How Merle Dandridge became the only The Last of Us game actor to reprise role in the series

Warning: Mild spoilers from HBO's The Last of Us premiere are discussed in this article.

Merle Dandridge holds a unique position within the cast of HBO's The Last of Us. The BAFTA Award winner is the only legacy actor from the original video games to play the same role in the live-action series adaptation, that of Marlene, the leader of the rebel group known as the Fireflies.

Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, who originated the roles of Joel and Ellie, will appear as different characters, with Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey taking over as the sci-fi drama's two leads. Jeffrey Pierce, who voiced Joel's brother Tommy in the games, will see Gabriel Luna take over the role he helped originate, but he'll be on hand playing a character newly created for the series.

Most of this, obviously, had to do with practicality.

"I think Merle Dandridge was probably a bit younger than Marlene was in 2013," series writer and executive producer Craig Mazin tells EW, noting the year the first game released. "Or at least Marlene had gone through the apocalypse. She was a little more weathered and [had] a little more grey in her hair."

The Last of Us
The Last of Us

HBO Merle Dandridge appears as Marleen, her character from 'The Last of Us' video games, in the HBO series.

Dandridge, at 47, is neither weathered nor grey. "Don't ever stand next to her in a picture," warns Neil Druckmann, who created the games and now heads the show with Mazin. "It won't do you anything."

"You look like dog s--- next to her, I guarantee you," Mazin agrees. "She's also eternally youthful. It's 10 years later [after the first game's debut] and she does have this wonderful gravitas. So it was really a question of, 'Hey, if we just wig her, I think we're there.' That was an easy one. It's obviously not anything we could contemplate with, say, Troy Baker."

Baker, Mazin notes, is "so physically different from Joel," a character described as a hardened survivor who's marked by the traumatic death of his daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker). Twenty years after a fungal brain infection has spread across the globe, transforming victims into zombie-like monsters, Joel is living in a quarantine zone in Boston, where he's tasked with smuggling out a 14-year-old girl, Ellie, who's somehow immune to the virus.

"Ashley Johnson is in her 30s and clearly not gonna play a 14-year-old girl, but it was important for us to find space for them [in the show] because they matter," Mazin says. "It's not just about fan service. It's a dramatic genetic connection between the game and the show. They needed to be there."

Baker will appear later in The Last of Us as James, a minor character from the games that has been expanded on for the show. He's described as a senior member of a group of settlers who must fight to keep their community alive in the face of increasingly brutal odds. Johnson will play Anna, a pregnant woman, alone and on the run, who must give birth under the most terrifying of circumstances.

Pierce will then appear as Perry, described only as a rebel in a quarantine zone.

The Last of Us
The Last of Us

HBO Natasha Mumba as Kim and Merle Dandridge as Marlene in HBO's 'The Last of Us.'

Dandridge is also getting an expanded role, as viewers have already seen in the premiere episode, which dropped on HBO and HBO Max Sunday.

Scenes between her character and Ramsey's Ellie confirm that Marlene is somehow linked to the girl's origin story. Druckmann points to an artifact players can find towards the end of The Last of Us game: an audio recording that sheds more light on Marlene's relationship with Ellie.

"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," he says. "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."

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