Merle Dandridge is the only actor from The Last of Us video game to have reprised her original role of Marlene for the HBO television series. Other actors, such as Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, who played Joel and Ellie in the game, starred in the show but as different characters. In reinterpreting the character for the television, Dandridge spoke to Awards Radar on Zoom and explain that she was a bit nervous because expectations on the show were high.
We also discussed her collaboration with showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, the challenges of translating her character into the television world, working with Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey to craft Marlene’s complex relationship with Joel and Ellie, alongside reuniting with Ashley Johnson for the show’s most difficult scene.
Read the full conversation below:
So you are the only actor from the video game to reprise your character in the television series. How did it feel to come back and play a character that’s been a part of you for such a long time and reinterpret it for another medium?
When I first encountered Marlene in the video game, she immediately popped off the page for me as just such a strong, dynamic, and interesting character. And as an artist, that’s what you want. You desire the meaty and delicious material for a character you can stand behind and dig into. That’s what I found in her. And the fact that I got the exquisite timing that I was able to experience her in live action at the age that I am now was a tremendous gift because I now have a greater understanding of the character, having walked with her and loved the material for so long. And now that I’ve come into a place where I was more appropriate for her was a really beautiful experience to carry that character in that way. Coupled with Craig and Neil’s beautiful new scripts was a really wonderful experience.
Did it feel a bit daunting to step into the world of The Last of Us again and explore a side of Marlene that audiences hadn’t necessarily seen before from the game?
Of course, I was nervous because you could tell there was so much love put into the piece and how everyone’s artistry was on the highest level. You wanted to make sure that you brought your best self to it. And there was that sense of how there was so much love and care for the material and the character that my standards were also extremely high for myself. I had to put that aside and stay present in what was happening, which was fantastic.
In approaching Marlene for the show, can you talk about your initial discussions with Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann?
Neil and Craig have been the most loving, nurturing, and present collaborators. They are extraordinary storytellers. They care very much about every single person that is involved in the piece. I had the great privilege and opportunity to witness their lead by loving people into their best selves. I recall Craig being on set and never letting a moment go by without being completely present and making sure that we felt held and that there wasn’t a moment that we felt he was going not to catch us, which was extraordinary.
How did you and Pedro Pascal collaborate on creating that complex relationship between Joel and Marlene in the first episode?
The first time I met Pedro was on set. First of all, when you have an artist of a certain caliber, Pedro is, without question, an unbelievable artist, but he also has such a sense of play. I have Marlene in my bones to experience Joel with that special magic that only Pedro can bring. It opened up some new flavors in the relationship and new dynamics that were so wonderful to play with.
Was there any point during filming your scenes where you realized that the show would be something special?
Every day felt like something special. Every day you walked on set, my heart would burst because it felt like everyone there was holding the piece close to their heart. Their work was so beautiful that it almost caught your breath every single time. I would sit in the village often because looking like you could walk right into the game was astonishing. Seeing how everyone embodies their characters with such ferocious truth and commitment was a beautiful experience.
How did you work with Bella Ramsey to establish your chemistry with Ellie in the first episode? We’ll know in the last episode that Marlene had a very personal relationship with Ellie that goes even deeper than in the game.
Marlene and Ellie’s relationship is interesting because, in the game, it’s implied and understood that Marlene had a hands-on role in bringing her up and keeping her safe. One of the challenges in the live-action HBO show was to make it believable that they were meeting for the first time, and yet their relationship was so intimate and beautiful that you could feel that trust and that bond happen very quickly. I loved that wonderful scene that they wrote for Bella and me when Marlene and Ellie have their first conversation because as much as Ellie’s existence holds so much sorrow, weight, and pain for her, I think, in some ways, Marlene kept her safe at the FEDRA military school because it was too hard to bear the choices that she had to make. For Bella and I to create that kind of relationship in one scene in which you believe Ellie knows Marlene is that maternal figure to the scene where she negotiates with Joel, where you see that Ellie trusts Marlene with her life, was the biggest adjustment.
And you also got to act with Ashley Johnson in the show, but she played Anna, Ellie’s mother, in a completely new scene that was not in the game. I think it’s one of the most powerful scenes in the show. What was your initial reaction like in discovering what Marlene had done to Anna, and how did you want to approach this new element of Marlene’s past that was not present in the game?
I have to tell you, when I first read that scene, I put it down and sobbed. As an actor or artist, in anything you put your hand to, I have always held this relationship with Anna close to my heart when it comes to Marlene, who and what she has lost, and how she got to the place that she’s in now, where she makes so many difficult choices for all of those around her. She had to go through a great loss and make difficult choices that go against perhaps her personal joy. This scene was so beautifully written. Thank you, Craig and Neil, for Ashley and me.
When I found out that Ashley was playing Anna [laughs]. Oh, my goodness. That she and I were going to get an opportunity to come to this place of Ellie’s Genesis was a true gift in my career. And the emotional weight of actually playing it out was so difficult. There was a great joy being back together with Ashley on set with an opportunity to tell a new part of the story that people hadn’t seen before, which was fantastic. I will treasure and cherish it. I hope the same care and love we put into it was received in the same way by the audience and the fans.
In the game, Marlene does not tell Joel and Ellie that the procedure to find a cure will lead to Ellie’s death. How did it feel to recreate that scene for the show, knowing it’s a pivotal moment in the game, and why do you think Marlene did what she did?
First of all, it was fantastic to revisit that scene with a new perspective and stare down the barrel of the heartbreak coming out of Pedro’s eyes as Joel. It was so unbelievably difficult to ask Marlene to say those things out loud and to him and not give Ellie the choice.
There is a fundamental part of her spirit that has died with Anna. Looking at Ellie, the last tether to the life that she had before the last tangible bit of evidence that she had love, friendship, and possibly family before there was something that she had to kill within herself to be able to make these decisions. As she endeavors to be the leader, the torch carrier, the hope bearer that we can come to life after this horrible worldwide pandemic and give people actual evidence that there will be more, that we can move past it, there is a cure and life after this, and that this life that we have resigned ourselves to is not the end. But it comes at a great cost to her and everyone who is attached to them.
With Joel, she is surprised to see that the one man she knew would not become attached to her has clearly fallen for Ellie and loves her a great deal. I don’t know she is expected to jump over Joel’s hoop. But now that she’s looking at him, he has always been a formidable and dangerous opponent. So she is careful with her words and is thoughtful in what she shares with him. At that moment, because he’s a worthy adversary, it gives him an opportunity to join hands with her because she is in debt to him. It’s a matter of respect.
I auditioned for The Last of Us game with a similar iteration of the scene. And that’s when I first met Troy Baker and Neil Druckmann. The scene was written very differently than I had performed it. She offers different nuggets and appeals to him in slightly different ways. Those adjustments gave me delightful new diamonds in how to access her pain and this terrible choice that she’s making.
Do you have a particular memory from starring in the game or the show that you still hold on to this day?
It’s the people. It’s the people that come along with it. Yes, we have a wonderful story to tell. And the artists that have been gathered around the story are great treasures in my life. A lot of the video game actors are my friends, and they’re like family to me. And when we translated it to the HBO series, the laughter, the people, the heart, and the passion for the material were among my favorite ingredients. It’s what brings out the artists that come to the table around it and the heart of the people who care about the stories and are receiving them. The community has enriched my life in such a wonderful way.
All episodes of The Last of Us are now available to stream on Max.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]