When he wants it to, Pedro Pascal's face can flood the screen with backstory and emotion in little time. In his decade plus working as a 'job-y' actor prior to his breakthrough as Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones, he made indelible impressions in bit roles on network television: such as Eddie, the handsome college freshman who is emphatically introduced as a potential love interest in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, just before he is suddenly killed off; or as Dio, a sassy goth who interrogates the police more than they interrogate him in NYPD Blue; and as Ed Indelicanto, a trim police inspector, in the unaired pilot of Wonder Woman (2011, predating both Warner Bros. Discovery's decision to kill the finished Batgirl and Pascal's batty turn as Maxwell Lord in Wonder Woman 1984), and so on.
In few words, slicked back hair, and a parted pencil mustache, the actor's under four minute performance in Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk as Pietro Alvarez, manages to flow between standoffish to disinterested, out of his depth to flirtatious, annoyed to defeated to reluctantly sympathetic. In the director's commentary track, Jenkins observes, "I love that Pedro's leaning way back, there's this idea of 'Soft Power.'" He doesn't need to be up in her face, he doesn't need to raise his voice, yet she needs to appeal to him.
'Soft Power,' aptly describes Pascal's buff-teddy bear duality on and off-screen. The actor also leans far back into his seat as Oberyn Martell on GOT, his shins folded against the table, as an unwanted guest of prim House Lannister. Prince Oberyn moves swiftly, his body is simultaneously soft and taut. He loves indiscriminately of gender and quantity, and can reliably be found in the nearest brothel with or without his 'paramour,' Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma). It's with this bright and magnetic bisexuality that Pascal caught the eye of mainstream audiences and never let go. In a battle to the death with the 7 ft tall (and seemingly 5 ft wide) 'Mountain,' Oberyn prances around the stage with his long spear to the amusement of himself and the audience, before his head explodes under the weight of his opponent's canister-sized fingers bearing down on the back of his skull through his eyeballs. As with many of his supporting roles and guest appearances, Pascal so fully fills out his space and time on the screen that it's hard to imagine him leaving; when he does, it can be shocking and we miss him.
Then playing the lead character of Mando, a bounty hunter, in Star Wars' The Mandalorian gave him overdue screen permanence, albeit beneath a helmet the character has sworn a creed not to remove. Come Season 3, Pascal's invitingly chiseled, action-figure mug may more liberally come up for air motivated by the character's relationship to his clan's code of honor. And with his new role in HBO's The Last of Us, he is finally a lead laid bare for the audience. He plays Joel, the tough and gruff mumbling protagonist of the beloved video game franchise the show is based on. Trauma has tensed his character, and made him unusually adept at surviving a zombie apocalypse where cordyceps puppeteer human bodies to spread. Here, Pascal's face is always visible, if always seemingly slicked in a tasteful layer of dirt, and is uncharacteristically uninviting. But events beyond his control put a young girl, Ellie (Bella Ramsey), in his charge, whose silliness in spite of the always dire situation cracks his hard facade, letting out a glimmer of the old Joel, whose looser face more resembles the actor's own.
Although he is too humble to say so himself, Pascal carries a lot of the series' weight on his character's shoulders, and in his face, a bottomless bag of expressions and storytelling magic tricks. When complimented on his performance, and asked about the acting language he brings to the series, he refuses to highlight his own work, and defers to complimenting that of the show's creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann (creator of The Last of Us video games), and his co-star Bella Ramsey.
Fortunately, there is much else to talk about with Pascal, including his family's move to and from Chile, and his many moves around the United States. But perhaps most importantly, he talks about his beloved dog Greta, 'a hottie' with whom he shared the early days of his career in New York. Beginning the conversation, though, is talk about his fathers' a follower of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left against Chile's then Dictator Augusto Pinochet. His parents fled with the family to Denmark, where they had political asylum, and then to the US. His father is a fertility doctor, and his mother, from whom he eventually inherited his surname, Pascal, was a psychologist. The actor has called many places home. And at least for the length of the interview, he resides in California.
It sounds like you're in California.
How does California sound?
It sounds warmer than New York? Where do I start?
Where do you start? Where does it all begin?
I wanted to begin by asking a question about dads. My dad watches a lot of your films and shows. You're attached to a lot of passionate fan bases, and I feel like there's a big.
A big daddy issue?
I feel like dads comprise a significant part of your fan base. What has your engagement with dads been like?
It's funny to think about: from being a kind of aspirational working actor for many years to then being a working actor for many years but without any large-scale exposure until Game of Thrones' they weren't specific at all about what that character should sound like, and I remember thinking, 'He should sound like my dad.' Not that my dad goes around with a swashbuckling accent, but I do remember immediately anchoring myself to a sound because I knew Oberyn Martell couldn't have a natural, Orange County, California accent, you know? I don't even know what my fucking natural accent is. I spent 20 years in New York, and if I'm back there I start to sound like everyone around me in Brooklyn. So I guess it all starts with dad. I guess it begins with dad quite literally.
My dad's family and my family also moved around a lot. You mentioned before that you moved from Texas to Orange County at around 13 or 14 years old. Suddenly you didn't fit in, you felt lonely, and you leaned into movies. I reacted by trying to blend in and performing to the new crowd. I wonder if you developed a...
A need for attention?
That, or if you think moving so many times had any significant effect on how you performed for people in your day-to-day?
As you know from moving around a lot, what you learn to do is adapt. I would say that my older sister, who did all the moving with me, was smarter at that. She really knew how to adapt to her environment and I was different, I would call more attention to myself because I had that kind of need for attention, frankly. That would work for and against me depending on the circumstance, but it couldn't stop me. Look at what it's done to me.
If only I knew then, I would have shut up and gone to medical school! I wasn't smart enough to go to medical school. This fantasy about what if I would have been a doctor is such bullshit.
I'm older now, and I think it's a matter of coming to discover all the influences that different places have had on you and what it means to have moved around so much and not identify any one place as home other than basically where you are when you're there. New York is where I lived longer than I've lived anywhere in my life, but I didn't get there until I was 18 years old. Chile has always been a huge part of my identity, inside of the house I grew up in, and because my parents were fortunate enough to get out [of Chile] when they did, and also fortunate enough to get on a list of pardoned exiles by the time I was eight years old. So we were able to reunite with our families, we have very big families on both sides. We would continue to go back my whole life. My younger siblings ended up growing up in Chile because my family moved back there when I was like 19 years old, which is part of the reason I ended up in New York for so long. I'm sure I would have crawled back on my hands and knees to Orange County at some point if the option had existed.
But Chile's home. Texas can feel like home because my entire childhood was there. Orange County just feels like trauma. [laughs] Not actually. I actually had a great time in High School. I went to high school in Los Alamitos and I loved it there. That's a long-winded answer to a question you didn't really ask. Anyways, are you in Brooklyn?
I guessed it! I moved out to Red Hook in March 2002.
Was the giant IKEA already there?
The IKEA hadn't gotten there yet. It was imminent, imminent, imminent. And I was pretty north of the IKEA. I was just off of Union Street so I would take the F train to Caroll Street, step onto Smith, make a left on Union and walk literally straight to the river, cross over to the BQE, and then get to the river where Union St. ended and [there I lived] in this literally lonely building with two empty lots on both sides and an abandoned playground behind it, and the river in front of it. This four-story, weird little, it looked like something out of a grim little fairy tale, some kind of urban storybook or something. It was right around when things just started to suggest gentrification. A block away somebody I became very close to actually, Helen and Selena Couloufacos, had opened a gourmet food store [Helen's Fabulous Cheesecake] where they had these famous cheesecakes, and they'd feed them to me when I was too broke to feed myself. Me and my dog actually. That's all to say that there was this radius of energy that was so amazing and comforting in a pretty rough time, right after 9/11, and me really struggling to keep my head above water in New York and get after it and everything. Now, I think I heard from an old neighbor that the building just sold, so who knows what they're going to put there.
When you had nothing else you and your dog ate cheesecake.
It's bold to have a dog in New York.
It was rough. I felt so bad for her. She was the love of my life actually. People in the neighborhood would help me out and walk her when I was doing a double shift, brunch and dinner in Times Square, which was quite a schlep from Red Hook.
Was Red Hook as hard to get to and out of?
It was an easy taxi ride, but I didn't always have money for a cab. You get on the Brooklyn Bridge, jump right on the BQE and the BQE dumps me out right where I was. It was fast in a cab. And if it was a weekend, as you know, they reroute those fuckin' trains man! You get out of work at like midnight, 1 AM, and you should be able to get home in 30 minutes and it takes like 3 hours to get home. Those were brutal nights that I remember.
Talking about performing for others reminded me of that Marlon Brando interview with Dick Cavett, where Brando is analyzing in real-time the ways Cavett is himself acting, saying acting is not an art but just something everyone does in their day-to-day.
My observation with that interview: I feel like Brando is being confrontational because people ask him so many questions about acting. But then again, he's positioning himself to be asked those questions, and it's such an interesting conflict that is incredibly demonstrated there. There's so much mystery to [acting] and yet at the same time, it's completely pragmatic. Acting can be as completely procedural as getting an A on an essay in a High School English class or learning how to play an instrument practice makes perfect! But the achievement of the magical thing, or the constant sense of dissatisfaction that drives you to keep pushing yourself. It's all of those things. He's the north star of acting for so many of us, and you can kind of see that being that good, and that famous, takes its toll.
Has fame taken any toll on you?
I think in a practical way [fame] really isn't normal. That's the conflicted relationship that like a child has to seeking attention. When they get the attention, it doesn't feel natural. But it's very exciting. I guess I'm always kind of in denial about it. Like you ask that question and Iím like, 'What are you asking me that question for?' and you're like, 'You're famous!' I'd be like, 'You're wrong.'
I think you are famous.
You're wrong! It hasn't taken its toll at all [groans in exaggerated pain].
Before we get too far away from her, what was your New York dog's name and what breed was she?
Her name was Greta. She was like a Pit mixed with an American Staffordshire Terrier. She was the most attractive fucking dog. She was like a seal with floppy ears, and this kind of, it wasn't black and white, but espresso, almost purple brown [coat] with a white river that separated her temple, a snow-white neck and a pig pink belly, these white socks, and this little white tip at the tip of her tail. she was such a hottie. She was the coolest dog, man.
Do you have any dogs now?
I got a dog out of shelter many years ago and found him a home. I considered keeping him and then realized he was not into having to move around so much. Then I found him the perfect place. I've always had this weird worry that while I do love dogs generally, I'll never get over Greta. No other dog will live up to her! I'm setting them up for failure!
I could keep asking about Greta, but time is limited and I should probably ask about your latest roles.
Oh, right! We should probably talk about The Last of Us.
What was it like to study a video game performance in The Last of Us, which is the combination of so many different elements?
I was more excited about discovering the world and how fun it would be if I had the fucking skill to play the game. It's funny to get into the details of it. I didn't have time to get good at it, to see how it unfolded, which is why I depended on my nephew, who was so good at it. He would play it to get me further and toward the story points. I wanted to understand the emotional tone of the world, not necessarily just the character of Joel, to kind of put those puzzle pieces together and see how much it could activate my brain to deal with what was so available on the page. Craig Mazin's a brilliant screenwriter. I feel like he knows the medium better than most. So much of the work is already done. I was frankly just curious about the game and in that curiosity discovered Troy Baker's incredible authorship of the character that I needed to put together for myself. I feel like I couldn't have done it without what he had already done. Like it was a character in a book. How a writer describes the internal monologue of what a characterís going through is sort of how detailed the motion capture performance is. It was a great guide.
Any specific things that carry over?
It was amazing that Craig and Neil were so confident in handing [the role] over [to me]. When I think back on it, they're nuts! Where are you getting your faith? It was a little strange. If anything, I was always being reminded to bring more of myself to it. But specifically, there was a physical presence that I thought was very very important and that could be completely lost on audiences watching the show, but it was definitely essential to me to anchor myself into the skin of the character that I drew directly from Troy's performance and the visuals of the game. It's just like putting information into your brain and not necessarily knowing how to organize it, but just absorbing it and hoping it's going to help you. Believe what you're doing and be believed. You don't necessarily know if it's going to work. It was just the totality of it that I wanted to take in, and have that consciously in some instances and unconsciously in others inform what I was doing.
I think you bring something unique to the character that was not there in the video game Joel. There's a complex resentment that can be read in so many of your gestures and expressions.
Trauma and grief are such layered and textured things and so much of it is a mystery to us the way it shapes us. That's really well drawn with the character simply by circumstance: how the game starts and the story starts and it's something that Craig really leaned into in the adaptation. He saw these golden nuggets of emotional trauma. He knew how to nourish it on the page. As wonderfully executed as it is when you read what Craig writes on the page, it is almost like reading a book and the internal thoughts and emotional tone of the character and emotional movement of the episode are so written out for you that it really does get all the work done, to be honest.
You're very humble.
No, I'm serious I'll send you one they'll have to publish one of the scripts so that people can understand how much of a river of language, which you usually do not get from television or movie scripts, come through the technical aspects of interior, exterior, cut to this, cut to that, etc.
But I also think there's a rich language to how you specifically are reacting to things, the way you very slowly and reluctantly open up to Ellie as an actor.
It's so clear what's going on, you know? Thatís incredible story structure that starts with the game, and the adaptation takes every opportunity to flesh stuff out. There might not be a bunch of Molotov cocktails being thrown or a hundred different ways of killing infected and choking people out, but the story points and the opportunity for it to be expanded on is what they're doing. Essentially the relationship between this man and this young girl, who reflects his own violence, his world-weariness, and his own kind of basically cynical worldview back at him. But her cynical worldview hasn't shattered her hope and fascination with the world that she's discovering. So I think ultimately to see a shred of hope and to kind of activate what in his heart he thought was long dead, that died twenty years ago with his daughter, and his failure to save his daughter, is reignited by the character of Ellie. That is a very simple format, but the simplicity of it allows for so much layering in terms of finding hope again and being unwilling to lose that hope again at any cost.
The moment when Joel realizes Ellie has also committed violence that is something intimate that they share is a sort of breakthrough and point of connection for them.
What connects them is a beautiful but also scary thing. In this relationship, what Craig and Neil are doing is basically showing how the relationship between parents and children isn't a two-dimensional thing or there's not one moral compass around it. It's fascinating to share the richness of that kind of relationship with the world of the apocalypse, horror, and action, a very genre-related franchise.
Queerness was a part of the video game series, but Mazin and Druckmann have foregrounded it in the show. In the former, Joel doesn't really engage with Ellie's queerness. I'm not sure if you can answer this without spoilers, but does he engage with it in the show?
In Joel's heart, he's an aspiring musician. As tough as he may come across, and although his skills may be in construction and killing, he wishes he was in Crosby, Stills, & Nash. Heartbreakingly he has more of an artist's heart. As a single father, I think he would completely accept that Sarah was gay and also with Ellie, it simply it isn't even a moment of pause, it's just, 'Oh, I didn't know that. Makes sense. Moving on.' I guess it's a non-issue for Joel, which I find kind of beautiful in that masculine archetype.
That brings me to Pedro Almodóvar's upcoming queer cowboy short film, Strange Way of Life, in which your character is in love with another cowboy played by Ethan Hawke. I imagine this character is a kind of deconstruction of some of the masculine archetypes you've played in the past, including Joel?
Have you seen Almodóvar's films?
He was one of my biggest influences when I got a little older. I remember seeing Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown as a teenager with my family as a kid. He's one of my family's most beloved filmmakers. So it was an opportunity to get to work with one of if not my favorite filmmakers. Anything that he does, whether it's more dramatic, comedic, or thriller, is very personal to him. But in this piece, as in Dolor y Gloria [Pain and Glory], I feel there's a very personal expression that he is asking me to step into. This is the case even in wearing his colors. I've got this bright green denim jacket and red plaid underneath. I hadn't even realized it until later, when I wrote him and said, 'You're putting your colors on my body.' And he's like, 'Duh.' Stepping into something that is personal to him and achieving that for him, what that means takes care of itself in the telling. Whether it's breaking down tropes that you find in westerns or masculinity, sexuality between men, love. If youíre anchoring yourself to a truthful telling of the story youíre inherently expressing all of those thingsóhonoring them, deconstructing them, questioning them.
Was it easy or difficult for you to act attracted to Ethan Hawke?
Very easy. That's a dumb question! Think about staring into those steel fucking blue eyes. Brown eyes are great! Chocolate chips! But, you know, that steel blue stare of his. Oh god, I don't mean to make Zoolander references while talking about this film.
It seems from past interviews that you saw a lot of R-rated films when you were young. Were there any that disturbed you so much that you had to look away?
It's so hard to look away. I remember the ones that gave me nightmares for sure. I had a real taste for horror and still do. I just think it's a safe thrill-seeking kind of energy, like rollercoasters knowing that nothing real is going to happen to you but you're not convinced of that because of how scared you are. My parents would fall asleep and I would have already looked up Children of the Corn coming on at like 11 at night on HBO. Turning it on and putting it on mute and hoping I wouldn't get caught and scaring the shit out of myself. I guess I found it thrilling in some cases, and in others, I really regretted it because it really gave me nightmares. But I couldn't help myself.
In your Wired interview, you expressed some guilt about your relatively new success and living 'capitalistically.' In that regard, how do you think someone with your fame and power can live effectively and responsibly?
I don't think there's any one way. I think there's an endless amount of ways that you can make your responsibility, be open to, and discover and make use of or not. I personally believe that, while not religious and not growing up in a church, and not having that influence shape my mind, there is still a moral obligation at the center that drives me to do good. That doesn't make me an activist. It doesn't make me talented in that regard, as far as figuring out how to make a contribution. But just meaning to [make a contribution], and deciding to when and where, if possible, even in a personal way, even in a small way in the day-to-day, just treat people with respect and protect the underdog.
Photographed by Christopher Schoonover
Styled by Chloe Hartstein
Written by A.E. Hunt
Groomer: Courtney Ullrich
Flaunt Film: Jonathan Schoonover