Warning: Spoilers for The Last of Us episode five below.
Episode five of HBO’s The Last of Us delivered a devastating moment fans of the videogame series remember all too well.
Henry and Sam, two survivors trying to escape Kansas City after Melanie Lynskey’s ruthless rebel leader put a price on their heads, nearly grasped their hard-earned freedom in “Endure and Survive.” The brothers, working with Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) traversed the city’s tunnel system to make it outside of the Hunters’ blockade, only to be slowed down by a lone gunman working for Lynskey’s revenge-driven demagogue. A stampede of Infected, a showering of bullets, a tense standoff, and a Bloater all thwarted the group’s getaway plan but the final roadblock came when young Sam was bitten and eventually turned, forcing his brother to make an impossible choice he simply couldn’t live with.
It’s a gut-wrenching end made all the more heartbreaking thanks to the nuanced performances Lamar Johnson and Kevionn Woodward deliver — turns that made us invest too much hope in characters whose futures we knew were hopeless.
Uproxx hopped on the phone with Johnson — who plays Sam’s big brother Henry in the episode — to talk about the aftermath of episode five, his crash course in sign language, and if his character really is a bad guy.
You get just one episode to do justice to this character who connected with so many people who played the game. Were you feeling the pressure of that while filming?
I think the fact that I was on The Last of Us [meant] there was pressure there, just because of the IP. I was a big fan of the game. So for me to have an opportunity to play Henry in the live-action, there was just some personal pressure on me to show up for this role, and to honor the performance from the game, but to not necessarily do a carbon copy.
There was definitely a lot of pressure for that final scene. It’s that scene that everyone connects with. When you think of Henry and Sam, you think of that scene. There was some nervousness but I think being nervous about it, it’s a good thing because it just shows that I care. I care to do a good job and show up.
That’s something the show has done a good job of so far. Even when the dialogue is pulled straight from the game, it still manages to make it feel fresh.
Everyone had the same sentiment: we’re not trying to simply recreate the game. Yes, it is an adaptation, but we want to re-feel it. We want to reimagine it and really breathe new life into these characters that people already love so much. How can we add a bit more? A lot of credit goes to Craig [Mazin] because he just gave us such amazing scripts to work with. A lot of these characters, even Henry and Sam, get more backstory. It informed so much more of my choices, my direction, and my arc.
One of the more significant changes is aging down Sam’s character and having him be Deaf. Kevionn Woodward is a fantastic young Deaf actor. What was it like learning to sign, for your character but also to build a bond with Kevionn off-camera?
Yeah, it was obviously a new challenge for me, but I enjoy challenges because on the other side of challenges is growth. I knew that I would learn, and I would grow through this experience. It was actually after I booked the role, I learned that I had to learn sign. So it was a sprint. When I got to my apartment in Calgary, I jumped on a Zoom right away. I had a director of ASL, along with a few interpreters and it really helped me acclimate myself. If I wasn’t on set working, I was at home doing homework, learning my sign, and going over my lines. I had to fully commit and dive in because Keivonn is deaf in real life. For me to also connect with him, which was important [for] the Henry and Sam dynamic on screen, I had to be able to communicate with him. I had to learn sign, not only through my lines and what I had to say in the show but also learn sign so that when he and I are sort of hanging out, we can be able to have a dialogue.
Did you feel like you got a good grasp of it over those couple of months?
It’s kind of like living in a country with a foreign language. Once you’re in that space, you sort of pick it up quicker, because it’s all you’re seeing, it’s all you’re doing. A lot of sign is also very expressive, so it’s all in the face and body language. So that helped with understanding it, especially being an actor and a dancer as well. It’s being aware of my physical space, my face, and my body, and things like that. Of course, I’m not seasoned. I haven’t had years and years of experience in sign so we’d be in scenes and [Kevionn] would be correcting me. It was all very supportive.
Henry seems to be fixated on this idea of being a bad guy because he did a bad thing. Where do you land when it comes to his betrayal?
Sam is his purpose. Sam is his will to live. He fights and endures all the craziness in this world to protect Sam. With Sam getting leukemia and getting sick – it’s not like it’s uncurable. There is a cure. There is a way to help him. And if I don’t do everything in my power to save the person that I love the most in this world? He wouldn’t be able to forgive himself. It’s a tough decision because obviously, he gave up a person for Sam, and you can tell it still weighs on him. But at the end of the day, if I was in that position, would I make the same decision? Yes. I would.
Is that bad? Is it good? I’m not sure. I think that’s just a conversation that people have to have with themselves.
The scale of this episode felt bigger than any we’ve seen this season.
It really felt like I was in an action movie.
It looked like it too.
There were some days on set when I was like, ‘This is crazy.’ They were blowing up cars, blowing up houses. That truck that was smashing into cars chasing us actually was chasing us. The practical effects and everything on the set, a lot of it was real. They built that full cul-de-sac in a parking lot. They paved the roads, they put the trees in, they built the houses, they put the grass in, and they placed the cars. It was truly incredible to see and really be a part of.
Did any of those scenes really push you out of your comfort zone?
Me, Keivonn, and Bella were just kind of in the trenches with it. We’re just experiencing it all in real-time. They did this special shot when they blew up the truck, and that’s when the truck goes into the floor. And me, Keivonn, and Bella were just standing over at the side — at a very far distance, of course – and we had our phones out recording it because it was a spectacle to us. We had a couple of weeks of night shoots, and that’s when we shot all that exterior stuff outside. I think the only thing is that it was just very cold. But we got through it.
I’m guessing getting thrown into the fire like that – literally – helps the cast bond pretty quickly?
We had very, very long days on set — like 12, 13-hour days – so we had a lot of time to really connect. Bella is fantastic. She has a great spirit and soul to her. Pedro, he’s actually just very funny, and he brought a lot of levity to the set, which was good because we’re dealing with some pretty heavy material. It was great to have his energy, especially in those moments, because we have to remember, yes, of course, we are doing some heavy work, but this should still be fun. We’re doing what we love to do on a great show with great writing, and it’s such a privilege.
There’s heavy and then there’s downright terrifying, which is how it felt to watch you face off against Melanie Lynskey’s character towards the end of the episode.
That was actually really frightening in real life. The reason why I say that is because it was Melanie, but then there were 30 other people with guns behind her. At that moment, it felt so real. Because all of them were looking at me so intently, it really felt very intimidating. And Melanie, she’s just so sweet. We’d be hanging out in the cast tent between scenes and things, and we’d just have great conversations, but when you call action, she becomes Kathleen. I think there’s an intensity to her softness if that makes sense. It’s not too aggressive, and I think that’s the reason why it’s so intimidating because there’s an intensity behind it.
What went into shooting that final scene, the one game fans probably came into the episode expecting to see?
It was tough. The day before the final scene was when Sam and Ellie had their scene in the room. I remember Jeremy and I; we were by the monitor watching that scene, and we both were in tears. Because I spent so much time building this relationship and this bond with Keivonn, and really growing this love for him, to see him in despair in that scene … it was really heartbreaking.
It took me a couple of days to come down from that. I remember after that day going home and still sort of being hyperemotional. Your brain knows that you’re acting and it’s not real, but your body doesn’t, so your body still feels things. But I’m really grateful to have had that opportunity to stretch myself.