ll also say we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that kind of passion and attachments and, dare I say ownership, that the fans have over the story and this world so for that, I’m extremely grateful. I believe most people will be very, very pleased. If not on their first watch, they’ll go back and watch it again.
I hesitate to use the phrase “strong female characters” here because, at this point, that feels so reductive, but so much of this story is driven by women.
The female characters are very strong, very capable. I’ll just speak for Marlene. On top of her being so ferocious in her steadfastness for her cause, there is strength in her vulnerability. That was very meaningful to me; that you can be that leader, that torchbearer, that resistance against a regime or a government that seems impenetrable. You can be that—a badass soldier. But at the core of it, there is a deep, wounded vulnerability that she is walking past and through every single day.
There’s this one part in the game where Ellie discovers a girl’s journal from before the pandemic; stressing about superficial stuff like boys and clothes, and Ellie says, “Is this what they used to worry about?”. It really puts things into perspective, huh?
I think in our understanding, especially in the transformation that everyone has gone through with the COVID-19 pandemic; people are looking inward at their emotional blind spots more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Last of Us is available to stream on HBO Max. New episodes are released Sundays at 9 p.m. ET. Here’s how to watch it for free.
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