Bella Ramsey ‘the happiest I’ve been’ making ‘The Last of Us’

If you watched the episode in the final season of “Game of Thrones” that featured the “Battle of Winterfell,” you might have been struck by the bravery of one young female character — no, not Arya Stark, although she was magnificent, but Lyanna Mormont, played by British actor Bella Ramsey.

Killing an undead giant just before you yourself die during humanity’s last stand against a horde of zombies is a heck of a way to make an impression, but Ramsey — who was 11 when they started shooting “Thrones,” their first screen role — had already managed to stand out among a talented ensemble cast of much more experienced actors.

It should be no surprise then that Ramsey — who uses they and them pronouns — more than holds their own paired with excellent Chilean-American actor Pedro Pascal in “The Last of Us.”

The HBO series, which debuts next weekend, is based on a critically acclaimed video game of the same name about a postapocalyptic United States in which humans have been ravaged by a fungus that turns them into monsters.

Pascal and Ramsey play Joel, a hardened smuggler living in a quarantine zone in Boston, and Ellie, an unusual 14-year-old girl whom he’s tasked with escorting across the country to a militia group.

Joel is tough, suspicious and cynical, scarred by a loss he endured in the early days of the outbreak. Ellie, who is smart, curious and sarcastic, has never known a world without plague and has suffered losses of her own.

Although other characters weave in and out of the series, set 20 years after the world went to hell, much of it is a two-hander between Joel and Ellie, whose relationship is the emotional core of the show.

It was clear during a pre-Christmas Zoom Q&A with Pascal and Ramsey that the actors have developed a bond to rival Joel’s and Ellie’s, this despite not having met before starting the yearlong process of shooting “The Last of Us.”

(Yes, they were both in “Game of Thrones,” but Pascal, who played prince Oberyn Martell, appeared in Season 4 while Ramsey joined the show in Season 6.)

Ramsey — a 19-year-old Brit who has also appeared in titles like “His Dark Materials,” “Becoming Elizabeth,” and the movies “Judy” and “Catherine Called Birdy” — and Pascal, 47, known for star turns in “Narcos,” “The Mandalorian,” and films “Prospect” and “Wonder Woman 1984,” bantered and joked with each other throughout the call.

Ramsey expressed their appreciation for Pascal guiding them through the making of “The Last of Us.” They have led a TV show before, the British-German family fantasy series “The Worst Witch,” but “The Last of Us” was, from the sounds of it, a particularly intense experience.

“I was extremely grateful to have Pedro leading it with me,” Ramsey said.

“Even from the get-go, like when I read the script, I was just relieved for it to be Joel and Ellie. It felt like a comfort blanket just having this constant support of someone experiencing the same thing as you every day … it was super special. And I was really, really continually grateful for that right up until the very last day and even now, with the press and stuff, it’s been just so cool to have Pedro (as) a guide for all this.”

In the world of “The Last of Us,” it takes a weekend for ordinary life to collapse. Two decades later, many of those who have survived live in fenced and guarded quarantine zones in former cities, run either by members of a militaristic federal agency or by equally violent rebel groups.

Life outside the QZs is considered particularly dangerous and that’s where Joel’s and Ellie’s journey takes them.

In the series, they travel from Boston to Kansas City to Wyoming and Colorado. In reality, the production ranged across Alberta, including Calgary, Edmonton, and smaller places like Okotoks, High River, Canmore and Fort Macleod.

“The physical landscape of Alberta, that was so much of the visual experience of the show,” Pascal said.

“And to be able to use the physical locations of where we were for the whole year and in each of its seasons was pretty amazing. It may have not been the most comfortable thing, but it was pretty unbelievable to be in, like, the snow-capped prairie on (a) horse. And when it wasn’t a built set, we had the mountains, we had the real river, we had the real snow, (there was) very little left to the imagination.”

That immersion extended to the sets themselves, which both actors said were extremely detailed.

“Craig and Neil are obsessed with detail,” said Ramsey, referring to creators Craig Mazin, who also created acclaimed miniseries “Chernobyl,” and Neil Druckmann, who created the video game.

“If you were to zoom into any frame throughout the whole show there’s nothing that would be astrew.”

Ramsey recalled, for instance, a scene in which Ellie and Joel load a pickup truck with supplies and “every single crate that we had, every single bag and box and thing was full of actual real stuff, like the amount of Chef Boyardee, the cans that were there …”

“My lower back remembers,” interjected Pascal.

“Our props department, our hair department, our productions (team), it was all top, top, top, top notch,” he added.

And then there were the sequences with the infected, which Pascal said “felt like being in the game. It was really insane.”

Ramsey said the scenes with the “clickers” — a particular strain of mutant humans who are strong, fast and frightening — were “so immersive that we didn’t have to try very hard; these were real actors with real prosthetics … and it was very immersive and very terrifying. And the reactions that you saw from us were mostly real. So that was pretty, pretty easy in terms of being scared.”

Whatever the conditions, Ramsey loved shooting the show.

“Mainly because I loved being a lead. Mainly because it meant I got to spend so much time on set, which is my favourite place ever. And every set that I go to … I feel like I properly belong and fit in. To have that experience for an entire year (was) just really cool. And I was the happiest I’ve been. It was fantastic.”

“The Last of Us” debuts Jan. 15 at 9 p.m. on HBO and Crave.

Debra Yeo is a deputy editor and a contributor to the Star’s Entertainment section. She is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @realityeo


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