‘The Last of Us’ Star Merle Dandridge Says It Was ‘Emotional’ to Reprise Video Game Role in HBO Series

“There was a little discomfort at first of actually putting on the clothes,” the ‘Greenleaf’ actress told TheWrap

Merle Dandrige stars in "The Last of Us" as Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies

HBO’s highly-anticipated television adaptation of Naughty Dog’s critically acclaimed video game “The Last of Us” is set to premiere on Sunday evening, and while the live-action version finds different performers filling the roles of the game’s characters, Merle Dandridge was tasked with reprising her role as Marlene in live-action form. An experience she admits was emotional and, at first, a little uncomfortable.

The series takes place 20 years after modern civilization has been destroyed. Joel (Pedro Pascal), a hardened survivor, is hired to smuggle a 14-year-old girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) out of an oppressive quarantine zone. What starts as a small job soon becomes a brutal, heartbreaking journey, as they both must traverse the U.S. and depend on each other for survival.

Dandridge did voiceover and motion capture work on both “Last of Us” video games, originating the role of Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies, and she spoke to TheWrap about the “emotional” experience of stepping back into Marlene’s shoes for the live-action HBO series.

Dandridge told TheWrap that, from her first audition for the 2013 video game, she was immediately drawn to the character of Marlene, who is tasked with leading a resistance group known as the Fireflies.

“Immediately there was an integrity and a moral compass that this character was being confronted with really her worst nightmares…to see a character that was so beautifully, richly drawn, that was in a situation that would, I think, really move people’s hearts, it was a character that immediately meant something to me,” she explained. “When I met Neil and heard the way that he was planning on telling these stories and then to go into the audition room, meet Neil and Troy [Baker, who played Joel in the games], and we did one of the final scenes from the first game, I knew I had to be a part of it, that these are storytellers that were going to be doing something that was going to move the needle.”

Prior to joining “The Last of Us,” Dandridge had a long career on Broadway working in shows including “Aida,” “Spamalot,” “Tarzan” and “Rent.” She also played the role of Alyx Vance in the video games “Half-Life 2,” “Half-Life 2: Episode One,” “Half-Life 2: Episode Two,” and “The Orange Box.”

In the 10 years between the release of the first game and HBO’s adaptation, Dandridge returned to Broadway to appear in “Once on This Island,” starred in television shows including “The Night Shift,” “Greenleaf,” “The Flight Attendant,” “Truth Be Told” and “Station 19” and reprised the role of Marlene for “The Last of Us: Part II.”

“Having a long Broadway career, you sit in characters and get to stir in and get to know them in a very intimate level. Eight shows a week for maybe a year at a time, maybe more. Spending time and knowing and abiding in a character for a long period of time is something that I’m familiar with,” she said. “So Marlene never really left me… I felt like her essence stayed with me for that long period of time.”

Dandrige noted that by the time HBO’s adaptation came around (which is co-created and co-showrun by game creator Neil Druckmann), she had “actually become more appropriate” to play Marlene in front of the camera “having aged into her.” However, up until that point, she admits she’d only taken on Marlene through a “certain lens.”

“There was a little discomfort at first of actually putting on the clothes and it was quite emotional to do that for the first time to see her elucidated in the physical rather than a rendering by these amazing Naughty Dog artists,” she acknowledged. “So at first it was a little bit of a touch and go on the clutch, making sure I was in the right gear and then it was off to the races.”

When it came to navigating production on the show during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dandridge said that the similarities between reality and the source material had to be “compartmentalized.” While she believes HBO’s adaption is “timely,” Dandridge argued that the real world’s pandemic had “hope on the horizon” and an “end in sight.”

“I think what will touch on a really deep chord is what is it like to be 20 years into it and no end in sight and no hope and then suddenly you find a possibility,” she explained. “[Marlene] is constantly holding up that beacon, holding up that mirror saying don’t lose sight of who you were, don’t lose sight of what can be. And that is a very, very difficult thing to do 20 years in when you don’t know for sure.”

Merle Dandridge stars in “The Last of Us” as Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies (HBO)

Though Dandridge will serve as a familiar face for fans of the source material, she revealed that the character will have some slight differences in HBO’s adaptation.

“I think one of the biggest ones is an opportunity to see her in new situations and see different flavors of her sense of humor in some ways. And then also to get a better sense of just the steady weight of 20 years leading a resistance, we get to see kind of the weariness around it,” Dandridge said. “And then further down the line in the season, you’ll get more glimpses of and a better rounded picture of who she is, which I think will be a real treat for fans.” 

Dandridge isn’t the only video game actor who shows up in “The Last of Us.” Jeffrey Pierce (Tommy), Troy Baker (Joel) and Ashley Johnson (Ellie) all have roles in the HBO series, but are not reprising their same characters.

When asked about her message to new fans, Dandridge said she is “glad and grateful that a whole other world of audience will have the opportunity to experience the story.”

“I hope that their interest is piqued for all the beautiful work that is happening in the realm of gaming,” she said. “We’re not doing Frogger and Asteroid these days. We’re telling deep, emotional, visceral, important human stories that have great opportunity to squeeze your heart and make you turn inward and really consider and think and reconsider.”

As for fans of the game, she urged them to put any fears about the series aside.

“I saw so much of it. I lurked and I sat and I watched – even when I wasn’t working – and my whole spirit would rise when I would see the love and the artistry from set decoration to props,” she said. “Every little detail is covered in a way that is equivalent to [fans’] passion for the source material. This is a love letter for the fans created by people who love and are fans of the material.”

“The Last of Us” premieres on HBO and HBO Max Sunday at 9 p.m. ET.