[This story contains spoilers for The Last of Us’ series premiere, “When You’re Lost in the Darkness.”]
Gabriel Luna had so much respect for fans of The Last of Us video game franchise that he immediately started playing the games before he’d fully landed the role of Tommy Miller on HBO’s series adaptation. Once the show’s brain trust of Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin officially cast him as Joel’s (Pedro Pascal) younger brother and Sarah’s (Nico Parker) uncle, Luna approached the combat veteran as if he was a real person. He also took careful note of Jeffrey Pierce’s performance as Tommy in the hugely popular Playstation game.
“Having been created 10 years ago, [Tommy] has a history with the fans and a place in the gaming space, character wise. So you approach it somewhat like a biopic about a person that exists in life,” Luna tells . “I tried to absorb [from the games] what I believed to be important and what the gamers are going to hope for in a true translation of the game.”
The Last of Us series premiere wastes no time arriving at the franchise’s inciting incident, a fungal virus outbreak that turns humans into crazed bloodthirsty attackers. The Millers’ Central Texas neighborhood quickly falls victim to the virus, forcing Tommy, Joel and Sarah to flee by truck. This led to one of the video game series’ most defining tragedies as Sarah was shot by an overzealous soldier, and the creative team knew that the moment needed to adhere to the game.
“This was a moment that Craig [Mazin] felt very strongly about and how it needed to truly take the gamers back into the game. So, the blocking and the framing, we drew a lot of it from the game, and I certainly drew on some of Jeffrey’s [Pierce] physical geometry,” Luna explains.
Tommy’s history as a serviceman also meant that he recognized Sarah’s doomed fate before Joel could.
“I had very little to say in the scene, but it’s the energy of a family being torn apart and not being able to take all the pieces with you. So it was a heavy one, man. It was a heavy one that I both looked forward to and dreaded,” Luna shares.
In a recent spoiler conversation with THR, Luna also discusses how Mazin had to occasionally talk Druckmann out of making changes to the beloved 2013 video game he wrote. Then he reflects on his most notable feature film role to date in Terminator: Dark Fate and the lasting friendship he formed with Arnold Schwarzeneggar.
So how did your casting go down?
Well, casting for The Last of Us ended up being a pretty rapid process. They had some interest, and my team called over and asked if I was interested. And, of course, I was. It’s a wonderful project with great people involved. Shortly after they mentioned they were interested, I started playing the first game just to have a sense of the story and to get a handle on the character. My approach is to always prepare as if you have the job, in the event that you might get it.
And then they asked if I’d be willing to throw something down for them, so I made a tape with one scene from the game and one scene from the first episode. And shortly after that, Craig Mazin, Neil Druckmann and Carolyn Strauss wanted to talk. So, all in all, it was a six-day process from the time they were interested to the time they offered me the role. We then had a great conversation on Zoom, but it was weird to hear Craig’s voice. My wife is a big Scriptnotes [podcast] devotee, so I’d heard Craig’s voice coming from the office many, many times. And there I was on Zoom, putting a face to the voice.
Ultimately, how much did you rely on the Tommy (Jeffrey Pierce) from the games?
I felt it was important to play through it and get a true sense of what Jeffrey Pierce had done with Tommy’s voice and performance capture in the games. So as I played through it and familiarized myself with Tommy, it became more and more evident that we were in the same channel, energy wise, historically and culturally. There were a lot of similarities there. After Craig and Neil watched my tape, they told me that they saw the soul of Tommy, and I started to understand what they were saying as I was being introduced to Tommy. That said, knowing the place where he was born and raised, it felt pretty natural to play him.
What’s interesting is we talk about him like he’s a real person. Having been created 10 years ago, he has a history with the fans and a place in the gaming space, character wise. So you approach it somewhat like a biopic about a person that exists in life. I tried to absorb what I believed to be important and what the gamers are going to hope for in a true translation of the game.
Of course, you also have to live in the moment with all of the varying changes in the story that we incorporated into our version. You have to respond to those as naturally and as honestly as possible, so the character will naturally be different due to the new circumstance. But Tommy’s from Austin. I’m from Austin. The character and I were simpatico throughout.
The show has exact shots and dialogue from the game, but it’s by no means a shot-for-shot adaptation. It takes a slightly different path to get to familiar destinations. But how would you describe the similarities and differences between the game?
There are definite instances where we would require ourselves to adhere as strongly as possible to the source material. Sometimes, we would rivet it down to exact dialogue, exact blocking and exact moments that are so iconic that it would be counterintuitive for us to change them. So I appreciated Craig’s awareness and his ability to know the line where things truly must be the same. Even in moments where Neil was like, “Well, maybe we should do it this way, maybe we should change this,” Craig was like, “No, that particular moment needs to be exactly how you made it, originally.”
And being the man who penned every letter of every script, all 600 pages, Craig had the freedom to pick the spots where we could explore other chambers of the story that you’re not allowed access to when you’re playing the game on its linear and specified track. So I liked Craig’s approach. It was certainly a double-edged sword in that we had to know what is truly loved and what people will be searching for, while still giving people an exciting new experience.
Did you know Pedro Pascal at all prior to this show?
Pedro and I have many mutual friends, so I felt like I knew him based on how he had been described to me through people like Robert Rodriguez. We both worked with Robert. He worked with him on [We Can Be Heroes], and of course, I worked with Robert on Matador. We also have a lot of shared crew on The Mandalorian. So I knew a lot about him, but I was excited to realize that there was this whole other layer to Pedro as an artist, as a person and as a spirit. The spirit of play is deeply ingrained and deeply infused in his makeup, and that was a pleasant surprise.
We spoke on a FaceTime call, and then we started to chat via FaceTime once I arrived for a couple of weeks of quarantine. So we truly utilized that time to the best of our ability in getting to know each other. We spoke about our families and our histories, and I discovered that he was raised in San Antonio, Texas, after having been born in Chile. His family moved when he was around two, so he also had a deep reservoir of experience and love for Central Texas, the same place where Joel and Tommy were born and raised.
So with me being from Austin, we were able to get on the same page in that respect, and we got to bring all of our knowledge of the area, from mesquite and cedar trees to bluebonnets and paintbrushes on the side of the highway. All of these specific memories helped inform our Joel and Tommy.
I believe you have a brother as well so did you draw on that during your work with Pedro?
Absolutely. I have a younger brother, Timothy, so there’s a slight change in dynamic. But knowing what it’s like to grow up with a brother who’s only 22 months apart was really fruitful and fertile ground, from the butting of heads to the need to protect him. His mouth writes checks that I have to cash, so I got to draw from things of that nature. I love that kid even though he’s a 38-year-old man now. So I’m really thankful for this character and what it’s allowed me to access and ultimately put on the screen from my own personal life. There are moments that are all the more genuine and authentic because I got to put so much of my life into it, and so I definitely drew on my relationship with Timothy.
According to Joel, Tommy is a joiner, whether that’s the Army or the Fireflies, and he wants to be the hero who saves the world. Do you think Tommy would agree with that assessment?
Yeah, some people are naturally self-reliant or loaners, if you will. They are closed off with a harder exterior, and that’s Joel, obviously. But Tommy, being a man in the service, may have had to acquire some of those same traits. When you’re in a situation like that, you have to hide the softer sides of yourself until you get out on the other side. So he is tough in that way and has conditioned himself to be tough. He’s more of a playful, fun-loving, very spirited bon vivant. He’s somebody who loves life and wants to live life to its fullest.
In terms of Tommy being a joiner, that just comes with him being that open spirit. Communication is his strong suit, as is empathy and understanding people. He knows how to build a team and what it means to be a part of a squad or team. So Joel was right to call him a joiner, but by joiner, what he truly means is that he’s a communicator and an empathetic person.
There’s a very emotional moment in the premiere involving Sarah (Nico Parker), and you have your own heartbreaking moment inside of it. Was that a difficult sequence to take part in and also watch unfold?
That scene was obviously very important to me. I circled it on the schedule many weeks prior, and I looked forward to it because of the action and timing involved. There’s emotional gravity that comes with the iconic nature of the scene, so all of that was weighing on my mind in terms of how I would ultimately want to execute on the day. So I did incorporate a lot of what was in the game. This was a moment that Craig felt very strongly about and how it needed to truly take the gamers back into the game. So, the blocking and the framing, we drew a lot of it from the game, and I certainly drew on some of Jeffrey’s physical geometry. So it was generally very important to keep it the same.
On the night, as Tommy, I looked at Joel, my brother, and saw him in pain. I witnessed what happened to this young girl, who is like a daughter to me. I saw the severity of her wound, and based on my experience in the military, I knew that it was fatal. I was the first person to come to terms with what was happening.
Yeah, Tommy’s delivery of “Joel” said it all.
Yeah, I had very little to say in the scene, but it’s the energy of a family being torn apart and not being able to take all the pieces with you. So it was a heavy one, man. It was a heavy one that I both looked forward to and dreaded.
Was the truck sequence a bear to put together?
Yeah, it really blurs in my memory. We shot it over four weeks at night, and we were trying to do it as a oner. Our DP Ksenia [Sereda] was in the backseat, with a camera that was hanging from a hole in the roof so that she could have full 360 range. We had very specific camera choreography, but the blocking was very simple for me. I just had to sit in the driver’s seat and try to get us out. The dialogue was also pretty linear and being driven by the action around us.
We were shooting in the summer in Calgary, so we only had about four-and-a-half hours of night each night. We were truly running and gunning, and we were doing our best to get as much as possible out of each of those nights. We had a very strict format that we were trying to operate by, and when you’re shooting a sequence with hundreds of “infected” extras, you have to create this sense that anywhere you look, there’s a really incredible and terrifying story being told. So we tried to work quickly and intelligently, but at the same time, you want to get the most out of these other artists that you have at your disposal.
So we ended up losing a lot of time just trying to craft these vignettes, these smaller stories that are happening all over the street. As the world is descending into chaos, all of these really horrible things are happening, and in the game, you can watch certain moments as you’re changing your perspective. So that was one of the larger tasks for us in that prologue. It was both dreamlike and nightmarish all at once, just because of what we were dealing with at the time.
So I have to tell you how much I enjoyed Terminator: Dark Fate.
Knowing that it’s the best-reviewed Terminator film since Judgment Day, does that make the box office performance even more frustrating?
Yeah, you can never anticipate the timing of things and how people will respond. That one was even harder to gauge with so many years in between films in that franchise. But not only that, there had been nearly 30 years between the film we were making and the one we were truly trying to be a sequel to [Terminator 2: Judgment Day]. So there was a lot of space in there, and there was a lot of time that was unaccounted for in terms of Terminator’s presence in the minds of the audience and the folks who love the franchise. So it was disappointing in that we knew what we had in the can. We knew we had a great film with some really cool performances and some great action. Tim Miller did a phenomenal job.
I truly find sanctuary in the fact that it was a great film and that people do enjoy it. Everybody who speaks to me about it has had a positive experience. I’m not Paramount Pictures; I don’t do the accounting for them over there. So a disappointment to them is different from what it is to me. I’m a hired hand, and I did my best in the role. They paid my freight long before the box office receipts came out.
With Jim [Cameron], Arnold and Linda [Hamilton] coming back and Tim putting his heart into it, you obviously want people to see it, but all that said, I’m extremely proud of the film. I’ve gained some lasting friendships and a relationship with one of my heroes, Governor Schwarzenegger. So I wouldn’t trade it away for a billion-dollar picture, but once again, I don’t do Paramount’s accounting.
Will you ever get used to the fact that you’ve smoked cigars with Arnold on a boat?
Oh man, no. I won’t. Every moment you spend with him is time spent with a historical figure, and it doesn’t grow mundane by any stretch. It’s truly impossible because of the nature of who he is, the energy he has and the awareness he has of what he means to people. His discipline, his work ethic and his drive are all prominently displayed whenever you hang out with him, and he’s truly awe inspiring each and every time. So I don’t think I’ll ever get used to those moments.
We were just at his Christmas party, and we were sitting around with his family while he’s holding court. It’s kind of a modern-day version of lords and ladies at court, and he’s the king. He’s a very kind person and really loyal to his friends. He keeps his circle close to him, and that is something to aspire to and take into one’s life. It’s discipline, loyalty and devotion to your work.
So have you closed the book on Robbie Reyes/Ghost Rider, or does the MCU multiverse give you a glimmer of hope?
It’s wonderful that people love Robbie and grew to love him as much as I did. I’m always open to telling a good story. So if it all comes across and the pieces are there, then I’m absolutely happy to do it. I keep myself physically able, and with the way they’re taking things, truly anything is possible.
If you asked me the same question two-and-a-half years ago, I probably would’ve said, “I’m happy with what we did, and if all people ever get to see or remember are those ten episodes of Agents of SHIELD, then that’s something I could live happily with my entire life.” But when I talk to fans now and I hear that they’re still holding a candle for Robbie after six years, it makes me very proud.
So those future plans are all kept safely under lock and key in the Marvel vault. Kevin Feige has his ideas and designs of what’s going to happen, but should they ever come knocking, my door is open. You’re right. From the way that the story is unfolding, the multiverse certainly opens up that door that I previously may have been on my way to closing. It’s Hollywood, man. Things change overnight, so I’d be open to a conversation.
The Last of Us is now airing on HBO. This interview was edited for length and clarity.