As announced in November last year, Naughty Dog is currently hard at work on Left Behind — a new single-player story expansion for its hugely acclaimed PS3 adventure The Last of Us. Acting as a prequel of sorts, the add-on will center around Ellie and her best friend Riley (played by newcomer Yaani King) as they attend a military boarding school in the Boston quarantine zone, prior to meeting Joel and the events in the main campaign of The Last of Us.
We’ll be revealing much more about what to expect from Left Behind later this week, but to whet your appetite I sat down with actress Ashley Johnson, who so brilliantly brings Ellie to life. Read on to find out more about where the new chapter takes the character.
When did your involvement with Left Behind begin?
Ashley Johnson: Shortly after the release of The Last of Us, I went for lunch with Neil [Druckmann, Creative Director]. We sat down, and he said “Okay, I’m going to tell you the story for the DLC.” I was sitting there and just completely taken in by the story; so excited. I loved the idea that it was kind of a prequel, and you’d meet a younger Ellie and find out what makes her tick. From there we got started pretty quickly on the casting for Riley.
How different is the Ellie we meet in Left Behind to the Ellie we got to know in the original The Last of Us campaign?
Johnson: You kind of get to meet the real her. She’s in the quarantine zone prior to the events of The Last of Us — it’s her and her best friend Riley — what they do and how they live their lives in this world.
You’ll definitely see a more playful side to Ellie and get to know her a bit better. You’re going to see a lot of different sides to the character that you definitely didn’t see in The Last of Us. I’m excited for people to experience it!
How does the “feel” of the Left Behind campaign and the game universe differ to The Last of Us?
Johnson: It’s definitely different. It’s a little bit more “fun,” because you have two teenage girls going through a mall. It’s kind of like a post-pandemic version of two teenage girls hanging out. Definitely not a normal hangout! It’s very different — a little more playful.
There’s a bit of everything in there. You’re really getting a new sense of the environment. You’ll engage in combat that seems familiar from the original campaign, but there are some new touches and nuances, too.
In the original campaign, Ellie mentions being bitten by one of the Infected while with Riley. Is this something we’ll learn more about?
Johnson: There’s a lot you’ll find out about Ellie. You’ll just have to play it and find out!
How much of a challenge was it to hit reset and play a younger, more innocent Ellie who’s yet to experience the traumatic events of The Last of Us?
Johnson: It was a bit of a challenge to set aside everything we’d gone through, but when Yaani got on board she was just so fun and so silly that it sort of brought out my own kid-like tendencies, too. It was perfect. It’s so significant to the story because Riley is her best friend — this is a really important side of Ellie that people need to see.
What’s the relationship dynamic between Ellie and Riley? Presumably it’s very different to Ellie and Joel?
Johnson: It was interesting after working with Troy [Baker] and the Joel character for over two years, and then getting back on set and working with someone totally new. The relationship with Riley is vastly different to the one with Joel — firstly, they’re best friends and secondly, they’re both teenage girls.
There’s a playfulness and silliness that wasn’t necessarily there with Joel! It’s a different kind of relationship — I love it. Some of the stuff that we captured for Left Behind is my favourite stuff that we’ve done on the whole project.
How was it working with Yaani King?
Johnson: She was awesome. During casting, I got to be there to read with the different Rileys that Naughty Dog was looking at. When she came in, she was exactly who I always pictured, and who I had in my mind. She was tough, but really fun. She was perfect, and I’m glad everyone else liked her as much as I did, too.
Yaani is an incredible actress and she’s formed Riley perfectly. It was like she’d been there since the beginning, which I think in some ways is very hard. The whole crew at Naughty Dog are so awesome and anyone new coming in is made to feel totally welcome, but it’s still hard to come onto a set where people have been working together for so long. She did it with such ease.
Doing motion capture for the first time must be challenging for a young actress — did you feel you had to mentor her at all?
Johnson: There was a little bit of that, which was funny, because it was like I was in Troy’s shoes. But she’s such a pro. She just put on her suit and was like “Okay, let’s do this.” She had the attitude of Riley from the get go, which was great.
Did you miss not having Troy around this time?
Johnson: I was so used to working with Troy and I think a lot of my confidence and comfort on set came from him because he’s such a pro. So when it was just going to be me and someone new I was a little nervous. But I think that helped in a way, as it felt like I was doing something new. There was a little insecurity there — “Troy’s not here and he’s the master of this!” — but I think that actually helped in some ways because I’m playing the younger version of Ellie who has her own insecurities as a teenage girl.
It’s been six months or so since The Last of Us launched. What impact has the game had on your life and career?
Johnson: To this point in my life, The Last of Us is 100% my favorite thing I’ve ever worked on. You’d think working on something for two years would not be a fun thing to do, but I’ve been so blown away by the response. When we were working on it, I think we all knew we were working on something special. I just feel so fortunate that I got to be a part of it — even more so because of the response to Ellie and to what a strong female character she is.