HBO's The Last of Us interview: Tommy voice actor on returning for Part 3
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Featured Image Credit: HBO, Sony Interactive Entertainment
You may have heard of a little show called The Last of Us that’s currently in the midst of airing over on HBO. Okay, it’s a big deal around these parts. The Last of Us is quite comfortably the greatest video game adaptation of all time, and we still have four glorious episodes to enjoy.
HBO’s The Last of Us isn’t afraid to deviate from the game - look no further than the stunning Bill and Frank episode - but any changes made are done so to best serve the story. There’s plenty of familiarity too and that includes the cast. The premiere episode saw Merle Dandridge reprise the role of Marlene, having previously portrayed the character in Naughty Dog’s games. Over the past two weeks, another familiar face has popped up - that of Jeffrey Pierce.
The Last of Us Part I lands on PC on 28 March. Take a look at this side-by-side companion of the remake versus the original game.
Jeffrey is known for voicing Tommy in both The Last of Us Part I and Part II, but he brings Perry to life in the HBO series. With the Kansas City chapter of Joel and Ellie’s story now having drawn to a close, we had the chance to sit down with Jeffrey to talk about what it was like to return to the franchise in a new role and whether he’s up for voicing Tommy in a potential Part III.
Congratulations on the success of the show. Being a part of the games, you’re used to working in a motion capture studio. What was it like to return to this world and step onto real sets?
Jeffrey Pierce: I think one of the things that most surprised me about motion capture when I first did it was how much it was like being in a black box theatre [...] and I loved it - and the sort of demands it puts on your imagination. It takes you back to the roots of why you fell in love with acting, at least from my experience, because everything becomes imaginary and everybody has to play together at the same time with the same level of commitment.
When you're shooting practically, it takes time to sort all of the coverage and close-ups, but walking onto the sets that they built, especially for episode five’s climactic exchange, they built that entire neighbourhood. That was a parking lot, and they built it from the ground up. That was unbelievable. I mean, it's got to be 15 to 20 houses that they built the skeletons of, [...] so to get to come play on something that was given that much love and sweat and blood to build, you felt that you had to honour what they've done with your work - and that made it a really, really special experience, for sure.
Perry - and Kathleen - aren’t your typical ‘bad guys’. There’s complexity to them. Did that appeal to you?
Yes. I think that one of the things that Neil [Druckmann] and Craig [Mazin] are really interested in in their storytelling is the idea that there’s not necessarily ‘good people’ and ‘bad people’. Up until the end of our revolution, [Perry and Kathleen] are absolutely righteous. The federal government [FEDRA] in Kansas City is notorious in terms of their corruption and their violence and the way that they have run their occupation so we are, you know, revolutionaries trying to get a better life. It's when we take the power and get all the guns back that we ask, what do we do with that?
I think that it puts us in the position as artists where we want the audience to ask, what would I do in that situation? Would I do something as bad as what these people did? Would I stand by and let it happen? Or would I try to stop it? Art is supposed to trigger those thoughts and conflicting emotions in people.
Melanie Lynskey is great as Kathleen. How was your dynamic working with her?
Melanie is absolutely lovely. She is kind and sweet and gentle, and has a heart of gold - yet she is tough and strong and has a spine of steel. Her talent is just absolutely lovely to sort of get a chance to dance with. I thought of it as my job to be the audience and [as Perry] mirror what the audience might feel. There is conflict between them but her grace and the sort of power that she has is something that Perry is absolutely in love with, and feels great affection and respect for. Melanie made that very easy to embrace, she's fantastic. I put her on the same level as I would any of the best actors I’ve ever worked with.
What has it been like seeing the viewing figures increase week after week? That must be quite exciting.
It's really kind of ridiculous, isn't it? I've said this a couple of times but when we first did the game, the first scene that we shot when I was playing Tommy was the death of Sarah. For an actor, there's a moment where you can feel the connection between yourself and the other actors and the situation that is created. [...] When that moment occurs, you know that you have struck that chord [perfectly]. When we finished shooting that scene, everyone on the soundstage was in tears from the camera operators to the people in the audio booth. It was an extraordinary experience.
I had said to Neil, people across the world are going to be playing this game and they're going to break down in tears. And that's exactly what happened when the game came out. If you had told me 13 years ago, when we recorded that scene, that this would happen, I would say yeah. I can absolutely see that happening, because when you can touch people through your work, it becomes a compulsion to experience that again and I think that's the highest praise that we could possibly get, that it's striking that emotional chord again.
Kathleen’s thirst for revenge is interesting when you consider where the story will eventually go in Part II. Do you think Perry fully supports Kathleen’s vendetta?
Perry loved her brother. I mean, he was Perry’s best friend and Perry embraces him as a leader, but I think in that moment in episode five, where [Kathleen] tells me what he said in the prison cell, I can't believe that. I don't want to believe that because we've been taking some serious, brutal revenge for weeks now based on his killing, so I think he is a little bit conflicted about it but once you've gone down that road, I think it's very difficult to turn back.
One of the things about violence is that it's almost always done to erase the sense of shame inside of the person. To erase it by physically erasing the person - and then everyone you kill after that is an attempt to erase that shame. It becomes this cycle that is unsurvivable, so I think that it's great that that's a key element of the story that we're already exploring because, you know, it becomes pivotal to our experience in the second game. Going forward, it becomes the centre of this universe.
Are you excited at the prospect of new audiences discovering the game?
Oh yeah. Part of the thing that's really exciting about the game right now is it's going to be introduced to an entirely new group of people. The idea that people who have not played the game before, might not ever have gotten into the game will say, okay, I'd like to sort of live that experience. They’re going to take a prestige TV series and immediately experience that world as it was first intended and one of the things that we'll see is how much fidelity there is between what HBO has done and what Neil and Naughty Dog did, in so many ways, from the get go.
Then, the game that's coming out for Naughty Dog next is going to be this multiplayer game that happens within the world [of The Last of Us]. The idea that you could, okay, create your own character and come into that world and experience that even further is really, really cool. And I think it's totally unheard of.
Were there any particular challenges in taking on this role as Perry?
The thing is, when it's well written, the difficulty sort of vanishes. I rarely have the opportunity in my career to have long, extended periods of time to prepare for a role. I had about seven months from the time that they offered me the job to when we started shooting so all of the difficulty for me was in those seven months just sort of biding my time and preparing - and preparing physically for the way I wanted Perry to be by the time I got there. I wanted to bring a character who was formidable enough that if he gets to Joel, Joel is going to have problems.
Is it strange for you to see another actor, Gabriel Luna, bring Tommy to life?
No, but what's interesting is that [people] hear Tommy [in Perry] but Tommy's voice is different from the one that I have, and it's different from the one that Perry has. It's nice that fans recognise that sort of timbre of my voice.
Gabriel, who plays Tommy in the show, is an absolute pro. He attacked it like he would if it were a biopic. He studied the character. He studied what I did and what was created by Naughty Dog in the games, and then brought all of himself to that as well. He nailed it. I took my daughter to the premiere and she elbows me when he starts talking and she said, “Dad that sounds exactly like you.” That was a great experience. But yeah, Tommy is going to be the first line of my obituary, no question, but Gabriel has picked up the mantle and is absolutely killing it. I'm very proud of it.
When you’re watching the show, has there been a moment where you’ve said, ‘They did that better than we did it’ in the game?
What was astonishing to me was the car chase at the beginning when they're in the truck, which is almost exactly what we did in the game, but to be able to capture that practically and then have the planes coming overhead and the crash, that was just jaw dropping. To imagine the effort and care that it took to shoot that, to prep that, the hundreds of hours and hundreds of human beings that it took to get that right, was my one.
We’re all eagerly waiting for The Last of Us Part III to be announced. Considering the success of the show, do you think it’ll happen and would you be onboard to return as Tommy?
Oh, of course. You know, I think that if they find the right venues for storytelling for it, they'll do it. I love the fact that [Naughty Dog] don't care how much money they would make by doing Part III. If it doesn't make sense artistically, they're not going to do it. In the world that we live in today, to be able to say, ‘We’re only doing it if it’s what we want it to be,’ it’s beautiful and because Neil [Druckmann] has had that success as an artist, there’s that courage. He can say, ‘F**k it. I don’t care how much money it makes if it’s not going to be what pleases me as an artist.’ It’s refreshing but yeah, I hope they do - even as a player. I want to play Part III.
What were those early conversations like when Neil and Craig said we want in the series, but not as Tommy?
They actually had me read for a different part and they had me read for three times. Ultimately, they came back and said, ‘Look, we're never going to believe you as a victim,’ which is a very gratifying thing to hear. A week later, they called and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this guy that we think you'd be perfect for.’ I enjoyed playing Tommy for many reasons, but Perry is this sort of iconic Ronin samurai who's found his purpose, and what more could I ask for, you know?
Finally, were you as blown away by the Bill and Frank episode as we all were?
I was blubbering. It caught me by surprise and just hit me emotionally. Three different moments over the course of the episode just absolutely tore my heart out but it wasn't a tragic, emotional experience. It was just incredibly moving. [...] Any prejudice that [people] might have approached that love story with was obliterated by the care and beauty of the storytelling, by the universality of wanting to love and be loved at that level regardless of your preferences, I think that is where the chord struck. It was great.
The Last of Us airs Sunday nights on HBO in the US, and Mondays on Sky Atlantic / NOW TV in the UK.