The Last of Us Game Star Ashley Johnson on Her Mother of a Finale Cameo: 'I Love That I Was Able to Be the One to Bring Ellie Into the World'

This post contains spoilers from Sunday’s The Last of Us finale. Proceed accordingly.

Now we see where The Last of Us‘ Ellie gets it from.

Sunday’s season finale of HBO’s hit drama opened with a sequence that flashed back to Ellie’s birth, which took place as her mother, Anna, singlehandedly fought off a clicker in an empty farmhouse. Unfortunately for Anna, the infected managed to bite her before she killed it. Fortunately for Ellie, the bite took place before Anna cut her umbilical cord, which likely has something to do with Ellie’s immunity from the Cordyceps infection.

Anna’s old friend, Marlene, showed up shortly after the birth. Knowing that she didn’t have much time left, Anna handed her baby over to her, then begged Marlene to kill her before she turned violent. Though Marlene did not want to end her friend’s life, she eventually did. (Read a full recap here, and hear about the episode from series co-creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann here.)

In a fun Easter Egg for those who played the 2013 Naughty Dog video game on which the series is based, Anna was portrayed by Ashley Johnson (Blindspot), who voiced Ellie in The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II. TVLine spoke with the actress about literally birthing a character she creatively gave life to a decade ago.

TVLINE | I have to tell you that our director of video, Jason Averett, is a Last of Us gamer from way back. And when we were looking at the finale screener, he said, “When I heard Ashley’s voice drop the f-bomb, it made me emotional.”
Awwww! [Laughs] That’s hilarious.

TVLINE | Obviously, you and your voice are baked into the DNA of this show. Talk to me about coming in as Ellie’s mom. First off, from a practical standpoint, did you try to pitch your voice differently?
No. Last of Us was not my first voiceover, but my first video game, first motion-capture. I do voiceover but not a ton because I’m not one of those, like Troy Baker [whose many varied voice roles include the game’s Joel]. My range is this [holds palms very close together and laughs]. So it’s kind of my voice. In the first game, I pitched it down just a little bit, knowing that she was 14 and young. But just slightly. Most of it is just, this is all I got. [Laughs]

TVLINE | It’s about six years after Outbreak Day when Anna gives birth.
Roughly around there.

TVLINE | Do you think that her fierceness and grit is something she’s had for a long time? Or do you think she acquired these characteristics after the outbreak?
I think, knowing that she and Marlene had known each other their whole lives, at least for me, I believe that that grit was already there for Anna. Which is why she’s still here in this world, at least at this moment in time that we see her. I think she’s tough. She’s just trying to live in this world and has been surviving up until this point. To get to the point that she is — she’s like, “I’m pregnant, and I’m having this kid in this really terrible world already” — I think it speaks to how connection is so important in this world. Even towards the end of the episode, with Joel’s actions: In this world, the only thing you have left is a connection with somebody. All that’s left of humanity is that closeness and hopefully having a relationship with somebody that cares about you or that you care about. I love that I was able to be the one to bring Ellie into the world but also be the first one to fight for her to live.

TVLINE | We hear Ellie talk about how everyone who loves her has left her, from Day 1, and yes, that’s true in actual fact —
Sure. As far as she knows.

TVLINE | — as far as she knows, right. But her mother left her because she loved her so much and knowing that if she stuck around, things would get real bad, real fast. That hit me hard while I was watching the episode, that sacrifice.
Yeah. I think, had it been different and had Anna been able to… I mean, if she didn’t get bit, if that whole horrible introduction into the world for Ellie didn’t happen, I truly believe that Anna would just… I mean, that’s her kid. She would’ve done everything to make her happy and make life have a little bit of happiness in it. It’s sad!

TVLINE | It is!
It’s sad to think about, because from the beginning of Ellie’s life, you’re like, there is someone, and there are so many people that care about you. Even Marlene from a distance, where I think about how interesting it is that she put her into the military school. It’s like, “I want to know where she is, but I can’t have that closeness to her.” I mean, Marlene’s such a badass, but you can tell, everything is just sort of, she’s just trash-compactoring it down. [Laughs] You’re like, “Uh-oh. This is going to come out somewhere probably if you ever get to do therapy.” But of course, that doesn’t happen. [Laughs]

TVLINE | I know Anna has been shown in the yellow dress in art prior to this episode, but when she showed up, I was thinking, “You don’t see anyone wearing dresses — or bright colors — in this world.” Everything is very utilitarian. And here she is in this terrible situation in this beautiful spring dotted swiss number.
I know! We had talked about it. Logistically, trying to do the scene and having pants, and trying to get the pants in the fight — it made more sense to have a dress. But talking about it, so much of it was just having that visual of seeing a woman in a dress int his environment. We’re not used to it at this point. I think that also just speaks to Anna holding onto the old world a little bit. Like, “I want to try to at least look nice and feel like myself even though the world is not the same.”

TVLINE | I love that she was so focused on the fight that the baby literally being born was secondary.
[Laughs] Yeah, I know! She’s like, “Oh, wow! I have a baby now.” It’s funny because even doing the scene and the the woman who played the clicker, Kelsey Andries, who is so fantastic, we had done the scene so many times. She ended up with a black eye, I’m not sure how. But she was a UFC fighter, so I was like, [feigns nonchalance], “Oh, you know. No big deal.” [Laughs] But I think it was probably an elbow. Who knows what it was? But we were exhausted, because we were fighting each other so hard… I had so many bruises at the end of the day that I was like, “I don’t even know where these came from.” I don’t think that’s the equivalent of “Oh wow, I just had a baby and didn’t realize it,” but yeah, it’s an interesting moment. Also a little bit of, I think at this point Anna is sort of — and probably everybody else in the world at this point — there’s kind of a disassociation happening. There’s so much pain that you kind of just are pushing it down constantly because you’re like, “I don’t know how to deal with this. If I do think about the state of the world and everything else around me, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to survive.” So there’s a little bit of compartmentalization. It’s in some ways kind of funny that she has the baby and doesn’t even notice. It’s what they’ve gotten so used to, that you just put everything in a box, compartmentalize, don’t have to think about anything or feel anything. Which is something I’m actually really good at. [Laughs]

TVLINE | Neil Druckmann recently told reporters that you and he were texting before you shot your scenes, and that you were a little nervous about being in the world of the game when he wasn’t on set. And it got me thinking about how weird it must’ve been without Troy — who filmed his own new role in Episode 8 — there, as well.
I filmed four days total, and all the days in between, I kept going to the set just to see it. Because I still am like, “I can’t believe this was finally made into a show.” There were so many different versions of it over the past decade. Yeah, I was nervous because the first game, and even into the second game, so much of the experience was about working with Troy and Neil, and the little family. With the first game, we didn’t know how it was going to be received. So it felt very small and intimate with all of us just collaborating. It was incredibly creatively fulfilling. I still, to this day, have not had worked on something that has given me this feeling. Not having Troy and Neil there made me a little nervous, because I was like, “The trio’s not here. I don’t have my people.” I felt a little alone in some ways. But it kinda worked. And also it was the first time I worked with Craig. He had to direct one of the days. [Editor’s note: Ali Abassi directed the episode, but Mazin filled in when needed.] And I had a blast, the whole time. Even though it was such heavy subject matter, it was so fun to see the prosthetics in person. Even when we had the bite on my leg and just getting to sit in the makeup trailer with everybody and getting to know all the makeup girls. We had so much fun, just gossiping.

It was such a fun experience because it was… I don’t even know how to describe it! Something that you’ve loved for so long and that you’ve been a part of, and then to finally see it come to light for the rest of the world to see it and be made in such a beautiful way? Yeah, it’s an amazing feeling. My family, they’re not gamers. They’ve never played the game. So for people that don’t know the story, that don’t know these characters, I finally can be like, “OK, watch this. This is what the game’s about.” They’re like, “Oh! Wait, you played the kid?!”

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