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Warning: This article contains spoilers from The Last of Us season 1, episode 5.
Two days before their standout episode of The Last of Us arrives early on HBO Max, actors Lamar Johnson and Keivonn Woodard, who play brothers Henry and Sam, are filled with a mix of nerves and excitement.
« It’s nerve-wracking just because of how successful the show is and understanding that there was going to be a lot of eyes on the episode, » Johnson, 28, tells EW over Zoom. « Obviously, Henry and Sam have that really big moment. So there’s personal pressure that I put on myself to want it to be good. »
Woodard, 9, who’s deaf, also admits through an interpreter that he’s « a little overwhelmed » but mostly eager for his scenes to be out in the world. « I feel excited because I’ve been watching the episodes and I really want to see the one that I acted in and see the finished product, » he says.
In 2013’s The Last of Us video game, Henry and Sam are survivors that Joel and Ellie meet in Pittsburgh. They are trying to escape the city and avoid detection by the Hunters, a vicious group that kill their victims in brutal fashions. Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, showrunners of HBO’s The Last of Us, tackled the story a little differently for episode 5.
Liane Hentscher/HBO Lamar Johnson as Henry and Keivonn Woodard as Sam in ‘The Last of Us’
Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) now find Henry (Johnson) in Kansas City, where he’s being hunted by Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), leader of a movement that overthrew the oppressive FEDRA military operation in the area. Under FEDRA rule, Henry gave up information on Kathleen’s brother to soldiers in exchange for life-saving medication for his deaf brother Sam (Woodard). As a result, that man died. With Kathleen now in power, she’s consumed with seeking vengeance.
Despite these changes, the emotional beats remain the same, right up to the tragic ending.
« In the game, it’s heartbreaking. I wasn’t expecting it, » Johnson says of his first experience playing through the Henry and Sam arc in the source material. « It was one of those moments where you’re in disbelief a little bit. You’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, that just happened!’ Then when I read it in the script, understanding the gravitas of that moment, it was more so a thought process of wanting to do it justice and wanting to honor the actors who had played both Henry and Sam prior, and to honor the fans. »
Brothers in arms
Johnson and Woodard met each other for the first time in the HBO production offices. It was Woodard’s first time acting in a role. « And it’s a pretty big role, » notes the boy from Bowie, Md. His teammates on the local hockey squad back home nicknamed him « Hollywood » after he landed the part of Sam. He wasn’t nervous about it. He comes from a family of deaf actors who have made their marks on the industry, including his mother, April Jackson-Woodard, who manages her son’s fledgling career.
« I’m not afraid to be on camera and meet people for the first time, » Woodard says.
It wouldn’t be long before he and Johnson were running around the offices, playing tag with each other, like an older brother might do with his younger sibling. They would continue to bond over games, like Friday Nights at Freddy’s, but not The Last of Us.
« I don’t know whether I’m gonna play The Last of Us, » Woodard says. « I did get a copy of it, but I’ve struggled to get it working. So I think once my mom gets it all set up, I’m gonna play through. »
Johnson is just happy their off-camera bond translated on screen. Henry’s whole purpose is to protect his brother. To keep him calm as they face insurmountable odds, Henry takes a hint from Sam’s own drawings on the cardboard that block the windows of their hideout. He paints a bar over Sam’s eyes to emulate the image of a superhero mask, transforming him into « Super Sam » so he can feel brave.
Liane Hentscher/HBO Keivonn Woodard as Sam in ‘The Last of Us’
It reminds Johnson of his own history with superheroes. The actor had been cast in X-Men: Dark Phoenix as a fire-wielding mutant named Match. He only appears in a brief scene when the students of Xavier’s academy are partying one night around a campfire.
« I was supposed to be one of the new students at Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, but the movie just took a completely different direction and that just didn’t happen, » Johnson recalls. « Yeah, it really feels like a lifetime ago, truly. I think I did that in 2018, I believe. It was a lot of fun, though, being able to see the school and to see how they shoot the film. I got to meet Jennifer Lawrence and Alexandra Shipp and James McAvoy and the full cast. I was like a kid in a candy store, especially growing up watching X-Men and being a fan of the X-Men comics. »
Johnson’s fandom served him well on The Last of Us. He felt an acute understanding of Henry as a mirror of Joel, having played the games as much as he did.
« Joel and Henry are both protectors. We have to make a lot of really tough decisions to protect the people that we love, » Johnson explains. « I think we really get to see it in that scene between Henry and Joel when they are in the tunnels and he reveals to Joel the reason why Kathleen is after him. I think Joel resonates with all that. My brother is gonna die, so I had to make a tough decision. Would Joel make that same decision if it were to save Sarah? I’m sure he would. »
Love and loss
Liane Hentscher/HBO Lamar Johnson as Henry on ‘The Last of Us’
Joel reluctantly agrees to work with Henry to get them all out of the metropolis unharmed. They have to go through the tunnels to avoid Kathleen’s soldiers, but Infected could be down there. Through this unified mission, they inadvertently form a connection to each other. Both men, hardened by the results of the choices they’ve had to make, begin to soften as they see Ellie and Sam laughing and playing together — things neither have seen children do since the cordyceps apocalypse began years earlier.
They jolt back to action when a surprise sniper has them pinned down in a cul-de-sac just outside of the city (another moment pulled from the game). Kathleen’s forces catch up to them, and when it seems there’s no hope left, a truck falls through a sinkhole in the ground, unleashing swarms of Infected from beneath the rubble.
That was Woodard’s favorite part. « When we ran and the truck was chasing us, the running scene was really fun ’cause I was running as fast as I could, » he says. « I hide underneath one of the cars and all of the trucks are pushing the cars out of the way and the Clickers are all running and I had to weave through the cars and run as fast as I could. We get close to the house by the end of the scene, and that was the most fun part. »
Kathleen and her right-hand gunslinger Perry (Jeffrey Pierce) meet their end then and there, but Joel, Henry, and the kids seemingly come out of it unscathed, that is until later that night as Ellie and Sam stay up to read comics. Sam reveals he was bitten during the attack. Ellie tries to reassure him, telling him that her blood is medicine. She cuts open her hand and rubs around Sam’s wound, naively hoping he might be fine by morning.
Morning comes and Sam has turned. Woodard remembers sitting in the make-up chair to transform himself into an Infected. « It took so long, » he recalls. « They did my neck and down my arm. I fell asleep while they were doing the make-up on my leg ’cause it was taking so long. I just knocked out. »
Liane Hentscher/HBO Keivonn Woodard and Lamar Johnson as Sam and Henry in ‘The Last of Us’
As Sam attacks Ellie, his brother picks up his gun. Joel is left fearing he’ll let Ellie die, but then he shoots. The horror of this act washes over Henry as blood from Sam’s head pools around him. In the game, Henry turns the gun on Joel, muttering through tears, « What have you done? This is your fault. » Johnson, as well as the creators, understood Henry was directing those words to himself in that moment.
« I think everybody understood the moment, and they gave me license to play a little bit, » Johnson says. « I didn’t have a lot of conversations with Craig or anything like that, but also that moment [in the game] was written differently. The line was, ‘What have I done?’ Obviously, there’s layers behind ‘What have I done?’ There is a time that I think I did deliver the line very similar to, ‘This is your fault.’ In a way it’s I’m upset at Joel, asking him, ‘What have I done?’ The delivery was the same, but the lines are just different. There was a couple ways that I delivered the line. We were just playing with it and whatever worked for the scene is what they chose. I’m really happy with the sequence. »
Just like the events of the game, Henry turns the gun on himself. We’re left with a lingering shot of Ellie, now a bit hardened like Joel had been, walking off in the distance towards Wyoming. Her protector is forced to follow after burying their friends.
Johnson says he was nervous when he first joined the show because it demanded a lot from him, including sign language to communicate with Woodard’s Sam.
« Even during filming, just making sure that my sign was right, my thumb was in the right place and all those things. Every day there was something that I had to be mindful of, which I actually am happy about, » he says. « If it was a mindless thing and it was easy, then I don’t think it would’ve had the same impact that it does. Nerves just mean you care, and it means that everyone cared. When you actually create something where people care and there’s passion behind what it is that people are creating, we create something really, really special. »
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