The actors behind Ellie and Joel in both game and show, along with Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann, discuss the core of TLOU’s story.
At the heart of Ellie and Joel’s journey across America in The Last of Us is the way in which the pair grow from apprehensive strangers unexpectedly thrown together to a surrogate family for one another. Players can experience for themselves the ways in which that parent-child bond grows through The Last of Us Part I, while viewers have also been watching a new version of that pair take form on The Last of Us on HBO. But no matter the medium, that central relationship is at the bedrock of this first chapter in the story of The Last of Us.
With the HBO series having just completed its first season, and with The Last of Us Part I now available for the PlayStation 5 console and for pre-purchase on PC via Steam and the Epic Games Store (available March 28, 2023), our behind-the-scenes series Building The Last of Us next takes a look at the way Joel and Ellie’s relationship grows over the course of both game and show.
Watch the video below to hear from Neil Druckmann, Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker, who originally starred as Ellie and Joel, respectively, and Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal, who star as the pair in the HBO series, and read on for more from the creatives. And be sure to check out our full Building The Last of Us series for a dive into The Last of Us’ unforgettable opening, how TLOU’s Clickers continue to scare us, and how the cruel world of The Last of Us is brought to life.
Early in The Last of Us Part I’s story, and its TV adaptation, Joel is put in charge of Ellie to get her out of the Boston QZ and to safety, but the setup isn’t ideal for either party.
“These two characters collide with each other and are forced to be together, and you can tell neither one of them wants it,” Naughty Dog co-president and The Last of Us on HBO executive producer Neil Druckmann said. “It’s more explicit in the show than it was even in the game because, with the game, we were finding it as we’re making it.”
The two characters come from different outlooks on the world, different relationships with this post-pandemic world, and different points in their life, and so they aren’t necessarily happy about being forced together. But there’s a clear recognition early on in the way these characters relate to one another.
“Joel’s relationships at the start of the story have everything to do with what motivates him, what keeps him going. The relationship to his brother, the loss of his daughter… there are very few things left in life, you know, to help him remember that he’s an actual human being or that there’s a real beating heart inside his chest, which makes him capable of really dark things,” HBO series Joel actor Pedro Pascal said. “And then he meets Ellie, who’s even more like him than anyone else, and [she] will reignite the essence of his identity and purpose.”
“Growing up in the Boston QZ with a load of other kids in the FEDRA education system, [Ellie is just] one of the masses and has no concept of a future, of what to do with her life,” HBO series Ellie actor Bella Ramsey said. “And as soon as she finds out that she has this immunity, she feels like she belongs here. She feels like she has a purpose.”
And though it may be unspoken, the two form a bond over a shared fear – ending up alone in this cruel world.
“When we first meet Ellie, Joel doesn’t know anything about her, and I can see without having any knowledge of who she is that she seems like a [jerk]. But it’s a bit of a front. Her biggest fear is ending up alone,” Ramsey explained. “She [feels] the same way that Joel does, because Ellie is afraid of putting her trust into somebody and becoming reliant on their constant presence for the fear that one day, it’s just going to stop, and she is going to end up alone.”
The duo shifts from unhappily venturing out together to, over the course of their shared struggles, caring deeply for one another as if they were father and daughter.
“Joel and Ellie have become a metaphor for the connection a parent feels for their child, which is this very primal feeling that can override a lot of other motivations and goals,” Druckmann said.
Evoking that relationship is a task two other actors know well – Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker played Ellie and Joel, respectively, in The Last of Us games, and have the unique position of seeing these characters they first inhabited over a decade ago come to new life with the show.
“It’s [almost as if we’ve] been waiting for this moment for Bella to be able to bring this character to screen because it’s like seeing Ellie the video game character come to life,” Johnson said.
“I had one singular goal [in watching] the show: teach me something new about Joel,” Baker explained. “What did I miss? Because I felt like I went over that [character] with a fine-tooth comb…and Pedro did that episode 1, and he continues to do that through episode 9.”
The Last of Us in game form keeps players immersed in the experiences of its core relationship, so that players have direct involvement in every tense encounter, each momentary relief as the duo thinks they’ve found safety, and, of course, choosing to hear all of Ellie’s puns. While Ellie and Joel come across other survivors on their journey, it was a purposeful choice to never deviate from their story.
“We gave ourselves this rule when we were making [the original game], everything is either seen through Joel’s perspective or Ellie’s perspective, and that’s it, because we want you to spend a lot of time with them moving from space to space in real-time and becoming them,” Druckmann explained.
The show, as a non-interactive form of the story, offers deeper looks at some of the characters related to Joel and Ellie’s journey in a way that reinforces and reflects on the ideas of how important relationships with others can be in a life of survival.
“With the show, [only offering Joel and Ellie’s perspective] would not have worked. Instead, we had this opportunity to unplug from our main characters and plug into these other characters… and I’ve now heard from a couple people that have watched the whole show and went back to play the game, and they said the game feels richer now having watched the show,” Druckmann said.
But in whichever form it takes, the story of The Last of Us comes back to its heart – the relationship at the core of its journey and what it represents.
“Both versions of the story I think ultimately have a similar conversation about love,” Druckmann said, echoing a sentiment shared by Johnson and Baker that both watching and playing leads to a deeper understanding of the characters and themes present throughout the story.”
“This was Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann getting together and being like, ‘How do we keep the integrity of the story and bring it to life onto screen’…and they honored the game in a huge way,” Johnson said. “It’s a companion in a way, but you’re going to have two different experiences with the show and a different experience with the game.”
“What they got the opportunity to do was explore those same moments and same emotional beats in a different way,” Baker said. “It’s not an either/or. It’s yes/and. It’s do both. Play the game, then watch the show, or watch the show, and then play the game.”
“They’re such unique experiences, [but] people that do experience both will get the richest version of that story…these things can live side by side and speak to and enrich one another,” Druckmann said.And whether you’ve watched and played, only experienced one version, or want to re-immerse yourself in the world of The Last of Us, the series’ first season is now streaming on HBO Max. And The Last of Us Part I is available for PS5 and for pre-purchase on Steam and the Epic Games Store (available March 28, 2023). To learn more about it, be sure to check out our recent look at The Last of Us Part I on PC’s specs and features.