Troy Baker has always been a true believer. Most people know him for his work as a prolific voice actor and his career-defining role as Joel from the PlayStation games. The last of us And The last of us part 2. But the games’ fan community can also count him among its most prominent members – there have been few greater ones from day one The last of us than he stands.
Baker, like many who love the story that began with the 2013 Naughty Dog video game, fully believes that The last of us is “one of the greatest stories ever told”, both for the plight of its human characters and for the way it brought a uniquely compelling and cinematic texture to big-budget video games that changed them forever.
When The last of us made the jump to HBO, Baker looked forward to making the transition to 100% fan watching from “the bleachers,” as he put it. But then he got the call to be part of Joel and Ellie’s story again – this time as James, the right-hand man of a preacher with dark secrets.
In a Zoom interview from Los Angeles, Baker spoke to Polygon about handing over the reins, his conflicting new character, and how to make your one true death scene count.
Polygon: So, for show, how did you describe it The last of us to people?
Troy Baker: Kind of the same way I would after the show came out. I think The last of us is one of the greatest stories ever told. And the reason why is because it’s not about you know, infected. It’s not about post-apocalypse, it’s not about survival horror, it’s a story about love, and what love looks like in this world, and how terrifying that is. So for me it’s been one of the best games ever because everything about the game is inspired by the story.
What was the experience like going to the Joel’s role to be recast and translated to a new medium? Is it weird for you?
I wouldn’t necessarily call it rearrangement; I think they cast the game, and now you cast the show. So it’s not like – nothing was lost, for me. The only thing that would have been a loss is if Pedro (Pascal) stepped into this role – or anyone, really – and decided to emulate something that had already been done.
It’s like, well, that’s a missed opportunity. We have all these new tools at our disposal to tell the story; let’s leverage those tools. We don’t have a controller, we don’t have gameplay. So let’s focus on the tools we do have and let’s tell a different version of the story that way. And Pedro adds another inherent sensitivity.
Yeah, it’s like one of the greatest compliments you can give an actor is, “I love your choices.”
I like the choices, man. There’s usually one or two episodes of Pedro and it’s like Ooooh, that’s good. You know, honestly Neil (Druckmann) had the same thing with Craig (Mazin). The choice to make Sam deaf — Craig was like, “I got this idea. I think I want to make Sam deaf.” And Neil was like, “A great choice!”
That wouldn’t have worked very well in the game. But here in this version of our story, it adds a whole other layer to that relationship, bringing a certain intimacy to all of their interactions, and changing the dynamics of Henry and Sam’s relationship in a beautiful way.
How did you get involved in the performance? Did you know they were trying to make room for the game’s voice cast?
Oh, it was never a given, it was never an assumption. It was always Look, our watch is over. And it was a wonderful opportunity for us to experience this story in a different way. I’m in the stands, not on the field.
When Craig and Neil said, “Hey, we’ve got a part for you,” I expected a walk-on of sorts. A small cameo, a small nod to the audience. Like (with a) clicker, you know, maybe wearing a flannel shirt or something that Joel probably would have worn.
James is a much bigger role than that!
James is such a reflection of what this show is about, which is, let’s build, let’s not replace, and this character is one of those characters that you sort of glossed over in the game. But in this show we have a chance to go, Who is he? Where does he fit into this story? Everyone we’ve seen on the show so far serves as a counterpoint to Joel or Ellie in some way. And to me, there’s an element of James that does both.
There is a difference between him and Joel; there is an agreement between he and Joel. And there is a huge difference between him and Ellie. And that’s what David sees in James, which is that he’s a pragmatist and someone who is capable(and) of this position, but not violent. And Ellie is (violent) and David is a violent person. He has, as he says, a “violent heart.”
And that’s what he lacks in a peer and an equal. And that’s something that James can never be for him, and James picks up on that. And that’s why he wants Ellie to be as far away from him as possible.
You said that James is not a violent man – do you think he also does not believe as David is, or claims to be?
Not at all, and I don’t think David either. This is my interpretation – this is what I love about being on the other side of this conversation. We have systematically seen people throughout history trying to oppress and control. One of the easiest tools at their disposal is belief or belief at first sight. But if it’s true it’s hope, they arm hope against the desperate.
And those are these people. They are not bad people. They are desperate people. They are people who have had a very, very, very hard winter. And as James says, “They have not lost faith. They’re just scared.” And if you couple fear and desperation, in the face of desperation – if you rob them of all their resources – these people have no food, let alone anything tangible. So when all tangible sources of comfort are gone, you reach for the intangible and hope is the primary good.
David weaponized that. So when James looks at him and he says, “Well, maybe it’s God’s will” – this is an intellectual debate that we see. And he uses that against David, to go, Get this girl out of here. It’s an intellectual debate to say that, as well as, “She’s just another mouth to feed.” So now he’s even dealing with (David’s) ability to lead. And that’s why David stops. And what does he do? He turns to everyone and quotes a verse – not even a verse really, but we find out it’s (a quote from) someone else who is known for oppressing people of faith.
So when you found out you were going to be playing James, did you have any hope of getting the part? Maybe a cool death scene?
Honestly, when I first found out I was going to be playing James, I was like, ‘Dude, thank you so much. It’s very, very friendly – who is James?
Because he wasn’t a big character. But then I realized, I was like, Oh, yes, he’s going to die horribly. I like death scenes. They are great. One of the benefits of doing a game is that if you’re the player character, you can do multiple death scenes.
But you only die once on the show! How do you make it count?
Dude: Sold out every time because you never know which one is going to be your close-up. (laughs) Full sale, every take!