Isabela Merced on being cast in The Last of Us and the "amazing experience" of playing the game

Isabela Merced discusses how she was cast as Dina in The Last of Us, working with co-star Bella Ramsey, and the "amazing experience" of playing The Last of Us Part II video game.
World Premiere Of Sony Pictures' "Madame Web" - Arrivals
World Premiere Of Sony Pictures' "Madame Web" - Arrivals / Lionel Hahn/GettyImages

Right now, HBO is in the middle of filming the second season of The Last of Us, its hit post-apocalyptic drama based on the video game series by Naughty Dog. The show's first season saw hardened survivor Joel (Pedro Pascal) escort precocious teenager Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across a ruined United States filled with mushroom-headed zombies, cannibal cults and opportunistic raiders, all in the hopes of creating a cure for the fungal plague which derailed society in the early 21st century. Joel and Ellie's journey didn't end quite how they expected; when the dust settled, Joel had killed an entire contingent of freedom fighters who were trying to engineer the cure, because it was either that or allow them to kill Ellie in order to save the rest of humanity.

That's the setup for season 2, which will begin adapting the controversial sequel game The Last of Us Part II. Season 1 ended with Joel and Ellie headed back to Jackson, Wyoming, where a community was flourishing out in middle of the wilderness. The Last of Us Part II picks up the story five years later, and will feature lots of new characters, including Ellie's love interest Dina, who will be played by Isabela Merced (Madame Web).

Merced recently spoke with Collider about The Last of Us season 2 while out promoting her new film Turtles All The Way Down, discussing her experience working on the series as well as her familiarity with the source material. "Yeah. I have been a fan of the series," Merced said. "I actually hadn’t played the game until I found out about me potentially being in it, but I only played the second game and that was such an experience. I had a lot of fun. People say, 'How did you have fun playing it? It’s a very sad story.' But it’s just so well-made. When you see the Bloaters, your heart starts racing, your hands are all sweaty, and you can barely hold onto the controller. It’s just an amazing experience. I consider anything that makes my heart rate go up to be a fun experience, so I enjoyed it. Great work from Neil Druckmann."

I think her comment about the terrifying Bloaters will resonate with just about anyone who's played The Last of Us games. Isabela Merced is one of us!

the-last-of-us bloater
The Last of Us Episode 5, Photograph by Courtesy of HBO. /

The actor also revealed some details about how she was cast in the series. For starters, she didn't audition for the role; Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann had Merced in mind for Dina and approached her about being in the series.

"I have to say they offered it to me, which is crazy coming out of my mouth," Merced recalled. "Neil and Craig had reached out to my team and they said, 'We wanna meet with her for The Last of Us ?' And my team was like, 'Hey, for what role?' And they didn’t specify. They just said, 'Have her watch the game on YouTube.' And I was like, 'I wanna play the game.' And then, we had a meeting and they proposed it at the meeting. Usually, you don’t ever say anything because it could always change. You never know what’s gonna happen. And then, the strike happened. But it was just a mind-blowing instant connection with Craig and Neil. By the way, Craig and I have a lot of issues in common. Our brains work faster than our mouths, and I just love that about him. He’s definitely one of my go-tos for a life guru, in general, now."

Merced's comments about the strikes stand out to me. Back when the Hollywood writers and actors strikes were happening in 2023, we heard rumblings that The Last of Us was very close to casting several actors before they had to pull the plug while studios sorted out how to pay workers more equitably. It sounds like Merced was one of those actors who was near to sealing the deal at the time.

Bella Ramsey, Isabela Merced
ELLE's 2023 Women In Hollywood Celebration Presented By Ralph Lauren, Harry Winston And Viarae - / Phillip Faraone/GettyImages

Isabela Merced and Bella Ramsey's chemistry was there "from the first day"

In addition to talking about how she joined The Last of Us, Merced also spoke a bit about working with co-star Bella Ramsey. The Last of Us games are often structured so that the player controls one character and has a second partner character following them around. This was Joel and Ellie in the first game; in the second, one of the pairs that players spend a lot of time with are Ellie and her partner Dina. Suffice it to say, we're expecting to see a lot of these two together in the show. I'm excited to see how Merced and Ramsey portray Dina and Ellie's relationship, and Merced is excited for viewers to see them together.

"I’m so excited for people to see my chemistry with Bella," she said. "Bella and I have so much chemistry. From the first day, it was there. There’s no work to be done. I really respect Bella. I just saw Catherine Called Birdy and Bella has such range and just an honesty about their work. I’m learning so much. I’m very honored to be here."

Filming continues on The Last of Us season 2. We'll be watching it sometime in 2025.

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