As a kid, “Lara Croft naked” was a common term in my search history. I’m only slightly ashamed to admit that—no more so than I am to confess that I saw the mediocre Angelina Jolie adaptation opening day in 2001. I didn’t even have a PlayStation (I was a Nintendo guy), but Croft was my ultimate gaming crush.
As fondly as I can look back on that, I’m also thankful that video games have grown up as I have. And the newest iteration of Tomb Raider is as far from the fantasies of my youth as possible—serious, well-written and with a redesigned Lara Croft who’s realistic, sympathetic and complex.
With Rise of the Tomb Raider, the sequel to the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, out this week, I got to sit down at Microsoft’s Venice Beach event space with actress Camilla Luddington—who provides not just the voice of Lara Croft, but her appearance, emotions and actions, too, thanks to the magic of modern motion capture technology. We talked about what it’s like to portray the iconic character, how fans react when they recognize her, Lara’s bold transformation, and who Camilla’s pop culture crushes are.
Playboy: You’ve been playing Lara Croft for a number of years at this point. And she’s such an iconic character, like Mario or Master Chief, who reaches beyond just the world of gaming. What’s it like portraying such a recognizable character?
Camilla Luddington: Well at first, when I got the call that I was going to be Lara Croft, it was intimidating, because she is so iconic. But I have spent now six years with her—the first game took three years, this game took two and there was a year in between—now I feel like she’s a part of me, almost like we’re related. And it’s funny because now I can’t imagine not going on this journey with her. She’s still iconic to me but now she feels like she’s actually a part of me.
So you feel like you’ve settled into the role pretty well?
Yeah, I do, I do. You know, I think there’s something to say for something that takes so long to film. You spend so much energy and you put so much of yourself into the role, and obviously this is a character that goes through physical and emotional extremes, so you can’t help but leave a little bit of yourself behind when you’re giving yourself to a game.
The character has changed a lot, not just from past versions but also from the 2013 game to this one. Have you felt that transformation?
Yeah, I think that she’s driven by—you know, in the first game when she arrived on Yamatai she was naive and inexperienced, and I think in this game she’s haunted by sort of what has happened to her, and there’s a lot of questions that she wants answered. And so there’s this obsessive drive now to get those answers to those questions. And also in this game we sort of discover more about her past and her relationship with her father, and that is also adding to her drive. Are people recognizing you from Tomb Raider?
From Tomb Raider [they] really do, yeah! I mean I sort of expect it from [Grey’s Anatomy] since it’s a TV show that’s on every single week in people’s homes, but I’m surprised all the time that I get recognized from Tomb Raider too.
Are you recognized more from Tomb Raider or from Grey’s?
Oh, definitely from Grey’s. But, you know, I do get approached about Tomb Raider quite a lot, and it’s always wonderful to meet fans. And then of course I get to go to Comic-Con and things like that and see fans in cosplay, which is really fun.
Do you go in Lara Croft cosplay?
They’re in cosplay! But do you know what, like, this time around when I did go to Comic-Con they had a booth set up where you could put on the Lara jacket and hold a pickaxe and you could be in front of this kind of screen that looked just like the front cover of the game and you got to do a little pose.
So did you do it?
Yes I did it! [laughing] Absolutely! I think I Instagram’d it. I had to.
How do people react when they recognize you from the games and meet you? Are they like “Oh my god it’s Lara Croft!”
You know, it’s so wonderful because I feel like, you know, you’re sort of stuck in a [voice acting] booth creating the game, and then you sort of forget, almost, that people are going to see it, because you’re having this experience by yourself. And so when I meet fans and they tell me how the characters inspired them and how much they love the game—you just feel like “Oh, yes, of course! People are playing this! People are also on this journey with me.” So it’s a nice reminder.
Everybody has a crush on Lara Croft, right? Do you feel like they transfer that to you at all? Do guys come up and get nervous?
You know what’s funny, is that the guys I meet are very cheeky, and they like, especially from the first game, they like to dress up as Alex—in Alex’s death scene he gets a kiss on the cheek. And so they go “Hey, can we like, recreate the death scene?” The first time I was asked that I was like “What do you mean by that?” And they’re like, “You know like, when Lara gives him like a kiss on the cheek,” And so I’m like “Sigh. OK.” [laughing]
That’s your impression of an American Dude?
That’s my impression, yes, yes! [laughing] Across the board, that’s my impression. It’s pretty spot on.
Who were your pop culture crushes growing up or right now? Is there anyone you’d get nervous about meeting?
You know what, right now I have the biggest girl crush on Harley Quinn. I haven’t even seen Suicide Squad (because obviously it’s not out) but just the pictures, I do have a girl crush.
Guy crushes are OK too!
Guy crush? OK, guy crush I had growing up—well, this is not very funny, I mean, like, I had a crush on Kevin from The Wonder Years! That was my first crush, seriously! it was love!
I had a crush on Winnie from The Wonder Years.
Who didn’t? Yeah! That was my first crush.
So have you played the new game at all?
This is my first time actually having the game to play. As we go along and we film the game and shoot it I get to see tiny sketches or very short sequences, but this is my first time playing it, today. Between interviews I’ve sort of been able to run over there and get a chance to play a little bit.
I saw a Reddit topic today about how ridiculous it looks, with a shot of Lara walking on a mountain in the snow with the sun shining on her…
Is it because no one can walk on snow?
I think it was because the graphics are amazing! I meant “ridiculously good,” sorry!
Oh, I thought you meant like, ridiculously bad! I was like, who said this? I’m like, already on Reddit. “You watch your mouth!” OK.
No, sorry! So a coworker came up to me at the end of the day after I said I was coming to interview you and she said “I have never played a video game or wanted to play a video game ever, but I wanted to play Tomb Raider.”
Yes! I love that. OK, so I have to say this: that’s something that I absolutely love, is that I meet fans who have not played a game before and they’ve picked up Tomb Raider, and that is incredible to me. That means that it’s appealing in the way that we hoped. What do you think of what you’ve played so far?
Well I’m terrible at it. It’s really—I’m so frustrated! It took me forever to complete the first game, and I thought that somehow I would have remembered some sort of skills. I have zero skills. I think the graphics are just amazing. It’s kind of, I think it’s a different experience for me because she has my mannerisms and my voice, you know, so it’s kind of bizarre.
Do you find it weird playing?
Yeah, it’s kind of weird playing because I feel detached from it but I also feel in it at the same time.
Has it gotten more or less weird over the six years you’ve been playing Lara?
I think because it’s more realistic this time around, it’s weirder. Yeah. It is, it’s very bizarre to see your face on somebody else.
I mean, lots of games have character creation features, and I always make a character who looks like me—granted with bigger muscles and a better beard and more tattoos. But Lara Croft is you and you’re her in a very different way.
Well she’s not exactly me, but I feel like she’s similar enough, and of course I can see even my own manners, you know, my facial expressions and everything in her. So it’s just, it’s a weird experience but it’s really fun.
Did you see when Conan played the 2013 Tomb Raider in his Clueless Gamer segment?
I went on Conan! Yeah, I saw him play it, he was terrible—and then I went on and he told me that it really upset him—
That he was so bad at it?
Because he was falling in love with her at the same time!
As he watched her die…
As he impaled her! So he was very torn.
Who do you think is worse at the game, you or him?
That’s a close call. I think I’m worse but I want to go on and play it with him. I think I’m going to go on, hopefully for the second game, and visit again and then we’ll have like a battle.
To see who can make Lara die in a more gruesome way?
Yeah, or just survive! [laughing] Surviving would be the aim.
I feel like the image of Lara has changed so much over the years, she was such a sexual icon and really the only one in the world of gaming, and now she’s a much stronger, better character, and we’ve gotten away from the objectification a lot. What did it take to make that transformation happen?
You know what, I think that the biggest thing is that I know that when they were doing the reboot they really wanted to make her realistic, and just speaking from purely a practical standpoint, if you’re going to be rock climbing, or you’re going to Siberia, you know, pants make sense, and so does a jacket to keep you warm. I feel like it was sort of an easy transition into something that made sense.
Just being practical?
There’s like that controversy with Jurassic World, right?
Where she’s in heels. Yeah.
We’re not going to see that with Lara ever again hopefully.
Yeah, I don’t see her in heels any time soon.
There was some criticism of the first game that she transitioned too quickly from being this innocent character to killing a bunch of people, and it’s sort of just the trappings of video games, that violence is such an important interaction in most games. But I liked that when Rise of the Tomb Raider was revealed the first trailer showed her in therapy dealing with the fallout of the first game’s events. Will players see that side of it more in the game?
Listen, yeah, absolutely, she didn’t walk away from that experience and not be affected by it. She’s deeply affected by it. She’s haunted by it. And now she has this obsessive drive to answer questions that the island thrust in front of her eyes. And yeah, I mean, I like that she was in therapy too. I thought that that was realistic—that if you went through a trauma like that—which it is—that you know you would come out the other end and maybe need to talk about it—which she does. But I think that for Lara it’s never just the thrill of killing. I don’t think that’s what it’s about. I think it’s just she literally is hunted in the game, and she’s doing anything to survive.
Is it fun to shoot that more action-y stuff or do you feel like a person in a motion capture jumpsuit with a bunch of goofy white balls attached to you?
No, not really, because I feel like I always ask questions, so I’m never told to do something and say like “OK, fine!” I have to understand where she’s at emotionally at that point in the game so that I’m not just shooting someone for the reason of shooting someone. I want to know where she came from and why is it that she is in this moment with that person. So no, I try to always ground those scenes.
What do you think is going to be the coolest part of the game for people to play?
People learn a lot more about who Lara is in this game and her past, and I think that things get revealed that are surprising and interesting and I think anyone who’s a fan of Lara will thoroughly enjoy it.
Cool! I can’t wait to play it. Thanks, Camilla.
Lara Croft’s newest adventure, Rise of the Tomb Raider, is out now on Xbox One and Xbox 360 and will be released next year on Windows and PS4.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games. He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and two dogs. If Danica McKellar wants to get in touch she can reach him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.
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