Why You Recognize Sarah's Actress From HBO's The Last Of Us

In 2013, people lost their minds over the first 20 minutes of NaughtyDog's post-apocalyptic epic, "The Last Of Us" — and believe it or not, that reaction had nothing to do with a zombie infection turning humanity into ravenous, parasitic puppets. See, by the time folks finally got their hands on the disc, the game had drummed up plenty of hype, including lots of breathless praise from critics. People assumed they had a solid grasp of what they were in for.

Every single poster, trailer, and piece of marketing had made the premise pretty clear: "The Last Of Us" was the story of a hardened apocalypse survivor battling against the odds to protect a young girl from harm. So when the game kicks off with players assuming the role of Sarah, a 12-year-old who witnesses the collapse of society, it's all too easy to assume she's the girl that Joel will spend the game protecting. And then the prologue ends with Joel's daughter dying tragically in his arms. Needless to say, gamers were aghast.

Obviously, the HBO adaptation doesn't quite recreate that experience. For those paying attention to trailers and posters — or even just the folks clicking the icon on HBO Max — it's impossible not to clock Sarah and immediately think, 'That's not the same girl.' But that doesn't mean it can't still be an effective intro to this story — in fact, Sarah's death hits a hell of a lot harder and it's largely thanks to Nico Parker's performance as the doomed teen.

Why Nico Parker looks so familiar

As Sarah, Nico Parker doesn't have an easy job. She only clocks about half an hour of screen time, but for those 30 minutes, she has to feel like a main character. We have to be invested in her life and relationships, not to mention keyed into her anxiety as the world begins to crumble. Parker pulls that off with apparent ease, introducing a teen who feels much more mature than her 14 years but still projects wide-eyed innocence in the face of catastrophe. Even more impressive is the fact that this is only Parker's fourth role.

Prior to landing a spot in HBO's "The Last of Us," Parker made her debut in Disney's live-action remake of "Dumbo," as one of the kids who befriend the magical elephant. Afterward, she appeared in three episodes of the HBO miniseries "The Third Day" (ironically, she played a character named Ellie) and had a small role in "Reminiscence," the 2021 Hugh Jackman sci-fi flick that nobody remembers. But if none of those titles ring a bell and you can't shake the idea that Parker looks super familiar then turn away from her filmography and towards her family tree: Nico Parker is the daughter of actress Thandiwe Newton and director Ol Parker, and she bears a striking resemblance to her mother.

Lest we rehash the nepotism baby conversation that's still sweeping the nation, Parker has already weighed in on the privileges granted by her famous family. Earlier this month, she told Glamour Magazine, "I'm aware of who my parents are. I'm aware of how their wonderful careers have impacted me, and me being able to have a career, know the right people, and be in contact with the right people."

The impossible job of being Sarah Miller

Minutes-wise, it may seem that Nico Parker has an insignificant role in "The Last of Us," but to say that would discount the immense importance of her character. Sarah sets Joel on a path that he'll continue down for the rest of the series. Her death breaks both his and the audience's heart,s and if we don't understand the weight of that tragedy, then we don't understand the man that Joel will become.

Sure, in some ways, her time in the story is frustratingly short; that was certainly a criticism of the original game prologue, which only amounted to fifteen minutes before Sarah died in her father's arms. It no doubt raised the question of fridging, that her death is meant to serve as a backstory for Joel, with no time for Sarah to be a character in her own right — so thankfully, series creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann expanded our time with her in the series.

Where the game bonds its audience to Sarah by making them play as her, the series simply gives her more room to breathe. Druckmann told Entertainment Weekly that the question became, "How do we get you to care about Sarah as much as possible, so not only [do] you see Joel's loss, you feel a loss like you are rooting for this character that now we violently take away from you?"

How Sarah's death sets the stage for the entire series

With Sarah, we bask in the calm before the storm: witnessing a typical day in the Miller household, we quickly get a sense of their family dynamic. It's loving, but not nuclear family typical. It's just Joel (Pedro Pascal), Sarah, and sometimes, Tommy (Gabriel Luna), her trouble-prone uncle. Joel is the protector, working hard at a job he feels little passion for because all that matters is bringing home to cash to take care of his own.

Though she's still the child, Sarah has to do plenty of stepping up. We see it in their daily routine: she wakes him up in the morning, cooks breakfast, and has to remind him to buy pancake mix, pick up a cake and celebrate his own birthday, for Christ's sake. When he asks if she's done her homework, it's played off like an inside joke: why would he even need to ask? She's a responsible kid. When they have their mini birthday celebration — sans the cake Joel forgot to pick up — it's because Sarah pulls it together. She gets her dad's favorite movie and fixes his watch as a present (knowing he would never do it for himself). Their life isn't picture-perfect, but it's loving. Together, they make it work. Seeing that unit in action makes the loss of her that much more harrowing.

As for the viewer's relationship to Sarah, she becomes our eyes ad ears in this world. Her gaze becomes our own. Her slow realization that the world is falling apart happens in tandem with ours, from the constant sirens to occasional twitching to the full-fledged eerie nighttime scene, straight out of a horror movie. It's Sarah's story until, tragically, it isn't.