Merle Dandridge on the Changes to Marlene in the Series

Dandridge also describes having to wear a wig for the first time.

It’s hard to believe that we’re just a few short weeks from The Last of Us’ premiere. Based on the popular video game franchise of the same name, the series is set to be one of the most authentic adaptations the gaming industry has ever seen. From the screen-accurate costumes to the direction to the performances, The Last of Us already completely feels like the games that inspired it. However, this series also carries over a key casting choice in Merle Dandridge’s Marlene. In a recent sit down with Collider’s own Christina Radish, Dandridge discussed returning to the franchise and if there were any differences in her approach when bringing the character to live-action.


Other than the obvious lack of motion capture, Dandridge says, “There was a lot of building on what I had done because the core knowledge of who this person stays the same, but how she works and acts and interacts with all of that might adjust a little bit, especially working opposite people looking at those characters through a new lens.” Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey take over the main roles of Joel and Ellie for Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson respectively in this series. That in itself was a whole different experience for the actress.

“Bella and Pedro’s Ellie and Joel have a different twinkle than Ashley [Johnson] and Troy [Baker]. It was an absolute privilege to be able to open my eyes, open my spirit, and let Marlene experience and breathe them in, in a new way,” Dandridge explains. She goes on to also describe her conversations with showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann about wearing a wig for the first time:

“I was able to walk out scenarios in her life and her experience that had only existed in my imagination, having built the character 10 years ago, and that was a true delight. Practically, I’d never worn a wig on camera. We had a couple of conversations about that. I remember the first time I put it on, I had so many questions, and Craig was right there with me. He was like, ‘This is what I like about this, and this is what I think we can adjust,’ and he was FaceTiming with Neil, the entire time, so that we were all in this conversation, and we were all collaborating, making sure we got it right.”

Image via HBO

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The Last of Us has so many essential characters, but in terms of antagonists, Marlene is arguably the most important. She’s the one that set off Joel and Ellie’s original quest after all. As the leader of the Fireflies, a radical faction trying to put an end to the Cordyceps virus, Marlene hires Joel and Tess to take Ellie to a drop-off point in Boston after Marlene was shot. Unbeknownst to the pair of mercenaries at the time Ellie was bitten by an infected, but never turned. She’s the key to a vaccine for the virus. However, nothing goes to plan as Joel ends up having to reluctantly take Ellie to the Fireflies base in Salt Lake City.

Marlene’s Importance in The Last of Us

Marlene in the games is such a rich and complex character whose intentions are good, but her execution is morally flawed, to say the least. It’s a character that could have easily come off as one note, but Dandridge brought so much understandable weighty humanity to the role in the games. She is part of one of the most jaw-dropping twists/endings the gaming world has ever seen. For all those reasons it’s going to be exciting to see Dandridge return to the role in live-action. While Baker and Johnson are a part of the series as well, Dandridge is the only actor returning to their original role. With the deep connections Marlene has to The Larger Last of Us universe, including her relationship with Ellie’s mother that we never saw play out in the games, fans are dying to know what this adaptation will add to this rich antagonist’s narrative.

The Last of Us games were more than just another mindless zombie experience. Through its two games so far it has been a brilliant exploration of the tragic human condition, how we process grief, and how we desperately try to search for the light in immense darkness. That all starts with Marlene and Dandridge’s breathtaking performance.

Fans don’t have to wait long for Dandridge to return to her iconic role as The Last of Us debuts on HBO on Sunday, January 15. Until then, you can watch the latest trailer featuring Marlene down below.

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