It’s been a long road to get here, but after years of waiting, HBO’s “The Last of Us” premieres this month. The show’s first season follows the same narrative arc as “The Last of Us Part 1” game: 20 years after a fungal infection ravaged the world, hardened smugglers Joel and Tess are hired to transport 14 year old Ellie across the country. They quickly realise Ellie has a key role to play in curing the infection and saving humanity, but their journey is fraught with danger from all sides, including the zombie-like infected and barbaric humans, and the wilderness that’s crept back in over America.
The show has big shoes to fill if it wants to revive the zombie genre, and faces an even bigger job in holding up to the source material. The game is considered a masterpiece by most who’ve played it, thanks to the relationship between Joel and Ellie and the moving motion capture and voice acting of Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson. Thankfully, the first four episodes do just that, paying tribute to the game while exploring events and characters who have been largely overlooked until now. For both fans and newcomers, “The Last of Us” is a beautiful show.
Ahead of the first episode releasing on Binge on January 16, we caught up with Anna Torv, the Australian actress who plays Tess in the show, and asked her all about bringing the video game character to life, revealing Tess’ backstory, and the sweet relationship between Tess, Pedro Pascal’s Joel, and Bella Ramsey’s Ellie.
Spoiler warning: This interview contains minor spoilers for the first 3 episodes of “The Last of Us”. If you’ve played “The Last of Us Part 1”, you’ll know what they are and can safely read on.
Are you a fan of the game?
I knew of the game. I’m not a gamer so I hadn’t played it, but I remember when it came out and I remember people talking about it. I’d done a game ages ago so I understood what the cutscenes were and I was interested in how much the technology, like motion capture, had developed.
What drew you to the script? Was it Tess herself?
Yeah, and also all the creatives. I adore Pedro Pascal and Craig Mazin — I’d just watched “Chernobyl” — and Carolyn Strauss and HBO. They all make really good stuff and I was like, “This is going to be good and it’ll be fun.” Despite it being dark, Tess is a fun, tough character to play. She’s going to have a black eye and get beat up. I’m like, “Okay, great!”
How would you describe Tess, especially your version of her?
She’s a top.
She’s tough and she’s a survivor, but I can’t think of Tess without Joel. I think she really is in love with him, and I don’t think she would have been able to get through it all if it wasn’t for him. She’s fierce and loyal and trustworthy, and she’s got Joel’s back — and I think she knows that he’s all that for her too.
In the game, a lot of Tess’ storylines happen off-camera — but in the show, we see her negotiating with Robert and more of her relationship with Joel. How did you bring these parts of Tess to life?
That was written in the script, Craig had done that with Neil [Druckman, writer and creative director of “The Last of Us” game].
Pedro and I talked about it, because there’s more than there was in the game but there’s still not really very much there. But that’s okay because that’s who the characters are — they’re not going to be talking about their relationship while they’re hauling ass out of the QZ. So we made sure we had a moment, and you can tell a lot with just a few simple gestures if you’re on the same page. You know, that’s how you know who people are to each other on the street as they’re walking by.
We decided that Joel and Tess had been together for a long time, that they were lovers, they trusted each other and they were each other’s best friends, they had each other’s back, and that they didn’t need to talk about it. There’s a mutual understanding. Joel doesn’t talk about [his past] and that’s okay, Tess accepts that. And I think Joel accepts a lot in Tess, too.
So you take your moments. The first time you see them together, Tess comes in and puts her arm around him and goes to sleep, and you know who they are.
It’s very clear in the show that Tess is the boss and Joel answers to her. What was it like twisting this dynamic with Pedro Pascal from what’s in the game?
It’s so funny because like, yes, that’s how it’s written, and yes, she says that quite a bit, but I actually don’t think that because I don’t think Tess would have been able to survive without Joel. I think if Joel put his foot down — if either of them really put their foot down — they wouldn’t do it. I really think they’re a team, and that’s what makes it work.
It was so great seeing more of Tess in the flashbacks to the early-outbreak days! She seems a lot happier in these moments too. How did you approach this different side of her character?
Well, I think that’s 20 years. That’s what it does, you know? Life beats you up and beats you down.
Were there any moments from Tess’ past that didn’t make it into the show that you wished had?
No, and I don’t think you need them. I say that sincerely. I think she’s a fully alive person and she doesn’t feel two-dimensional.
Being true to the character means you have to be true to how they’re going to behave in a situation, and just because you’d like to have a bit more vulnerability, or a lighter side, or more flirtation, or romance, it’s like, “Yeah, but not during this time. [The apocalypse.]” You just have to suck that up.
You should always serve the show and the bigger picture should be your primary focus. It sounds dry – but it’s not because that’s how you make your characters real — but it’s also a function. And I can’t see Tess without Joel; her function is to get the ball rolling. That’s what she was supposed to do.
Thank you for chatting. You and Pedro are so great as Tess and Joel. I’m very excited for everyone else to watch it.
I hope you like the rest of the episodes. I can’t wait to watch them too!
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