From Austin with Zombies
“There must be something in the Edwards Aquifer that allows people to feel comfortable in their own skin,” Gabriel Luna told us.
When actor Gabriel Luna first picked up a Playstation controller and played The Last Of Us all the way back in 2013, he surprisingly felt a pang of pride.
“The first thing I noticed was that the inciting incident for the game was in Austin,” recalled Luna, who was born in the city’s Ascension Seton Medical Center, raised on the east and south side, and even attended St. Edward’s University. “I’m an Austin boy through and through. I was surprised and proud that the city was being represented in the best video game for years.”
Less than a decade after being introduced to The Last Of Us, Luna is playing Tommy in the hotly anticipated HBO adaptation of the post-apocalyptic drama, which premieres on Sunday, January 15. His character is the brother to Joel (Pedro Pascal), another survivor of a zombie outbreak, who is tasked with escorting Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across the United States in brutal conditions.
The Terminator: Dark Fate, Bernie, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., and True Detective star’s connection to Austin goes much deeper than most other actors. Alongside the likes of production designer Yvonne Boudreaux, theater director Dustin Wills, and various other creatives, Luna co-formed the Austin’s Paper Chairs Theater Company after they bonded over their “mutual love of playwrighting and stories.”
“We all did several plays together. Our goal was to do new works and rarely produced plays,” said Luna. “We had a lot of vibrancy about what we were doing. We were innovative. We took great risks. A lot of people showed us a lot of love. That’s also where I met my wife. I owe Paper Chairs a lot, both professionally and personally.”
The Texas Observer recently spoke with Luna about how Austin and Texas has shaped his career, as well as The Last Of Us and what separates it from other video game adaptations.
When did you first get into acting?
I was a very strong student and a very, very talented athlete. That was my primary focus. I was usually a leader within the classroom. But when it came time for public speaking engagements, I didn’t enjoy that. I was in a Christmas play, but that scarred me and I swore off acting until high school. Then I injured my left shoulder and I was no longer able to play football, so I lost all my football scholarships. Thankfully, a man named Mr. Sharp saw something in me and asked me to try out for a show. Another twist of fate was me finding this videotape of my father, who passed away before I was born. He was in a play that he wrote, starred in, and directed for our church. I felt a sense of inherited spirit and ability from that. So I auditioned for the play, I got the part, from that I was offered a full scholarship. My life took a really quick turn in high school. It took me down a road that I cherish to this day.
It sounds like you immediately had an intense relationship with acting.
Absolutely. It goes back to the first moment I read those pages for my first audition. There was a scene where the main character is talking to this older woman. He’s stood in front of two unmarked graves, and he asks which one belongs to his father. I recall not being nervous. I had a sense that I had been there before. I had done that exact thing. I had stood in front of my own father’s grave hundreds of times. So the rest of the scene just spilled out. It was as involuntarily as breathing. It felt very natural. Acting helped me discover that we can’t waste any time in this world being afraid.
How has being from Austin and Texas impacted your creative voice?
There must be something in the Edwards Aquifer that allows people to feel comfortable in their own skin, to be authentic, to encounter people fully and to show respect. Not just to others. But to the craft itself and to always bring respect and discipline to the work. My mother was a teenager when I was born. My father passed before that. That set me up for a life where it was important to always be responsible. I grew up faster than other kids. That put me in a position where I was already a man before I was an actor. Being an actor wasn’t fun and games for me. It was always very, very important to me. All of that prepared me and gave me the mental and physical fortitude to be able to navigate Los Angeles. You can get lost in the spin very easily. I think being from Austin and having those experiences really helped.
What attracted you to the adaptation of The Last Of Us?
I was a huge fan of Craig Mazin’s [the Emmy award winning creator and writer of Chernobyl]. My wife has been listening to his podcast [Scriptnotes] for years. I kind of felt like I already knew him. Speaking to him, co-creator and writer Neil Druckmann, producer Carolyn Strauss, it was great to know these people, not just as luminaries of our business but as straight-up geeks. They knew this story so clearly and were so excited to find all the nooks and crannies of it for this experience. It was very infectious. I’d run through a wall for all of these people. I’m so thankful to work with the caliber of people on this.
What separates The Last Of Us from other video game adaptations?
I think that within The Last of Us game it’s already ingrained. There is a certain standard of storytelling and there’s a cinematic DNA to the game. It translates perfectly for our efforts. In terms of it being a video game adaptation, it’s going to be very difficult to remove ourselves from the notoriety of the game. What The Last Of Us gave us was these two broken characters that discover each other. It’s such a beautiful relationship. It would translate to a novel. It would translate to a painting. It’s so detailed and the love that is built, you forget that it is a video game adaptation, you forget that it’s a show about monsters. It’s truly a touching story. Above all, we are at the service of the characters. I feel honored to play Tommy. He is a really beloved character. It is a lot of fun. We’re very proud of the response so far. I think we’re even prouder of what is to come and what viewers are going to experience.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.