SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers from Episode 8 of “The Last of Us,” now streaming on HBO Max.

Troy Baker has been at the center of the “Last of Us” universe for a decade. The esteemed voice actor originated the role of grizzly survivalist Joel Miller in the 2013 game and its sequel in 2020.

When HBO’s series adaptation was announced, Baker didn’t expect to be a part of it. “If there was a role for me, then I would have been happy. But if not, I was completely content to just be an observer for this one,” he says. Luckily, co-showrunner Neil Druckmann, who is also the co-creator of the game, had a role in mind for him.

Baker navigates Episode 8, “When We Are in Need,” as James, the right-hand man of cannibalistic cult leader David (Scott Shepherd). Speaking to Variety ahead of the episode’s premiere, Baker broke down how he felt about Pedro Pascal’s performance as Joel and what it was like to assume a new role.

When did you first find out you’d be part of the series, and how did you feel about being cast as James?

Neil and [co-showrunner Craig Mazin] had been incredibly gracious. It was an unexpected surprise. And I’ve been graciously welcomed now to the table of this extended family that we now have.

Neil came to me like, “Dude, we’ve got a role for you” I’m like, “No shit!” He said, “Dude, you get to play James!” And I’m like, “Oh my God, dude…who is James?” And it was like, “Oh, it’s buddy boy! Gotcha, gotcha, gotcha.”

I thought I was gonna get a walk-on role. And then I got the script, and I was like, “Oh, there’s meat here.” Pardon the pun. I got this opportunity to challenge myself. I’ve gotten very adept to walking onto a performance capture stage and acting inside of that environment; boxing in that ring, if you will. This is something that, while I’ve done on-camera before, it still is like, how does this translate? Can I do this? And I was lovingly guided through not only by Neil and Craig, but everybody on our cast, everyone in our crew that just worked so hard for this.

For me, the challenge was apparent: I don’t want to play a villain. So how do I make this guy not a villain? And to me, we’re all the heroes of our own story. To me, we’re experiencing James’ story. “The Last of Us” is the story of James. It’s a very short-lived story! So what I wanted to do was find some level of truth to him and empathy. And if I can make you care about him a little bit, that makes you hate him even more.

When you played Joel in the game, he was such a fierce protector of Ellie, who was played by Ashley Johnson. What was it like being on the other side and going after her?

That was probably my biggest challenge, not being in protector mode for Ellie. Here’s what’s so cool about Bella [Ramsey]: From my perspective, I’ve had such a dear relationship with Ashley Johnson and with the character of Ellie for so long, that I naturally want to assume that role. What Bella quickly teaches you, especially in this episode, is that there’s absolutely no protection needed. Both Bella and Ellie are incredibly fierce, adept, talented, powerful people. That’s the threat that James sees. He’s a pragmatist.

He wants to be David’s right-hand man, because he recognizes that David is the devil. It’s better to be the right hand of the devil than on the wrong side of him. Here comes Ellie, who is clearly capable, resourceful and brilliant. That’s something that James is not. More importantly, as David says, Ellie has a violent heart. That’s something that James does not have — if you look, he will shoot the horse to stop Ellie from going further, but when it comes to shooting and killing her, he can’t do it. And that’s not because David said “Don’t kill the girl.” It’s because he can’t bring himself to kill somebody.

And then you get a meat cleaver to the neck.

To the neck! I give a lot of credit to our special effects team. I can’t wait to post these pictures this weekend to be like, “This is what I went through!” They called it a bladder of blood. I was reminded of that quote in “Interview With the Vampire,” when Tom Cruise’s character says, “It gets cold so quickly, doesn’t it?” And it does! I think I went through eight wardrobe changes. That day was great.

What’s it like seeing Pedro play the role that’s been so close to you for a decade?

I’m a fan of him as an actor. He does this thing where he’s so confident in his grasp on the character that it allows him to just sit comfortably in his own conviction. He does everything on a knife’s edge. There’s nothing that’s wild. If you watch all of his choices, there’s so minimal, and because of that, they’re profound. And it makes Joel, in a lot of ways, more dangerous.

There’s a physicality that he brought to this that we couldn’t have done in the game. When you’re stitching yourself up from bullets and shivs, you can’t go, “Ow, my hand still hurts.” But then in the show, we could say “I broke my hand and it’s bruised,” and it stays with him for months. That, to me, is something that helps to ground the story and present it in a very tangible way to a whole new audience.

How do you feel about the changes that have been made from the game?

For someone who has spent as much time with this franchise as I have, there’s something in every episode where I learned something new. What this show has proven is that it’s a much bigger story than we originally conceived.

If Season 2 stays true to Joel’s storyline from the second game, how do you think fans will react?

Hopefully the same. Because it’ll show that we did the story justice. It’s very similar to the ending of “Part I.” Love it or hate it — if you have an opinion on it, then we did our job. Going forward, there will be more moments like that for you to wrestle with.

This interview has been edited and condensed.