Warning: This article contains spoilers from The Last of Us season 1, episode 8.
The part of Joel in The Last of Us has had an undeniable impact on the life of Troy Baker. The actor is known across the gaming landscape for a roster of voices in various titles. Booker DeWitt in Bioshock: Infinite, Sam Drake in the Uncharted franchise, Higgs in Death Stranding, and Bruce Banner in Marvel's Avengers are just a handful of them. His emotive vocal performance as Joel, however, is at the heart of a game that irrevocably shaped storytelling in the medium.
When casting the character for HBO's The Last of Us, showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, the latter having developed the original games, say they couldn't consider Baker for live-action Joel. "[He's] just so physically different... It's not anywhere near the right profile," Mazin previously told EW.
It didn't come as a bother to Baker when Pedro Pascal was cast in the drama; he preferred it.
"There was no real mourning of that I think for no other reason [than] I wouldn't want to," Baker tells EW. "I had the opportunity to play it once and I left everything on the dance floor. The thing that I would've lamented is if whoever was tapped to play Joel didn't teach me something new, that they just did the same thing that I did and it became an impression of a performance rather than a character. That's the thing that I've been the most delighted about with Pedro. He brought something so new to this role. There's always a moment in every episode where I'm like, 'Oh f---! That's good.'"
Liane Hentscher/HBO Troy Baker's James arrives in 'The Last of Us' episode 8
Mazin and Druckmann were determined to have some of the veteran voice actors from the games incorporated into the show. Merle Dandridge reprised her role as Marlene, leader of the Fireflies, in the premiere of The Last of Us; Jeffrey Pierce, the original voice of Tommy, had his run as Perry in the Kansas City-set arc; and now Baker makes his entrance (and exit) in episode 8.
Baker arrives as James, a different figure from the game. Originally a minor role with only a few lines, James is part of a cannibalistic group of survivors who encounter Ellie as she's hunting deer to feed an out-of-commission Joel. The show expands this story to show the group's leader, David (Scott Shepherd), as a religious man ruling over a flock of starving people. James is David's right hand.
"I like playing baddies. I think that they're pretty complex," Baker says. "The first challenge becomes, how is this person not a villain? To me, James is not. James is a pragmatist. Just look at Joel in the very beginning. Joel was not a bad guy. Joel would never be a ruthless survivor. He was a contractor. He may have gotten in a tussle every now and then, but he was a good guy. What happens when you take a good person and put them through the most desperate of circumstances is you get a ruthless survivor, you get a black market smuggler that's capable of horrific things. James is the same way."
The actor envisioned James as being in law enforcement in some capacity prior to the outbreak. At the very least, the man trained himself to use a weapon. "But when it comes to exacting violence, he chokes," Baker adds.
Liane Hentscher/HBO; Naughty Dog Troy Baker's James from HBO's 'The Last of Us' versus James from the video game.
He's referring to the scene when David sets out to track Ellie (Bella Ramsey). James sees her galloping away and shoots down her horse. It may seem as though he then plans to execute the girl, seeing her as just another mouth to feed, but Baker doesn't think it was David's warning shot in the air that stops him.
"He'll shoot the horse to stop the girl, but he's not gonna coldblooded kill the girl. There's still some humanity inside of him," Baker muses.
Baker points to another sequence as a touchstone for James: the dining hall scene where David's group is presented with a stew that, unbeknownst to them, contains human meat.
"There's this beautiful thing that you barely get a glimpse of, but we had so much fun shooting it," the actor recalls. "James is observing all of this with the inauspicious perspective of knowing what's actually in the stew, and he's disgusted. There's this moral superiority that creeps up in him and then a bowl is put in front of him and that levels the playing field. It's like, 'You're no better than any of us,' and this look from David that's like, 'Pick up that spoon and eat.'"
"When he does," Baker adds, "there's this horrific sensation that comes over him, which is, 'Oh no! This is satisfying. I'm so hungry and I'm willing to give into my baser needs.' Again we see this delineation between Joel and James or even Ellie and James. How far are you willing to go to sacrifice yourself for the greater good? What will you give up?"
Liane Hentscher/HBO David (Scott Shepher) leads his flock in 'The Last of Us'
It's clear how much thought Baker puts to into his roles, no matter the size. He speaks about James, who later dies at Ellie's hand in the same way from the game, as if he were just as complex and nuanced and Joel. Perhaps he is.
The process reminds Baker of making that first The Last of Us game with Druckmann. They would spend hours on the phone together the night before each rehearsal. He had the chance to do the same thing with Mazin on the series. "It's a process I've learned to love," Baker says.
Baker now sees the show and the game as companions that enrich each other. He thinks about Rutina Wesley's Maria, who he describes as "very much a mirror for who Joel is." He also thinks about David. In the game, one of his henchmen remarks how Ellie is now "David's newest pet." In the show, it's way more overt: David is a pedophile and Ellie is forced to give into her violent tendencies if she's to survive his attack.
"If you've played the game, then we hit certain moments in the show where you're like, 'Oh my gosh! I can't believe they're doing that,' or 'Wow! What an interesting take on that,'" Baker says. "But if you've watched the show, go back and play the game, think about those characters in different ways. It all just adds a completely different layer."
This interview has been edited for clarity.
The Last of Us airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max.
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