How to Get Cast on HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’

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Photo Source: Courtesy HBO

When video game developer Naughty Dog and Sony Interactive Entertainment launched “The Last of Us” for PlayStation, few could have predicted that, 10 years later, it would become one of the biggest television shows of 2023. Adapted from the post-apocalyptic video game, the HBO series takes place in a United States ravaged by a fungal infection that turns people into flesh-eating mutants.

“The Last of Us” is now HBO’s second-largest debut since 2010—rivaled only by 2022’s “Game of Thrones” prequel series, “House of the Dragon”—and it’s developed a loyal following that reaches far beyond the video game’s fandom. Viewers anxiously await the characters’ not-so-secret fates ahead of the second season’s projected 2025 premiere. 

If you’re interested in joining Season 2 of “The Last of Us,” we’ve got you covered. This in-depth guide will give you all the tools you’ll need to fight your way through the casting process—so you won’t get eaten alive.

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What is “The Last of Us” about?

Based on Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley’s hit 2013 video game, the TV series was created by Druckmann and Emmy winner Craig Mazin, the creator of HBO’s limited series “Chernobyl.” Set 20 years after the Cordyceps plague turned much of the U.S. population into cannibalistic, zombie-like mutants, the series follows Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), a smuggler tasked with escorting the teenage Ellie Williams (Bella Ramsey) across post-apocalyptic America, as she might hold the key to developing a cure to the brain infection. (Incidentally, Pascal, also the lead of Disney+’s “The Mandalorian,” and Ramsey, who had a breakout turn in Lena Dunham’s “Catherine Called Birdy,” are both veterans of “Game of Thrones.”)

Together with Joel’s brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna), and his smuggling partner, Tess (Anna Torv), our heroes must battle killers and cannibals as they trek across the barren landscape. But as Joel and Ellie approach their destination, echoes of the smuggler’s past prompt him to do  whatever he must to save the girl who’s become a daughter figure.

Who’s in the cast?

Season 1’s ensemble features a host of well-known names, including:

  • Pedro Pascal as Joel Miller
  • Bella Ramsey as Ellie Williams
  • Gabriel Luna as Tommy Miller
  • Nico Parker as Sarah Miller
  • Merle Dandridge as Marlene
  • Jeffrey Pierce as Perry
  • Anna Torv as Theresa “Tess” Servopoulos
  • Murray Bartlett as Frank
  • Nick Offerman as Bill
  • Melanie Lynskey as Kathleen Coghlan
  • Lamar Johnson as Henry Burrell
  • Keivonn Woodard as Sam Burrell
  • Storm Reid as Riley Abel
  • Rutina Wesley as Maria Miller 

Joel and Ellie’s voice actors from the video game also appear in small roles during Season 1—Troy Baker plays James, the second-in-command at a cannibalistic settlement, and Ashley Johnson plays Anna Williams, Ellie’s mother. Jeffrey Wright, who voiced Isaac in the video game, will reprise the character on Season 2, which will also welcome Kaitlyn Dever as Abby Anderson, Young Mazino as Jesse, Isabela Merced as Dina, Danny Ramirez as Manny, Spencer Lord as Owen, and Catherine O’Hara in an undisclosed role.

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Who is the casting director for “The Last of Us”?

Emmy-winning CD Victoria Thomas (“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” “Watchmen,” “Insecure”) led the casting department on Season 1.

With an established following already in place, Thomas knew actors would likely come into the audition with a preconceived notion of who these characters should be—and that was precisely what she didn’t want to see in the room. “We weren’t looking for an imitation thing here,” she told us. “Be prepared and make a choice coming in, but also be open to being able to shift and move if someone says, ‘Try a little bit of this or a little bit of that.’ ”

After all, as she said previously, she likes when people come into the room prepared, but she also fosters a welcoming environment where actors can simply be themselves. “If you’re not [prepared] and you need another minute, that’s fine. You can go out and take another couple of minutes; I understand,” she said. “Sometimes, you come in and your mouth doesn’t work, and you just need to take a break and go outside. But it’s hopefully a relaxed atmosphere where [actors] can do their best audition and feel good going out the door.”

Storm Reid and Bella Ramsey

How were the stars cast?

For Thomas, casting Joel and Ellie, in particular, meant finding actors whom the audience would “want to return to watch every week,” she said. However, Pascal, who was the team’s first choice for Joel, wasn’t originally available—but Thomas “swooped in” when she saw an opening. “He read it over a weekend and was in from the get-go. So we really lucked out there,” she said.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Pascal said “he wanted the part so badly it literally scared him.” However, the actor was concerned that the producers of “The Mandalorian” wouldn’t want him headlining a rival network’s show. Thankfully, they “very generously” allowed Pascal to take the role, he said—and the rest is TV history. As for Ramsey, it only took a month to secure an offer to play Ellie after their initial audition. In the same interview, Druckmann explained that the team was looking for someone who could be “tough and vulnerable and wise beyond [their] years and also have a potential for violence”—and the young actor fit the bill. “Bella felt so real,” he added. “It was like Ellie realized in live action. It didn’t feel like watching an actor.” 

Thomas echoed the sentiment, telling us Ramsey was “fierce,” and adding, “[They were] the right age, young but mature, and [they] came in and did a great reading.”

However, Ramsey was hesitant about the role. The young actor told the Hollywood Reporter, “I seriously considered that maybe I don’t want to be famous, so I’m not going to do this show because it’s going to propel me to a place I don’t want to go to in terms of being seen and being known. I like to blend in and hide.” Luckily for fans, they decided to step into the limelight after all.

Of course, “The Last of Us” would be nothing without its supporting cast, which includes the stars of Season 1, Episode 3, “Long, Long Time,” Nick Offerman (Bill) and Murray Bartlett (Frank). For this emotional episode, Thomas needed to find two actors who could bring the chemistry despite being polar opposites. 

“Casting chemistry is a hard thing to quantify,” Thomas said. “Nick and Murray are…two great actors who are opposites, [and they portray] emotions in different ways. Murray wears it on his sleeve; Nick is a little less wearing it on his sleeve.” And judging by everyone’s sudden desire to stream the titular Linda Ronstadt tune after the episode aired, we’d say casting hit the nail right on the head.

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When does filming for Season 2 begin?

In an article published June 5, Mazin and Druckmann spoke to Deadline about “The Last of Us” Season 2, confirming that filming was already underway. Mazin said, “The first week of shooting on any new season of any show is inherently difficult because you’re getting back to work. You got to shake up the rust a little bit. We’re working with new actors playing new characters; we’re discovering new things, and this week went about as well as I could have imagined.” Pascal also posted some stills of the upcoming season to Instagram on May 15, stoking the fires of anticipation and excitement.

Pedro Pascal

Where can you find casting calls and auditions for “The Last of Us”?

There are no open casting calls for “The Last of Us” Season 2 at the moment. But in February 2022, the series issued a casting notice with Backstage. Production was looking for Black male talent, aged 8–14, to play the role of Sam. Filming took place in Calgary. (Newcomer Keivonn Woodard ultimately landed the part.)

If you’re interested in exploring similar opportunities in the meantime, we recommend checking out these background and streamer gigs that are hiring now. You can also check out our guide on how to audition for HBO. Keep an eye on this page for future casting information.

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What are the best audition tips for landing a role on “The Last of Us”?

Every actor knows the business isn’t always kind. But “Yellowjackets” Emmy nominee Melanie Lynskey, who plays Kathleen Coghlan on “The Last of Us,” says she’d tell her younger self that rejection isn’t a reflection of who you are as an actor—or a person. “I think a piece of advice I would give is: You’re OK,” she told us. “I try to visit my younger self sometimes and just go, ‘I’m sorry. You’re all right. People love you.’ I just felt very much like I wasn’t enough a lot of the time, in regards to my work and in a lot of ways. I didn’t get a lot of positive feedback that I was enough, and it makes me sad, you know? That’s one thing I’m trying to raise my daughter to know—that she’s absolutely perfect just as she is, and she’s very loved. And she’s so confident. The other day I told her she’s cute, and she goes, ‘And smart and funny.’ ”

Torv, who plays Tess, cautions actors to avoid letting their career define their identity. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, she talked about her decision to take a break from acting after five seasons headlining Fox’s supernatural drama “Fringe.” “I love acting—it’s all I have done, and I hope I work until I die; but it doesn’t define me,” she said. “I am myself whether I have a job or whether I don’t have a job. And I’m always astounded to hear that actors who have worked consistently get scared of not getting another job—because it’s like: How are you not going to get another job in your life?”

If you really want an insider’s perspective on how CDs make their picks—and why certain auditioners stand out above the rest—Thomas suggests stepping behind the casting table yourself. “When actors work in a casting office, they learn a lot and are surprised by being on the other side of the camera and watching actors come in. I think they have a better sense of how to come into a room—or that when you’re coming into the room, we want you to be good. We’re not against you,” she told us. “They also have a better sense of why somebody gets picked over someone else, and it doesn’t have to do with a bad audition. Actors who work in a casting office are surprised at what they learn. I think it affects [them] the next time they go into a room to audition themselves.”