Game theory

‘Last of Us’ actor Jeffrey Pierce discusses his Front Range roots as the blockbuster HBO zombie series wraps its first season

Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO

We’re only a couple months into the new year, but The Last of Us looks destined to be one of the most talked-about shows of 2023. Based on the adored video game franchise and co-created by Emmy-winning Chernobyl writer Craig Mazin, HBO’s thrilling new zombie series has earned widespread critical acclaim and millions of viewers since its Jan. 15 premiere, leading many to call it the best video game adaptation of all time.

Jeffrey Pierce is perfectly placed to explain why The Last of Us has struck a chord with so many. The 52-year-old actor hasn’t just appeared in multiple episodes of the show as Perry, a rebel commander in the post-apocalyptic melee of Kansas City, but he also provided the voice and motion-capture performance of supporting character Tommy Miller in the original game, as well as its 2020 sequel.

A renowned video game actor, the British Academy Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) winner for Best Performer in a Supporting Role actually got his start in the medium thanks to Matt Damon. According to Pierce, when High Moon Studios was developing Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Conspiracy for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, Damon was offered $1 million for four hours worth of voice work.

“He turned it down, because his mom was on the board of opposing violence in video games,” Pierce says. “To my good fortune, they asked me to be Jason Bourne. They didn’t pay me $1 million. But it was a great entry into the world of video games.”

Home on the range

Pierce may now be a familiar face (and voice) on screens around the world, but his roots trace back to the Front Range. The actor was born in Denver and raised in Loveland until kindergarten, when his family moved to Virginia. 

“I have tons of memories of playing in the snow and walking to school in the snow,” Pierce says of those early days in Colorado. “I still have a huge attachment to the state. A couple of my aunts still live in Loveland.”

In the 10 years before he was cast to replace Damon, he’d been a working actor across film and television, appearing in S1m0ne with Al Pacino and The Foreigner with Steven Seagal, as well as popping up in big-time shows like The West Wing, NCIS, Boston Public, Charmed and Judging Amy.

“Like many people, my place in the industry ebbed and flowed. Sometimes you hit home runs. Sometimes you did the best you could, because you needed the next job,” Pierce says. “I’ve never been a guy who did five years on a show and put aside a wedge of money.”

It was the writers strike of 2007 and 2008 that forced Pierce to look to the world of video games. “It hammered the industry,” he says. “After eight months of unemployment, I told my agent to tell me about whatever is out there. He said, ‘Would you ever consider doing a video game?’ I said, ‘Hell yeah!’”

Courtesy HBO

‘Very, very lucky’

After his work in The Bourne Conspiracy, along with Prototype and two Medal of Honor games, Pierce found himself being called in to read for Neil Druckmann, who had just written and was co-directing The Last of Us for California-based video game developer Naughty Dog. His audition was for the game’s main character, Joel Miller.

“It was such a great process. Neil was just this wonderful, thoughtful presence and had great notes and ideas. It was really great to audition,” Pierce says. “Then I ended up not getting the job, which was shocking at the time. Until I met Troy [Baker], who played Joel. Then I realized he’d got the perfect person to play Joel.”

Druckmann knew Pierce would be ideal for the supporting role of Tommy, Joel’s brother. Clearly he was right, as this was part that landed Pierce his BAFTA honor. “That was completely out of left field,” he says. “But yeah, it really has been such a rewarding part of my career, more so than anything else I’ve ever done.”

Pierce wasn’t surprised when he learned HBO and Mazin were developing an adaptation of The Last of Us. Especially since he has remained close friends with Druckmann, who is a co-creator, writer and producer on the show. 

“Our friendship has been one of the joys of my life. Artistically, we just have a nice intuitive understanding of how each of us work,” he says. “When I found out about the adaptation, I sent him a note saying, ‘Tell me what I can do to support what you guys are trying to do.’ I was very, very lucky that there was something for me to do.”

When it comes to the huge success of the show, Pierce never had any doubt. “I knew the source material was as solid as you could get in terms of character and story and the sort of lore and mythology metaphor within it. I knew it was as good as anything going that I had ever read.”

Working on The Last of Us has been so rewarding for Pierce that he’s not quite ready to return to the normalcy of other projects. “I told my agents, ‘I want to go forwards. I’d rather do nothing than something that’s not going to make me feel as satisfied as I felt on that set.’ Right now, rather than just finding the next job, I want to find something that’s going to make me happy.” 

ON SCREEN: The Last of Us airs Sunday nights on HBO at 7 p.m. through March 12.