SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers from the Season 1 finale of “The Last of Us,” now streaming on HBO Max.
The world of “The Last of Us” just got its first major clue as to how Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey in HBO’s hit adaptation, became immune to the deadly cordyceps fungus. And, in a poetic, full-circle moment, the finale brought back actor Ashley Johnson, who originally starred as Ellie in “The Last of Us” video game, to play Ellie’s mother, Anna.
The Season 1 finale opened with a flashback to Ellie’s birth — which had never been seen in the 2013 video game nor its 2021 sequel. Before Sunday night’s episode, there were no confirmed details about how Ellie became immune to cordyceps, and Anna had never appeared onscreen. In the episode’s surprise opening sequence, the season finale revealed that Anna was bitten by an infected person moments before giving birth to Ellie. Anna kills the assailant before cutting the umbilical cord, but those moments of connection may have created within Ellie a “chemical messenger” that “makes normal cordyeps think she’s cordyceps,” as Marlene (Merle Dandridge) later explains in the episode. (Dandridge is the only actor in “The Last of Us” who plays the same character that she did in the game.)
Anna’s backstory was nearly the basis of an animated short and full-on video game years ago, “The Last of Us” co-creator Neil Druckmann revealed at a virtual press conference. When he began working with Craig Mazin to develop HBO’s series, that story reemerged.
“I wrote this short script about Ellie’s mom, and how she gave birth to Ellie and was bitten at the same time — and wasn’t sure if she was infected during that birth,” Druckmann said. “And it became this little character drama that spoke to the same themes of parental love for their child and how much you’re willing to do, even when you’re on death’s door.”
Druckmann had talked to Johnson about starring in the project, but it never got off the ground. When the co-creator reached out to his original star years later to play Anna on the show, she “burst into tears,” she said.
“Most of the time with video game adaptations to screen, the voiceover actors are not a part of it,” Johnson told Variety. “So there was just a lot of shock, excitement and happiness that I still get to be a part of this project — and to continue to tell the story in a different way.”
After starring as the teenage, post-apocalyptic heroine in the two “The Last of Us” video games, playing Ellie’s mom was “surreal” for Johnson. In a twist that fans of the original game will surely notice, she essentially gave birth to her own video game character.
“I love that I’m able to play her mom and bring her into this world, but also be the first one to fight for her to keep her alive,” she said.
After giving birth to Ellie, Anna hands her off to Marlene, her lifelong friend and future leader of the Fireflies who arrived just minutes too late to save Anna from being bitten. Anna makes Marlene vow to take care of Ellie, no matter what, then Anna asks her friend to kill her before she succumbs to her bite. With a heavy heart, Marlene kills Anna and raises baby Ellie. Years later, we see Marlene task Joel (Pedro Pascal) in the series premiere with the mission to transport Ellie across the country to create a cordyceps cure. For Dandridge — who acted opposite Johnson’s version of Ellie in the game, and now Anna in the show — the finale’s opening scene felt “overwhelming” to shoot.
“It gave another layer to that friendship that is all the more heartbreaking. I’ve always been very protective of Ellie, very protective of Ashley, honestly,” she told Variety. “To have this moment where Marlene was late — she missed it by this much — it’s a little snapshot of those heartbreaking moments that are happening for everyone in this world. It’s the severing moment of Marlene before there’s no longer anyone that has her heart in that way. And that’s even more heartbreaking.”
Twin 12-day-old babies, in the first TV credits of their (very young) lives, played Ellie fresh out of the womb. One of them, a girl named Mila, had the better acting chops than her brother, according to Johnson.
“Mila was killing it, and the boy was just like, ‘I don’t know if I’m into this,’” she recalled. “But it was an intense environment. There’s screaming, the baby is covered in jam and KY jelly and it was a little chilly. It worked for the moment of wanting to care for them; I wanted to hold them and keep them warm.”
Dandridge was on “high alert” in her scenes with the babies, who may have a future in acting if they can just control their bladders on set.
“When they yelled ‘cut,’ I was just like, ‘Somebody, please take this child from my arms,'” she said. “It added this incredible element of surprise, beauty and astonishment. Those babies were beautiful in their performances and heartbreak, and it brought a whole other layer between Ashley and me in that scene. I just remember being peed on a lot. I was like, ‘It’s getting really warm in my arms, guys.’ We had backup clothes in case it got too bad.”
To play the heavily pregnant Anna, Johnson wore a 30-pound fake belly, and had to run through the woods with it in the opening moments of the episode, in order to try to escape from the infected.
“It was awkward. I’d never worn a pregnancy belly like that before. It was like a corset, so it was tight and heavy,” she said. “A lot of the tripping that happens was real because I couldn’t see my feet. It’s just this huge belly, you can’t really see anything. It was cold out there, but I was sweating. It was a little muddy, so it was hard to run, and there were branches. That adds to the stress; it was a good workout.”
And what about Ellie’s dad? Her father is never brought up in the game or the show, but Druckmann said he previously penned some material about the two parents.
“There was some stuff written for the mom and dad when we were talking to this other game studio to potentially do a whole Anna game, the climax of which was this scene,” he said. “So I’m reluctant to say anything about it, because as I’ve now found out several times, stories that I think are failures and will never see the light of day, sometimes see the light of day.”