“Even though it seems like nobody would want to be bothered with love in a post-apocalyptic world, it’s fitting because love is still everywhere,” expresses Storm Reid, when asked to reflect on the theme of HBO’s latest hit show, The Last of Us, in which she plays Riley. Based on the survival-horror video game with the same name, the recently released series—starring Bella Ramsey as Ellie and Pedro Pascal as Joel—has since garnered raving reviews for its faithful adaptation of the original material, which had already been home to its own wonderfully fleshed-out narrative arc.
A narrative arc which, time and time again, has been lauded for its remarkably refreshing approach that remains grounded in the beautifully real and devastatingly human. Where players’s emotions are built up via a number of compelling relationships that continue to develop against all odds, in a desolate world ridden over by the ‘Infected’: humans who have transformed into zombie-like monsters. Considering the way it has been adapted for the nine-strong episodic narrative, Reid’s words seem to ring true, with entire episodes dedicated to excavations of complex relationships between not just its leading cast, but the characters surrounding them as well. The most recent one, related to the heart-wrenching back story of Ellie.
Whilst most of the show follows Joel and Ellie’s journey into treacherous territory, the first episode had hinted at another key playmaker in Ellie’s past: Riley. Without spoiling too much, it’s safe to say that the episode draws intensely emotional parallels to Ellie’s present reality—which is what episode seven (‘Left Behind’) opens with—as she desperately battles against time to stop Joel from bleeding out after their narrow escape at the end of the previous episode. The rest of the episode takes us on a narrative journey back to just before Ellie had been caught, detailing the last time she had seen Riley, with whom she shares an intimately complex bond with.
Alongside the release of episode seven this week, we play catch up with Reid, who waxes enthusiasm on her on-set relationship with Bella Ramsey, her favourite things about playing her character and how Ellie’s relationship with Riley contributes to the overall narrative of The Last Of Us.
What was the casting process like?
So they sent me the script, and I read it. I was super intrigued and thought it was beautifully written. I was a little confused with regards to the script at first, because I didn’t play the video game. But then I had a call with Craig and the team and they expressed their vision for my episode and that was when I could tell that I was in good hands.
After that conversation, I had a feeling that this was going to work out and shortly after, I found out that I was a part of The Last of Us and I was so excited. Being on set was absolutely incredible; they made me feel so seen and welcomed and supported.
What went into the characterisation process for Riley?
As Riley only appears in a single episode, I did have a lot of time to figure out who Riley as we shot for it for over a month. Every day, I found something new and tried different things on set. And that’s really how I formulate my characters in general. I just try to step into my character’s shoes, no matter who they are. I try not to judge them and meet them where they are in terms of their experiences and given circumstances. So I try to be them to the best of my ability, but also not neglect how I’m feeling at the time.
That’s what I tried to do with Riley—whom I think is so complex and so nuanced. I had a good time attempting to portray and depict her, and there were not many challenges at all.
What is your favourite thing about Riley?
I think Riley’s optimism is very inspiring. She’s optimistic about a lot despite knowing the world that she’s living in. But that doesn’t stop her from having fun and continuing to put one foot in front of the other. So I love that for her and I think that is an inspiring quality to have.
The mall was a beautiful set—akin to the one in the game. What was the experience like shooting the scenes in the mall?
Yeah, it was an actual abandoned mall. But of course, they made it look very post-apocalyptic because it didn’t really look like that at first. Shooting the ‘Wonders’ and the escalator scene was really fun. Just being in the mall paid homage to the adolescence and the innocence that Ellie and Riley still had. And it’s also where you get to see most of the emotions: happy, sad, confused, upset etc. And then there was the ‘Mortal Kombat’ game that was a crucial part to the actual game.
I’ve actually played ‘Mortal Kombat’ before, on PlayStation. But it was my first time playing ‘Mortal Kombat’ in an arcade. But it was so fun because we improvised that scene. We were just having the best time.
The Last of Us was about finding the courage to trust other people. How did you channel that ethos on set and into your relationship with Bella?
I mean, I loved working with Bella. She’s not just a brilliant talent, but also an amazing person. Just to be able to share the screen with her was incredible and we forged a bond—which I feel also informed Ellie and Riley’s bond on screen. There were so many different instances where we had so much fun; we were almost delirious at some points. But we were always laughing and cracking jokes with each other. Working with her was a dream come true and I’m so proud of the work that we did together.
How do you view the parallels between Riley and Ellie’s arc to Joel and Ellie’s story?
I think Joel and Ellie’s story is so beautiful. Because they start off not wanting to be bothered by one another. They want to go in separate ways, but they’re forced to stay together which leads them to caring for each other and creating a bond. In a niece-and-uncle sort of way.
Meanwhile, Ellie and Riley’s relationship is so different. They’re best friends, they’re kind of straddling the fence of being friends and being a little more than friends. But in both relationships, we get to see the love that they’ve experienced and developed. It’s about growth. And I think that’s the case with all of the characters in this television show.
Why do you think Riley is important to Ellie’s character development?
Riley is essential in Ellie’s backstory—and is where you’ll meet her before Ellie gets to where we have already seen her. I think Ellie and Riley are intrinsically a part of each other’s worlds. And we see that from each other’s perspective. We see their relationship develop from a younger perspective, which is a contrast to a lot of the other relationships in the show.
Would you say The Last Of Us is about how love preserves—even in the middle of the apocalypse?
I mean…love is everywhere. It’s a choice for people: to actively love or not to love. Even though it seems like nobody would want to be bothered with love in a post apocalyptic world, it’s more than fitting because you never actually know when your last day is going to be your ‘last day’. To be able to experience the last of your final days with people that you care about—and you love—is important. So at the core of The Last of Us sits love and that constant attempt to figure out all these complicated, nuanced relationships.
Watch The Last Of Us on HBO GO now.