What It Was Like For Merle Dandridge To Play Marlene In HBO's The Last Of Us And In The Original Game

"The Last of Us" is not a tale of good vs evil. But, despite the story's commitment to portraying the nuances of moral ambiguity, it rightfully makes hard distinctions between corrupt power structures and the victims who suffer under fascism. Taking place in a post-apocalyptic America, survivors of the Cordyceps fungal infection are forced to live in FEDRA-operated Quarantine Zones governed by the remnants of the U.S. military in major cities or take their chances surviving in the outskirts.

In this universe, resistance groups have teamed up to fight FEDRA's oppressive forces, and by far the most organized faction are the Fireflies — guided nationwide by their fierce and strategic leader, Marlene. The HBO "Last of Us" series, premiering later this month, is not just a retelling of the original game's story, it's also a deep expansion of the characters and lore, adding new and exciting layers to the original source material. While there are plenty of actors who gave fantastic motion-capture performances in the original 2013 game returning to the adaptation, Merle Dandridge is the only one who had the pleasure of reprising her original role as Marlene.

/Film's Ben Pearson attended a press event for HBO's "The Last of Us" series where, during the interview roundtable, Dandridge elaborated on what it was like playing Marlene in both the game and the series and how her creative approach to the character evolved.

"My approach as an artist to any character is very similar. I think one of the gifts that this process has offered me is 10 years of getting to know her." Dandridge shared, "My imagination, which is already running rampant, running even more wild of how she got to where she is, what built this stalwart woman that we know and we've gotten to know."

HBO's iteration of Marlene has grown with Dandridge

Before Marlene, Dandridge was mostly a stage actor with some minor onscreen TV roles and voice-acting projects. Over the course of her career, she's slowly become more comfortable in front of the camera — leading her to where she is now with this newest incarnation of Marlene. Dandridge, like Marlene at this stage of her life, is older, more physically trained, and comfortable in her own skin:

"I've had the great opportunity of maturing as an artist and then maturing in the physical so that I was even more appropriate to play her in front of the camera. And that my 10, 15 years of Broadway and voiceover work before meeting Marlene first, and then now 10 years in front of the camera and the television world, all those things conflated and met and combined and aligned to make this the appropriate fit right now."

For Dandridge, despite her long-term attachments to the character, making sure that her performance as Marlene was not just a copy of how she originated the character was important. Especially with a brand new cast playing Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsay), why waste the opportunity to bounce off of fresh faces? "[...] if you try to chase something or you try to walk in the truth of something in sentimentality, you'll kill the inspiration on the vine [bouncing off Pascal's Joel and Ramsey's Ellie] was like fresh oxygen that reignited something different in this version of Marlene, which is steeped in all of the things that I had first infused her with."

A new, dynamic, and heartbreaking side to Marlene awaits

Despite how nuanced the Marlene character is in the source material, she crucially only appears in a handful of moments of the 25+ hour narrative that makes up the original "The Last of Us." Dandridge excitingly teased that this opportunity to revisit Marlene gave her more freedom to explore scenarios that were previously just subtextual. "There were so many stories that we talked about behind the scenes and things that hadn't been elucidated on camera that were just really incredible, dynamic, beautiful scenarios," Dandridge shared, "and things that ... were only hinted at in their game got a full life in the HBO series because there was more space for that. And that is not the exception for Marlene."

Dandridge continued:

"Further down in the season, some of the things that I get to do and things that have only lived in my heart as part of her heartbreak and part of her joy and the beautiful things that have happened to her, we get to see them on the camera, on screen. And because serial television and long term television is what it is, the possibilities are endless of what you will get to see play out in this world."

In the original game, when Joel and Tess (Anna Torv) come around, Ellie has only ever known life in quarantine zones with the supervision of Marlene, who was Ellie's late mother's best friend. The game doesn't explore the dynamic between the two, but perhaps that's part of Marlene's backstory Dandridge is hinting at. The game stands on its own, and its cultural impact is enough evidence of that — but having this series as a rich supplement to the original text is certainly exciting. Here's to more screen time for our "Queen Firefly," Marlene.