Download: Storm Reid on Creating an Entire Character Arc in a Single Episode of HBO's 'The Last of Us'
Despite being just 19 years of age, Storm Reid has already built a distinctive resume since her first on screen credit in 2012. Over the last decade, Storm has appeared in such memorable projects as 12 Years A Slave, A Wrinkle in Time, When They See Us, and The Invisible Man. When Storm was asked to do a single episode of The Last of Us, she was faced with the unenviable task of creating an entire character arc (and a relationship with Bella Ramsey’s Ellie) over the running time of a single episode. Even with those inherent challenges, Reid and Bella Ramsey were able to fulfill their mission of making a fulsome relationship and arc in what felt like a one-episode mini-movie.
Awards Daily: I just wanted to mention, you caught my eye in When They See Us and in 12 Years a Slave, and I’m impressed because obviously you’re a young actor and you are clearly building a high quality resume here. And then I saw you pop in in The Last of Us and I just thought to myself gosh, they are really pulling in some amazing talent for single episodes, because there’s a number of fancy people who only do one episode on the show. How did they lure you in?
Storm Reid: They sent me the pages and I was very intrigued from the beginning. I thought it was a cool, interesting idea. I was a little confused because I wasn’t familiar with the game, so I was like, what is happening? Who are these people, what is FEDRA, what are the Fireflies? But once I got on the phone with (show creator) Craig Mazin and Liza, who was the director for the episode, and the entire creative team, they shared their vision with me for Riley. I was sold, and I knew that we would create something beautiful from that moment when I was talking to them on Zoom.
Awards Daily: Not being a gamer myself, I actually got through the first episode before I even learned that it was based on a video game. In the history of film and TV adaptations of video games, let’s face it, a lot of them don’t turn out great. This obviously being a very story based video game, I think they had a stronger foundation. Once you became aware of that, did it give you any pause? One, because it was based on a video game and two, because the zombie genre seems to be amazingly resilient, but yet it has been done a lot. Did you ever think at any point, I’m doing a video game zombie thing?
Storm Reid: Of course, the thought crossed my mind, but I really could tell from the script that I wasn’t doing the typical zombie TV show or the typical zombie adaptation. It really never felt like zombies to me. It felt more post-apocalyptic and I consider the infected to be more infected than zombies. So, I never really had a hard time getting over the hump of oh, this is gonna be just another zombie video game. Or, oh, this is gonna be another zombie video show. Because it sets itself apart I think, in many ways.
Awards Daily: I think the main way that I found it set itself apart was just how remarkably character driven it is.
Storm Reid: Absolutely. I think that’s why I fell in love with it. I fell in love with it because there were these beautiful stories and these humans that are dealing with these unfortunate circumstances. And they’re having to deal with real life and deal with everyday problems. I think Craig and the entire team depicted each story arc and each character so beautifully, and to be a part of that is an honor.
Awards Daily: You have only one episode to build a whole character and a relationship. Did that seem daunting to have to step into those shoes and try to make that strong of an impression?
Storm Reid: It was a little daunting because I always find it a little scary when you are recreating something that has already been created and especially when people love it, and people love The Last of Us. Specifically, people love Ellie and Riley’s friendship and relationship in the game. That was a little daunting. I’m like, oh, we have to recreate the feeling of a friendship. We come into the episode and I’m crawling through the window and it can seem like this is our first introduction, but these are best friends. These people have lived together. They share a room, or they used to share a room. So there was a lot of history and a lot of layers that we had to cover. Without even covering them in the scene or in the episode in its entirety. So that was a little challenging, but being able to work with Bella and build a rapport and a bond with her, it wasn’t hard. I think as our relationship was developing and our friendship was developing on set, so was Ellie and Riley’s.
Awards Daily: That’s a really good point because the backstory is more referred to than shown. You pop in, it’s like being dropped in, almost. How many days did you spend on set?
Storm Reid: I was in Calgary for about a month. For that month I was on set. I don’t think I had many days off. I don’t remember the exact day, but I didn’t have many days off during that month.
Awards Daily: That’s great though, because you had a significant amount of time then. You weren’t dropping in for a week, which could be tougher. Tell me about building your relationship with Bella, between her and Riley.
Storm Reid: Yeah. Spending every day with someone, you’re kind of forced to interact. But obviously we weren’t forced. I enjoyed every minute of it. I think Bella is not only an incredible talent, but they are an incredible human and they care about what they’re doing, but they also care about just building bonds and having rapport outside of this crazy entertainment industry. So I think that is where Bella and I are similar and we hit it off as soon as we met each other. I think it helped that we are at similar ages. Even though we come from two different places in the world, we’re still young people growing up in the world. I think the authenticity of us being young people and meeting each other and growing up in this crazy world, and then growing up in Hollywood really helped inform our relationship and our bond.
Awards Daily: As a person who snuck out of the house in high school late at night, it makes it very easy to relate to. In the world that the characters are taking place in, obviously things are, like you said, post-apocalyptic and very dire. But sneaking out and having an adventure is something that I think a lot of young people can relate to. For that brief span of time, you guys are on your own, you’re together, and there’s no grownups. There’s no one to tell you what to do, and you’re just doing your thing. I think that probably really resonated with a lot of people when they were watching. Did you think, oh, if you take away the supernatural aspects and all of that, that this is just something people can relate to, that young people do.
Storm Reid: Absolutely. I think that the show is very real in that way and I think that’s why it separates itself from shows similar to this or just shows in general because there is so much care for the character, and their story, and their character arcs. Not that everything else is subsidiary, or second to the characters, but I think it’s the characters in the world in which they’re living, in The Last of Us, I think it’s a lead among equals. All the characters, but specifically Riley and Ellie, are very real and they have real situations that they are in and things they want to do, that they want to try. That’s what is so beautiful about Riley because yes, she is very cognizant of what’s going on in the world or the world that she’s living in, but she’s still a kid and she remembers that. And she wants to be a kid. She doesn’t want this world or the world that they’re living in to force her to be something different. She has had to grow up a lot faster than other kids. She and Ellie have had to do that. So the innocence that she can hold onto, I think she grasps that for dear life. The drinking, and the laughing at the dead guy in the hallway, and all the things which I think kids would actually have real feelings or emotions to, I think that was depicted.
Awards Daily: I think what also is interesting is that your character is a younger person but reaching that age where you start to have that desire for purpose, which explains her interest in joining the Fireflies. How did you see Riley’s motivation to join the Fireflies versus to stay with Bella where she was?
Storm Reid: I think the motivation for Riley was just the sense of belonging. Like she said, she knows what it feels like to have people who love and support her, and to ultimately have a family. For that to be taken away from you is hard. And of course Ellie is somebody that she loves and that she considers family, but she wants to belong somewhere. She wants to feel like people love her. I think that was her ultimate decision. Even though it was a hard one, it was one that she felt like she had to make for herself. Not only does she love Ellie, but we get the sense that Riley loves herself. So it was a sacrifice that she had to make, but not one that she regrets. And one that I think ultimately Ellie knows, was best for Riley as well.
Awards Daily: I was thinking about the mall scene, where a lot of your episode takes place, and I recall there was an episode of Stranger Things where they depicted a mall, and it was really well done. Malls, while they still exist, they don’t exist in the same way that they used to. I won’t go as far as to say that malls are dying, but they certainly don’t exist in the way that they did once upon a time. I think it’s a really good motif for the sort of dilapidating nature of the culture. For Ellie and you, because you never really experienced malls because of what happened with the infected, it’s like this strange little rundown amusement park. There’s even a carousel in it, and that sequence is just lovely.
Storm Reid: Riley knew that Ellie would be mad at her for leaving, so this is a way to win her friend back. But she knows everything that Ellie would love and find so interesting. I think it’s well thought out, very intentional, very planned out, but I think it isn’t a ploy to be flirtatious or romantic. It’s them being authentic and them living in the moment and them realizing what their circumstances are, but not taking life for granted because they still have life and that is rare from where they are and where they have grown up and what they have seen. For Riley, it’s just let’s just go have fun. Let’s forget all of the Fireflies, the FEDRA beef. Let’s forget about me leaving for a little bit. Let’s just go experience normal fun things that people used to experience and then that leads to the kiss and the Halloween masks and the fighting and all of the things that make the episode so beautiful and so poetic. It’s just because they’re being children and they’re being kids and they’re trying to figure it out.
Awards Daily: You alluded to where I want to go next which is how much happens in this episode. First you come back and Ellie’s got this mixture of anger because you went away in the first place, and then joy that you’re back. Then the two of you go on this adventure and then you tell her that it’s going to be a goodbye. It’s not entirely obvious that Ellie has romantic feelings for you at first, but when the kiss happens, it seems absolutely like the thing that would happen. Were you worried at all that that might feel forced? Because, like I said, you’re so compacted in your episode.
Storm Reid: I was worried that it might feel forced, but not in the way in which the script goes. I just didn’t want it to feel oversexual. In a different world if you didn’t have the incredible Craig Mazin and Neil and everybody involved in the show, it could have been too grown or too sexual. I think our approach was like, yes, they have these feelings for each other, but it’s gentle and it’s discovery and it’s very nuanced. They’re really just sorting through these feelings in the moment, which makes it even more heartbreaking because they’re right there in the pinnacle of their friendship and relationship to where they’re figuring it out. For that to be rudely interrupted was a devastating gut punch. But I do love how the kiss, and just throughout the entire episode their flirtiness or a little bit of the romantic stuff, was just gently placed in there. It wasn’t ever too much. We were trying to get across that they might like each other.
Awards Daily: It was sneaky in the best way. I think because you’re saying goodbye to Ellie, is what in part gives her the courage to come forward like that. Then, you change your mind. She says don’t go. And then you say, okay. And then at this moment that should be celebratory, is when an infected shows up and turns everything upside down. So in the arc of this episode, you go from returning to leaving, to staying to dying. It’s like a whole lifespan, it seems, of emotions in just this little space. For you, were you thinking gosh, this is so much to try to manage in this space and would we be able to have it land emotionally effectively?
Storm Reid: Yeah, I was worried that we were trying to cover a lot in a little, what was it 45 minutes-40 minutes, where we are having to lay a lot of ground. But again, when I would get a little nervous, or when I was nervous before filming, I’d think about how Craig and Neil and everybody involved has thought through every scenario because they love the game and they played the game. They thought of every scenario to where things would work and things wouldn’t work. So when I got on set, we had the plan to make it work. It was just up to Bella and I to figure that out and depict that beautifully and poetically. But I think we couldn’t have done it without them and their guidance and their collaboration. Ultimately, even though I was a little worried how it would come out or that we weren’t spending enough time on certain things or we were spending too much time on other things, it played out beautifully.
Awards Daily: I think this is one of the lovely surprises about the show. You have episode three, which is with Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, which because they’re adults plays on a different level, and you have episode seven with you and Bella—Riley and Ellie. The show has transcended what I think people thought it could be, and it speaks to a larger group of people and has resonated with the LGBTQ community because of these really thoughtful depictions of folks in both the episodes. Does that give you a good feeling, to know that anybody can watch this show and enjoy it, but it also speaks to folks who maybe wouldn’t think that there would be something like this in there for them?
Storm Reid: Oh, absolutely. There’s a moment that I think about and it makes me really happy and a little emotional. I was sitting in the car with one of my best friends and we were just talking about how excited we were for the episode to come out. And she starts getting emotional and crying and I was like, oh no what’s happening? And she was like, I’m just so excited to see you portray Riley because I will be able to see myself on screen, I’ll be able to see a young queer woman experience life, a young queer black woman experience life. So those are the moments that I live for and the moments why I really love acting, because we’re connecting with people and we are representing their situations. I think it is beyond important for everybody to be able to look at some piece of media and feel represented and feel seen and feel heard. To be able to do that with this big expansive world from, like you said, episode three and episode seven, and all the other episodes where issues are being talked about and things are being uncovered. I think it’s important. And I’m so glad to be a part of that, to feel those emotions and really feel as though my work is being appreciated and it’s being received.
Awards Daily: Anytime you commit to it, whether it’s a film or a television show, everybody wants it to turn out great, but you never know until you see it. Not only did this get really well reviewed, but massively seen. It’s one of those shows that creates a lot of buzz. Like you said, it separates itself from something like The Walking Dead. I enjoy that show, so I’m not trying to say anything bad about it, but it goes in a different direction. I can only imagine, when you signed up for a single episode of a new show that no one has seen before and you’re filming it and then all of a sudden it blows up like this and then what happens is your one episode becomes much bigger because it’s so widely seen. What is it like to get connected to the success of something that’s on the phenomenon scale?
Storm Reid: It’s quite interesting. I never go into anything thinking that it’s going to be something or thinking that it’s not gonna be something. I go into everything with no expectations, but I’ve been fortunate enough to be on two of the most watched TV shows in a really, really, really long time. And it’s just really cool. It’s really cool to be able to connect with different audiences and tell stories. Storytelling is just something that I love and to be able to connect with audiences and people from all different walks of life. I know a lot of people watch Euphoria and maybe not the same audience will watch The Last of Us, or did watch The Last of Us and vice versa, but that’s what is beautiful about art. People know me as two different characters in two different situations or circumstances and two different time periods. I think it’s just really cool that I get to do what I do and I get to connect to so many people, and people are moved by the things that I’m a part of, which happened to be the cultural phenomenon that is Euphoria and that is The Last of Us.