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Merle Dandridge Knows Better Than Anybody How The Last Of Us Differs From Its Video Game Source

From the "Resident Evil" and "Tomb Raider" films to "Mortal Kombat" and "Uncharted," just to name a few, Hollywood has been very ambitious over the years with its screen adaptations of video games. In those adaptations, however, often left behind are the actors who either voice or perform the roles via motion capture in favor of stars whose faces are more familiar to film and TV audiences.

That casting approach is changing somewhat with the upcoming streaming series adaptation of the blockbuster video game "The Last of Us," which debuts on HBO on January 15. In it, Merle Dandridge — who played Marlene, the charismatic leader of the resistance group The Fireflies in the 2013 video game sensation "The Last of Us" and its 2020 sequel "The Last of Us, Part II" — in a rare instance is reprising her role for the series.

Given her two decades of experience in showbiz, it only makes sense that Dandridge would be asked by "The Last of Us" co-creator and executive producer Neil Druckmann of game developer Naughty Dog — who created the video game version — to play Marlene once again for the series. That's because, in addition to "The Last of Us," Dandridge has also starred in such video games as "Half-Life 2," "Uncharted 4: A Thief's End," and "Hitman 3." She also has prolific television roles in such hit series as "Sons of Anarchy," "The Flight Attendant," and "Station 19."

But while Dandridge is well-versed in both video games and television, she discovered that there were still significant differences, creatively, that separated "The Last of Us" from its PlayStation predecessor.

Stepping from the video game to the live-action world was 'wild,' Dandridge says

The foundation of "The Last of Us" video game remains largely intact for the series adaptation, as survivors of a Cordyceps fungus pandemic — a brain infection that turns victims into zombie-like killers — fight for survival from "The Infected" as well as a society that has fallen under militaristic rule. There is hope for a cure, however, thanks to the miraculous healing abilities of Ellie Williams (Bella Ramsey), but the young teen must be guided through a dangerous landscape by survivalists, including Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), Tess (Anna Torv) and Marlene (Merle Dandridge).

In a virtual roundtable press event with Dandridge attended by Looper, the actor said while she knew "The Last of Us" in-depth because of her video game work, she was "surprised" on a daily basis on the set of the series because the story "only lived in my imagination as far as the world was concerned."

"I had never tangibly been able to interact with the walls, feel the dankness of the room, feel the heaviness and despair of the environment, and see the wear and tear on everyone around me because of the extraordinary costuming and makeup design, the breakdown of the sets of the costumes of the characters and the wigs," Dandridge said. "Everything was sensory overload to my system for somebody who was already very vibrantly alive and connected and having all of my feelers out in this world ... To see them like that and to step into that world was wild."

Going from playing Marlene in mo-cap to live-action took some getting used to, Dandridge says

While Merle Dandridge has had plenty of experience in live-action television, she admitted during the roundtable session attended by Looper that she needed to bolster her confidence to make the character a reality for the live-action version of "The Last of Us," even in the way she interacted with her character's wardrobe.

"Having only been in the mo-cap suit as Marlene [for the video games], to step into those clothes and to move around in those boots, to carry the weapons, and gosh, on the fly to be able to load those weapons, I was like, 'This is not my strong suit, but it better be ... to practically take ownership of being a soldier and a leader of an army,'" Dandridge recalled. "It was something that I was, like, 'Okay, take a deep breath, jump over this cliff, girl. Just do it.'"

In the end, Dandridge's previous experience with the character helped instill confidence in her live-action performance. Although the practical elements of filming were daunting at times, the actress admitted that she understood the character and what she was about.

Dandridge says her experiences over the past decade brings more to her series portrayal as Marlene

Merle Dandridge said that she was hoping for the opportunity to reprise the character she helped define in the "The Last of Us" video game beginning 10 years ago, because she was confident her experiences over the past decade would greatly inform her new portrayal of Marlene.

"I feel as though I've gotten an opportunity to mature as an artist, mature into the role, and really get to know her on a deeper, more inherent level," Dandridge said during the roundtable session. "But when I first got the call to audition for the game, I went in and I auditioned opposite Troy Baker, who was playing Joel, and [creator] Neil [Druckmann] was the other person in the room, and immediately felt like I found my tribe. I felt like, 'Oh, these are my people. One, they get me. This material is fantastic. I feel like there's so much to chew on.' And I was right."

Now, 10 years after first playing Marlene, Dandridge said she's so grateful that Druckmann called her to reprise the role when he could have gone with a different actor. Although she was excited when initial news broke that HBO was developing a series based off the game, she kept her expectations low. "So, when I did get the call from Neil and he said, 'I'd like to offer you the role of Marlene for yet another time, it was an absolute astonishing delight."

"The Last of Us" premieres on HBO and HBO Max on Sunday, January 15, with new episodes premiering every Sunday through March 12.