'Last of Us' icon Merle Dandridge didn't tether herself to old ways of imagining Marlene

Merle Dandridge (L) and Natasha Mumba star in "The Last of Us." Photo courtesy of HBO
1 of 5 | Merle Dandridge (L) and Natasha Mumba star in "The Last of Us." Photo courtesy of HBO

NEW YORK, March 12 (UPI) -- Station 19, Greenleaf and The Flight Attendant actress Merle Dandridge says the Marlene she plays in The Last of Us live-action series is a more mature and deeply developed version of the freedom fighter she depicted in the beloved video game.

"One of the gifts this process has offered me is 10 years of getting to know her. My imagination -- which was already running rampant -- is running even more wild [regarding] how she got to where she is, what built this stalwart woman that we know," Dandridge, the only artist to play the same character in both the game and the series, told reporters in a recent Zoom interview.


"I've had the opportunity of maturing as an artist and maturing in the physical, so that I was even more appropriate to play her in front of the camera."


Marlene is the leader of the Fireflies, a resistance group that challenges the authoritarian government in the post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us.

The video game premiered in 2013 and the HBO version, which concludes its first season Sunday, has already been renewed for Season 2.

The story is set 20 years after modern civilization has been destroyed by a mutated fungus that turns people into monstrous cannibals.

In Boston, Marlene enlists smuggler Joel (Pedro Pascal) to escort teen Ellie (Bella Ramsey) -- who might be the key to a cure -- out of an oppressive quarantine zone and across the United States to a research facility.

Created by Chernobyl filmmaker Craig Mazin and writer/video game developer Neil Druckmann, the show co-stars Gabriel Luna, Anna Torv, Nico Parker, Murray Bartlett, Nick Offerman, Melanie Lynskey and Storm Reid.

"The truth of the scenes was like riding a bike because I know her. I know her so well and I know what she would do and I know how she would act," Dandridge said.

"I didn't tether myself to my old ways of imagining her. If you try to chase something, if you try to walk in the truth of something and sentimentality you'll kill the inspiration on the vine."


The actress said this meant keeping an open mind when different actors were charged with bringing "their own brand of magic to those characters" in the TV series, as opposed to the video game.

"It was a gift to me to be able to breathe Joel and Ellie in a fresh way," she added.

Although Marlene, like most of the other people on the show, has lost her loved ones, career and worldly possessions in this dystopian hellscape, she remains hopeful.

"Her personal pain had become her testimony and that beacon and that light through which she marches forward and must continue to remind people of who they were," Dandridge said.

"Leading the Fireflies and the resistance against the FEDRA regime is important to her at great risk to her personal comfort. It's a sacrifice."

Bringing Marlene physically to life, rather than simply lending her voice to an animated avatar, was challenging.

"It's almost like when you are testing out a new clutch [on a car] because it was a little bit of, 'Am I calibrating this right?' Because I'd never stepped into her shoes, other than in a motion-capture suit," Dandridge explained.

"I'd never worn a wig in front of the camera before and I'd certainly never physically walked around in that clothing."


The game was created long before the coronavirus virus pandemic, but some of the social issues that arose during it, such as the closures of schools and businesses, restrictions of travel and debate over freedom vs. safety, might seem familiar to those watching The Last of Us series.

Dandridge said that while the show might help people process or reconsider big questions they are grappling with in real life, she personally tried to separate the pandemic in the series from the one that turned the real world upside-down 2020-22.

"My own personal feelings, traumas and experiences surrounding our pandemic informed Merle differently than this one informs Marlene -- the violence with which things were ripped from Marlene and the choices that she made to be very loud," Dandridge said.

"The other big factor is that we had an end in sight [with the coronavirus]. We had hopeful or actual, tangible evidence that this was going to have some kind of long-term stasis and, in the world of The Last of Us, there is no hope of that. There is no knowledge of it. There is only more. More and broader-infecting."

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