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In ‘The Last of Us’, Ashley Johnson brought Ellie to life. Here’s Why Her Casting Was Perfect

This story contains spoilers for from HBO”The last of us,” including the season finale.

In “The Last of Us,” nothing heralds more devastation than desperate acts of love, not even mushroom zombies. Or the government rebels.

Ellie saved her best friend, Riley, from life as a zombie with a single bullet in Episode 7. Henry did the same to his brother Sam, only to end his own life soon after. Then there was Bill and Frank, who ended their love story on their own terms.

These heartbreaking commitments drive “The Last of Us.” In Sunday’s season finale, viewers learn that Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie’s (Bella Ramsey) grim cross-country journey began with a mother’s dying plea to keep her child safe.

“The decision that Anna makes—knowing full well that she couldn’t cut the umbilical cord in time—is another one of those decisions (that you make when) you’re caring more about the person or thing you love the most and you’re going to burn the world down for it.” said Ashley Johnson, who played Anna, Ellie’s mother.

Johnson originated the role of Ellie in 2013, performing motion capture and voicing the character in the video game franchise. A decade later, Johnson said she feels “very lucky” to be back in the post-apocalyptic world she helped create.

Before the HBO series was officially announced in 2020, the actor, also known for Amazon Prime Video’s “Critical Role” web series and “The Legend of Vox Machina,” thought there was “no way” he was going to be in it. an adaptation. . Then Neil Druckmann, who created the video game franchise, reached out.

Ashley Johnson did the voice acting and motion capture for Ellie in “The Last of Us” video games.

(Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for HBO)

“(Johnson) had been such a big part of this journey with me … that I knew (she) had to be there somehow and this felt perfect for her,” Druckmann said in a recent phone call. “She gave birth to Ellie, figuratively speaking, with the game, and here she literally does it on the show.”

In the finale, Anna stumbles through an overgrown forest while running from an Infected who is following her. Tripping over roots and cradling her tummy, Anna finally finds safety on a dilapidated farmhouse. While in labor, Anna is attacked by the infected, whom she manages to kill

According to Druckmann, the plan for Anna’s story was an animated short intended to promote the first “Last of Us” game. Johnson was going to play Anna in the clip, but she fell apart and that performance never materialized until Sunday’s episode.

A girl in a video game holding a bow and arrow.

Ellie in the video game “The Last of Us: Part 1”.

(Naughty Dog / Sony)

“He told me the story of how Ellie was born and I was like, ‘Oh, let’s do that. We sure are,’” said Craig Mazin, the co-creator of the series. “The next day, he and I have this hive mind, calling each other at the same time and saying, ‘You know who Anna should be, it’s Ashley.'”

Early on, Mazin said that he felt there was a risk that Johnson’s casting would feel too cheeky or metaphorical, especially to video game fans. Ultimately, he said, it “just seemed instinctively right” to pick Johnson.

Ali Abbasi, who directed the last two episodes of the season, said he was initially skeptical about casting actors for the game. Troy Baker, who plays Joel in the video game franchise, also makes an appearance in episode 8. Abbasi worried that his appearances were too witty and more about fan service, but he said they brought an aura of authenticity to his episodes.

“I felt like I was dealing with the mythology behind all of this,” he said.

Abbasi praised Johnson for his fearless and willing attitude.

“When we were trying on costumes, (Johnson) said, ‘Yeah, do whatever you want. You can do this, you can do that’ and… I thought, ‘OK, this is someone who is an ally here,’” Abbasi said. “There is a lot going on. So it was actually a comfort to see that he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.”

Although Abbasi said he tried to distance himself from Johnson’s Embodied Experience as EllieJohnson said that playing Anna brought her back to her video game days.

“Because I have a great history with this game, I’ve been a part of it for 13 years, it’s a part of me anyway. Going into this post-apocalyptic world (was) like, ‘Oh yeah, this is just a fun time. I know how to get into this very quickly,” he said.

Johnson said that for his on-screen battle with an Infected, he took advantage of the moves he made for Ellie’s fighting style. He also watched natural childbirth videos to prepare for the role. For Mazin, seeing Johnson’s character give birth to Ellie was significant.

“I think because Ashley had already given birth to Ellie once before (for the games), when she picks up that baby and says hello, it’s like she’s saying hello to someone who’s been waiting,” she said. “And it’s just beautiful.”

Viewers come to know and root for Anna, only to lose her moments later. Anna becomes infected in the attack and urges her best friend, Marlene, played by Merle Dandridge, who originated the role in the video game, to take care of Ellie.

“Then you kill me,” she says.

“There are so many emotions that are going on at once. It’s ‘Oh my gosh, I have a baby. She is finally here. But I’m not going to be able to experience life with her,’” Johnson said. “It is experiencing life and death at the exact same moment. Also an intense amount of pain and anguish and just frustration.”

The season finale shows Anna and Joel making different, but equally desperate attempts to save Ellie. Johnson said that he demonstrates a constant for Ellie in this dystopian world: “Someone was choosing her and rooting for her.”

Mazin said Anna’s sacrifice and Joel’s violent hospital rampage show “two sides of the love coin” that is at the center of the series.

“(Anna) is holding a knife to her own neck to make sure she doesn’t hurt this child and she is desperate for this child to be raised and cared for. She is not out there murdering anybody for her child,” Mazin said. “Joel is definitely more fatherly, and that fatherly aspect of protection, revenge and punishment to save your son can be both beautiful and rewarding and also terrifying.”

Lying also plays a role in their attempts to save Ellie, Druckmann said. Anna lies about cutting her umbilical cord before she was bitten, and Joel lies to Ellie about other people being immune.

Marlene faces the immediate consequences of these critical decisions, Druckmann said. Like Anna and Joel, Marlene was forced to take desperate measures, including leaving Ellie in Phaedra’s care, to fulfill her friend’s dying wish.

“That’s how much I loved Anna,” Druckmann said. “There’s this idea that the love that (Anna) had for her child has grown beyond her own lifetime and now, like cordyceps, she infected Marlene and, by extension, eventually infects Joel.”

The HBO series featured several other artists from the video game franchise, including Jeffrey Pierce, who plays Tommy, concept artist Hyoung Taek Nam, and composer Gustavo Santaolalla. His work on “The Last of Us” is a way to honor the creative contributions that led to the adaptation.

“They are the reason we are here,” Mazin said.

Johnson said “The Last of Us” remains one of the most creative and fulfilling projects he’s been a part of and that his scene, while brief, “really was a full circle moment.”

“Now that people continue to have such a wonderful response, that’s all you can ask for,” he said.