“The scene doesn’t work because of me, but in spite of me” – this was the phrase voice actor Troy Baker said during his interview for the documentary Grounded: The Making of The Last of Us, when talking about his process playing Joel during the gut-wrenching scene that caps off the game’s intro. It’s a phrase that has stayed with me as an actor for nearly a decade, and one that I find myself repeating in my mind when struggling to connect with a moment in a scene. It’s a reminder to let go of one’s ego, especially that of an actor, and to allow the moment to simply ‘be.’

Baker mentioned how narrative director, Neil Druckmann, had them do multiple takes of that harrowing scene, though even after numerous takes he still wasn’t quite satisfied; a frustrating and exhausting experience for an actor having to do a scene as emotionally weighty as that one. Eventually, during a re-shoot of the scene weeks later, Druckmann came to Baker and told him to “strip yourself of all these ideas…and hit this beat, then this beat, then this beat.” Baker, understandably confused, felt the note was far too “mechanical,” though it wasn’t until afterwards that he understood what Druckmann was trying to get him to achieve. A genuine vulnerability that comes not in the way of showboating one’s talents as a performer, but in allowing oneself to submit to the actual moment—and not the manufactured one conceptualized in the mind.

Troy Baker would go on to give one of, if not the greatest performance of his career, and one that would be adored by tens of millions across the globe. So when it was announced that Pedro Pascal would be the one to dawn the dirty denim shirt of our beloved grumpy middle-aged anti-hero, expectations were cautiously high. Pascal, whose breakthrough role as Oberyn Martell on HBO’s Game of Thrones made him a household name in mainstream television, has continued to be a regular on high profile shows such as Netflix’ Narcos, and most notably Disney+’s The Mandalorian.

The reaction to his casting was, at least from my vantage point, more-or-less positive. It may not have been most obvious choice, given the gritty southern archetype of Joel’s character, but one that I was eager to see play out. Though my disdain for any Marvel or Disney properties in recent years is well known amongst friends, I will happily admit that Pascal’s performance as The Mandalorian was truly captivating, and was the sole reason for my continued interest in the show. Having skipped Narcos altogether, and only being familiar with his fiery and passionate performance as Oberyn, I was intrigued when seeing him play such a stoic, mono-syllabic character such as The Mandalorian.

The Mandalorian

What truly inspired me was his ability to convey the minute shifts in his character’s emotions, all the while having to wear a helmet that erased all facial features; doing so through simple gestures and tonal shifts in his voice. It was riveting to watch Pedro Pascal never losing a beat, wasting a single movement, or taking an unnecessary breath. Every choice he made as an actor was both grounded and purposeful, while always serving the story without over-indulging in a moment—of which he had multiple opportunities to do so, especially at the end of season two. It’s the type of stuff you only see with traditionally trained theatre actors (especially those willing to forego their egos); a practice and study that’s been unfortunately lost in recent years, particularly with actors in modern film and television here in the West.

Pedro Pascal exudes a warmth that’s palpable. His voice carries with it such a subtle tremor, a resonance, that it’s almost immediately endearing. And it’s this warmth that worked so well for The Mandalorian, making us as audience members willing to root for a stoic character that could very well have been unlikeable. Yet, it’s this very trait that had me concerned after watching the first couple episodes of HBO’s The Last of Us. You see, Troy Baker’s Joel was my Joel. And, if I may speak for the rest of us who played the game, he was our Joel.

Joel and Ellie The Last of Us

A Joel who, twenty years after experiencing one of the worst things a human could experience, had become a hardened, spiteful, shell of an old man. A man who no longer flinched while taking the lives of others. Lives that we as players had to take while controlling him as a character. It wasn’t easy, to say the least, and as a player I often didn’t agree with Joel’s actions, up until the very end. But it’s in knowing his past, playing in the shoes of his daughter Sarah in the beginning, and seeing his relationship evolve with Ellie that I rooted for him as a character, even if I never necessarily got around to truly ‘liking’ him as a person. That hardened shell never really gave way, and the low timbre of Troy Baker’s voice never truly cracked. Joel was always sturdy, even when he wasn’t.

When watching Joel in the hands of Pedro Pascal, I saw many of the things that I had expected from the character, but some that I didn’t. Joel now spoke with a slight tremor in a voice that came out from a higher register, he had a slump in his shoulders while walking, and his overall harsh exterior seemed to have been sanded down to an almost approachable softness. He was still Joel, with his grumpy old man one-liners and his ability to gun down a fellow human with ease—though possibly with a bit more internal struggle this time around.

The Last of Us Pedro Pascal Joel


There was a warmth to his character, a kindness almost, that felt unrecognizable. A kindness that wasn’t overt, but quiet as Pascal’s Joel seemed to say even less than Baker’s. None of this is to say that Baker’s Joel didn’t have warmth, far from it; but much like Shrek’s onion, that warmth was rooted in the very centre compared to Pascal’s, which seemed to teeter closer to the surface. It was somewhat off-putting as a fan of the game and of the character.

It reached a point where I told my wife after finishing the second episode that I felt Pascal was “too nice to play Joel.” In response she said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “well, in a game you’re having to take the role as Joel, so his actions are your actions. There’s an immersion when playing a game that binds your self, your persona, to the character. You don’t have that in film and television. There’s a detachment, and so the warmth that Pedro Pascal brings is easier to connect to as an audience member. You need that for a character like this, as it makes his less agreeable actions more striking when they occur. You’re more compelled to root for him from the beginning because of Pascal’s approach, and are hurt when he falters. It humanizes him.” Though logically I understood what she was saying, I wasn’t sure if I agreed with it; mainly because my idea of Joel was that of the one constructed by Naughty Dog, and in my mind could only ever be that.

The Last of Us Pedro Pascal Joel 2

It wasn’t until Episode 6 when Joel reunited with his brother, Tommy, that I realized what my wife was saying; and understood why Pascal’s performance was truly brilliant. In the episode Joel has a moment where we see him have what looks to be an anxiety attack after seeing a young woman that reminded him of his daughter. A few scenes later we see him open up to his brother about the one inescapable fact that he’s been trying to run from: that he’s scared.

This scene would have never happened in the video game. Baker’s Joel wouldn’t, or rather (in his mind) couldn’t, reveal something like that. It was too dangerous. But Druckmann alongside co-writer Craig Mazin decided to add this interesting layer to Joel’s character, and to my surprise it works; and Pedro Pascal’s performance is what makes it work. It’s here that I realized – after rewatching the previous episodes – that this scene, this moment, didn’t exist in a vacuum. This wasn’t a cathartic emotional breakdown of a hardened old man, but rather something that’s always been there; a vulnerability that has existed from the very beginning, but one that we could really only ‘feel’ through Pascal’s tender restraint as a performer. A restraint that never showed more than what was needed, but enough for us to feel this character’s pain and fear; a fear that’s been persistent throughout every episode, whether it be in the quick looks he gives Ellie, or with subtle wordless reactions.

Pedro Pascal as Joel - The Last Of Us.

Pascal is able to find the vulnerability of Joel in a way that I never knew existed. And he finds this vulnerability not necessarily in the words of Joel, but in the quieter moments of simply ‘living’ as the character, both physically and emotionally. Troy Baker recently said in an interview with Entertainment Tonight that Pedro Pascal taught him something about Joel as a character. Though he didn’t reveal what that something was, I can relate to the feeling of having learnt something from Pascal’s performance. A performance of a character that I arrogantly felt I already knew everything about, but now realize has so much more story to tell.

What do you think of Pascal’s performance in The Last of Us? Let us know in the comments below. Be sure to keep your eyes on GameLuster for more gaming news, as well as more feature pieces like this one.

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