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HBO's 'The Last of Us' is a tale of love, loss, and post-apocalyptic zombies

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

What happens when an infectious disease sparks a pandemic and sends the whole world into a tailspin - well, besides the last three years? A new series from HBO imagines something much darker.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LAST OF US")

PEDRO PASCAL: (As Joel Miller) If I'm taking you with me, you do what I say when I say it.

BELLA RAMSEY: (As Ellie) If you don't think there's hope for the world, why bother going on?

ANNA TROV: (As Tess) You have a greater purpose than any of us could have ever imagined.

RAMSEY: (As Bella Ramsey) Somewhere out west, they're working on a cure.

SUMMERS: "The Last Of Us" takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where a brain fungus has turned most people into zombies.

NEIL DRUCKMANN: So much of the world is the story of Joel Miller, this black market smuggler who has to cross the country with Ellie, this teenage girl that he's been assigned to deliver to this group called the Fireflies. And he's hoping to find some sort of cure for this thing.

SUMMERS: Neil Druckmann is an executive producer of "The Last Of Us." And if this story sounds familiar, that's because it adapts a celebrated video game with the same title. Druckmann was the creative director behind that, too, so he knew he and his collaborators had to get this story correct.

DRUCKMANN: You know, "The Last Of Us" has millions of fans out there. And these characters in the story mean so much to them that it would break our heart and our fans' hearts to do a poor adaptation of this. There are certain things with the game that are unique and captivating and we knew we wanted to bring over wholesale, including the rough outline of the journey of Joel and Ellie. But then with the game, the interactive element requires a certain amount of action that you as the player are committing. And you have to do enough of it to get a mastery of mechanics. And that's a way in gaming to get you to connect with the character.

Now, if we were to port those over - and I think that sometimes the mistake of these adaptations - they would make for, I think, pretty boring action sequences when you just watch them and you don't play them. So those were easy to just take out and remove. And then all the time that we save - let's focus on character drama and relationships and these more quiet moments in a way that we couldn't have done in the game. And we had two audiences we always kept in mind - people that know the game inside out but always keep this other audience in mind that knows nothing about the game, maybe hasn't played a video game since Pac-Man or something. The show has to work for them just as well.

SUMMERS: You know, zombie and plague narratives have been popular for a long time even before The Last Of Us the video game launched. What makes your spin on this, as adapted for television, different?

DRUCKMANN: Yeah. I think the part that makes our story special is its themes and what it says about humanity because ultimately our story is about love, more specifically the unconditional love a parent feels for their child, that these two characters start out not knowing each other, not even liking each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LAST OF US")

DRUCKMANN: (As Joel Miller) You keep going for family.

RAMSEY: (As Ellie) I'm not family.

PASCAL: (As Joel Miller) No. You're cargo.

DRUCKMANN: And over the course of this adventure, they turn to care for each other like a parent cares for their child. And there's beautiful things that can come out of that and sometimes horrific, violent things that could come of that. Just like in our real world, some of the worst atrocities often are motivated by love.

SUMMERS: The relationship between Joel and Ellie is really at the core of what drives the story forward, and they have a very particular kind of chemistry.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LAST OF US")

RAMSEY: (As Ellie) I think what really impressed them was the fact that I didn't turn into a monster.

PASCAL: (As Joel Miller) If she so much as twitches...

RAMSEY: (As Ellie, choking).

PASCAL: (As Joel Miller) Don't.

RAMSEY: (As Ellie) OK.

SUMMERS: Can you tell me a little bit about the process of casting for those two roles? How did you know that you had the right two people to pair together?

DRUCKMANN: Casting, you know, is often difficult. And in some ways, Pedro Pascal was easier to cast as Joel. We had our eyes on him for a while. And what was important for us with Joel specifically is that we didn't find just a tough guy.

SUMMERS: Yeah.

DRUCKMANN: It was more interesting to find someone that could play a tortured soul because this guy has been through a lot of trauma over the 20 years since the outbreak happened. So we really wanted to find someone that looks like they lost all their humanity, but then it starts to come out through his relationship with the other character, which is Ellie. And that was a much harder casting. And it was really important to get someone right. And, again, that's a pretty tough role to fill in that Ellie is 14. So we need someone that could look and play and feel 14, is wise beyond her years. She's smart. She's quirky, at times funny. She pushes back on authority. And she has this potential for this awful violence. And in a way, that's the connection these two characters have with each other. And we saw that immediately with Bella Ramsey. She sent an audition in, and it didn't feel like I was seeing someone acting like Ellie. I just saw Ellie. All those kind of qualities we're describing were just there in that audition.

And then the part that, you know, we got lucky or maybe we just did enough homework that we kind of evened the odds for ourselves - when we finally saw them together, it all fell into place. And I find myself - a story that, again, I know for over a decade - I should not be moved by it anymore. I couldn't help but, like, at times cry at their performances. It's just - it was so captivating and felt so real.

SUMMERS: So the show can be really heavy and take a viewer to some incredibly dark places. But then there are also these scenes that frankly are quite funny. Do you have any favorite moments of humor or levity?

DRUCKMANN: Yeah. So in the game, when you're walking around as Joel and Ellie's with you, every once in a while, if you take too long to leave an area, she'll pull out a book of puns. And she'll just start reading it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LAST OF US")

RAMSEY: (As Ellie) We could use some good old pun humor. I tried to catch some fog earlier. I mist.

DRUCKMANN: And the idea there is like, you know, us as humans, as people - we try to find levity. Like, even in the dark, in this situation, we find humor. Gallows humor is sometimes the best kind of humor. So we took that concept that just kind of dynamically happens in the game and kind of threaded it throughout the season of, like, this - Ellie has this joke book that she pulls out. And she's trying to get Joel to smile or laugh. To me, that's as powerful as, like, some of the action set pieces we have in this season - is getting to that moment.

SUMMERS: Before I let you go, you know, given that we're talking about a post-apocalyptic world here, I don't think it's too much of a spoiler for me to say that there are some main characters who have lost people who are very dear to them, but ultimately they find different ways to find family. How did you think about that?

DRUCKMANN: Yeah. You know, so much of the show is - like I was saying, it's a conversation about love. And when you love someone deeply, you put yourself at risk of being hurt in a way you've never been hurt before. Like, I had my first kid when I was working on the game. And someone asked me - he was like, oh, what's it like having a kid? How do you describe it? He's like, is it a new kind of feeling? And I said, no, it's not new, but it's a more intense version of all those feelings you've ever had. It's a happiness you've never known before. It's a fear you've never known before. It's a pain you've never known before. And then I think the worst pain a parent can feel is losing their child. And we get to explore that in the story. And it's like, how do you ever come back from that? Can you come back from that? And that is a lot of the conversation in this story of, do you put yourself out there again, which - again, you can experience these beautiful things, but you're also putting yourself at risk of experiencing those really horrible emotions at the same time.

SUMMERS: We've been talking with Neil Druckmann, executive producer of the new series "The Last Of Us." It premieres on HBO Sunday, January 15. Neil, thank you so much for being here.

DRUCKMANN: Yeah, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA'S "THE LAST OF US") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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