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Ella Purnell on Surviving Yellowjackets As ‘Queen Bee’ Jackie

Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images

Spoilers ahead for the season-one finale of Yellowjackets.

Meeting Jackie in the pilot of Showtime’s Yellowjackets is like running into an old foe. You know her by the bounce of her ponytail, the fearlessness in her eyes, and the need to be liked by her even if you don’t really care for her at all. As the queen of the Yellowjackets, soccer captain Jackie is primarily their biggest cheerleader, inspiring others with the can-do spirit of someone who’s never had to work for anything. It was effective for a legion of fans who, by the time of Jackie’s death in the finale, had already formed theories about her being a time-traveling cinephile or stealing Misty Quigley’s identity — or maybe Lottie Matthews’s (Courtney Eaton), or maybe she’s been Shauna (Sophie Nelisse) the whole time. What if she thaws out in the springtime and becomes a woman of the woods? (Really? The girl who still wore makeup in the wilderness?)

Love for Jackie — and, hey, even hatred for Jackie — is owed to Ella Purnell (Sweetbitter), who digs her nails into the character’s stubborn personal quest for a sense of normalcy in the wilderness, eventually getting herself ousted from the squad. It’s the moment we’d been bracing for since the series opened with the girl on the spears wearing Jackie’s gold heart necklace, something she might have anticipated once or twice since crash-landing (probably the second a vengeful Van emerges from the flaming plane after Jackie left her behind). Instead of fighting for her own survival, she spends her free time in the Canadian wilderness steering into the skid — antagonizing Natalie (Sophie Thatcher), reading Shauna’s diary, having sex with Travis (Kevin Alves), all the way up to kicking herself out of the cabin. She’s desperate not to be the cliché she appears to be, but she’s perhaps even more desperate to cling to a society where things like pressed collars mean something. Vulture spoke to Purnell about living and dying as Jackie plus how badly she wants to come back and haunt some people.

The season finale ends with Jackie unconscious, covered in snow. Did you know how far Jackie was going to make it? 
I did, yeah. When I signed up for the pilot, they told me, “This is a one-season deal. Jackie will die in the finale.” And then as the season went on, and I realized I actually really liked the show and I really liked the people, I kept trying to convince the writers like, “Okay, so what if Jackie doesn’t die?” And they’re like, “No, she’s gotta go.” I definitely was kind of bummed when it finally hit me two and a half years later.

One hundred percent that’s how we’re feeling, too. Like, Maybe they’ll warm her up.
I’m pretty sure I’m dead. I’ve got many theories, but I’m not going to share them. I’d love to come back. Really, I’d love to haunt as many people as I can.

And speaking of hauntings, that dream sequence that Jackie has right before her death: Shauna turns to her and says, “I love you.” Everyone else has that demonic “I love you.” How did you interpret Jackie’s imagination?
That was one of those scenes that I was like, How the fuck am I gonna pull this off? I had a lot of reservations about my ability to really sell that, both the physicality of being that cold and then, second of all, to sell the believability because I didn’t want to give away too soon that it was a dream sequence. What I loved about it, and what was kind of my shining beacon throughout the scene, was that all Jackie has ever wanted, ever since they got into that plane — and maybe even for some weeks or months before that, especially in relation to her relationship with Shauna — is to be admired, to be adored, to have herself valued and purposeful.

Episode one, you see her in her element. She’s queen bee; she has everything going for her. Then as soon as you take her out of that, and you put them in the wilderness and have these 15, 16 girls fend for themselves, all of Jackie’s social standing falls away. She doesn’t have any interests or hobbies or musings or observations deep inside. So when you ask someone to dig deep into the depths of their resilience, she has nothing there. It’s interesting having everyone turn around and take care of her, warm her physically, nurture her, feed her, tell her they love her. That’s everything she’s wanted in this one moment. And I think that’s when — or how I played it in some of the tapes was — that’s when the mistrust starts to form.

How do you play someone who is fighting so hard for her standing in this group, but also just doesn’t have a lot to go on?
I was worried she would just become instantly unlikable. When she doesn’t pull her weight in the group, that would piss anyone off. That would piss me off! I was worried I would lose the audience early on and they wouldn’t give a shit if I died.

The first turning point for Jackie is when she’s the last one to let go of hope that they might get rescued. The second one is when she reads Shauna’s journals. With Shauna and Jackie, we’re really playing with morals, who’s a good person and a bad person, who does good things and bad things. And when you take these people out of this regular society that we all live in, then you put them into a life-or-death survivalist situation, none of it fucking matters. So some of the audience are going to say, Well, Jackie had it coming to her because she’s so mean to Shauna and blah, blah, blah, and some of the audience are going to understand the power of Lottie’s leadership and the loss of morals. I haven’t been reading too much about my character specifically, but I have been reading a lot of theories.

Are you aware of the theory that Jackie is a time-traveler?
Yes, so we have a group chat. Jane Widdop is super-big on Reddit and Twitter, and I don’t do Twitter or anything like that. Jane sent me one today — basically all these different theories about Jackie being alive because her pop-culture references surpass ’96. I didn’t actually think about any of that.

Even the smallest details from the show have become theories about Jackie maybe possibly being alive. There’s one where people think that she killed Misty Quigley, assumed her identity, and now is being played by Christina Ricci.
I love that; that’s so funny. When someone’s in denial, there is no telling to what ends they will go.

The fight Jackie and Shauna get into is completely brutal. What was it like screaming back and forth with Sophie Nélisse and feeling that energy from all the women in the room?
It kind of does a number on you. With Sophie, I really had to do very little because she’s such a phenomenal actress. It’s such a pleasure working with her and such a joy working with other good actors because you don’t have to do anything. She’ll do something slightly different, and it will just bring up so much emotion, and it’s different every single time. There was a couple scenes — one of them was when Lottie pulls me around on the shrooms night in “Doomcoming” and shows everyone the blood on my dress and then locks me in the pantry. I mean, the nice thing is, we’re such a close cast that like literally halfway through, I was like, “I’m sad, can I have a hug?” and everyone just gave me a group hug and it was fine. But when you spend six hours being screamed out, shouted out, pushed, shoved on the ground, it does kind of fuck with you a little bit because your brain doesn’t know.

I imagine it was physically taxing, too, with all the screaming and banging.
The show was definitely very physically demanding. It’s six months in the forest. There’s a lot of just grittiness, the way that the makeup is or the lack of makeup, the bruises, the injuries, the blood, the dirt constantly on us. And then when you add the fact that almost every episode, one of us is crying or dying or screaming. And it’s usually me.

Jackie in particular doesn’t get into as much mess and grit in the wilderness as the rest of the girls. How did you define Jackie’s day-to-day routine and make it different from the other girls?
It was funny — there’s just so many makeup people, and sometimes they’d come in and just start covering everyone in dirt. And I would literally just be like, “No, not for me. No, not for me. Thank you.” I was literally being Jackie. We spoke a lot about costume; I think I didn’t repeat any outfits or any items of clothing.

She also wears a lot of white.
The way I’ve told it in my head is she doesn’t borrow other people’s clothes and she doesn’t let other people borrow her clothes. She found her suitcase, and she’s gonna wear the clothes that she bought with her to nationals. And she’s going to rewear them and rewear them and rewear them. The only thing holding her together is she can look in the mirror and put on a pair of white shorts, which was a dumb choice but whatever. The other thing that we talked about was Jackie was kind of one of the last ones to keep wearing makeup. And around the time she read Shauna’s journal was when I decided to let it go. That was the point where I think Jackie really went, Fuck it, nothing matters.

We still haven’t seen any cannibalism on the show yet, but do you think Jackie would eat a friend?
Jackie episode two or three? No. Jackie episode nine? Yeah. She would bitch about it. She would make everyone else feel really bad. And then she’d get really hungry and just fucking go for it.

Since you don’t have a 2021 counterpart, do you know who you would want to play her? My colleagues are thinking Sarah Michelle Gellar or Robin Tunney.
I have no preference. Someone play me! That means I’m not dead!

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Ella Purnell on Surviving Yellowjackets As Queen Bee Jackie