Millions of people who played The Last of Us Part II saw in Jesse a strong Asian-American male character voiced by actor Stephen Chang.
Jesse is an evil scout and zombie killer who accompanies protagonist Ellie on her quest for revenge, and we get to know him as a strong, loyal and friendly character – before the story of developer Naughty Dog unceremoniously kills him. His post impressed me as I’ve rarely seen Asian Americans play such an important role in video games. The last of us Part II is full of different characters at a time when so many other games are noticeably absent.
Now Chang is playing a role in Artificial, a new type of television show that airs on Twitch. It is a remotely produced science fiction series that explores the limits of humanity and artificial intelligence. What’s special about it is that the audience can vote through live polls which characters will stay on the show and what they will do. When the audience votes for a big story, tons of alternative scripts land on the cutting room floor. The audience can also control the tone of the music.
Chang, who played the character Sebastian in the second and current season three, said he loved the challenge of this type of improvisational work. We recently had a chance to talk about the new medium and its prominent role in The Last of Us Part II.
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Here is an edited transcript of our interview.
Image Credit: Twitch
GamesBeat: I played through The Last of Us Part II on my own and then with my daughter a second time. That was quite an experience. I was very proud to see the character you portrayed there in Jesse. It was very interesting to see such a prominent role for an Asian American in one of the best games of the year. Congratulations on that.
Stephen Chang: Well, thank you. I’m honored, I’m honored
GamesBeat: How did you feel about the role itself? Did you feel like it was groundbreaking for you?
Chang: No, I didn’t really think about it that much back then. I was just trying not to screw up and get fired. But in retrospect, it was definitely an honor. I just told someone this – I give Neil and the Naughty Dog writing team the honor of daring and depicting him this way. You are in control of what you want to post there. I may just be the ship it came through. But they had the foresight, the knowledge, the courage to bring it there. I give them a lot of credit. I am only getting the rewards of what they did.
GamesBeat: I could call you Jesse in this interview because your voice and his image are so closely related in my head.
Chang: Yeah, yeah, that’s cool. I will answer man. “Hey Jesse!” “How are you?”
GamesBeat: There is something very macho about the character, but the voice is also very clear in the same direction. It felt like a match with the character they’d created.
Chang: I’m sure that’s why they somehow cast me. They knew what they were doing. I sound like that. I’m glad you think it sounds macho because it doesn’t sound very macho in my head sometimes. I appreciate it.
GamesBeat: Your accent sounds very southern. I don’t know where you are from
Chang: Yeah it’s weird. I’m just from that [San Francisco] Bay Area, but I have – I tell people in a past life that I might be from the south and it’s still on my mind.
GamesBeat: I found it sad that you were denied a long and drawn out death scene.
Chang: To answer that, I’ve done a death scene before. It’s no fun. Shoot me in the head as many times as you want. It is much easier to act, just be shot in the head and die, than to commit a long, drawn out death. I will take this every day.
GamesBeat: Did the role get you a lot of attention too? Has it opened some doors for you? Or was that already for you?
Chang: I don’t know – I’m sure it is. It’s not like someone called me and said, “Hey, you’re booked next.” It didn’t open that type of door. But with that kind of – I feel like I’m still learning with acting. But being definitely in a project like this can only be seen as an attribute of your career, as a stepping stone for something else. Honestly, I’d be honored to be working on anything with Naughty Dog and Neil again because it was a great experience.
GamesBeat: Maybe Jesse had a twin brother or something.
Chang: Yes, maybe we can do the origin story.
GamesBeat: Artificial sounds seem to have been going on for a long time. I didn’t know it was that interesting. How long has it been since you got involved?
Chang: I was in season two, which was last year. I wasn’t in season one. Last year was the same dynamic that it’s an audience-driven show. The audience chooses where the storylines should go, which was pretty bizarre for me as an actor because sometimes you have to learn two different scripts. You have to go with the flow where it goes and it’s live. This year it was just put on steroids. It’s two hours instead of an hour, with a larger cast in remote locations. There are so many moving parts this season but still the momentum that drove the show. But it’s amazing. It’s a game changing experience. I’ve never been involved in anything like this.
Photo credit: Naughty Dog
GamesBeat: Has it shifted from something that was live to something that was more recorded?
Chang: It’s always live. It’s stressful man, but it’s live. Live two hours. You’re on a tightrope. We come to the end of this season. There are two more live episodes. I’m forgetting this year, but I think it was 12 episodes, two hours each, all live. I can’t believe the writers. You have to write every week and you don’t know where the story is going because the audience makes the choice. It’s a love job, this project.
GamesBeat: How do you feel about your character?
Chang: I think he’s the hero. I think he’ll save the day. But everyone calls me a bad guy so I don’t know. Maybe I have my head in the clouds. But it’s fun. He’s a very exaggerated, extravagant guy. It’s fun to play. I usually don’t get a chance to play characters like him.
GamesBeat: That sounds pretty stressful with the branching storylines. You don’t know exactly which lines to deliver.
Chang: Extremely stressful! But worthwhile, I’ll put it that way. If you can do it, you think, “Damn it, this is amazing. I can’t believe we did. “
GamesBeat: Are you sad about the lines that are left behind when you walk down another branch?
Chang: I’m just happy to get through the show so I don’t mind, but I’m sure – there was a scene with one of the main characters and they had a trial. He would be either guilty or innocent. If he was guilty he would essentially go to jail, so he’s done. He’s off the show. He was voted innocent, but he had to be prepared for whatever the audience chose. A beautiful scene was written, in case he was guilty, his parting with his daughter, and now nobody will be able to see it anymore. But I saw it! It was wonderful.
GamesBeat: Do you even have to play in front of an audience if you want them to vote the way you want them to?
Chang: I think you could. Like I said, I’m just trying to remember my lines so I don’t have much time to berate the audience. Maybe some of the other actors do it on the side, and that’s how they win all of these polls.
GamesBeat: How much preparation is there in these two hours? I suppose you have to rewrite a lot over time. Do you need to contribute to this ever-changing script?
Chang: You definitely have to be flexible. The preparation, I would say – there is a lot of preparation. We rehearse all day on Tuesday. We rehearse until the show on Thursday before we go live. A lot of preparatory work is being done. It is a challenge. But strangely enough it feels second nature now. Okay, let’s do that. When life comes you just roll with it. You won’t be perfect, but you go with the flow.
GamesBeat: Do you like this topic about AI and science fiction?
Chang: Yes, I find it fascinating. They ask a lot of questions that people will ask in the future as AI becomes even more popular. It is interesting. I feel like this process that happened on the show, we joked about it, but it will probably happen one day. A robot is going to kill someone, and who is to blame? I don’t know, but these are some of the questions we ask. It is fascinating. It’s a moral debate. I like this.
GamesBeat: How was your acting career as an Asian American?
Chang: You know I wish I could say it was something amazing that I’m kind of breaking the ground, but I’m just trying to get jobs when I can. I go out and audition like an actor of any ethnicity or origin. They are just trying to work their way up the food chain. It’s a challenge just to get jobs. You are basically a freelancer. You audition and try to get one thing. You get a lot of no, a lot of rejections, so you have to get good at it. I wish I could say I was an overnight success story, but it’s hard work like most things in life.
GamesBeat: I got a feeling if you sum up what we saw in The Last of Us Part II, the cast was really amazing. There was so much variety for a video game, even among the bad guys. You have found these pretty ordinary people with diverse backgrounds that you sneak behind.
Chang: It’s a will for Naughty Dog, for Neil and his entire team. That was her vision. I am honored to be part of it again.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that you are at the top in a few places here. Different types of actors that haven’t really happened before.
Chang: May they keep coming in. Please, acting gods, may they continue!
GamesBeat: Do you like the kind of acting that is part of Artificial, or would you rather do more prescribed, pre-written things?
Chang: I hate sounding so pathetic, but I’ll take whatever I can get. It does not matter. Do you want to improvise? I will improvise. You want me to jump through a hoop, I jump through a hoop! Who knows these days