The Last of Us Show’s Lamar Johnson on Henry and Sam & What Made Him Cry

Feb 11, 2023

Editor’s note: The following contains major spoilers for Episode 5 of The Last of Us.On its surface, the HBO series The Last of Us, from executive producers Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann (who also wrote the video game of the same name), is a post-apocalyptic tale of what life is like after a viral outbreak has destroyed modern civilization. It’s a brutal and ugly world that is an endurance test of survival, where hope is challenging to maintain, if you fall short of protecting your family and loved ones. And when you add in the expert storytelling, stunning performances, and truly human moments that end in triumph or tragedy, the emotional gut punch of it all is sure to stick with you, as the viewer.

Being completely transparent, I have not played the video game, so I’m experiencing the story points and character moments for the first time while watching the season, and as a result, Episode 5 was shocking and heartbreaking. When Collider got the opportunity to chat 1-on-1 with Lamar Johnson, I jumped at the chance to discuss brothers Henry (Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodard), and the importance of their impact on Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey). During the interview, he talked about meeting the challenges of this role, bonding with his young co-star, wanting to get the sign language right, how emotional it was to read the Episode 5 script, the impact of false hope, the moment that made him cry, and the contrast of intertwining Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) into the story of these brothers.

Collider: Really terrific work in this. When the opportunity to do this came your way, did you know what The Last of Us is? Are you someone who had been familiar with the games?

LAMAR JOHNSON: Yeah, I was definitely familiar with the games. So, when I got this audition, I saw that it was The Last of Us, and HBO, and Craig [Mazin] and Neil [Druckmann], and I was like, “Okay, all right, yeah. I definitely wanna, at the very least, throw my hat in the ring and see what can happen.” I’m just really grateful that it happened, and that it also happened so fast. I sent in my tape off on Monday, by Wednesday, I got the call that I got the job, and then by Saturday, I was on a plane to Calgary. It was really, really fast, but I’m super grateful that it ended up going my way, and that I was able to portray this character and to be able to tell the story with some really talented people.

Image via HBO

Apparently, the actor who played your character in the game created a backstory for himself and Sam. Did you do the same for this? Did you just focus on what you got from the pages of the script, or did you fill in any of the blanks for yourself, that you weren’t sure about?

JOHNSON: Thankfully, Craig actually did a little bit of the work for me because he speaks on what happened with Sam, prior to this moment, and what happened to our mom and dad, prior to this moment. That gave me a sense of how things happened, where things were going, and everything like that. I definitely created an idea in my mind of what were the moments like, what was the moment before this moment? What was it like, five years ago? Sam is eight years old, I believe, in the show. Eight years ago, when he was born in this post-apocalyptic America, what would that have looked like? Where did we live? Obviously, it was Kansas City, but did we live in the QZ? Did we live outside the QZ? Those are questions that I asked myself because we do learn that the QZ was overrun, 10 days prior to that moment. There are a lot of different questions. But again, Craig did such a great job with giving that information, whereas in the game, we didn’t get that information. We didn’t know why Henry and Sam were on the run. We just figured, “Well, they’re running from something.” It’s really great that he gave a lot of backstory and a lot of build up towards Episode 5.

At what point did you get to meet your co-star, Keivonn Woodard, who plays Sam, and how did you approach finding that relationship? Because that that relationship is so important to really making that emotional connection with viewers, what was that like to find?

JOHNSON: With Henry and Sam, it’s about the relationship, so it was very, very important for me to establish that, as soon as I possibly could. The first time that we met, we just hit it off. We were running around the production offices playing tag. It was just really, really great. I was like, “Okay, great, I’m so happy that this is very organic and easy.” It was really important for me to really establish that because what happens off camera, translates on camera. I wanted to make sure that, when people saw Sam and Henry, and that relationship and their connection, that it was believable and it was truthful and it was honest. Also, the sign language created another layer of intimacy between us because there are no words. There are literally no words. It’s just signing and feeling an expression. It’s just so raw, the way that we communicate. It inevitably throws you there.

Image via HBO

What was it like to learn the sign language? Because it has to feel second nature for you, how was that to figure out?

JOHNSON: It was a crash course. As soon as I got to Calgary, I hopped on a Zoom call. Luckily, HBO and the team for The Last of Us gave me a really great support system. I had an ASL director and I had multiple interpreters in my corner, just helping me do it the best way that I possibly could. It was important for me to do it in a way that felt organic and natural because the actor playing Sam is deaf in real life and I understand that we are representing a community of people. It was important for me to just put my best foot forward in that representation and try to do the best that I possibly could with what I was given, in the time that I was given. I’m really happy about the work. I’d either be on set or at home doing homework. It was quite a crash course, especially when I first got down there, but I enjoy challenges because, on the other side of a challenge, is growth. So, I’m really happy about it.

It’s really interesting because that character is not deaf in the video game. Do you know why they made that change for the TV series, or was it just that they found an actor that was perfect and that was that?

JOHNSON: You know what? I actually didn’t ask the reason why because, after I read it, it made so much sense that I didn’t even question it. I just thought, “Okay, they’re using creative license to maybe make some changes to this, but this works so well because it just deepens their connection and you can feel for these characters even more.” I understood it. I read the scripts for episodes four and five, from top to bottom, and I understood the arc and where everything was going. It just made complete sense to me.

Image via HBO

What struck me about Henry is that he feels like someone who is still such a young guy, but at the same time, he’s survived in this world, which makes him feel much older and more adult than his years. Did you think a lot about how, this world and living in this world, must have changed him and how it weighs on him, and at what points he would feel a bit younger, or when he would feel like he has aged beyond his years?

JOHNSON: Yeah There’s an interesting dynamic between Henry and Sam because Henry has obviously had to grow up faster than his years, just because of having to take care of his brother and also just the circumstances of the world. It’s harsh, so you have to grow up and mature a bit quicker than you normally would. I also think there’s a part of the relationship where Sam still keeps him youthful and keeps him young because Sam is young and he has that energy that’s contagious. For instance, being downstairs in the tunnels, where it was a preschool, and Sam and Ellie are playing soccer, if Ellie wasn’t there, that would be Henry playing soccer with him. Sam keeps Henry energetic and young. At the same time, he does understand that this is a harsh world and he shoulders a lot of the heaviness that Sam is not even privy to. Henry doesn’t even want to tell Sam. He waited until the very last moment to tell Sam that they had no more food. He shoulders so much himself. So, I would say that he’s obviously a bit older than his years, but that there is still some youth that shines through.

Normally, I’m really good about watching horror and watching graphic scenes because I know it’s a movie or a TV show, and it doesn’t bother me, in that way. I feel like I’m also pretty good with figuring things out when I’m watching something. Even though it felt inevitable that there was going to be this tragic ending to your characters, at the same time, when it does happen, it’s still so shocking and heartbreaking that I ugly cried. What was your reaction to reading that scene in the script, for the first time? Even if you knew what was coming, what was that like to experience that?

JOHNSON: Being honest, it was really nerve-wracking, the first time I read it because, at that point, I had already gotten the job and I knew, in my mind, what I was gonna have to step into. But again, I enjoy challenges. I enjoy things that make me nervous because you know that means that I care, if I’m gonna approach that with nerves. I always wanna challenge myself to take on those things that might look challenging on paper and that you know will take you to a place that you might not have thought you could go to. I’m really grateful for that. It’s a big scene. It’s the Henry and Sam scene, even in the video game. It’s the scene that everybody talks about. So, I understood the pressure. I understood the importance. But at the same time, I also didn’t let that contaminate my brain. I wanted to really just remain present and do the best that I could, on any given day that I was walking onto set. I did my best, each day, to deliver something that felt real.

Image via HBO

Obviously, you’re an actor playing a character, and so is your scene partner, who’s playing Sam. But when you have a relationship and a bond like they have, and then things end for them the way that they do, did that emotionally affect you and make an emotional impact on you, that you weren’t expecting?

JOHNSON: Yeah, absolutely. When Ellie and Sam were shooting the scene in the room, Jeremy Webb, the director of episodes four and five, and I were watching on the monitor, and we were both crying. So, yes, of course, it emotionally affects you, absolutely, because of the relationship that you build, but also with the writing and the circumstance. It’s just sad. Even if I wasn’t playing Henry, it’s sad. That moment really hits hard. Right before it, Joel is like, “Hey, we’re just going to Wyoming. What are you doing after this? Do you wanna join?” There’s that hope where you’re like, “Wow, okay, great, I’m gonna see these guys even more. They’re gonna go along the journey with them. We’ll get to know more about them. We’ll get to see them more.” And then, for it to end the way it did, it’s just very jarring.

There are several of those moments of hope, back-to-back, in Episode 5. There’s the moment when Sam is sitting there and you think maybe he isn’t really infected. And then, there’s the moment before Henry kills himself, and you think maybe he’ll stick with Joel and Ellie. All of that just makes it so heartbreaking to watch.

JOHNSON: Yeah, it’s quite heartbreaking. But I think the biggest heartbreak of this episode is right at the end when Ellie drops [the writing pad], after she writes, “I’m sorry.” That, for me, took me out. I was already very emotional, but that moment took me out. The credits were rolling and there was a really sad song, and I was just a mess.

There’s something so interesting about Kathleen’s story and the way that it’s woven into Henry and Sam’s story. We all love Melanie Lynskey, as a person, so it’s hard to see her do the things she does in this show and behave the way she does. What was it like to work with her? What do you think she added to your performance?

JOHNSON: Working with Melanie was amazing. She’s just so talented, and everybody knows this, so to be able to witness her interpretation of this Kathleen character, the way she played it was so specific. I think she did such a great job that I really feared her, as Kathleen, especially in that moment with the car. That was a scary moment. It was very scary, especially with the fire going on, and she did a fantastic job. I’m extremely honored and grateful to have worked with her, and Pedro [Pascal], and these amazing people. I thought she brought a lot of great choices to her character, which in turn helped my performance. Whenever I was opposite of her or doing whatever it was that we were doing, as Kathleen and Henry, I really felt that. She played it in a way that you wouldn’t think is intimidating, but how she delivered it was very menacing. I really love the choices that she made, and it really heightened those moments for me.

Image via HBO

Yeah, it really gives the sense of nobody truly being a villain, but that everybody is the hero of their own story. We can understand why Kathleen is doing what she’s doing and what her motivations are, and while we love Henry and Sam and don’t want her to hurt them, you can still see how she’s a hero to her people, while Henry is a hero to Sam.

JOHNSON: Yeah. The great thing about The Last of Us is that it’s a human story. I really love that we’re leaning into the human nature of things this season, especially on television. Even the character in the last episode that tried to kill Joel, and then Ellie shot him, he was like, “Wait! My mom!” It’s really showing humans being organically and naturally human. Of course, sometimes we may make bad decisions, but they’re just decisions. They don’t define who we are. I love that it makes you question these things. The person who, in any other scenario, would be considered the bad person, we still get some backstory on them that makes me feel bad for that person. I know I should hate them, but I don’t hate them because of that. I just love what they’re doing there because it’s all perception.

The Last of Us airs on HBO and is available to stream at HBO Max.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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