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The Last Of Us’ Merle Dandridge About Reprising Her Role As Marlene & What’s Changed In 10 Years

The Last Of Us based on the critically acclaimed video game of the same name developed by Naughty Dog exclusively for the PlayStation platforms, is written and executive produced by Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann. The series is a co-production with Sony Pictures Television and is executive produced by Carolyn Strauss, Evan Wells, Asad Qizilbash, Carter Swan, and Rose Lam. Production companies: PlayStation Productions, Word Games, The Mighty Mint, and Naughty Dog.

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

The cast includes Pedro Pascal as Joel, Bella Ramsey as Ellie, Gabriel Luna as Tommy, Anna Torv as Tess, Nico Parker as Sarah, Murray Bartlett as Frank, Nick Offerman as Bill, Melanie Lynskey as Kathleen, Storm Reid as Riley, Merle Dandridge as Marlene, Jeffrey Pierce as Perry, Lamar Johnson as Henry, Keivonn Woodard as Sam, Graham Greene as Marlon, and Elaine Miles as Florence. Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker also star.

Courtesy of HBO Asia, we were lucky enough to be the only Malaysian media to participate in an interview with Merle Dandridge, who plays the role of Marlene in The Last Of Us. She is reprising the same role which she also played in the games. This article has been edited for clarity.

HBO / HBO GO / Jorge Bispo

What is it like to play the same character across different mediums, transitioning from video games to live-action?

Merle Dandridge: Playing Marlene across several incarnations has been one of the great honours of my life. I got to play her in the first game, the second game, we did a stage version, there was a film adaptation that was in the works, we got into some readings, and now the HBO adaptation. So, when I first met Marlene, obviously I had to audition and seeing her on the page, she was already strong, dynamic, had so much grit and the situations she found herself in, the kind of moral conundrums and the pressure she was under and the sacrifice of self for the greater good.

Those were all such unbelievably extraordinary circumstances and for somebody to have to go through something like that, and how does that change a person, or lead them to their actual purpose, so stepping into the HBO adaptation, I had a couple of nerves because when we did it at the Naughty Dog stage, I was doing mo-cap so I had the great luxury of, let me lay down all the internal struggle, all of the emotional life and who she is and the performance I knew was going to be enhanced by the incredible team of engineers and artists at Naughty Dog.

And then this case at HBO, again, a different team of artists that outfitted me with the clothes, that put me in this beautiful wig, that gave me this extraordinarily accurate weapons belt and stepping onto the stage and seeing in real life, being able to tangibly touch all of those things that were so gorgeous in the game. It was wonderful to be able to step into that. So, I wanted to live up to it, I wanted to take her to new places. It was a fresh inspiration and a great honour to be able to take an old friend on a new ride.

What do you like about filming for a video game and filming in live-action?

Merle Dandridge: That’s very interesting. Because I come from the Broadway stage, motion capture gives you lots of room for imagination. So, really, there’s nothing you can’t do. Even if you can’t physically, you can allude to it, and it will be transformed into this, you know, whatever. Also, anything is possible, you’re on a blank stage. If you can dream it, it can be actualized in this format.

Now, in the television adaptation, I also had the great luxury of, since I first met Marlene 10 years ago, of having 10 years in the television industry, perfecting my craft in that way, so being able to marry those things around a character that I love so much was fantastic, it was beautiful. But Craig, the showrunner, often brought me on-set as a litmus test and I would lurk just to see and watch because it was so amazing to see all of the beautiful sets brought to life and all the characters re-imagined.

But I would be his litmus test because as soon I would lay eyes on something, an emotional eruption would happen and I would dissolve into tears, and I think that’s a great indicator that the things that people really loved about the game are being so beautifully translated into the HBO series.

How is the live-action Marlene different from the way you played the video game version?

Merle Dandridge: Everything had that essence to it. I had to completely untether myself from who I thought she was and perhaps the sentimentality of my performances from 10 years ago, but for several reasons. I’m a different performer, I’m opposite different performers and I had never walked in her shoes physically. I never put on the clothes, I never waded through these unbelievable sets that were so dark and dank, it gives you a renewed weight in your spirit and in your gait. I think if I had tried to bring my old ways for approaching Marlene to this, it would have suffocated the performance and so yeah.

Did you always know that you would have gotten the role for the HBO adaptation?

Merle Dandridge: Of course I hoped that I would be in the HBO adaptation but that is not a given. I think if history has told us anything, that it’s usually quite the opposite. One of the divine bits about my relationship with this piece and this story has always been is that it seems to hold hands with me along the way and in this particular way, I had the opportunity to age into Marlene. If this has come to me 10 years ago, I would’ve been too young.

I think I have also evolved as a performer. I have a lot more in my toolbox to offer her, so when Neil even brought it up to me, the creator of the game and the executive producer on the show, that it was a possibility, I was gobsmacked and extremely grateful. And then, along the way, just extremely joyful to know that this story that has been so meaningful and cherished to me and to so many people for so long is going to reach a much larger audience.

And I think as far as what we want our art to do, what we want our stories to do, the ones that are really meaningful, they really touch us, turn a mirror onto us and cause us to think deeper. And this is one of the pieces that really does that.

HBO / HBO GO / Jorge Bispo

What do you think of some fans who have had a negative reaction to some of the casting choices for the HBO adaptation?

Merle Dandridge: You know, if we didn’t have the fans and the beautiful following and the emotional attachment that they have, we wouldn’t have a job. And the reason why they are so emotionally attached and passionate about it is because we were truthful to what we were trying to do, what the source material and the stories we were trying to tell. And if we were continually trying to chase approval, in your art, in your life, in anything, you will deviate from what your true calling, what your true purpose is.

And I think that this franchise, led by Neil Druckmann and now in partnership with Craig Mazin, they are creators that look for the nucleus, the DNA, the centre of the story and they follow that first. What are we trying to say, where are we trying to go with this, how do we want to move the people who see it. And then, they will understand once they see it. The same reason that they went on a journey and fell in love with the game, they will fall in love again with this HBO adaptation.

I can say that with experience because I lurked, I watched, I saw everything and was just as moved and I have been inside of the project for over a decade. To watch Pedro as Joel and Bella walk onto the set for the first time, my spirit soared. When Pedro first spoke to me as Joel, I was astonished. The portrayal was not only so true to the source material, but also has a delightful new twist that only Pedro can bring.

Have you played The Last Of Us, and what do you think of the game?

Merle Dandridge: I am terrible at playing games, but I watched everything on YouTube. I have to watch it that way, or I watch my friends play it. Because I have so many friends who love it and family members who all sat there and watched them and experienced it with them. In the same way, Neil has always been a proponent of, Merle, you’re in so many games, you have to learn how to play, and I remember there was one that was getting a lot of attention, and he was like, all right, you got to sit down in front of this and you got to move it this way and that way.

I was like, okay, Neil, let me give it a shot. But the great privilege of the age we’re in now is that people post their gameplay a lot. I did, however, do a YouTube series or something with Troy Baker, who plays Joel in the game, watching it and being able to react to the whole thing, which was really, really fun. I had a great time with him and Nolan (North) doing that.

What was the most emotional scene for you during filming?

Merle Dandridge: There was a scenario that took me by surprise and I had just come to set getting ready to shoot my stuff. I can’t talk about the scene because it’s a little down the line in the season but the visceral response that I had to what was happening on-screen almost felt like I was being knocked in the chest. It was hard to watch and it was beautiful and it was heart-wrenching and I didn’t expect that with my attachment to certain characters or my care for the story seeing things that had only lived in my imagination played out on the screen was overwhelming at some times. I guess it just tells you how emotionally attached I am to it. I don’t know, maybe I’m just a crybaby, but this is really beautiful stuff.

Do you see Marlene as an antagonist in The Last Of Us?

Merle Dandridge: Well, antagonist is a big word for somebody who thinks that they’re doing the right thing. I think her choices are arguably a point of contention or something that is worthy of debate because it is something that we should be considering and reconsidering. What do we sacrifice? Of ourself, our own ethics? What is worth giving up for a greater purpose or vice versa? Giving up for the greater good, what do we cherish even more tightly?

I think something that is beautifully elucidated in the course of the season is that there is a strong reason and you get to feel viscerally how she came to be so steadfast and singleminded in the choices that she makes and to decide, okay, in the realm of how this world is going right now, I will hold this torch up, I will remind you who we were and what is possible if we march forward. That there is hope if we only hold on to your faith. If you only believe that tomorrow can come. It doesn’t look like it is possible right now but it is, and I will continue to reflect that to you. And for someone to say that without necessary evidence that it is true, tells you that she is a soldier that will fight until the end for what she believes is right.

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  1. HBO’s The Last Of Us Episode 1 Breakdown & Easter Eggs

    January 16, 2023 at 7:16 pm

    […] to participate in interviews with Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, Merle Dandridge and Gabriel Luna. You can also check out our spoiler-free review of the entire season by heading […]

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