The Last of Us fans are eagerly waiting to see if the upcoming HBO series can live up to the beloved games they’re based on. For what it’s worth, everything I’ve seen of the show so far suggests it’s heading in the right direction. At the very least, significant parts of the show look like they were pulled directly from the games with very few changes. That includes the series’ two main characters, Joel and Ellie.
That’s why some Last of Us fans were surprised by a recent report that suggested Ellie actress Bella Ramsey has never played either of The Last of Us games. In fact, that report suggested that the actress was told to not play the games. While that information caused some slightly more reactionary fans to panic about Ramsey’s upcoming performance, it turns out that the actress has a pretty good explanation for why she didn’t dive too deeply into the show’s beloved source material.
“[Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann] asked me, ‘Have you played the game?’” says Ramsey in a recent interview with the BBC. “I said, ‘No, I haven’t.’ They said, “Keep it that way…don’t play it.’ They didn’t want me to copy Ashley Johnson’s iconic version of Ellie, but bring a fresh perspective, I suppose.”
That being said, Ramsey notes that she has watched (and continues to watch) some Last of Us gameplay footage in order to “get a sense” of the material. She also notes that she’s “obsessed with” what she’s seen of the game and hopes that her portrayal of Ellie will be “familiar to fans” without coming across as an “exact replica.”
Honestly, that makes a lot of sense. Different actors will inevitably offer different perspectives on whether or not it’s best to lose themselves in the material related to an established character/figure they’re portraying, or whether it’s best to avoid the temptation of even unintentionally doing an impression. There are arguments for and against both approaches, and many actors ultimately decide to utilize a blend of both approaches.
At the risk of putting too many words in her mouth, that seems to be the basic approach Bella Ramsey is talking about here. Ashley Johnson’s Ellie performance is obviously incredible, but the strength of Johnson’s performance may be all the more reason to not study it too closely. After all, despite what Johnson may have made us believe, Ellie is not a real person. Someone playing a historical, real-life figure would obviously study footage of that figure pretty closely in order to imitate elements of them, but it would be a little unusual for one actor to study another actor’s performance quite that closely if they’re playing the same role.
As for the idea that Ramsey should actually play the games in order to understand her character…well, that’s honestly a pretty weak argument, at best. Not only did the show’s producers/creators ask Ramsey to not follow the in-game version of Ellie too closely, but I’m struggling to see how Bella Ramsey slowly picking off clickers as Joel during largely silent sections would significantly benefit her Ellie performance. Speaking of which, Pedro Pascal has also said that he hasn’t played the games in order to avoid “imitating” Joel, so Ramsey’s decision to do the same is hardly unusual.
In any case, everything we’ve seen of HBO’s The Last of Us so far really does look exceptional. While the history of live-action video game adaptations tells us to not get our hopes up too early, The Last of Us is shaping up to be that breakthrough production that gives future adaptations something to aspire to.