Keivonn Woodard discovered his passion for ice hockey at the age of 3 when he was invited to join his older sister for a friend’s birthday party at an ice rink.
Within minutes of being on the ice, Keivonn no longer needed the training walker. A few months later, Keivonn had his fourth birthday at the same ice rink. After the party, a few kids skated onto the ice in full hockey gear.
“He asked, ‘Oh, Mom, I want to be like them. I want to do that, I want to do that,’” said April Jackson-Woodard, through a sign language interpreter in an interview at a restaurant near their home this month.
“The rest was history,” she said.
Nearly seven years later, Keivonn has found a new passion off the ice: acting.
The 10-year-old Bowie resident, who is deaf, starred last month in the hit HBO television series, “The Last of Us,” an adaptation of the 2013 zombie apocalypse video game. Keivonn plays Sam Burrell, an 8-year-old boy who is deaf. Appearing in the show’s fourth and fifth episodes, Sam is on the run with his brother, Henry, and encounters the show’s protagonists, Joel, played by Pedro Pascal and Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey, as they escape hordes of “the infected,” as the zombies are known.
Despite some early jitters about how scary the costumed zombies looked, Keivonn soon warmed to his breakout role after he met some of the actors as they put on prosthetics and makeup. By the end of filming, Keivonn had spent time between takes signing with Ramsey and teaching basic hand gestures to his on-screen brother, played by Lamar Johnson.
“It didn’t look like a real person at first and then it was explained to me that it was just makeup, and they were showing me their fake teeth and all that,” Keivonn said through an interpreter.
‘This is a big opportunity’
A year before Keivonn’s episodes aired, Jackson-Woodard learned of the casting call on social media seeking a Black, deaf actor between the ages of 8 and 12 after more than 40 people shared the listing with her. Keivonn had made his film debut in 2018, playing a student in “Seeds of Hope: The Andrew Jackson Foster Story,” about the first deaf Black person to graduate from Gallaudet College. Jackson-Woodard played Foster’s mother.
Keivonn had always enjoyed acting and became more interested in it after watching some of his favorite movies and television shows when he was little, his mother said. But he was a little nervous initially, at least until “The Last of Us” came along.
“I asked Keivonn ‘Are you interested?’ and he shoulder shrugged,” Jackson-Woodard said. “I explained, ‘This is a big role. This is a big opportunity. You’ve seen my work as an actor and as a storyteller, so this is different.’”
Keivonn’s audition tapes were submitted on a Monday and he received a call-back audition the next day. By Friday of that same week Jackson-Woodard and Keivonn were uprooting their lives in Bowie to spend the next two months living in Alberta, Canada, for filming.
“Keivonn immediately stood out to us [during auditions for the show] because he was so natural. He wasn’t trying to act,” Craig Mazin, one of the show’s co-creators and writers, said in an email. “He simply performed as the character, and that kind of effortless ease is what we’re always looking for in dramatic actors.”
At the time of Keivonn’s casting, his hockey team, the Bowie Bruins under-10 recreational team, was a month away from finishing its season.
Though still only in elementary school, Keivonn takes the sport very seriously, said Nathan Croney, one of Kievonn’s interpreters for the past six years and who bonded with him over the sport. He wears yellow laces on his ice skates, matching the colors worn by his favorite hockey player, Alexander Ovechkin, the left-wing and captain for the Washington Capitals.
Before practice, he is very particular about the tape that is placed on his hockey stick and the level of tightness of his skates — not too tight, but not too loose —before he heads onto the ice. It was difficult for Keivonn to leave the game he loves, his mother said. As the team’s starting center, he’s responsible for keeping the puck moving on offense and setting up his teammates to score.
Thankfully, being in Canada, the birthplace of modern hockey, Keivonn didn’t have a hard time finding a place to continue honing his skills.
During downtime from filming, he was able to practice with a local under-12 hockey team. The driver that took mother and son to and from the set had a son who played hockey just a few minutes from where they were staying and invited Keivonn to practice with the team.
“We went there many times,” Jackson-Woodard said. “He was so excited. I told him that it would be a good experience playing with older kids because you’ll have more confidence and you’ll do better with your own age group.”
In a behind-the-scenes feature that follows episode 5 of “The Last of Us,” co-creator Neil Druckmann revealed that in the video game the series is inspired by, Sam is not deaf.
During the show’s script writing process, Mazin pitched the idea of there being a deaf character as a way to highlight similar dynamics between Sam and Henry and the show’s main characters, Joel and Ellie, while also showing how the world they’ve built affects other survivors.
“I had an instinct that after writing so many scenes between Joel and Ellie, I needed a different manner of communication between Sam and Henry,” Mazin said in an email. “That started [my] thinking in a very literal way about how we talk to each other, and that led me to consider ASL [American Sign Language]. It’s quiet, and there’s physical intimacy in that quiet. It helps us isolate Henry and Sam even further from the world around them, creating a bubble that we, as an audience, want to preserve and protect.”
“Beyond those creative reasons, I’m personally committed to showing people with disabilities on screen,” he added. “There are so many of us who live with disabilities, and drama should meaningfully reflect the world around us, even as it presents fictional versions of our reality.”
The fact that her son is able to represent underrepresented populations has given Jackson-Woodard “an overwhelming sense of pride,” she said.
“As a Black deaf person ... there are not many of us in Hollywood films. I had a lot of failures [in] acting and really struggled to get through to the large industry,” she said. “Keivonn just got this opportunity out of the blue on a random day and he got this role and it was just unbelievable that he was able to break through and that shocks the community, you know. We’re saying, ‘It’s about time there’s representation for us as well.’”
Now, she said whenever he is out in public, he is recognized as Sam.
According to Keivonn’s mother, the only time he was ambivalent about acting in the show was when he was told he’d have to interact with the clickers, the name given to the infected humans that have taken over most of the fictional world. The monsters have grotesque fungus-like growths that envelope their heads.
Unlike his mother, Keivonn said that he has never been a fan of Halloween because he dislikes all the jump scares and people in costumes that try to frighten him.
In the show, Sam, Henry, Ellie and Joel are forced into a final confrontation with a group of rebels that have been hunting them to serve justice after the death of an important member of the rebels’ group. The two groups are met by a hoard of clickers that run rampant, trying to infect more people. The scene required Keivonn to interact with the clickers face-to-face.
After conversations with the set directors, Jackson-Woodard was able to set up a time when Keivonn could meet the actors who played the clickers out of costume and watch the makeup process to acclimate him to the monsters.
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“Towards the end [of filming] they were trying to spook him and he said, ‘I’m not scared to you,’” his mother said.
Other than that specific instance, Jackson-Woodard said her son thrived on set and developed a close relationship with other cast members.
Keivonn said that he especially liked working with Ramsey, and Johnson. According to Jackson-Woodard, Ramsey was already familiar with British Sign Language so she was able to communicate with Keivonn.
“When they met, they clicked and it was easy to communicate. She’s a fast learner, very receptive and super motivated,” Jackson-Woodard said. “They just kind of hit it off and they were talking and talking and Lamar kind of joined in.”
“He enjoyed himself and when we were ready to leave, he didn’t want to leave. He wanted to stay and keep working,” Jackson-Woodard said. “They treated him like family.”
With the show’s first season coming to an end, Keivonn is gearing up for his next acting gig in an unnamed film this summer, his mom said.
Keivonn’s hockey season has also ended but he is already looking forward to the next one in October. When asked if he plans to dress up as Sam for Halloween, he said, “No, I’ll go as a clicker.”