Elliot Page, Bella Ramsay and the Last of Us casting controversy that won’t go away
The Last Of Us’s portrayal of a zombie apocalypse ushered in by mind-controlling fungi has mushroomed into the biggest success in prestige television since Game of Thrones. But if it is today the toast of the entertainment industry, the franchise was nearly nipped in the bud a decade ago when on the receiving end of a stinging rebuke by actor Elliot Page.
Page – who came out as a trans man in 2020 – had been struck by the similarity between their appearance and that of The Last Of Us’s plucky teen heroine Ellie in the original Naughty Dog video game.
More than a similarity. In the trailer for The Last Of Us on PlayStation 3, Ellie was a deader ring for the character Page played in 2007 indie comedy Juno. Down to the mirror-pool eyes and freckles. And Page didn’t hesitate in pointing out the resemblance.
"I guess I should be flattered that they ripped off my likeness,” Page said in a 2013 “Ask Me Anything” q&a on website Reddit. “But I am actually acting in a video game called Beyond Two Souls, so it was not appreciated.”
Ellie’s resemblance to Page was widely commented upon when the trailer came out. Indeed, many gamers assumed Page had starred in The Last Of Us and provided the voice of Ellie. To this day you will encounter gamers who think Page is connected in some way to the series.
Naughty Dog, the creator of the Last Of Us, was quick to clarify that Ellie was played not by Page but Ashley Johnson (whose TV credits include The Killing and Growing Pains).
“Ellie from The Last of Us was perfectly played by [Johnson]. No one could've done a better job,” tweeted Neil Druckmann – creative director at the publisher and, today, co-showrunner on the TV series.
Did Naughty Dog knowingly lift Page’s likeness? The company has always denied it. However, the publishers of Beyond Two Souls, in which Page portrayed an orphan with psychic powers, had an opinion too. They were clear Naughty Dog would have to go back to the drawing board (awkwardly both companies were subsidiaries of Sony).
“They probably inadvertently were inspired by Ellen Page [as Elliot was known then], but indeed, they had to slightly change the model such that she wouldn't look like Ellen Page because, indeed, we have Ellen Page,” said Guillaume de Fondaumiere of French software house, Quantic Dream.
“For us it wasn't too much of an issue because we knew we were working with Ellen Page.., So it was then a problem on the side of Naughty Dog to change the model, I guess. I don't think that they were really working on the Ellen Page character; I think they had a similar intention, in the sense that they were probably also looking for a character that was both fragile and strong.”
Naughty Dog appeared to take this advice on board – when the game finally came out in June 2013, Ellie looked very different to the character in the trailer.
"We hear what people are saying – we didn't realise that ourselves because we just try to push for the characters that we want. And when we see the reactions we're like, OK, we don't like that,” said Bruce Straley, game director of The Last Of Us. “We want our characters to stand on their own two feet.”
The publisher also claimed the response to Page’s comments was over the top. “Wow! The reaction to [Page’s] AMA was overblown,” tweeted the company. “After the announce trailer there WAS initial confusion leading us to revise Ellie’s look."
In the final version of the game, Ellie has been tweaked to resemble Ashely Johnson rather than Page. But Page’s unhappy adventures in video gaming didn’t end there. The actor was concerned about a shower scene in Beyond Two Souls which, if hacked, could be manipulated so that the actor can be seen nude. Page's representatives sent legal letters to Sony, though the matter eventually fizzled out.
What didn’t fizzle out was Page’s unusual synergy with Naughty Dog. In February 2014, the publisher released an additional chapter of content The Last Of Us – The Last Of Us: Left behind. It traced Ellie’s backstory and revealed her to be gay (its storyline is to be incorporated into the TV adaptation). It came out the day Page exited the closet, telling a human rights conference “I’m here because I’m gay”. And when sequel The Last Of Us 2 was subsequently announced, Naughty Dog initially set the release date as February 21 – Page’s birthday (the game was ultimately delayed).
Page isn’t the only actor caught up in controversy around Ellie. If many fans assumed for years that Page was Ellie, hardcore Last Of Us devotees had the opposite response when Game of Thrones’s Bella Ramsey was unveiled as the star of the HBO adaptation.
Ramsey, from Nottingham, was on the end of a toxic backlash from fans who couldn’t cope with the idea of an Ellie who wasn’t a facsimile of the video game character. Speaking recently, Ramsey, 19, said that the “controversy” had rattled her confidence.
“It's the first time I've ever had a negative reaction to something,” Ramsey told the New York Times. She recalled strolling through pages and pages of hate on the internet. Sometimes she’d “find it funny […] then I'd get to the end of a 10-minute scrolling session, put my phone down and realise: maybe that was a bad idea”.
She added: “It’s only recently that I’ve accepted I am Ellie, and I can do it, and I am a good actor, but this will last for a few weeks and then I’ll think I’m terrible again. That’s just the process”.
Ramsey has made Ellie her own since the series debuted in January. To the point where it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the character on the screen – including Elliot Page. It’s a reminder toxic fans typically make for the worst casting directors. And that The Last Of Us has come a long way since that controversial trailer with the “Juno lookalike” threatened to doom this shroom horror show at the outset.