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Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Untold Story Behind Lev's Voice in 'The Last of Us Part II'

Before you meet Lev in The Last Of Us Part II, you see his arrow pierce the cheek of a man who’s about to strike Lev's sister Yara with a hammer. There is nothing subtle about Lev’s introduction. He is swift and calculated, flitting between the trees in the dark like a spirit, or maybe even a small wild animal, to stay hidden and save his sister from a religious cult they’ve so desperately tried to escape from.

Abby—the antihero and divisive focus of the last half of the game—has been strung up by the neck and is within seconds of losing her life when she hears Lev for the first time. His voice is sharp, quick, high-pitched, and full of concern as he calls out his sister’s name, vaulting over a stone barricade with the ease of a 13-year-old boy, bow drawn, arrow nocked. Abby thinks she is saved.

Lev looks at his sister, then up at Abby—his head shaved, brow furrowed, mouth agape—unsure of whether he should cut Abby down, because her people have long been at war with his people, battling for control over Seattle in a postapocalyptic world ravaged by infection.

So when Yara tells Lev to cut her down, Lev uses his voice to push back. “She’s one of them,” he says. But Yara is insistent. He must save her. All life, you see, is precious. Lev does what he’s told, albeit a little reluctantly, and when Abby is cut free, the three of them begin their own harrowing journey into the night.

I: There Are Two Sides to Every Story

Lev is a secondary character in The Last Of Us Part II, quite possibly the most divisive, most-talked-about game of the last generation since its release one year ago. Players step into Abby’s shoes for the last half of the game as she embarks on a path to redemption. But the story of Lev, a 13-year-old transgender teen who’s forced into exile when his own community rejects him, is even more compelling.

Lev is on the run from the Seraphites, an authoritarian religious cult whose members adhere to strict predetermined roles. He has defied his assigned role as a Seraphite elder’s wife, and shaved his head, a decision reserved for males. By reclaiming his identity this way, he puts himself and his family at risk.

“One of the things we wanted to explore was this made-up religion, and how religion, especially organized religion, can also accommodate those wonderful and horrible things as far as spirituality but also xenophobia and the exclusion of certain identities,” says Neil Druckmann, creative director and copresident of Naughty Dog, the game's developer. “Anytime you do something like that, you want to make sure it’s not tokenism, that it’s something that fits with the story.”

Lev’s story is riddled with complexity. In a world full of violence and unbearable grief, a world where it’s easier to worry about the enemy than it is to care for others, Lev simply wants to be left alone to live out his truth in peace. He is full of hope and certainty—he knows without a shadow of a doubt who he is and the kind of person he wants to become—and he asks for nothing in return but to be allowed to exist. Lev’s story resonates with many in the LGBTQ community, because it’s a familiar narrative of belonging and survival.

But over the course of the game, Lev evolves from a quiet, reserved boy struggling to find his place in the world to perhaps the game’s most compelling character and sole voice of reason. In truth, the second half of The Last of Us Part II hangs on Lev’s every word, every action, and every opportunity to discover his voice.

II: The Scars of Past Lives

Authenticity in representation was a key factor in bringing Lev to life. It’s also a challenging role for an actor. As a secondary character, Lev’s development is driven by AI, in reaction to what the player, as Abby, is doing. Hundreds of lines were recorded to account for every variable or potential outcome in the game.

To fill the role, Naughty Dog reached out to several talent agencies in search of a young transgender actor, as well as organizations such as GLAAD. The search came up short. Then Druckmann remembered watching the Netflix original series The OA, where he saw a young actor named Ian Alexander in the role of Buck Vu, a trans teen.

At the time, Alexander was still in high school and coming into his own identity as a trans-masculine actor. He had been raised in Utah by strict Mormon parents, who, following the official stance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, strongly counseled against transitioning. “I grew up in a very sheltered and religious environment, so I didn’t really meet other LGBTQ people that I could see myself in,” he says.

The online communities he found while playing Minecraft were his first introduction to the LGBTQ community at 11 and 12 years old.

Through these friendships and online gaming, Alexander was able to find the words he needed to define how he felt and who he was.

“It was a lot easier for me, I think, to type out, ‘My name is Ian. Please use he/him pronouns’ than to say it out loud to somebody to their face,” he says. “It gave me a bit of a safe space to cultivate that confidence, and just advocating for myself and coming out.” Eventually, Alexander felt ready to come out to his classmates and family, too.

“I was 13 years old when I told my parents I was attracted to women. I was 14 when I said, ‘I’m trans. I’m not the gender I was born as. I’m not your daughter. I hope that you can accept me that way,’” continues Alexander. “They didn’t take it very well, and that was something that really shaped who I am to this day.”

At a very dark time of his life, acting offered Alexander a refuge when his family could not. As Buck in The OA, Alexander was able to embody a character that aligned with his own identity, and he brought that character to life through body language and subtle facial expressions that demanded closer attention to detail. When he delivered his lines onscreen, he spoke with such clear intention that his voice never wavered, so that what little he said landed in a profound way. Some might even argue Alexander’s character was the heart of the show.

“I think playing Buck taught me a lot about myself, a lot about just using my voice and speaking up and believing in myself in ways I didn’t really before,” says Alexander. It was his first role as a professional actor.

Druckmann was impressed by the performance, but getting in touch with Alexander took some work; the young actor did not have an agent. “You’d go on IMDB, and usually there’s the person who represents him, and there was no one there,” Druckmann says. Eventually he reached the Alexander through industry connections, and their initial conversations were promising.

In Lev’s story, Alexander saw many parallels to his own life: his religious upbringing, the rejection he suffered from his parents, how he shaved his head as an act of rebellion. Druckmann asked him to record an audition tape with some early scenes from the game.

“As soon as we saw those scenes, it was like, oh yeah, that’s Lev. There’s no question about it,” says Druckmann.

III: It’s All in How You Say It

When Alexander talks about the process of bringing Lev to life, he describes it much like free-falling, but with full support from Druckmann and the Naughty Dog team. It was his first experience doing voiceover.

“I learned so much about the depths that you can explore with just your voice and the storytelling that you do with your voice,” says Alexander. “I had never really flexed my vocal muscles in the way that I did in The Last of Us Part II.”

Lev is a survivalist. Growing up within the Seraphite community, he distrusts modern technology and must rely on his natural instincts to navigate the world around him. At times he is quick and nimble, almost doelike in his movement, and at other times he is quiet and contemplative, leaning on his faith for guidance even as his religion threatens to overwrite his own identity. He is as one with the natural world as he is lost to society, learning how to adapt at every turn.

“Stepping into that role, I definitely was able to pull from my own experiences, the traumas I endured at such a young age, going back into that 13-year-old headspace of figuring things out and trying to figure out how the world works and trying to learn about the world and learn about people and learn about myself,” Alexander says.

He was also inspired by Laura Bailey, who plays Abby, and their hours-long studio sessions together. Druckmann and Halley Gross, cowriter and narrative lead on the game, were quickly impressed with Alexander’s performance and the way he and Bailey acted against each other. They mined the two characters for more material and wound up extending their journey in the game beyond what had been originally envisioned.

“Based on Ian’s mannerisms, based on how we saw him act against Laura Bailey, his role actually grew quite significantly because of how much it was adding to the story and her overall arc,” says Druckmann. “As we got more and more scenes back, and as we got to see the chemistry that Ian had with Laura, we just wanted more of it.”

Some of the most important interactions between Lev and Abby occur through in-game dialog during the game’s quieter moments.Alexander portrays Lev’s character with surgical precision, his one-liners carrying far more weight than any heavy-handed explainer. Early on, when Abby asks Lev what he did to get hunted by his own people, he says, “I shaved my head.” There’s a millisecond of hesitation, but Alexander delivers the line so succinctly that it initially comes off as a throwaway line. Abby certainly views it as such and shrugs it off, saying, “Fine, don’t tell me,” and the moment is over.

From the outset, Lev isn’t shy about his experiences, but one of the biggest points of criticism revolves around how his story is allowed to unfold. While Lev’s role expanded during the game’s production, his character still exists specifically to take Abby where she needs to go—a decision heavily criticized by many in the LGBTQ community for forcing his story through a cisgender lens. Indeed, it’s quite difficult to talk about Lev without ever addressing Abby. Their fates are so closely intertwined that Lev certainly runs the risk of falling into the background. Much of his story is delivered through in-game dialog or explained by other characters in cutscenes. Lev never really gets the chance to use his voice to divulge every detail of his whole story. Instead, any meaningful explanation is reserved for a cutscene with Yara much later in the game, a decision some say functions more like a plot device than any genuine payoff.

One of the most criticized moments occurs during an early shootout in which Lev’s own people deadname him in front of Abby, effectively outing him as a trans character amid a traumatizing experience.

“I completely understand a lot of people’s frustrations,” says Alexander. “Obviously, the writers have the best intentions and wanted to bring authentic representation, and they might have missed the mark a little bit with that.”

But Alexander views the scene through a different lens: At the end of the fight, when Lev and Abby are safe, Lev turns to her and asks, “Did you hear what they called me?” When Abby confirms, Lev follows up by asking, “Do you want to ask me about it?” At this most vulnerable moment, an exchange of power happens between the two characters: Rather than pry or demand an explanation, Abby gives Lev the ability to reclaim agency over his story by giving him a choice, asking, “Do you want me to ask you about it?”

“I felt like it was really important, not only for myself as a trans person to see that scene but also for cis allies to see that scene and realize this is the way that a discussion surrounding someone’s gender should be,” says Alexander. “It should always be their decision. They make the first move. They have agency over talking about it, because it is something that’s really deeply personal and can be very triggering to talk about.”

This moment between them is perhaps one of the finest examples of how language is used to convey how these two characters learn from each other, and it’s reflective of how Alexander and Bailey leaned on one another as actors. Several other moments in the game were brought to life through their improvisation—including a pivotal moment when Lev lashes out at Abby full of anger after the death of his mother and sister, inspiring Abby to tell him that she accepts him as one of her own people.“It felt like we captured lightning in a bottle,” says Druckmann, who initially envisioned Lev to be saddened and shocked. “That’s the thing with our process: We’re very privileged that we have a big enough budget so we can spend that time on the stage to mine for this stuff, to dig, because sometimes it takes several iterations just to free your mind and find those magical moments.”

IV: ‘Think About the Good Parts of Fear’

During Abby and Lev’s trip across Seattle, the two characters must use an open-air freight elevator hundreds of feet above the ground as they traverse a series of skyscrapers to get around the area safely. Abby’s character is paralyzed by her fear of heights, and as her breath quickens and she starts to shake, Lev offers her some wisdom.

“Think about the good parts of fear,” he says softly, while clutching the elevator controls and looking her directly in the eyes. “You run faster, you’re more focused. You don’t feel pain as much. Every bad feeling, your palms sweating, your heart racing, they’re all signs you’re actually stronger. So, when you feel afraid, you should think about how your body is getting ready for what’s coming. ‘Only weak may I carry my true strength.’”

Lev’s monologue in the sky elevator marks a singular moment in which his character becomes the sole voice of reason between the pair. For Alexander, it’s a moment that remains, even now.

“It really sticks with me in my moments of anxiety,” he says. “When I would feel my heart pounding super hard, I’d be like, ‘You know, this is my body giving me the adrenaline I need to get through this intense scene right now, and I’m just going to channel that into my performance.’”

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Looking back at his time filming for The Last of Us Part II is, in some ways, bittersweet for Alexander, because it was the start of a new beginning. Toward the end of his voiceover work, Alexander started hormone replacement therapy, a decision he says he had been looking forward to for three years. Before his 18th birthday, Alexander shared the news with his colleagues.

“I could see the light in everyone’s eyes when I told them about it, because everyone was really just rooting for me and just really wanted me to be happy,” he says. “Just knowing that I would have a future where I would be happy—that’s what drove me forward—knowing I was going to start on testosterone kind of kept me going.”

Looking back—at his earlier work, at interviews he has given—can also be difficult for Alexander. Revisiting the past can trigger dysphoria. But Alexander believes that his voiceover work with Lev will be different.

“I think that will be something that’ll be really wonderful looking back on, seeing so much of my mannerisms, so much of my young self in Lev, because Lev and I are very similar,” says Alexander. “My voice is such a huge part of my identity. I think my voice is something that gives me the most euphoria.”

It’s also something he uses as an advocate for the transgender community. Thinking back to the darker periods of his life, Alexander says, “I had just this wound that I was carrying around, this deep wound of feeling like I wasn’t enough, feeling like I wasn’t being seen or being heard. So I did everything in my power to try to help other people not feel that way.” And while much has been said regarding the importance of the portrayal and representation of trans identities in video games, Alexander says there’s another side of representation that hits closer to home for those doing the work.

“With every role I have, with every interview I do, with every fan I speak with, all of those things do help me heal my self-confidence,” says Alexander.“I can be a successful trans person, and I can have a happy, beautiful life, and I do deserve this, and I don’t have to doubt myself.”

Alexander’s presence—his agency over his story, the power of his voice and the impact he leaves behind—mirrors the very future he envisions for Lev if the character ever comes back in some far-off spin-off or sequel.

“I think [Lev] will find a lot of that chosen family, in a way that can help him heal from that wound of losing Yara in such a traumatic way and losing his mother in such a traumatic way and his whole community from childhood,” says Alexander. “I think Lev has a very bright future.”

And Druckmann agrees. In April, he revealed that there are plans for a sequel in the works, with an outline already written.

“We really want to take our time and figure out what’s going to be exciting for us to work on over the next three, four, maybe even five years. That’s the work we’re doing right now and exploring different ideas,” says Druckmann. “Lev was in some of those brainstorms. That’s all I can say.”

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