Note: This article contains spoilers for “The Last of Us” Episode 8
Troy Baker made a name for himself originating the role of Joel in “The Last of Us” video game franchise, but the actor recently told TheWrap that he almost backed out of his audition for the now-iconic 2013 action adventure.
“I walked into an audition just like anybody else and there was a character for a new game by Naughty Dog. I was very familiar with them and I wanted it real bad and I almost walked out of the audition because I didn’t feel like I was right for it,” he explained. “Luckily, par for the course, Neil [Druckmann]’s idea was better than mine and he chose me to be Joel for the game. And a lot of that was because Ashley [Johnson] and I just just clicked from the onset and this story is about that. It’s about this connection between these two characters and this relationship as they go through this hellish world.”
Druckmann told TheWrap that when it came to casting HBO’s adaptation, he and co-creator Craig Mazin knew that they wanted to find a meaningful way to include Baker and Johnson even though the roles of Joel and Ellie were being played by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey.
“Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson were such an instrumental part of bringing the story to life the first time for both games that from the get go when Craig and I had conversation about casting people, we were like, ‘Oh, they have to be somewhere in the show and they have to be more than just an Easter egg,'” Druckmann said. “We wanted to honor that they’re fantastic actors, not just voice actors, and give them some meaty roles to play.”
For Baker, that role ended up being James, David’s right hand man who Ellie meets during the winter section of the video game and is later revealed to be a cannibal.
“When they asked me to come back, [Neil] was like, ‘I think we have a character for you. You can say no if you want to.’ I was like, ‘I’m not gonna say no, dude, if it’s a clicker that dies in two frames, I’m just gonna throw a peace sign up real quick. I’ll be fine. I’m totally happy’,” he recalled. “And unfortunately, again, his ideas were better than mine and it was a much better character and that’s how I got to play James.”
Though James and David are generally viewed as villains in the context of the video game, Baker said he had the “beautiful opportunity” and challenge of allowing audiences to view James through a different lens in HBO’s adaptation.
“If there’s an element of empathy that I can bring to any character, that to me is the job, is the challenge. So for me, it’s understanding that everybody in this world serves as a counterpoint to Joel and Ellie. So how does James look like either of them? And there’s kind of similarities for both of them,” he said. “I think that before the whole world blew up, James was a good guy. He’s probably either military or law enforcement, he is someone who had skills with a weapon but knew how to protect people and that’s ultimately what he was there for.”
In HBO’s adaptation, David relies heavily on using hope and faith in God to lead his people.
“When you strip people of all of their tangible resources like food, shelter, warmth, then the intangible becomes the currency and that’s what David is using. He understands that if you can weaponize hope you can lead people,” Baker said.
“And so he brings in one of the classic examples which is the Bible and being able to take scripture and something that was pure and intended for good and be able to use that to control people, which is what we’ve seen systematically religion be used for. So it’s what can I provide for people that will keep them under my charge? I will give them food – they don’t need to know that what they’re eating is not what they think they’re eating – and I will give them truth in the form of this scripture. But he also quotes Nietzsche or Marx as much as he quotes the Bible. So he is an intellectual person who understands thought, he understands people, how to profile and how to identify people and ultimately how to manipulate people.”
As for James, Baker says he’s much more of a pragmatist and “not a die hard believer in some zealous pursuit.”
“He understands that that serves a purpose just like everything else does but he also recognizes that David is the devil and I would much rather be the right hand of the devil than on the wrong hand of the devil,” he added. “And that’s when Ellie comes in, because Ellie is more David’s equal because as he says, ‘You’re smart, you’re capable, you’re brilliant and you have a violent heart’ and that’s something that James lacks. And that’s the thing that’s keeping him from being an equal to David. So that’s why James just wants the girl away because she represents and threatens his role with him.”
David and James end up being killed at the hands of Ellie, which Baker says is a “foundational moment” for her moving forward on her journey.
“In the game, Joel gets there and he pulls Ellie off of David. But here in the show, she completes that fully and is left wandering out in the stark white wilderness and then that’s when Joel finds her,” Baker said. “To me, this is a beautiful thing where it’s not that Joel finds Ellie at her most vulnerable, this is a moment where we see Ellie saves Joel at his most vulnerable, physically and emotionally. I think it’s a very powerful thesis that this episode specifically makes, but definitely in our final episode, we’re going to see the impact that this has on Ellie.”
Bella Ramsey recently told Vogue that next week’s season finale would “divide people massively,” but Baker doesn’t see it that way.
“I wouldn’t say that the ending is divisive. I would say that there are people that disagree because it was never intended to be divisive, it was intended to be a truthful ending,” he said. “I remember how I wrestled with the ending when I first found out about it and I even told Neil like, ‘People are gonna be pissed,’ and he was like ‘Good, because I don’t care if people love it or hate it, I just want them to feel something. But if they’re ambivalent then we failed.’ And so for the last 10 years, there have been people who have wrestled with that ending and what we’re going to see is a whole new group of people now joining that beautiful conversation and wrestle with all of us who have been wrestling with it for 10 years, and find out what they think about the ending.”
While there was an immense pressure on the HBO’s adaptation cast to live up to the game, Baker emphasized that both Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey have delivered with their performances over the course of the season.
“Joel is Joel, whether he’s in my boots or Pedro’s boots or anybody else’s. It’s the understanding of who the character is and that’s what both Bella and Pedro have done,” he said. “I wanted someone to just show the world that [Joel] is bigger than any one performance, and if it wasn’t, we didn’t do as good a job of creating a character as good as it could have been. But, fortunately, what Bella and Pedro have showed us week after week after week is that these characters are much bigger than just any one performance.”
“The Last of Us” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and is streaming on HBO Max.