In the universally lauded Episode 3 of HBO Go’s nine-part dystopian drama series “The Last of Us,” the poignant same-sex romance that blossoms between Murray Bartlett and Nick Offerman’s respective characters, Frank and Bill, and their struggle to endure postapocalyptic challenges fuels much of the hourlong story.
But while danger constantly looms over the two postpandemic survivalists living alone in an isolated town 10 miles west of Boston, how Frank and Bill manage to evade ravenous fungus-driven zombies for about two decades was the least of our worries when we spoke to Murray and Nick recently to discuss their participation in the critically acclaimed series.
We had so much fun just listening to Nick’s horror-leavening jokes and laugh-out-loud wisecracks, which sometimes poked fun at us or his handsome costar’s “enviable bone structure.”
Despite a premise that seems to have rolled off the assembly line, “The Last of Us,” which is based on the hugely popular 2013 video game from Naughty Dog, is binge-worthy TV about a world that’s been brought to its knees by a mutating fungus. It currently boasts a 97-percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
As it shuttles from one episode to the next with intimations of deeper issues, the series provides as much excitement as real-world pathos with episodes that never punch below their weight.
At the heart of the show’s cautionary tale is hardened survivor Joel (Pedro Pascal), who’s tasked to smuggle defiant 14-year-old Ellie out of a closely guarded quarantine zone. Ellie isn’t just any ordinary teen—in fact, she could be humanity’s last hope for survival because she’s been found to be immune to the Cordyceps infection responsible for the destruction of modern civilization in 2003.
In last Monday’s bittersweet episode (“Long Long Time”), the thespic spotlight was on Murray and Nick, who are no slouches at acting.
The former won an Emmy last year for his portrayal of the gay resort manager Armond in HBO’s “The White Lotus,” while Nick (“Making It”), who’s married to comedienne Megan Mullally, is a two-time Emmy nominee.
Some reviewers describe Nick and Murray’s performances in the series as “career-best,” with good reason—and we couldn’t agree more!
Asked to weigh in on his undeniable onscreen chemistry with Murray, Nick said that he found the question hard to answer objectively.
“We didn’t just have a great script, but a great director [for our episode] as well,” he asserted. “Peter Hoar did an incredible job of creating an atmosphere that allowed Murray and me to feel safe to be vulnerable with each other.
“You know, we’re just a couple of song-and-dance jerks (laughs) who were lucky enough to arrive at this show, get the script, and say, ‘Yeah, let’s just tacitly agree to go for it and try to do as good of a job as we can,’ in collaboration with the dozens of people in the production’s different departments who were killing it. As an actor, you sometimes get lucky when all the pistons are fired at the same time.
“But the seed that you’re talking about—from both the game and the show itself—stems from our human fascination with the fact that, regardless of what’s going on, we still have the natural wisdom to grow some strawberries (as the couple does in the show), both literally and figuratively—and that’s just beautiful.
“In the middle of this war-torn city, you suddenly see a flower poke up through the rubble. That will make anybody shed a tear, unless you’re a heartless bastard like [the character of] Pedro Pascal (laughs)!”
For his part, Murray said that one of the great things about the game and the show is how hope plays out in the larger scheme of things.
He explained, “It’s like one of those key phrases that we hold on to when we’re lost in the darkness—”look for the light”—and we all knew that, with an extraordinary script, this episode somehow manages to get to the heart of that. That there can indeed be hope in anything that seems hopeless… and that there’s always the possibility of finding connection, even in the darkest and direst of situations.
“There was extraordinary reverence to the story from all departments on this show. For this episode, everybody came into it almost tiptoeing on the verge of big emotions. There was already magic in it before we even stepped on board, because this episode seemed to really connect with the essence and soul of the show. Everybody was so meticulous in honoring that delicate hopefulness in this episode.
“Then, there’s the good fortune of being with another actor who’s willing to go to those places of vulnerability with me, so that we could jointly honor the beautiful thing that had been put in front of us. All of that made the whole shoot a reverential and joyful experience to dive into.”
Was playing the video game part of their research and preparation for characterization?
“I did not play the game, but when this job came to me, I felt like I should play the game. But there just wasn’t a ton of time to do that,” Murray admitted. “So, I relied on [show creators] Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, as well as this gorgeous script, for guidance. And I have great friends who are gamers, who filled me in on what I should know about why people love this game so deeply.”
Chiming in, Nick said, “As for me, I started to play the game—and didn’t care for it (laughs). Because I don’t really play video games. I gave up playing more than 20 years ago because I have an indulgent personality, and I knew I would lose so much of my life if I pursued it.
“I wanted to go outside, see the sun and hear the birds. And I agree with Murray that we are the beneficiaries of this incredible script that didn’t require knowledge of the game. And so, I will continue to walk outside among the leaves (laughs).”
Our Q&A with Murray and Nick:
Gamers can be quite outspoken and demanding when it comes to TV or movie adaptations. Didn’t the possibility of getting on their bad side worry you?
Nick: It’s generally known that gamers are a particularly passionate fan group. We are lucky enough to work on lots of things that are based on works of fiction, true stories, video games or what have you.
Whether you like it or not, you’re always going to piss somebody off. There’s a great Bertolt Brecht quote that I’ll clumsily paraphrase, saying, “If you’re not pissing off 30 percent of your audience, then it’s not art.”
Anybody who makes anything like this, they’re going to take the original material and, in this show’s case, the actual creator (Druckmann) is one of the adapters. So, you don’t get much better credit than that. But you have to understand, they’re going to do it with love.
You know, the finale of “Game of Thrones” was incredibly divisive. You have to understand that these people did their darndest best to give us a beautiful ending. Some people found it satisfying, some people didn’t. Still, it’s all human effort.
So, I hope the gamers will understand that this is made with love and reverence. If you don’t like it, that’s going to happen. I could make you a sandwich that nine of you would love, but one of you would not think that mustard should go with pickles!
Murray: (Laughs) Yeah, I spoke to Craig and Neil about this, so I know how much they love this game. They went about creating this show with such reverence for the game and respect for its audience.
Your episode is one of the best this season. In it, we see how Bill and Frank’s relationship develops and ends. But all these snippets and “highlights” happen over a period of about two decades, so we don’t really know everything that happens in between. Would you be open to a spinoff of the show with the focus on your characters?
Nick: Yes… you can stop right there. You’re darn right that we can imagine a spinoff from this episode. We’ve done nothing but imagine visions and versions of a spinoff, prequels, epilogues. Yeah, we can start a family through quantum physics, begin a multiverse, a separate timeline—you name it!
Murray: (Laughs) Yeah… and we can have action figures, too.
Nick: I mean, it would be wonderful to see stuff getting fleshed out … a lot of the dynamics that we skipped across because their story happens over 20-some years. So, yeah, I’d say five 10-episode seasons should probably cover it. But we should hear a clamor for it.
Murray: It’s amazing because this episode really covers a vast chunk of time in these two people’s lives. So, it’s really special seeing this relationship from the very beginning and how their connection develops over time.
The episode plays out very much like a film in that way. It feels complete having to see it from beginning to end. It allows you to see the full flowering of their relationship, but so much could have happened in those years. So, yeah, it would be great to go back and fill in all those blank spaces.
Because of your chemistry, what you were able to convey with just one episode is nothing short of phenomenal. Did you try out for the roles individually, or did you have to do a screen test together to decipher if that chemistry was there or not?
Murray: Well, we relied on Craig’s great instincts. We auditioned separately, so there was no chemistry read or anything. But I guess our chemistry was undeniable, right?
Nick: I mean, they did ask me to go on tape looking at a photograph of Murray as they zoomed in on my eyes (laughs)! Oh, we joke, but it became a problem at times. Some of the days ran long because the director would call action and nothing would happen inexplicably.
Then, we’d look around and we’d catch most of the crew just staring at Murray, dumbfounded at his bone structure! And we had to snap our fingers and say, “People… focus!”
Murray: (Laughs) That’s funny, but I remember it the other way around. Seriously, we were very fortunate that it worked out.
Nick is an extraordinary actor who was so beautifully cast in this role. He was very much willing to jump into this in such a wholehearted way, as was I. So, we met each other at that point. That’s what makes it extraordinary. INQ
Catch new episodes of “The Last of Us” every Monday on HBO Go.