Cool. Calm. Composed. The LeftLion team were none of these things when Bella Ramsey, the Nottingham-born star of global HBO sensation The Last of Us, swung by the office recently. Yet all three of these words perfectly describe the nineteen-year-old, who chats openly about fame versus celebrity, taking on beloved characters, and choosing the right projects. Here’s what the super-talented Television Workshopper had to say during an hour-long interview in Sneinton Market…
It feels like joining us at LeftLion, in a little office that we just vacuumed for the first time in about a year, is a bit different to chatting to the likes of GQ and Jimmy Kimmel… So, first of all, thank you for taking the time to visit us. But secondly, how have you found that process? Has it been difficult to adjust to the media frenzy?
First off, thank you for having me! But yeah, it’s been weird. I largely managed to avoid press right up until about September, when Catherine Called Birdy came out, and then The Last of Us arrived pretty much straight after that. But up until that point, I hadn’t experienced it much, because with Game of Thrones, I was too young to be involved. You know, it’s actually been okay. I enjoy the longer interviews more than the shorter ones. I feel like they’re almost free therapy sessions. I just get to talk!
You’ve been travelling a lot as part of that process. How does it feel to be back home? Has your relationship with your hometown changed because of it?
In a way, yeah. I was born in Nottingham and I live in Leicestershire, and I think coming home is a mixed bag. It’s a relief, in a way, because it’s familiar. But in another way, I feel more anonymous in the big cities, because there are so many people and nobody cares about you. When I'm back home, I definitely lose that a little bit. You have to get used to being in a cafe eating soup and having someone come up to you and go, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re Bella!’ But it can be really nice to have those interactions, and I love getting back to my family - and also my football team!
You said that these interviews feel like therapy, and I know you’ve spoken openly about your mental health within them. Now that you have this bigger platform, is that something you want to use it for - to speak openly about issues like these, and break down stigma?
Yeah, definitely. I want to make things visible and I want to use my platform for good reasons. For me, it’s all about being authentic, because I want people to know me as a person - not just some fabricated version of myself. The important balance there is being authentic while maintaining a certain level of privacy, which I’ve thankfully managed to do so far.
Is it scary being open in front of a bigger audience?
It is scary, but I’d be so uncomfortable being a version of myself that isn’t me. I’d feel like a fraud and I wouldn’t be happy. I don’t think I can pretend. It’s weird, because I acknowledge and I’m learning that maybe I'm ‘famous’, but I don’t like that kind of celebrity status. To me, being famous and being a celebrity are two different things. ‘Celebrity’ feels like when being famous is your job, but being famous comes as a byproduct of your job; that’s how I think about it. So, I don’t want to fall into that celebrity realm. I’d rather just keep doing my job, and if that means people know who I am, then that’s just something I have to deal with. I think if you either hate fame or you love fame, both of those are dangerous. I’m trying to maintain a neutral standpoint.
You use your platform for promoting a wide range of local charity initiatives, like the Young People's Forest and previously SkillForce. Will charity work always remain a priority for you?
Definitely. I’m a young patron of a charity called Bamboozle, who are based in Leicester. They provide theatre for children with profound learning difficulties, which is awesome. I actually just got to see one of their shows and I’m hoping to get even more involved. When I commit to a cause, I don’t just want my name attached, I actually want to do something. I’ve recently signed with an American agent, CAA, and they have a whole foundation sector, which is cool - so I’m going to be trying to make the most of that.
People ask how I decompress and wind down and I just don’t. I don’t know how to. Every character I play, I become very enmeshed
As part of our recent screen issue, we did a bunch of interviews with people from The Television Workshop. Why do you think that place creates such special actors?
TV Workshop is the best. I still go whenever I can, which has thankfully been a lot at the moment. It’s like nowhere else. You do have to audition to get in, but everyone who is interested gets an audition. It’s a kind process, and there are bursary schemes for those who can’t afford the termly fees. It’s very accessible and so not like any other ‘drama school’. When I think of the Workshop, I think mainly of all the improv they do, which I really miss when I can’t do it. It’s such an opportunity to practise life. When else will you be in a room and see thirty people break up with someone, in so many different ways? It's experience in itself. Then, in terms of acting, I think it's all about the realism. Workshop don’t teach you, they just allow you to be.
Who were the Workshoppers you looked up to when you were learning your craft?
When I first auditioned, I was inspired by Kia Pegg, who played Jody in The Dumping Ground. I was so starstruck by her, and I joined the Saturday group precisely because Jody from The Dumping Ground was there! I looked up to Kia massively. In the under-eleven session, she came in as an older helper and would do improvisations with us, and I just thought she was the coolest ever. We’re friends now and I told her all of this - and thankfully she didn’t file a restraining order! Then, as I got into the eleven-to-sixteen category, there were the older, cool people who were in the group. There were so many who just took the younger ones under their wing, and so many I was mesmerised by. Even now I still go and I learn every time I visit, because the people there are so good.
We recently spoke to Alison Rashley, the Executive Artistic Director at The Television Workshop, and she said Nottingham partly produces such strong actors because of the absence of ego in the city. Do you agree with that?
Totally. And if there is any ego going into the Workshop, it’s quickly gone. You have to be open to making a fool out of yourself and taking risks. Any ego holding you back just isn’t a thing because you have to fully throw yourself into every role and every task.
You’ve touched on something we’ve heard from a lot of other Workshoppers, which is around not ‘acting’, but instead becoming the character. How easy is that in something like The Last of Us, which is such a heightened setting - and requires a completely different accent?
To be honest, I think the accent actually helped, because I learned it through Ellie’s dialogue - which does mean that, if I ever talk in an American accent, I now swear a lot... I think that was really helpful in terms of shifting into that character, and it works because the script is so good. Craig Mazin’s writing is genius, even though he hates when I say that word. But I’ve never read a script so good, and when you’re held by the writing, I think that sense of character never goes away. I really loved being Ellie. When I came home after a year of being her, it really was a mini grieving process, even though I knew there might be a season two.
Speaking of Craig Mazin, this interview is going to be in our literature issue, so talking about the writing seems like a perfect way to crowbar in that theme... Why do you think the adaptation of a video game worked so well here, when so often others haven’t?
I think it’s because of the great script, but I also think it’s because the narrative in The Last of Us game itself is so rich. It always had the potential to translate well onto screen, though in the wrong hands it could have been a disaster. So I think it’s the perfect combination of having, for me, the best writer in the industry, along with really rich source material, and the creator of the game, Neil Druckmann, being properly involved too.
It’s such a popular game, and Ellie’s such a cherished character. Some actors might feel a bit nervous to take on such a beloved name and risk becoming known as that character - like James Bond actors lamenting being known solely as ‘Bond’, for example. Did that ever concern you, being known as one particular character?
I didn’t really mind. I love the character so much that right now I don’t even care if people know me as Ellie, because I think she’s so great. That might change, but it’s not something I’ve thought about too much. What did cross my mind was that I was potentially signing on for several seasons, which was terrifying, just in case I got stuck in the wrong project for years. Thankfully, shooting The Last of Us really was the best year of my life, and I can’t wait to do it again.
When you’re held by the writing, I think that sense of character never goes away
It’s such a great show. The dialogue between Ellie and Joel, in particular, is really effective. In places, it’s quite sparse and gruff, but there are also such heavy emotional layers. How was it to play these contrasting parts?
That was one of the things that made me so excited about doing the show - the contrast between the gruff harshness and the vulnerability. I think there’s such an unspoken love between Ellie and Joel that develops, and there’s so much weight in their silences and behind the things they say. Even if they’re not explicitly trauma-dumping on each other, there is the implication that there is more trauma that’s left silent. That almost makes it heavier.
On the flip side, Ellie seems like such a fun character and provides so much comedic relief, especially in episode seven - which is dedicated to her backstory. That episode almost comes across as a rom-com, in a lot of ways. How fun was it to get into that side of the character?
It was a lot of fun, actually, and it was a relief too. It was nice not to leave every day feeling emotionally torn apart. It’s interesting that you said it reads like a rom-com because I think that’s true, and that episode shows the awkwardness of teenage crushes, which is so cool within this big apocalypse show. But also, the backstory really helps you understand why Ellie is how she is. Some people saw that as a standalone episode, but I don’t think it is.
It’s one of our favourite episodes. Do you think you’d like to move more into that kind of genre in the future? Trying out romance or comedy? Are you trying to craft any particular career, or do you just evaluate each product individually?
I’m taking it project by project, which is nice. I’d like to just do a whole range of things. I’ve got some pretty depressing stuff coming up, which I’m really looking forward to, but really I just want to do interesting projects. I have to be picky now about what I sign on to, because people are going to watch it, which is kind of scary! But it’s a privilege to be able to have that choice so early on in my career. There are some moments where you get that instinctual ‘I have to do this’ feeling, though, and that’s when I instantly sign up.
You mentioned earlier that you were sad to leave Ellie behind. Did you see any of yourself in Ellie, and what were your feelings towards the character, who is actually quite a lot younger than you?
While we were filming, I didn't once think about the fact that Ellie was fourteen, so I never consciously played down or played younger. I think because she’s so smart and mature, she’s wise beyond her years anyway, it sort of worked. And I look frigging twelve anyway. My version of Ellie is familiar to people who loved the video game, actually, because Ashley Johnson was older and playing a younger person. But in terms of how much I can leave Ellie behind, I’m terrible at that. People ask how I decompress and wind down and I just don’t. I don’t know how to. Every character I play, I become very enmeshed, by accident. I wouldn’t say that I’m a method actor, but it just happens.
It seems like everyone on The Last of Us has such a good relationship with each other. Did your team make an intense filming process easier?
Definitely. I don’t even want to imagine what filming would have been like without Craig and without Pedro [Pascal, who plays Joel in the show… We’re putting it in brackets like you didn’t know that already]. They were there pretty much every day and I can’t imagine what it would have been like without them. Craig and I always say we share a brain. We’re very similar in terms of our anxieties and feelings, so we could just look at each other and see each other. Then I was always giggling my ass off with Pedro. I loved it so much.
Do you miss seeing them all day-to-day?
I miss them a lot. Craig and I call probably too often. Pedro and I are probably a bit worse at replying to each other, but we Facetimed the other day. You spend a year with these people, and I know it’s cliche but they become a weird kind of family. So, to then not be with them is so hard. I really was in denial when I got back. The denial was real.
From a more technical standpoint, one of the things we love about the show, even though it’s in a heightened world, is the commitment to physical sets and shooting on location. How fun was it to play in this physical sandbox? Especially in the age of greenscreen and a lack of practical sets…
It was amazing. It was really immersive. I can probably count on my hand the days I acted with greenscreen. I think the crew cared so deeply about the project that it really felt like we were all experiencing the story there together, which was lovely. The lack of greenscreen did mean that it was ridiculously cold when we were shooting in -17 degree weather in Canada, though, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’d rather that than being in a stuffy studio!
If they’re ever looking for a live-action Grogu, then I’d be down for that...
We’ve talked a lot about The Last of Us, but you’ve also been involved in quite a lot of smaller-budget projects. Do you think you’ll carry on taking part in more independent films?
Definitely. I think that’s one of the things I was so keen about when deciding on an American agent: I wanted to make sure that they were into that too. Because I don’t want to only do big-budget Hollywood movies. Most of the time, they aren’t the scripts I’m into anyway. I’d much rather do something small and gritty and independent than super big and commercialised, unless it’s something special like The Last of Us. So, I will keep doing smaller-budget things, because they’re some of the projects I connect to most.
One particular project that stuck out was 3 Minutes of Silence, which is an incredible short film. You could almost see precursors to Ellie in your character, Jane, particularly through her awkward energy. Would you say that was the case for you? Do you think playing that character helped with Ellie?
It probably did. It’s not until people point something out that I see the parallels and similarities. But that was one of those projects where I became so enmeshed with the character that it became a bit of a problem... It was like three days of intense emotion and self-loathing for the character, and I remember just being on the drive home with my mum and really feeling all my feelings. There’s also a film out now called Requiem, by Em Gilbertson, which I’m really excited for people to see.
Like you say, you don’t want to do big projects for big projects' sake, but you have starred in two of the biggest TV shows of all time… Are there any other major projects in the pipeline? The Mandolorian series four, perhaps? This is our attempt at the big scoop…
I mean, if they’re ever looking for a live-action Grogu, then I’d be down for that... But it all just depends on what comes in. Like you say, I’ll never do a big project for a big project’s sake, so it really depends on the characters and the script and the people involved. One thing I can actually talk about is Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, which was a lot of fun to do, and which I hope lives up to the original Chicken Run.
Final question, and finishing on an easy one - what does the future have in store for you?
I would like to keep working. That’s number one: keep doing interesting projects. And I want to write more. I’ve written a film and I’m hoping to make that after the second season of The Last of Us. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to direct that, and generally just do more industry stuff. Then, outside of acting, I’ve always had this dream to set up a charity, sort of similar to Bamboozle; a performing arts centre for kids with learning difficulties. That’s a dream I’d like to make happen. In truth, though, I have no idea what’s going to happen in the future and I’m fine with that. It’s exciting! For now, I’m just looking forward to hopefully being Ellie for many more years...
You can now watch the entirety of The Last of Us on NOW TV or Sky Atlantic
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