“It was surreal to see the game brought to life”: Toronto’s Lamar Johnson on his star turn in HBO’s The Last of Us

“It was surreal to see the game brought to life”: Toronto’s Lamar Johnson on his star turn in HBO’s The Last of Us

The actor weighs in on episode five’s shocking ending

Lamar Johnson in The Last of Us. Courtesy of HBO

This past Sunday, Toronto’s Lamar Johnson guest-starred in HBO’s The Last of Us alongside Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey. Despite debuting on Crave only a month ago, the adaptation of the hit video game has already achieved critical acclaim, with fans obsessing over the original details that have been brought to life by creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann.

The series takes place 20 years after the destruction of modern civilization, and Joel (Pascal), a hardened survivor, is hired to smuggle 14-year-old Ellie (Ramsey) out of an oppressive quarantine zone. What starts as a simple task soon becomes a brutal, heartbreaking journey, as they both must depend on each other for survival.

Related: a Q&A with Yellowjackets star Kevin Alves

Johnson appears in episodes four and five, and just like the storylines of previous episodes, this one struck an emotional chord with viewers. Johnson plays Henry, a young man who previously worked for the Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA) as an informer, and the role of Henry’s younger brother, Sam, is played by Keivonn Woodard. Joining them in these episodes is Yellowjackets’ Melanie Lynskey as Kathleen, whose brother was killed by FEDRA. Her troops are scouring Kansas City to track down Henry and Sam, who are both on the run when they meet Joel and Ellie.

We spoke with Johnson about appearing on the iconic show, building a rapport with his talented co-stars and filming on location in Alberta. (Warning: spoilers ahead!)

Had you played The Last of Us video game before auditioning for the show?
Yeah, I was familiar with the game. A lot of my friends are massive fans, so when I got the audition, I thought, Wow! I knew exactly what it was. But I didn’t want to be a carbon copy of the character in the game. I wanted to use it as a foundation and to better understand the arc of the story. Craig [Mazin] did a fantastic job with the scripts, so I wanted to do service to what was on the page and respond to what Pedro, Bella, Keivonn and Melanie were giving me. Melanie’s character isn’t in the game, so I didn’t have anything to pull from there. It was ultimately about understanding the character of Henry, where he’s coming from and where he’s going, and making educated choices based on that.

What did you do to prepare for the role of Henry?
The most important thing was establishing a bond with Keivonn, who plays my brother, because that relationship is central to their story. From day one, I wanted to make sure that we had a strong connection, both on set and off. When we met at the production office in Calgary on our first day of shooting, we hit it off right away. We started playing tag in the office. I also had to learn sign language, both to communicate with Keivonn and to play the role of Henry.

The final scene of episode five is filled with guilt, fear and uncertainty. What was it was like to film that scene, and what was going through your character’s mind?
That was tough. We shot that scene for most of the day, so it was very emotionally draining. Keivonn and I had built such a great relationship, so it was really hard to see him like that. Jeremy Webb, the director of episodes four and five, and I were at the monitor watching the scene together, and we both had tears in our eyes. If I had to use one word to describe what Henry was going through, I would say shock. It was one of those moments where you think, What the hell just happened? What did I just do? How could I have prevented this? Could I have prevented it? There are so many things rushing through his mind, including guilt. 

When he makes that final decision, he’s thinking, I can’t live in this world without Sam. It’s kind of a callback to Bill and Frank’s episode. Now that Sam is gone, Henry has no purpose. Henry couldn’t see himself living in the world without his brother, so Henry decides to join him.

What was it like to arrive on set and see the world that Craig and Neil had built?
It was very surreal to see the game brought to life. The production design was some of the best I’ve ever seen—there are so many lifelike practical effects, like the giant bloater that emerges from the tunnel. The environment was truly given to us. A lot of what you see on TV, like the cars, were really there. It made our jobs as actors a lot easier. Showing up on set and stepping into these spaces really helped me get into character. 

Lamar Johnson and The Last of Us co-creator Craig Mazin. Courtesy of HBO

As a fellow Canadian, I have to ask: What was it like shooting in Alberta in the freezing forest?
I liked the landscapes. I’ve been to Calgary before, but not for an extended period of time, so it was an opportunity for me to experience what it had to offer. We went up to the Rockies, which was quite beautiful. You also get all kinds of different weather there, which lends itself to the characters’ trek across America. I will say that, at one point, it did get very, very cold. We had a day or two when it was about minus 20 degrees. But, overall, it was a lot of fun. Canadians are so nice, and the crew was so passionate about the work we were doing. Calgarians were extremely proud that the show was shooting there.

You also star in Brother, a movie about the complex love between two Black siblings, next month. How do you think art can break stereotypes about Black men?
I think it’s ultimately about what kinds of stories we tell. If we’re leaning in to stereotypes, we’re going to continue to depict Black men, and Black people in general, in the same ways. We’re going to see police brutality, murders—it’s the same kinds of narratives and conversations. We should be able to tell new stories and have Black actors and Black people in spaces and narratives that may be a bit less familiar to audiences but that do exist out in the world. It would be amazing to see us represented on screen in many different ways.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.