cut my life into pieces

Yellowjackets’ Warren Kole Is Activating Super Jeff

Photo: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

Spoilers ahead for “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,”the season-two premiere of Yellowjackets.

Jeff Sadecki is an unlikely MVP of a show that itself is an unlikely MVP. Acting opposite Melanie Lynskey (present-day Shauna) on Yellowjackets, Warren Kole plays the type of guy we’ve seen before: the former golden boy who peaked in high school and has settled for a delusional sort of suburban mediocrity. His last name literally starts with “Sad.”

But Kole plays him in a way that’s full of surprises. You start out assuming he must be the cheater in the relationship until you see him stick up for Shauna at every turn. He reveals himself as central to an unsettling plot in the present-day half of the show, but he turns out to be the show’s comic relief — and something of a dad-crush to the fandom. In the aftermath of season one’s shocking revelation that there never was a book club, Kole talked with Vulture about Jeff’s journey in season two and reveals the punch line to that hot-dog joke.

How was the season-two premiere on Thursday? 
Going into it, I saw it as a really interesting show, that it might find a fringe-darling kind of identity and maybe a cult following. I had no idea it would strike the chord that it struck and build this street credit to where you’re having this moment of a very big, flashy premiere. And everybody earned that. It was exciting to see the creators and this cast, young and old — older — soaking it up. Enjoying the fruits of that labor was really cool.

Beyond the surprise of the show’s success, there’s Jeff’s success as a breakout character. Did you expect Jeff to hit the way he did?
I did not. I came into it wanting to honestly portray this very domesticated man who’s falling into a very intense, bizarre crisis and how he handles it. I think Jeff’s breakout is a testament to how confident Jonathan Lisco, Ashley Lyle, Bart Nickerson, and the whole writing room is with the talent that they hired, because Jeff wasn’t super-specific going in. And I liked to explore. I liked to play and use a feeling-out process there in season one. Melanie’s got such great comic taste, and our chemistry seems to lean into that sometimes and find the humor in stuff — no matter how dark the actual context might be.

There’s this tacit agreement when you get the next episode or season two comes around that they’re gonna be like, “Okay, let’s run with that. We see what you’re trying to do. Let’s give you some writing that puts a finer point on it and lets you run with that.” And all the sudden, Jeff is having these moments, public and private, that flesh him out and make him a nice break in the tension of the show.

The biggest moment like that in season one was definitely the “book club” scene. How many different ways did you play it? When did you start realizing that you should be leaning more into the humor?
When they weren’t stopping me. I realized that these guys are in the flow, and you can feel it when you’re reading the scripts, when you’re talking to them. They’re really confident about the specific story they want to tell and the way that they want to tell it. So with book club, that’s all right there and hits your instincts right away as an actor. But, you know, you get a few cracks at it. They’ll give me a half a dozen different tries at it.

I think it was pretty clear that it says so much about Jeff, considering everything (all of the dirty laundry that got aired out between him and his wife), to do the button of “Wait a minute, there’s no book club?!” It says a lot about him and this show’s savviness and storytelling.

Have you seen the fan-edit videos of Jeff?
No, but Melanie gave me a “There’s no book club?” coffee mug with this cartoon of Jeff with his hair sticking out every which way with shock.

In the first episode of the new season, Jeff reacts to some tense moments by cracking dad jokes. Why do you think his impulse is to go there in those situations?
Jeff’s expectations of himself and the reality of his capacity seem to flit and collide a lot in season two, which is really fun to portray. I think he’s trying to hold his world together. And he’s trying to find a way to rescue the moment. He’s a little sleepy, but he’ll wake up every once in a while. So sometimes, the best thing you can do is try to lighten it up a little bit. And maybe that will hide the crimes that are going on.

Did you ever come up with a punch line to the dangling setup of “What did the hot dog say to the bun?”
Well, they were a little raunchy and inappropriate. But yeah.

Can you share one?
I think I said, “Hey, fill me up, big boy.” It’s so creepy. It’s too much.

And with Callie at the table!

Do you think Jeff and Shauna are good parents?
This is the primal fear of any parent. Am I ruining my child? Am I good? I think they have a shadow marriage when we find them. Kids see everything, and Callie’s a really, really smart kid. She’s kind of beyond her years, which is the same way Sarah Desjardins is, so she’s perfect in the part. I think Jeff thinks he’s a great dad. But he’s consistently confronted with the fact that he has been letting his household down, and he’s got to face that. A lot of horror movies are about that too. Kids getting possessed, or the kids are in trouble. The haunted house. They tap into this primal fear of being a bad parent.

Your scenes with Shauna in this episode are focused on the aftermath of Adam Martin: the cheating, the murder. And as they try to cover their tracks, they’re working through relationship stuff. Jeff betrayed Shauna with the blackmail scheme, so they’re both dealing with these feelings. What state is their relationship in this season?
Jeff — I like him so much. There’s this fragile optimism coming into season two with him. And maybe a little mania, where he’s going to extract the positive things out of what happened. He and Shauna are seeing eye to eye. He’s going to assume that the worst thing they did is behind them. Let’s move forward. We got away with it. But in that denial of the darker truths of it — which keep cropping up pretty much immediately (like when they go into Adam’s studio) — he’s got a lot of resentment that he’s got to confront. His wife isn’t satisfied with him. She sought affection in the arms of another guy. She’s reconstituting into this dark, impulsive version of herself that he only read about in her journals. We can assume this is a lot for him. This is a lot for a guy like this. He doesn’t know how to process this well, so there may be some regression into immaturity in terms of how he deals with How can I please my wife? How can I earn her trust? How can I keep her excited? How can I be the man I think she wants me to be so that she loves me as much as I love her? There’s a lot of insecurity there.

He’s such a reactive surface in the story, which I really enjoy. He doesn’t initiate a lot of plot. He’s sort of a proxy audience that’s doing his best to keep up and hold his world together. But I think he’s not running away. He’s there. And he’s trying, dammit! That’s what I stuck to. He won’t listen. This is bad, but maybe I can save the day. Maybe I can be a character in the current pages of this journal who gets everybody out of the wilderness.

You mention him regressing into immaturity, and of course, he has this teen angst moment where he blasts “Last Resort” and lets it all out.
I had never heard Papa Roach, and I had never heard this song before. I don’t know where I was. In 2000, I had just graduated college, so use your imagination as to how that got knocked out of my memory. But I had to listen to it about 50 times. Oh God, it’s an awful song for a 45-year-old. Maybe I would have loved it then. But you could see that this was something that he used to get a great release to. He probably had a lot of good memories with that song. And it shifts into this tantrum instead.

Speaking of the teen versions of these characters, have you spoken with the actor who plays Young Jeff in the pilot?
I have not had the fortune of talking with any of the young actors. Maybe it’s an easier position for me. These actors who have both story lines are so perfectly cast and pay attention to each other. Like Juliette Lewis and Sophie Thatcher — their rhythms, their cadence, their vocal intonations are spot on. I’m in a fortunate place where I can create all of that and imagine it, then it’s up to the younger cast to study that. It looks like a lot of fun, creatively.

You’ve alluded to Jeff getting into the diary in season one and clearly knowing a lot of dark stuff that the audience doesn’t know yet. How do you play that?
I asked the writers when we first started, “I don’t need to know anything that my character doesn’t know, but I’d really appreciate it if you could let me in on what he does know.” Because I had a feeling I needed to know about the blackmail and what surrounds that, and they let me know that he’d read the journals. After that, I read every script and those parts that took place in the Canadian wilderness as if I was reading Shauna’s journal. Jeff probably fantasized about, What if I were there? What problems could I have solved? Creating this mythical version of himself in his own head. That was good fuel when present-day survival happens. He’s like, Well, now I’m here. We’re back in trouble. Now it’s time to activate Super Jeff.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Yellowjackets’ Warren Kole Is Activating Super Jeff