Ashley Johnson, Ellie from The Last of Us games, shares her thoughts on the series

As The Last of Us reaches the end of its first season, Ashley Johnson – who voices Ellie in the games and appears in the final episode – speaks with Steve Newall.

Light spoilers for the season finale and The Last of Us Part II – Interview edited for length and clarity.

The series adaptation of The Last of Us has benefited from some of the same strengths of the games from which it’s adapted—particularly in its strong characterisations and casting. It really does follow in the footsteps of game developers Naughty Dog’s storytelling in this regard, so much so that living up to characters many of us were already familiar with (and loved) was a very real challenge it had to overcome.

With that in mind, it’s been satisfying, thrilling and sometimes heartrending to see how Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal have brought new life to Ellie and Joel. Rather than merely emulate what’s come before, or serve up a brand new version that’s unconnected to the source material, they’ve layered their unique and skilful contributions on top of the foundations laid by the actors before them—Ashley Johnson, who played Ellie in the games, and Troy Baker, who played Joel (and also appeared in a different role in episode eight of this first season).

It was great to hear more first hand from Johnson, who was quick to compliment Ramsey’s take on Ellie, saying “I don’t feel like anybody else could have done this part.”

“I finally watched the last episode last night, and she’s so fucking good,” Johnson enthuses. “She absolutely blows me away. This is gonna sound so weird. I feel so proud of her. I feel a connection to her, I think because we both love this character. And there’s so much of her that already is Ellie. So I think that’s why I want to take care of her in a way. Like, I feel like she’s my kid. I want to make sure that the world doesn’t hurt her. I feel a massive connection to Bella, and I am so blown away by what she’s done. What an incredible actor.”

To better understand what it must be like for Johnson to see Ellie brought to life on screen by Ramsey, I ask what her relationship with the character of Ellie was prior to the show happening.

“Boy, I auditioned, I think, in 2010,” she recalls. “So, prior to the show being made, I’ve been playing this character for over a decade. And also going on a journey with her from the first game to the second game, which is even darker. There’s also a little bit, too, of knowing that life for her is… not to give away spoilers, but it doesn’t necessarily get better”.

To this day, The Last of Us is the favourite thing she’s ever worked on, Johnson tells us. “I love this story, and these characters, and this project so much.”

“So much of that is because games take a long time,” she says. “I feel like Part II took over four years, I think it was like five years or something like that. So we’re living with these characters for so long, and getting to know the family at Naughty Dog and the crew that’s on set. And we all got very, very close and cared about these characters so much. Working with Neil [Druckmann, game creator] and with Troy was the three of us just constantly discussing, ‘let’s try this’ or ‘let’s try that’ or, you know, fine tuning scenes to make sure that they feel genuine and true.” She describes that process as intimate, intense and collaborative—and very emotionally and creatively fulfilling.

“We didn’t know if people were gonna like it,” Johnson confides. “This is kind of an intimate story… is this going to translate to a video game?”

“It’s weird,” she says of seeing The Last of Us come to life as a series. “I’ve been trying to find the words to describe the feeling of this—it’s so surreal. I think all of us, especially talking about Troy and me, we’re very attached to these characters. They’re characters that we love so much, because we were able to be a part in building them. And it’s hard to let it go, in a way.”

The current HBO show wasn’t the first attempt to adapt The Last of Us. As Johnson tells us, there have been so many different versions: “a movie that was going to be made, or a show, and so many different actors attached”.

But when it finally came to Bella, “it was a fight for her,” Johnson says. “Like, this is Ellie, she has the essence of Ellie—so much of her is already this character. Not that it has anything to do with me, but I was finally sort of comfortable. Knowing that she was going to take this and now put her imprint on it and make it her own and hopefully have a space to make it her own.”

Johnson felt comfortable letting it go, she says—something that wouldn’t have been easy to do with anyone. “But because of the depth and talent that Bella has, I feel like she’s elevated it,” Johnson elaborates. “I feel like she’s brought so much more to Ellie than we were able to do in the game.”

For Johnson that’s true of the story too, which gets to explore more moments as it’s not tied to gameplay. “There have been so many moments and scenes that Ellie has been able to say things that I feel like I never got to, where she’s been able to stand up for herself and stand up to Joel or stand up to anybody around her. And it’s cathartic. It makes me so happy to see this character grow even more and have more of a say in her own life in a way. Yeah, it’s bizarre, this whole thing, it’s a wild experience.”

As for appearing in the season, it came as a surprise—both to her and Baker—that they were asked to be part of the show. As she acknowledges, most video game adaptations don’t see the video game voice actors or motion capture artists go on to take part in live action versions.

“Neil had texted me pretty pretty early on, after they had announced that they were making it into a show,” she says. “We had known behind the scenes before, you know, because we’re still friends. We’re all very close, making these games and going through all this. He just texted and said, ‘Hey, Craig [Mazin] and I have been talking and would you like to play Ellie’s mom?’ And I had projectile tears. I was just like, ‘What?!'”

Given everything Johnson’s had to say about Ellie, there’s an extra weight to this onscreen role: “The layers to being able to play Ellie’s mom… the metaphor of bringing her into the world and being the first person to fight to keep her alive. And like, ‘this is my baby’. And I want her to live. To be safe and to be happy and to be able to live a life. It’s wild to me. I mean, like I said, voice actors generally don’t get into the folds of putting something on screen.”

To be safe and to be happy and to be able to live a life… Is that really something that can happen in the world of The Last of Us? Gamers will know that Part II isn’t light on heartbreak—but there are heartfelt moments there that Johnson is looking forward to seeing onscreen too.

“There’s so much stuff in Part  II that I really love,” she says. “I think when Joel plays the tape to Ellie, the whole sort of astronaut sequence. That’s just such a heartbreaking and beautiful moment, because it’s another way of him trying to reconnect with her and it’s bittersweet. That’s a moment for me, that sticks out from both of the games. Because it’s just, it’s so tender”.

“I think those little moments of tenderness that you’ve seen in this world really stand out to me,” Johnson continues, “because those are moments that are kind of hard to find. I can’t wait for that moment in the second season.”

“What Bella’s able to emote just through her eyes, it’s so subtle. Like, she’s so good. I can’t wait to see what she does with that scene, both of them. And Pedro. Oh my God, he’s fucking heartbreaking. He’s killing me.”

Not for the first time it feels like it’s Ellie right there talking to me (yes, of course that’s unsurprising). “Can you two just go away and let’s not do the second part so you can go somewhere and be happy together because I want you to just be okay?” Johnson daydreams.

“But it’s not gonna happen.”