The Last of Us’ Troy Baker Wants to Return for Season 2
Maybe James has a twin brother?
The Last of Us Episode 8 delivered the grimmest chapter of Ellie and Joel’s story so far: a trip to a creepy commune run by David, an unapologetically cannibalistic pastor. But for gamers, the morose tone was broken up with the inclusion of Troy Baker — the original actor behind Joel Miller in Naughty Dog’s Last of Us game — as James, one of David’s henchmen. Baker also hosts HBO’s official companion podcast for the series, but this was his first foray in front of the camera for the series.
Filming Episode 8 was the first time Baker and Pedro Pascal, two different generations of Joel, were on set together. For Baker, it was evident at first sight that Pascal wasn’t just the right choice to play Joel — he made Joel his own. “There's a temptation to mimic or ape a performance and just do that,” Baker tells Inverse. “And he really had the courage to stand the conviction of his own choices and do something that feels still inherently to Joel, but makes Joel bigger than just any one performance. And I think he really grew the character because of what he did.”
“There was absolutely no hesitation or apprehension about him playing Joel at all.”
Baker, an icon in the voice acting world with credits ranging from Bioshock to Love, Death & Robots to countless superheroes, originated the role of Joel in the 2013 game and its 2020 sequel. Because of Naughty Dog’s dedication to the use of motion capture in its games, Baker not only voiced Joel, he gave a mo-cap performance that formed the basis for the character. Seeing a character he was so instrumental in creating be brought to life by Pascal before his eyes might have been surreal for Baker, but he tells Inverse he was only mesmerized by how terrific Pascal was.
“We were doing a second unit shot that involves me running around this house, through this backyard jumping over a fence,” he says. “I'm running and jumping, and then coming back and running and jumping. Across the street, they're shooting the scene where Pedro was kind of stalking out of the house. I just watched him walk, and I was like, ‘Man, he's so good.’”
Pascal’s performance has already earned him awards buzz, which Baker is happy to add to. “It's one thing to watch an actor in a very dramatic scene and like the scene that he has with Tommy, that's what you clip out and you put up for the Emmys.”
Below, Baker talks with Inverse about Joel’s character, his new involvement with the series as guest star and podcast host, and what’s exciting for him as a fan.
This interview has been edited for clarity and/or brevity.
Did you discuss the role of Joel with Pedro Pascal?
I remember this one conversation when we first met and we just had this awkward hug together. I was like, “I have so many questions for you.” And he goes, “I have none for you.” And I knew we were gonna be friends.
There's so much more about Pedro that I want to know and the opportunities to interact with him are brief. And so those opportunities that I get, there are so many more things that I want to ask him other than Joel. I want to know more about him as a person. He's a very compelling, interesting person, he's full of life. There was absolutely no hesitation or apprehension about him playing Joel at all.
You’ve previously said that Pedro’s performance made you wish you could go back and do things differently. What would change specifically?
There was this one moment where Episode 2, this beautiful scene between Joel and Tess where she reveals that she has been bitten and Joel says show it to me. We worked really, really hard on that scene. I felt really, really good about and I feel like what we did in the game was true to the context of the Joel that we were presenting for that.
But there's something that Pedro did where when she goes to reach, he flinches, and I was like, “Oh man, what a good choice.” Just because we haven't seen Joel be afraid — except when he's scared of losing Sarah — to just get this crack in the veneer by such a small choice.
I think that that's the mark of any good performance is when it inspires. When you're in a scene with somebody, that's the way that it should be. If I come in with all these ideas that I want to do, I'm not listening or paying attention to what my scene partner is doing. But if I'm responding to what they're doing, then what they're doing is inspiring me.
A perfect example was working on that scene with ranch house that we just got to see [on Episode 6] and in the show, Ellie’s whole speech, “Everyone I've ever cared about has left, everyone fucking except for you.” That was completely an improvisational thing from Ashley [Johnson.]
That has resonated now in the script, because it was so perfect, but that's just something that she did on the fly. So I think that every strong choice that an actor makes that is true to the character should inspire someone to come back and go, “Oh, man, I wish I would have done that.”
You’ve spoken about how much you loved how the series changed Frank's character in Episode 3, which caused a lot of division in the fanbase. How would you defend it just to those who thought it veered from the game too much?
I don't think it needs defending. There's this beautiful story that we did not have the opportunity to tell because it would have derailed the game, it would have taken something away from the game that was in the focus. The beauty of making games is it's all about iteration and innovation. How can we continue to iterate on the story?
One of my favorite things about The Last of Us, even more than the game has been all of the conversations that have happened subsequent to it. And if we can make something that makes you go, I wonder what were those 20 years like, we have the opportunity to expand on that. So why wouldn't we do that?
The beauty is that they were able to show this is a story about love. Pure and simple. That is it. So the more that we can focus on that, and it's something that is threaded throughout everything, we see the love of a father to a daughter between Joel and Sarah, we see the love between brothers between Joel and Tommy, we see the love between Tess and Joel, we see the love between Bill and Frank. It fits in exactly the whole story that we're trying to tell. I think to anybody that is in opposition to it, I would just simply say watch it first, and then tell me how you feel about it. Because they clearly haven't seen it.
How have you handled the transition from actor to podcast host?
Here's what I've realized: I am a storyteller. That's it. In a game, as an actor, sometimes you get the opportunity to tell a story, or as a director, or as a musician. And the thing that I've really learned about myself is I crave conversation, and I'm a connoisseur of good conversation.
I can't imagine a better conversation than one that I can potentially have with Craig and Neil in every episode. We get to unpack the story and hopefully I answer all the questions that people are asking, because they're the ones that pop up to me and I have the opportunity to sit down in front of the two creators and go, “I have a question. Why did you do this?”
They've been so illuminating about the process of making the show, the process of making games, what good story elements truly are, and how to do this thing. Those two people are just some of the smartest, most talented people I've ever had the good fortune to be able to work with. They've both helped me tremendously as an actor, as an artist, and as a storyteller, and so the opportunity to be able to do that has been great. If I had the opportunity to do more of those, I would love it, because whether anybody's listening or not, it's something that I've truly enjoyed. Hopefully, I get to do more of it.
“Who knows, maybe there's an opportunity for me to [come back].”
If there’s a possibility of you having a cameo in Season 2 would you take it?
One of my favorite examples of this is Garret Dillahunt in Deadwood, where he got to play two characters in the same show, he plays a completely different character. To me, that is like the Gary Oldman effect, where you can just disappear into a role and people don't even recognize that it's you. If there's an opportunity for me to do that. I would love it, and just see how many people go, Wow.
If they say, “You got to shave your head and you got to lose 20 pounds by tomorrow,” I will do both of those things. It'll be incredibly unhealthy, but I would love to do it. So who knows, maybe there's an opportunity for me to do that. If there is, great. But I'm also very, very happy and content to be an observer because this is one of the best stories to watch.
You're a huge Batman fan, and you’ve basically voiced half of Gotham City. But you're also a musician. How do you feel about the news that Joker 2 is going to be a musical?
I feel like the beauty of the Batman franchise is such that it is allowed to iterate upon these characters for decades now. We've seen several different versions. Michael Keaton taught me to never count anything out with Batman. As long as it's done with excellence, and as long as it feels like it's true to that franchise, bring it on. I love me a musical, and this has Lady Gaga being a part of it. I mean, she's definitely proven herself to be a worthy opponent. So who knows? I will definitely watch either way. I will definitely watch it before I render a verdict.