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Courtesy of Victoria Thomas.

Victoria Thomas Pulls Back the Curtain on Casting ‘The Last of Us’

The widely popular series adaptation of the PlayStation game The Last of Us broke several streaming records for HBO Max during its inaugural season run earlier this year, and thanks to a warm critical reception, it received an astounding 24 Emmy nominations — including Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series.

We wanted to speak with the mastermind behind the incredible cast that brought to life a world in which a fungal pandemic has turned much of the global population into zombies and uninfected survivors’ only hope just might be found in the form of a 14-year-old teen.

It was no small task to capture the vision of showrunners Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin for such a story, and Victoria Thomas virtually sat down with Casting Networks to pull back the curtain on the process, as well as had her casting associate on the series, Elizabeth Brown, weigh in.

Keep reading for insights into casting The Last of Us that run the gamut from finding its leads to finding its supporting cast members, along with the theme Thomas discovered along the way.

It’s great to see you again, Victoria, after talking about everything from Watchmen to The Andy Griffith Show the last time we spoke. And now, congrats are in order for all the success of The Last of Us. It’s a contender for several Emmys, including the lead acting categories for a drama series. What can you tell us about the process of casting Pedro Pascal in it?

Thomas: We started casting the role of Joel first, which began in the fall of 2020, and there were a couple actors that we went out to about the role. At that point, we thought Pedro was not available — I think he was scheduled to do another project. I’ve got to give credit to Craig [Mazin] because he kind of swooped in and alerted us that Pedro hadn’t quite yet signed onto the other project. So, with the timing of everything, we ended up having a weekend to engage with him and see if he wanted to do our project more. Pedro read the script overnight from Saturday to Sunday, loved it, and that was that.

Wow. Talk about high stakes and a short timeframe! Thanks to your quick work, I now can’t imagine anyone else playing the role of Joel.

Thomas: It’s funny because there were several guys we had been considering for that part, from Daniel Craig to Matthew McConaughey to Mahershala Ali to Kevin Bacon. We started off with a wide net for the role of Joel and talked about a variety of actors to play him.

That’s such a fun window into other actors you thought could be right for the role when casting Joel. And how about the process of locking in Bella Ramsey for Ellie?

Thomas: First, I’ll add that we did the casting for all the roles remotely because of the pandemic. We didn’t see anyone in person. And for the role of Ellie, we had a lot of young actors go on tape. I think Bella stood out not only because she’s good and gave a great read, but I also think she has a uniqueness that stood out. Bella can be both tough and vulnerable, but she doesn’t wear that vulnerability on her face. She just seemed to have the best combination of interesting qualities as an actor for the role. Is that how you would put it, Elizabeth?

Brown: Yes, and the fact that she is older but can play younger roles was a big standout quality for her when it came to playing Ellie.

Definitely. She plays a 14-year-old so well while bringing a whole lot of depth to the part.

Thomas: Ellie obviously goes through a lot of tragedy in the show and handles a lot of emotions. Bella was able to convey the full range of that — you’re interested in watching her journey. I mean, she wasn’t just another young ingenue. I have to say that the female roles we got to cast for the show, in general, weren’t glamorous characters. You know? These women and girls could handle guns — they were sort of G.I. Janes. So, it was a great opportunity to get to cast some badass women.

I love it, and that’s a great segue into my next question. Aside from the show’s two leads, can you pull back the curtain on the casting process behind other roles in The Last of Us?

Thomas: There was always a desire to include some actors from the game for the fans, and also because Neal [Druckmann] wanted them to be a part of the series adaptation. [The actor who voices Ellie in the game] Ashley [Johnson] was picked to play Ellie’s mom in the show early on.

For the role of Marlene, we looked at some other actresses but were also considering Merle Dandridge [who voices Marlene in the game]. And she ended up playing the part in the series.

As for the role of Tess, it was a long, long journey to cast that character. One of our early favorites was Sarah Paulson because Craig knows her, and she’s friends with Pedro. That didn’t work out, though, and there were a lot of actresses considered for that part before we came to Anna [Torv]. I’ll also add that we cast Gabriel [Luna as Tommy] early on after we cast Pedro.

Brown: And the actors who played Riley and Sarah were impacted by Ellie’s casting.

Thomas: Yes, Nico Parker was one of the people who read for the role that ultimately went to Bella. But we liked her, and Nico fit the criteria we were looking for with the character of Sarah, which led to that casting.

Those are great insights into finding some of the show’s supporting cast.

Thomas: And when it came to casting Lamar [Johnson] and Keivonn [Woodard] as Henry and Sam, we knew about their roles early on and made some initial lists. But we really didn’t cast them until about a year later when we had the material that they were actually going to be performing.

The search for Sam was conducted by Elizabeth, and looking for a young deaf Black man to play a character who has a disability — but it’s not the point of his story or character — was satisfying because we were able to cast an actor to represent the community that he portrays. We had gotten the word out to any and all deaf theater companies and organizations and were just so fortunate to find Keivonn.

Finding the Indonesian actors [for episode two] was also special when it came to representation. We were able to cast Indonesian actors from Jakarta to play actual Indonesian characters in scenes set in Jakarta. The challenge there was trying to get contact info for international actors in order to have them audition. Elizabeth was sending out emails and looking for them via Instagram — whatever she could do to try and track them down. And the different time zones made for lots of early-morning or late-night calls explaining the show to them and what they needed to do. All the work that went into connecting with them was so satisfying, though, including getting to cast the legend that is Christine Hakim.

It sounds like a special casting process, all around. And can you speak to anything special that goes into finding the cast for a series adaptation of a video game?

Thomas: It all starts with the writing. So I’ve got to give credit to Neil and Craig for making that transition from the source material to the TV series. Elizabeth was well-versed with the game, which was invaluable in helping me gain entry into The Last of Us world. And then it comes down to the strategy you’re taking with casting and just trying to cast the best people you can.

Brown: As far as insights from the game, Bill and Frank have such small roles in it. Frank isn’t even seen; his passing is just referenced. Joel and Ellie only interact with Bill in the game — he’s gruff and rude to them, and then he dies. So, reading the scripts and knowing early on that they decided to give a whole episode to Bill and Frank — and getting to work on those two roles and help expand The Last of Us world — was really cool.

Thomas: And Murray [Bartlett] was the only guy we read for the role of Frank. We preferred to cast gay men for both roles, and Craig had another actor in mind for the role of Bill, who didn’t ultimately work out. We sent a shortlist of other options, which Nick [Offerman] was on. Craig knew him a little bit and suggested looking into Nick for the role. In the end, we went with the best actor for Bill, who happened to not be gay.

Before the interview wrapped, The Last of Us casting director and casting associate also touched on the character of Maria. “It was interesting to cast a female who was the leader of her community and no-nonsense — in a similar way to Tess — and who also could be in a relationship with Gabriel,” said Brown. “There was a lot of love between their characters.”

Thomas added that the actor who played the multi-layered role of Maria also needed to be believable as a former assistant district attorney. “Rutina [Wesley] helps continue the theme of badass women in The Last of Us.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June and has been updated to reflect Thomas’ 2023 Emmy nomination.

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