When Rutina Wesley auditioned for the role of True Blood’s quick-tempered Tara Thornton in 2007, creator Alan Ball locked onto a certain quality she brought: a vulnerability that cut through every high-energy tirade. “Other actresses played it for laughs, like something on the CW,” Ball said during the HBO vampire drama’s first season. “But Rutina was the first person who showed her vulnerable side.”
That vulnerability has come to define Wesley’s performances, from an acclaimed star turn in the grounded southern drama Queen Sugar to recurring or guest roles in genre fare like Hannibal, Arrow, and The Walking Dead. It’s especially apparent in her performance as Maria, a character defined by a calmness that immediately intrigued Wesley in HBO’s The Last of Us. Maria is one of the leaders of a miraculously isolated settlement in Jackson, Wyoming, that is powered by collective ownership and a nearby dam; we’re introduced to this post-apocalyptic oasis in “Kin,” when Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) take refuge there with Joel’s brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) and Maria, his new wife. She is immediately distrustful of Joel, knowing the brutal tactics he and her husband once used to survive, but takes a more gentle approach with Ellie. “Even though she’s this fierce leader who can handle a gun and ride a horse, she’s still a woman,” Wesley says. “She naturally sees something in Ellie to nurture. Being a mother-to-be, she does it instinctually.”
What drew you to The Last of Us and Maria as a character?
She’s a natural-born leader with this calm, fierce stillness. I always say she is the kind of woman who, if she were to smile, it would be with her eyes. You would never see a wide grin on her face. She’s very cool and collected. Also, she’s a mother-to-be and a nurturer. Usually when you see women who are fierce leaders, especially in an apocalyptic world where everyone is just trying to survive, you don’t see a lot of the vulnerability.
What do you think Maria values most?
She will do anything for her community. She would do anything to keep that little settlement sacred. She still has a heart and sees the goodness in people. She doesn’t trust Joel, but that’s her husband’s brother, so she’s going to step back and let Tommy do his thing. There’s a brief moment in this episode where she can see and feel that something about Tommy is off, and you can see she’s choosing not to say anything. Even though she’s the leader of this place, she’s like, I’m not even going to ask. You go ahead.
Another little moment I love is when you meet Maria in the beginning, when they’re surrounding Joel and Ellie with the guns and the dog. You can see in her eyes that as soon as Joel says his name, she’s like, Oh God. It’s Joel. It’s really subtle. And in the same breath, it’s like, Let me take you to Tommy. She is untrusting, but she loves her husband enough that of course she’s going to lead him to Tommy. She can put the strict rules of this settlement aside to reunite them. It comes from love.
I like the moment when Ellie calls out Maria for distrusting Joel even though her own husband killed people as well. What do you think makes Joel’s actions so unforgivable while she was able to forgive Tommy?
Maria says simply, “Tommy was following Joel, as you are now.” It’s the leader who told you to go over there and kill that man and put the body over here. If that leader wasn’t there, you can maybe assume these followers wouldn’t have done it. But … Tommy did, though! I wonder if she softened up because she loves him so much that she’s able to forgive him a little more. We don’t really know what Tommy said to her, what stories he told, what stories he left out. But we know that clearly whatever she got from Tommy about Joel was bad enough that she was like, I don’t trust you at all. As people, we sometimes do funny things when we’ve taken a liking to someone. We tend to forgive a little easier.
That’s one of the big themes of the show and the games: forgiveness, and the things we’ll do for love. Earlier, when Ellie figured out Joel killed people, it didn’t make her run away from him. She’d already made this connection.
It gets to a point where it’s too late because you already love that person. Once you become a loved one of mine, once you’re getting to my heart, you could tell me all kinds of stuff and I’m probably just going to be like, “Oh, that’s really unfortunate and sad, but I love you.” If Ellie had found out some of these things right off the bat, I don’t know if their journey would’ve been the same.
Did you watch any scenes of Ashley Scott’s Maria from the games?
I researched some of the game but not too much. I wanted to be able to put my own spin on it. If I’m playing Josephine Baker, let’s say, then there are things you have to study, mannerisms. But because it was a game, I wanted to capture the essence of her. I didn’t want worrying about the game to affect my performance.
How does Maria’s past as an assistant district attorney play into her current philosophies and leadership style?
She’s not going to be able to get rid of the lawyer mentality. It makes her a great leader. The law doesn’t really apply now, but she’s very fair and practical. It makes sense that a woman who tried a lot of cases would be a leader in an apocalyptic world. A lot of people, at the end of the day, just want things to be fair. She knows how to do that.
What was it like shooting in that reworked Jackson?
I remember being in awe. It was fricking cold. It was so cold, oh my God. I’m from Vegas, so I was like, “Where’s the heat?” But I was like a kid in a candy store. This was what I saw in my mind on the page, and here it is. My favorite part of the settlement is the big wooden gate we all ride through. It was really easy from then on to be immersed the the world because everything we needed was right there.
Also seeing it, I was like, “Okay, this is a little too real. I could actually see humans building this gate.” One of my favorite lines in that whole episode was when Ellie is like, “This place actually fucking works.” When you think about it, with the lack of resources they had, they’ve still managed to put this settlement together. That’s human. When we need to, we’re capable of so much.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.