Warning: This post contains spoilers for Sunday’s The Last of Us. Proceed accordingly.
Long before the word “Cordyceps” became a Sunday-night fixture on HBO, Troy Baker was The Last of Us’ Joel Miller.
Baker, an actor and musician, voiced the character in Naughty Dog’s 2013 video game on which the popular, post-apocalyptic series is based. He was so involved with the game as it was taking form, some of Joel’s traits were inspired by Baker and his life. (Joel’s secret dream to be a singer, for instance, was born of Baker’s experience as a guitarist and vocalist.)
Yet Baker says he never wanted to nor thought he would play Joel when the series adaptation came around. So when executive prouducer/game creator Neil Druckman mentioned they had him in mind for a role, “I’m like, ‘Shut up,’” Baker tells TVLine, chuckling. “And he goes, ‘I want you to play James.’ I’m like, ‘Man, thank you!” He waits a beat. “Who’s James?”
Those who watched Episode 8, which aired Sunday, will recall that James was the right-hand man to a preacher presiding over a flock of cannibalistic outbreak survivors. (Put more simply: He was the guy Ellie killed right before she killed David — read a full recap of the episode.)
TVLine spoke with Baker — who also hosts HBO’s official post-episode podcast — about taking on a new character in the Last of Usverse, and we picked his brain about both the game and show versions of that gripping closing scene between Ellie and Joel.
TVLINE | When conversations about the game becoming a TV show were first happening, and you were thinking that maybe there’d be a chance you’d be involved, was there any character — aside from Joel — you thought you might want to play?
Sure. I think this is important to speak to: There was never a moment where I wanted to play Joel.
TVLINE | Right.
Just because it’s kind of like, my watch has ended. [Laughs] Selfishly, I wanted for them to pick somebody who would care about it as much as I did. I just wanted someone to show me something new about Joel, something that I missed, and Pedro [Pascal] does that every episode in some way, like whether it be in just a small choice that he makes as like, “Oh, man, that’s really good,” or in a delivery of a famous line or a familiar line that he does in a different way. But for me, I was excited about being on the sidelines and in the stands as opposed to on the field.
So, when they came to me and Neil was like,”Dude, we have a role for you,” I’m like, “Shut up.” And he goes, “I want you to play James.” I’m like, “Man, thank you — who’s James?” [Laughs] He’s one of those characters that a lot of people could’ve glossed over. He’s clearly prominent in the game, but he’s nowhere near as visible as he is in our show. Something that I think we’ve done very, very well with the show is, we’ve taken characters that in some ways may have existed on the periphery of our story —because the nature of the game is this, you’re playing as Joel, we need to see the world and the story from Joel’s perspective. When you’re playing as Ellie, you need to see the world through the perspective of Ellie. But with this medium, we have the ability to pick up and move camera and spend some time with other characters like we did in Episode 3 with Bill and Frank, or in Episode 6 where we get to spend more time with Tommy and especially Maria. And every one of these characters in this world exists as a counterpoint to either Joel and/or Ellie.
So, for me to be able to have a role like this, it became this cool challenge. I’m like, “All right, how do we make this the story of James from my perspective, because I think we’re all the heroes of our own story, and so, the first task was: How do I not make him a villain? And that’s just what I sought to do in every scene.
TVLINE | We don’t get a lot about James’ back story. Did you have any touchstones, just for you, in the portrayal of him?
Absolutely. I feel like it’s important.. When I’m trying to figure out who this character is, to me he’s a pragmatist, and James is definitely someone who wants to be the right hand of David. Because he realizes that David is the Devil, and it’s better to be on the right hand of David than to be on the wrong end with him. And the thing that he doesn’t realize, or that he comes to slowly realize, is that while David is looking for an equal, James is not it. And David instantly clocks that in Ellie. He sees someone who is smart and capable but also, as David puts it, has a violent heart and that is something that James does not have.
I think that James in a lot of ways the way that he mirrors Joel, he was a good guy and what these people…these people are not evil people. These people are good people that got put in a bad situation and how quickly does our humanity erode in this world and they have a really, really bad winter and the only thing that they now have to cling to is hope and that is when people, the only tangible thing they have is something that is inherently intangible, that makes them horrifically dangerous and horrifically desperate.
TVLINE | The scene at the end of the episode, where Joel comforts Ellie after she’s been attacked by David and subsequently killed him, is so powerful. In the game, though not in the show, part of Ellie and Joel’s conversation is covered by music, and we don’t hear what he’s saying to her. Was there a script for that? Did you and Ashley Johnson, who voiced Ellie, record dialogue that wasn’t used?
That is a wonderful choice by Neil Druckmann in the game. It was in the conceit of shooting it, and Craig [Mazin, executive producer] carried that through [in the show]. He said it doesn’t matter what he’s saying, it’s the fact that he’s saying it. And yeah, when we shot that scene originally, there was a lot that I said. And for me that’s a secret that stays between Joel and Ellie.
But what I do love is, this is such a love letter to the game, and that’s one of the shining examples of that moment, of Craig going, “This is one that we don’t have to change.” It’s just that [Joel is] there and he’s holding her and calling her “baby girl.” That’s all we need to hear.
TVLINE | As someone so intimately connected to the game, I’m wondering if you can address the fact that in the game, Joel pulls Ellie off David after she’s killed him. But in the show, she finishes up and walks outside on her own, albeit in a daze. That distinction is small, but it felt important to me.
Yes, 100 percent. I love the choice that Craig made for that. This is a transformative moment for Ellie, and I don’t think that what we did was wrong. It’s just a different choice.
But, watching the show, I love the choice that she didn’t need rescuing. What we have seen is that Ellie does have a violent heart, and this is a moment where we see that violent heart uncaged and untethered. All that’s important is that Joel wanted to save her and that he fought tooth and nail to get to her. That’s all that matters, her wandering out in this beautiful, white, stark landscape covered in blood. That’s when he finds her at her most vulnerable. And in truth, he is at his most vulnerable. So, if anything else, it’s not a moment about Joel saving Ellie. It’s a moment for Ellie to save Joel.