‘The Last of Us’ Star Merle Dandridge on the Conflicting Emotions of the Finale’s Tragic Flashback

[This story contains spoilers for The Last of Us’ season finale, “Look for the Light.”]

Merle Dandridge had the unique opportunity to reprise her role from The Last of Us video game series on HBO’s live-action adaptation, and so far, she’s the only performer from the games that can say that. Dandridge plays Marlene, the leader of the rebellious Fireflies, and she also happens to be the oldest friend of Anna (Ashley Johnson), Ellie’s (Bella Ramsey) mother.

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In the Ali Abbasi-directed season one finale, “Look for the Light,” which was written by series co-creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, Dandridge took on one of her most challenging scenes to date, as Marlene, during a flashback, had to put an infected Anna to death shortly after she’d given birth to Ellie. But before Marlene pulled the trigger, she made a promise to Anna that she’d look after her child.

The rub of the scene is that Ashley Johnson played the original Ellie in the video games, and despite her portraying a new character in Anna, Dandridge still had a very tough time executing the very actor she once protected in the games.

“So my heart’s affinity as Marlene to always protect Ellie — and by her connection to it, protect Ashley — made it so difficult to be put in a position to have to end [Ashley’s new character’s] life. But it was an important piece for the audience,” Dandridge tells The Hollywood Reporter.

The flashback was also essential to the present-day conflict between Marlene and Joel (Pedro Pascal) in that she completely understood why he wouldn’t want to sacrifice Ellie’s life for the sake of a cure. However, their shared connection as Ellie’s surrogate parents didn’t stop Joel from going on a murderous rampage to rescue Ellie from the operating table, and so Dandridge got to recreate Marlene’s brutal death scene in a whole new manner.

“It was difficult to lay in that blood, and I had a hard day on set that day,” Dandridge recalls. “Wrestling with the physicality and taking on that kind of violence — and also carrying all of Marlene’s hopes, and then watching those things die in that scene — was some heavy stuff.”

Below, during a recent spoiler conversation with THR, Dandridge also explains that while Marlene and Joel are both at fault for robbing Ellie of her agency, she still contends that her character has a stronger case than Joel does.

So, what were the circumstances of your original casting as Marlene in the Last of Us video game over a decade ago?

It was an audition like any other theatrical situation. I got a script for a really great character, and I immediately identified with her and understood her strength and the moral conundrum that she was in the middle of. And so my imagination immediately went wild. That’s the first indication that it’s a great character when building their circumstances and creating a full emotional life comes so easily.

And flash forward to being in the room with Neil Druckmann, who created the game and is executive producing on the HBO series, I was reading opposite Troy Baker, who played James in [The Last of Us] episode eight, but played Joel in all of the games. And I immediately felt like I found my tribe. So the coupling of a great script and character with really fantastic people to work opposite was a recipe for something wonderful, and it continues to be ten years later, if you can believe that.

Natasha Mumba and Merle Dandridge in The Last of Us
Merle Dandridge and Natasha Mumba in The Last of Us

When you first heard the announcement that HBO was making a live-action adaptation of The Last of Us, did you get your hopes at all that you might be involved? Or did you temper your expectations?

My first reaction was excitement for the franchise, honestly, and knowing that Neil Druckmann was going to be directly involved meant that it was going to be beautifully served. I hadn’t met [showrunner] Craig Mazin at the time; I just knew him from his obviously extraordinary work. So I felt joy for the new audience that was going to be able to interact with this story that I’ve loved for so long, and after talking to people who haven’t played the game about their reactions, they’re just as, if not more, emotionally bought-in and emotionally twisted-up by the storytelling. So I felt excitement for the new audience and all of the artists that were going to be able to interact with this story in a new way.

Strangely enough, my first impulse wasn’t about self. I don’t know that I even put that on the table when I heard about the HBO adaptation. Of course, I always hoped because there had been several different iterations over the years. Jeffrey Pierce [who played Tommy in the games and Perry on the show] and I had both been involved in a table read for a film version. I was going through old boxes and pulled that script out, and so I texted it to Neil. I was like, “Remember this?” (Laughs.) There were such subtle differences because they had to compact the story into the length of a film, and I’m so glad that the right format found this story. There’s so much fertile soil [at HBO] for storytelling, and I’m excited that it found the right place.

So how was the news delivered that you’d be the only actor from the games to reprise their role in live action? 

I got a phone call from Neil Druckmann and he said, “Merle, it is my great honor to cast you again as Marlene.” I think he said that it was for the third or fourth time, but it was actually the fifth time. (Laughs.)

Merle Dandridge in The Last of US.
Merle Dandridge in The Last of Us

The season finale’s opening scene with Ellie’s mother was uncharted territory for you, as Marlene was the one who had to end Anna’s (Ashley Johnson, who played Ellie in the games) life following Ellie’s birth. Did that remotely align with the backstory you’d already envisioned the last decade?

Actually killing Anna was not in my backstory, but it was right for this version. In the backstory that I had created, Marlene was there when Anna died. Marlene’s dying promise to her best friend is the last manifestation of any mirror that can reflect back to her who she was before the outbreak and before she became a rebel leader. It’s the only tether to her life of having family and love, and having grown up together and going through what they’ve gone through all these years, it adds another level of unconscionable heartbreak to have had that experience. But in the present day, it gives the audience a more emotional attachment to the struggle that Marlene is having within herself, and even though she is a steely soldier, she is indeed cleaved in two by this choice.

Merle Dandridge and Pedro Pascal in The Last of US.
Merle Dandridge and Pedro Pascal in The Last of Us

Marlene volunteers Ellie (Bella Ramsey) for this experimental surgery in order to hopefully develop a cure, but Joel, understandably, takes issue with the fact that the procedure will lead to her death. Since Marlene withheld that key detail from Ellie, are they both at fault for not leaving the choice up to Ellie?

Well, I would say that there might be a question mark around that. I know that Marlene didn’t explicitly offer [that information to] Ellie because she didn’t want to alarm her, but I do think that they have a more pragmatic relationship. She might have even alluded to it, which gives Ellie even more conflict in not having had the agency that Joel has taken away from her. Ultimately, black and white, yes, they are both taking this choice from her, but I do think that Marlene has given her a little bit more information. I don’t think she’s explicitly lied to her. She maybe omitted some truths, but she would not explicitly lie to her.

Also, in the midst of this, the relationship between Marlene and Joel is fraught with a lot of history between them. As Marlene put it, they’re both capable of so much, and they have abided with each other in parallel lines. But there’s a chasm and animosity between them because Marlene’s relationship with his brother, Tommy [Gabriel Luna], as a Firefly, caused a physical and emotional rift between them. So there’s another element of him not giving any two Fs about what Marlene wants in this situation, even though she’s throwing out every argument and the kitchen sink at him, trying to negotiate with him.

Joel knows ultimately that Marlene would not rest [to find Ellie again]. He knows that she has exhausted every possibility and brought every argument to the table and questioned these doctors ad nauseam and made sure that this was the only way to move this hope for a new future forward. And because of the flashback, the audience now understands the sacrifice that Marlene is making on a more emotional and visceral level. The audience understands how seriously she takes this choice and how important it is for the greater good.

Was it quite surreal to recreate Marlene’s death scene on set and in full costume?

Yeah, it was surreal. It was difficult to lay in that blood, and I had a hard day on set that day.  Wrestling with the physicality and taking on that kind of violence — and also carrying all of Marlene’s hopes, and then watching those things die in that scene — was some heavy stuff, man.

Merle Dandridge in The Last of US.
Merle Dandridge in The Last of Us

Marlene has a flashback in the Last of Us Part II video game that would add new context and perspective to the season one finale. Are your fingers crossed that you’ll get to make at least one more trip up north to shoot a version of that scene in season two?

That would be amazing. The great thing about this story is that it can be non-linear. We have the general through-line, but it’s peppered with so much backstory that enriches the story that we’re telling.

The season one finale’s flashback is a perfect example of that, and it gave you the chance to work with the original Ellie, Ashley Johnson, in a whole new context.

Yeah, I got to reunite with Ashley Johnson, who I have loved for so long. She’s just such a wonderful gal and a great scene partner. So we got to have a good time together, but we also got to share this brand new moment for the audience that enriches their experience of this world.

Marlene and Ellie also have more time together in the HBO adaptation, and we see when they first meet [while Ellie was tied up in the series premiere]. But I think it is alluded to that they have a shorthand already. This is the brilliance of Bella Ramsey, but we see in a short time her inherent understanding of who Marlene is, how much she cares for her and that she is, for all intents and purposes, a mother figure to her, rather than having this slow shared trust between them. So my heart’s affinity as Marlene to always protect Ellie — and by her connection to it, protect Ashley — made it so difficult to be put in a position to have to end [Ashley’s new character’s] life. But it was an important piece for the audience.

As far as technique, would you say that your performance in both mediums is mostly the same? Or did live-action give you room to expand a bit? 

Yeah, live-action gave me an opportunity to play Marlene with my entire instrument, rather than my voice and perhaps just the physical echo of what I might do in the mocap suit. This was an opportunity to bring my whole spirit and my whole self into bringing her to life. And, really interestingly, I realized when I first stepped on to set that there was a little bit of trepidation. I was used to interacting with Marlene in a certain modus operandi, and this freedom gave me some nerves at first. And then all bets were off, so I just loved it. I’ve loved being able to interact with this character in so many different ways, and she’s just a gift that keeps on giving. She’s made of such strong, stern, noble stuff.

Once you shot the pilot, how long was the gap until you returned to set for the finale? 

Ten months. It was also tricky scheduling wise, because I had two other shows I was working on. So it was like, “How can I say what I’m going to be doing in a year from now?” But we made it work, and I would drop everything to make this one work because it is that important to me. There was a time where I was going to come in the middle of shooting for another little piece, but perhaps we’ll be able to do that another time. It didn’t work out for a million different reasons. But I was happy to be a part of the genesis of the season and then also be a part of the grand finale. (Laughs.)

When animation or video games are adapted to live action, there’s often very little synergy between the different mediums, and I know that it’s been a sore subject for a number of performers who’ve originated a particular role through voice and/or performance capture. But Neil and Craig really made a point to include key players like you, Ashley Johnson, Jeffrey Pierce and Troy Baker in the show. Are you hopeful that other live-action adaptations will follow The Last of Us’ lead with regard to the original performers?

I think it shows a lot of respect and care for the original storytelling and the people who brought those characters to life. Including some of the [original] DNA in The Last of Us and doing it in such a creative way is important. They’ve made sure that it serves this new medium well, but it also cares for the audience that the video games brought in. The Last of Us has made it to live action because of the fandom and because of the excitement that the fans have had. They have abided with the original IP for so long that it is able to have this transitional success. So, to serve that original audience is a wink and a thank you, while also having the creativity to expand and give those beloved characters some fresh life.

Decades from now, when you’re reminiscing about The Last of Us season one, what day or moment will you likely recall first? 

It was 3:00 AM, and I had just gotten back to Calgary. And instead of going to the hotel, I went to the cul-de-sac set that they built, and there were hundreds of stunt performers in all different levels of Cordyceps. And then Craig Mazin walked out of the crowd and gave me the biggest hug. He was like, “Let me show you around.” And so I watched the buildings burning in the background as he took me by the hand through all of the makeup stations and into this particular tent where I laid eyes on the Bloater for the first time. It was as if all of my greatest imagination and joy around this game and this project came to life with my own personal Disneyland. It was thrilling to feel and see all the excitement and joy in the air, and the passion that every artist had on that set. There were some tough days in the weather outside and there were some emotional days inside, but there were tons of laughs because we knew every step of the way that we were making something beautiful. So I hope that the audience continues to be moved by these characters for years to come.

The Last of Us is now available on HBO Max. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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