Why didn’t more actors from The Last of Us game play the same roles in the show?

The Last of Us. Photograph by Courtesy of HBO.
The Last of Us. Photograph by Courtesy of HBO. /

The Last of Us is HBO’s newest hit show. Adapted from the Naughty Dog video game series of the same name, it tells the story of Joel and Ellie, survivors of a zombie apocalypse who must trek across a ruined United States.

The original game won accolades for its story, which was brought vividly to life by actors like Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, who played Joel and Ellie. On the show, their roles are played by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey.

Most of the characters from the game are played by new actors…with the exception of Merle Dandridge. In the game, she played Marlene, the leader of a rebel group called the Fireflies. She has the same role on the show. “I think Merle Dandridge was probably a bit younger than Marlene was [when The Last of Us came out for the PlayStation 3] in 2013,” showrunner Craig Mazin told Entertainment Weekly. “Or at least Marlene had gone through the apocalypse. She was a little more weathered and [had] a little more grey in her hair.”

A decade after the game, Dandridge had the right look to play the role in live-action. “It’s 10 years later [after the first game’s debut] and she does have this wonderful gravitas,” Mazin continued. “So it was really a question of, ‘Hey, if we just wig her, I think we’re there.’ That was an easy one.”

Marlene has an expanded role in HBO’s The Last of Us show

Not only is Dandridge in the show, but Marlene will get an expanded role; we saw her interacting with Ellie in the premiere, and it was clear they had an established rapport. Neil Druckmann, who wrote the games and is producing the HBO series, hinted that there are clues about their relationship in the original video game.

“It doesn’t get into the same kind of details as we do in the show, but there is a recording that you could find at the end of the game all the way in the hospital that she spells out some of her relationship with Ellie’s origin,” Druckmann said. “I don’t wanna say more to spoil it, but because we don’t have to adhere to one perspective — in this part of the game, you’re playing as Joel in the quarantine zone, so everything you’re seeing is through his eyes — we said, how can we introduce Ellie earlier? That was an opportunity to start showing more of that relationship with Marlene, which then has a greater payoff later because we’ve established the relationship more explicitly here.”

We have another eight episodes of The Last of Us before we wrap on season 1, so we’ll be on the lookout for more Marlene.

Why didn’t Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson play Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us on HBO?

So if Dandridge could make the jump from game to TV, why couldn’t actors like Baker and Johnson? It’s easy enough to see why Johnson couldn’t play Ellie; as Mazin points out, Johnson is in her 30s, so it would be a stretch for her to play a 14-year-old girl.

As for Baker, Mazin said that he’s “so physically different from Joel,” which…I guess? I mean, he’s a 40-something dude like Pedro Pascal. He’s a tall, slim guy. Eh, it kind of feels like they just wanted an actor with more gravity for the TV version.

That said, Baker and Johnson do appear in the series, just not in their original roles. Baker plays James, a senior member of a group of settlers; he appeared in the game and will have an expanded role in the show. Johnson plays Anna, a pregnant woman on the run.

Jeffrey Pierce, who played Joel’s brother Tommy in the game, will also appear in the show, in a newly created role. “It’s not just about fan service,” Mazin said of their inclusion. “It’s a dramatic genetic connection between the game and the show. They needed to be there.”

New episodes of The Last of Us drop on Sundays on HBO and HBO Max.

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