The Last Of Us: Jeffrey Pierce Interview – Tommy Tells All
“I went in for Joel initially,” The Last of Us actor Jeffrey Pierce tells me while sitting on what’s presumably his front porch. Dogs are barking in the background and there’s the faint sound of a creaking chain – perhaps a swing chair tied between two trees. It looks like the kind of cabin you’d chance upon in Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic series, except here – in the current apocalypse of 2020 – the sun is shining and Pierce is smiling.
Pierce looks a lot like Joel: grizzled, bearded and broad, with flecks of grey in his beard. All he’s missing is the flannel shirt and a cup of coffee. But appearances don’t matter in the world of video games, otherwise the veteran actor would have been a shoo-in for Joel. Instead, he plays Tommy, Joel’s brother.
This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part 2.
“I don’t know if they ever read anybody for Tommy,” Pierce says. “I remember seeing Troy [Baker, who was cast as Joel] at the audition and there were a handful of guys who were definitely ‘name’ actors, which is always an interesting thing when you’re going in to read.”
At this point, he’d had two meetings and Naughty Dog fell silent. Pierce didn’t hear anything for six months. In film and television, it’s usually a bad sign.
“In video games, things take a lot longer to gestate,” he says. “The audition process was great. Initially, Neil [Druckmann] was the writer – a sweetheart, and very thoughtful with all his notes. But it wasn’t clear that he was going to be directing the game at that point.”
As a concept, The Last of Us originated from Druckmann – but he was originally just supposed to just write the game, not direct the talent. Previously, actors in Naughty Dog games had been directed by Gordon Hunt, a pioneer of modern video game cinematics. Hunt had worked on everything from The Jetsons to Soul Reaver and Final Fantasy 14, but the director regrettably died in 2016 at the age of 87.
Because The Last of Us took on a darker tone than the Uncharted series, Naughty Dog needed a director who could pull that tone off. Still, there was another problem – Druckmann didn’t know how to hire for the role, due to his lack of directing experience. Sure, he’d learned a lot from Hunt, but he felt like he needed a better grasp on the process to understand who to recruit. And so he read books on directing and began taking acting classes. Eventually, with the backing of the actors and co-director Bruce Straley, he filled the role himself.
“When you go into a meeting most of the time – especially these days – you just go in, you give your read, and you give your concept, then you take a hike,” Pierce explains. “There’s very little redirection – especially in the days of coronavirus because you’re just putting yourself on tape. But the ability to go into a room with someone who cares so deeply about what they’ve done that you can do your best work, and then you get a chance to collaborate for 15 minutes on an audition – that is incredibly rare. That was Neil’s attack back then and that was his attack on the last game as well.”
Though he’d dealt with Druckmann and some of the Naughty Dog team, Pierce was yet to meet the rest of the cast. His first opportunity was at a table read, where a tall and slim Troy Baker – who wasn’t as widely known at the time – arrived to read the part of Joel.
“When he got cast as Joel, he was probably about 30lbs skinnier than he is now – you know, he’s an athlete now. He is not necessarily what you would look at and say, ‘That guy looks like Joel’,” Pierce remembers. “But he opens his mouth and the timber of his voice, his ability to slide into that character, is breathtaking.
“So when I showed up at the table read not knowing who Troy was, I met him and was like, ‘Oh, this is who they cast as Joel, that’s interesting. Seems like a really nice guy – not my picture of what that character is’. We sat down at the table and he opened his mouth and I was like, ‘Oh fuck, of course. He’s brilliant. There’s no way you don’t put that embodiment of the character into the role’.”
Baker’s natural voice isn’t quite as deep as Joel’s, but he slips into it like Tony Stark stepping into his Iron Man suit. The man can even sing in character.
While the core of the story is about Joel and Ellie (played by the brilliant Ashley Johnson), the dynamic between Joel and Tommy is important. Tommy is the third character you meet in the first game, helping Joel and his daughter, Sarah, attempt to escape the city as the cordyceps virus takes hold. It ends in tragedy, and it’s suggested that the years between that opening scene and the first time we play as Joel – two decades later – weren’t kind to the brothers. Whatever happened, it strained their relationship. Rather than getting specific details on that rift, the actors were encouraged to make their own headcanon, to find something that worked for them.
“We talked about that rift and what it might have been, but we never get into the specifics of that,” Pierce explains. “As much as [Druckmann] likes to engage, he’s really comfortable with ‘if it’s working then it’s working’. Troy and I developed our own ideas about what that meant to us personally and just let it play. I had an acting teacher once who said, ‘Technique is whatever works’. So we both just sort of settled on things that moved us personally about how a relationship between two brothers might break and let that live in our performances.”
It’s a tension you can sense when the brothers reunite later in the story. It’s an unspoken dark past, and the mystery makes it seem darker still. It’s a bleak world and people have to do abhorrent things to survive in it – presumably acts of violence they don’t want to relive. On set, things couldn’t be more different – not that you’d expect the cast to be crafting shivs and shanking each other over the lunch truck.
For the second game, Druckmann was joined by Halley Gross, an American screenwriter famous for her work on Westworld. Their relationship has some parallels to Joel and Tommy, minus the unspoken murder stuff.
“They were like Bonnie and Clyde,” Pierce laughs. “They have a repertoire between the two of them that is like a brother and sister who love and abhor each other at the same time. The back and forth between them is as entertaining as any aspect of going on set. They’re both brilliant individuals committed to getting it right. It’s rare that you find people who are so good at what they do and are so comfortable with collaboration. There’s a flexibility but also a certainty to what they do that’s rare to find – without ego attached to it.
“I think there was a human effort to make sure that a life exists within that experience that is not dark and heavy. I’ve had a couple of experiences where it is dark and heavy across the board, and it’s not fun to go to work. But the sort of joy that exists on this set is a product of the leadership there, and it makes it very easy to take risks and be vulnerable when you have to go to the darker, edgier places.”
One of the best examples of this is in the first game. Filming the hospital scene at the very end, Baker was struggling to grab another actor to use him as a human shield. Every time he grabbed his scene partner, he dropped his gun. Take after take. To ease the frustration, Druckmann came up with a plan. He told Baker to let the scene play out, no matter what happened – just go with it. What happened next is something you’re better off seeing for yourself in the video below.
“One of the things I love about working with Troy and Ashley is that they just are hysterically funny, sharp, smart individuals,” Pierce says. “I think a sense of humour indicates a level of intellect and intelligence, and they both bring that in spades. We laughed a lot. I had never seen the Orson Welles video where he’s incredibly drunk doing a commercial and it is equal parts heartbreaking – because of the talented man that he was – and hilarious. It’s a tragic comic – maybe the combination of the two things is what makes it all work. Troy’s ability to impersonate Orson Welles in that role, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard in my entire life.”
I’d play a The Last of Us Part 2 prequel where it’s just the main cast cracking jokes and doing celebrity impressions in Jackson. A glimpse of happier times. You know, from before they all lost parts of themselves – literally and figuratively – in their quest for revenge.
Tommy’s role in that quest in particular is interesting because he’s both a supporting character and an antagonist, depending on the perspective you’re playing from. To chase down his brother’s killer, he cuts himself off from Jackson, the little slice of electronically-powered normalcy he carved out for himself and his fellow survivors. Pierce sees this as akin to him “cutting off an arm”. When his revenge attempt fails, he pressures Ellie to do what he can’t do. He’s lost an eye, he can barely walk, but he’s still like a gambler chasing a loss. He thinks murder, even by proxy, will make him whole again.
“There’s not a right thing to do there. He’s asking her to do what he can’t do. He’s asking her to do what he should not do,” Pierce says. “I don’t think there’s a way for him to justify it beyond his compulsion. He’s just trying to erase his shame by any means necessary. I think it’s a very unfortunate, human thing to do. [It’s] like bombing the shit out of Iraq after 9/11. Not quite the right target there, but I think it made some people feel righteous to try to erase the shame of being attacked. It’s Greek tragedy-level stupidity, but it’s what human beings do.”
The Last of Us as a series has always tried to reflect humanity – the bad and the good. Whether it’s reluctantly or not, the series shows that even people who have been hurt will eventually open themselves up to help others. It shows that love still exists, even at the end of the world. It shows that hatred isn’t a tonic. But that message wasn’t received by everyone. Even prior to launch, a vocal minority wanted to see the game fail because they didn’t agree with Joel being killed off. Little did they know, they were justifying that decision.
“The people who were toxic about it, the story was having the right impact on them,” Pierce says. “They should be upset about that. But what they don’t realise is that they’re really upset with themselves. I think it’s good because if art does not spur us to look at our inner failings, it’s not doing its job. And I think what Naughty Dog does is art. They’re angry at themselves and they just turn it on other people. It’s more sad and funny than anything else.
“We’re in a time and place where that hatefulness is feeling like courage, and so it’s nice and loud. But fuck that. We’re not going to forget the hateful words that came out of people’s mouths. They’re going to have to make it right in time, or they’re going to have to live with being ashamed of who they are.”
Whether those people take a look inside themselves or not, and whether they decide to engage with the themes of the story and how they apply to their own lives – none of it matters. Jeffrey Pierce will still be sitting on his porch, smiling away.
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