The new Showtime series Yellowjackets takes place in two time periods: 1996, when a high-school girls’ soccer team must survive in the wilderness following a plane crash, and in the present day, where many of those women are still coping with that trauma.
Following a screening of the pilot, the actors who play those women at different stages of their lives joined Vulture Fest to discuss the series: Melanie Lynskey and Sophie Nélisse, who portray a younger and older Shauna, respectively; Juliette Lewis and Sophie Thatcher, the rebellious Natalie; Tawny Cypress and Jasmin Savoy Brown as stubborn Taissa; and Christina Ricci and Samantha Hanratty, the two iterations of freaky Misty. Ella Purnell, who plays team captain Jackie in 1996, was present and accounted for, but does not have an adult acting counterpart. Make of that what you will.
Watch the whole panel below, or read on for the full transcript.
Jen Chaney: I’ve done a lot of panels, but I’ve never done a panel that was all women — and this many women — so this is very cool. Juliette, when you got involved in this project, did you know the arc of your character, or were you finding that out with each script?
Juliette Lewis: I’m gonna pass that.
Okay. Who wants to take that, Melanie?
Melanie Lynskey: I’m very paranoid about getting into something and not knowing that people have a plan in place. I’m very nervous about being stuck in something where people are like, “I dunno.” I really grilled them. When I had the meeting to potentially do the show I was like, “What happens in episode five?” They gave me a lot of information about the plot of this season, next season, season five — like, they really have a real plan.
Christina Ricci: Melanie got all the intel.
ML: Because I need it! I’m paranoid and anxious.
Tawny Cypress: I didn’t know anything. I specifically said I did not want to know anything my character didn’t know, so I was told nothing, except when I went to the hair and makeup trailer and then they talked relentlessly, I found out everything! I was like, “I do what?”
This question is for those of you — which I think is everybody but Ella —playing the same character at different points in their lives. In a way, you’re kind of in different shows, because you can’t be in the same scene at once — unless there’s some time-travel situation I don’t know about yet. How did you work together to figure out how to play these characters so they would seem fluid and related?
Jasmin Savoy Brown: Tawny and I talked about little things. I called her one day on set like, “Oh my God, do we say ‘ee-ther’ or ‘eye-ther’?” I think those are the small details that really tie it together.
TC: And then there were also movements the character does that she doesn’t know she does, and we discussed that in great detail —
JSB: In a park — got some weird looks! And I taught you about the enneagram, because I’m an enneagram nerd, so I filled her in on that. Any enneagram fans out there?
TC: I’m a loyalist!
JSB: I’m a four, she’s a two.
Samantha Hanratty: I’m a two.
JSB: Sammy’s a two, and Taissa is a three.
Sophie Nélisse: Melanie and I grabbed coffee just to make sure we were on the same length about the character. Physically, I had to change my hair because I’m usually blonde. I had the contact lenses. We speak with different tones of voices. I remember on the reading, she had the first line, and then she spoke quite high-pitched, and I’m a little lower. I freaked out because everyone from Showtime is sitting around us and I’m going, “I’m getting fired, I don’t even look like her, I don’t even know why I got cast.” I spend the whole reading [imitating Melanie] just trying to talk a bit more like this. Turns out I didn’t get fired — it’s fine. On set, I remember writing in the journal thinking, “Wait, are you left- or right-handed?” I think you’re right-handed, right? I had to switch that, but I couldn’t just call you in the middle of the day. I could have! I didn’t. But I figured it out.
TC: Sammy, you called her for me!
SH: Yeah, we couldn’t get a hold of Tawny, so I was like, “I’m gonna go call!” because we were running around set —
JSB: Because she’s a two on the enneagram: a helper!
SH: With Christina, we didn’t get to see each other ever on set, but it was really cool to hear the crew be like, “Did you guys talk about how you push up the glasses?” and I was like, “Not really.” Yet we somehow did it the same way, which was a really cool coincidence. Having somebody who loves Misty the way we both do worked really well. Of course we talked about the character, but I think there are certain things we naturally both picked up.
CR: Definitely. Sammi and I met before episode two, because we didn’t really have much time before the pilot. We talked about the different ways we would be playing Misty and the different plans. With Misty, there’s a bit of a clinical diagnosis to go along with her, and so we had to discuss that, and come to a conclusion that sort of sets a lot of ground rules for behavior.
In some of the episodes, they have the present story mirror something that happens in a flashback. Any time we had something like that, whoever went first would tell the other person how they did it, so you could help the narrative along. Sometimes I had to establish it, and sometimes she did.
Sophie Thatcher: I think Juliette and I were pretty much on the same wavelength from the get-go artistically, emotionally. Music is a really big thing for me as it is for Juliette, so we made a playlist. PJ Harvey was a really big influence for Juliette, and I really like PJ Harvey, but she sent me some demos that helped me dig deeper. That was a really specific thing to get me into the mind-set of Natalie, and it is really important for Natalie. But I think just from the get-go, we were very much in tune with each other —
All right, Ella: You’ve been left out! As a nervous flier, I always find plane-crash sequences very unnerving to watch, and I imagine they would be unnerving to film. But also, you’re acting, and you have a lot of practical considerations for that. What was it like filming that?
Ella Purnell: Yeah, it definitely is … I wouldn’t say “scary,” but “sombering” if that’s a word — it is now! We shot the plane up on this weird rig: It was on an angle and shaking around and moving back and forth. And you have everything, the plane windows and the seats. Your brain doesn’t really know the difference, so immediately it does panic. I had to work hard at keeping myself calm and remembering, “I’m not a nervous flier.”
Afterwards, when we shot the actual crash … I mean, it’s disorienting. Having the wires out and frayed — it was really a crashed plane. They went to town. They chopped a plane in half, threw it around the forest, it was crazy. There’s sparks flying out, luggage everywhere, corn nuts flying around. It wasn’t hard to pretend.
ST: It was very immersive. It wasn’t acting.
EP: Yeah, it was genuinely scary.
ST: It’s also interesting because it was our first day back after a year and a half of COVID. We dived right into it! But that’s how our characters were — they didn’t expect that!
SH: Yeah, it was pretty scary, I’m not gonna lie. The first moment we walked on set, I was like, “Oh my God, this is crazy! This is so cool!” We were laughing and it was fun. I think it hit all of us at different moments, like, “This is really intense.” I already have plane anxiety, so getting put on the crash and having the plane tilted and trying to walk the first day back … they were like, “Let’s rehearse for two hours and have you guys just scream and cry!” and we were like, “Okay, awesome!” These guys are insane, in an amazing way. It was the best cast ever. They just fully went for it, and we all were crying immediately.
But then I’m playing a character, Misty, who takes things very differently than me, Samantha. I’d be bawling my eyes out and freaking out. But she takes things in so differently, so it was a lot of interesting emotions.
Was it at all therapeutic to go through that? You faced your fears?
SH: No, I have to go to therapy more now. [Laughs] I have a lot more anxiety now!
JSB: It was weird for us when we first saw the crash scene, because it felt like nothing compared to what we shot. They showed it to us one day at lunch and I think we all went back to our trailers and cried, like, “Oh my God, we went through a trauma and it doesn’t look like that onscreen.”
JL: I think it looks amazing, no?
JSB: But you guys know what I mean, like on the day of —
EP: Because we shot it in two days.
ST: You’re coming from a biased experience, always.
EP: And there were so many hours of screaming —
JSB: Like, distilled down to just a couple of minutes.
EP: Two minutes!
SN: I wasn’t really scared. It was fun for me because it was kind of like a roller coaster, the little plane we were propped on. When we did get there, they just wanted to show me the set. I was not prepared for rehearsal. I also don’t like rehearsing, and then these people started screaming, and I was like, “Oh, guess I have to scream too now.” Ella and I were lucky to be seated in the front, so we weren’t around the acting; they were doing all the heavy work in the back!
EP: I was like, “I’m passed out! I don’t have to do anything!”
SN: Ella and I were both passed out! We were like, “Oh, we’ll just sleep as long as possible!” I think what really brought the whole thing to life was just them being hysterical and screaming.
SH: One thing that was really funny is that everyone’s obviously — it’s very dramatic and very intense, but then one person said, “Well, it kind of sounds like everyone’s making some interesting … moaning sounds” after we were kind of doing it for a while!”
JSB: Why are you looking at me? Did I say that?
SH: You were like, “Just listen to everybody for a second!” and then you were like, “Does that sound like … something else?” and I was like, “Oh!” And we all started laughing. We did have fun too. Sorry, I shouldn’t have added that.
Actually, that’s a great segue for my next question for Melanie. In the episode that everyone just watched, there’s a scene where Shauna is in her daughter’s bedroom looking at her daughter’s boyfriend’s picture and … having a good time. What does that tell us about her psychologically?
ML: I had a hard time with that scene. I was talked to about it a lot by Karen, our director, and by Ashley and Bart. I think it shows she doesn’t really have a ton of boundaries. She’s an unpredictable person, and also, there’s a bit of arrested development. There’s a little bit of like … she went through a crazy trauma and is still stuck in this place, where I think she wants to start living her life back at that point and having those kinds of experiences, and here she is in her 40s with a mean teenage daughter like, “What the fuck is this?” I think that’s what that scene says. Very embarrassing to film!
ML: I would rather do a sex scene any day than masturbate. It’s so embarrassing.
Well, you did it very well.
ML: Well, thank you. Karen was very specific about the noise. She was like, “The orgasm needs to sound like this,” and I was like, “Can’t it just sound like anything?” and she was like, “No.” She gave me a line reading of the orgasm.
What was the reason for that? What was she going for?
ML: Like a kind of … not really satisfied. She wanted it to be kind of a horrible, sort of like, “Well, that happened” kind of noise — which I think it was. I was like, “You’re gonna have to show me what that is,” and she was like, “Okay!”
The music in this show is so well-chosen. The ’90s stuff is so especially evocative of that era. Juliette, I’ll pose this to you for obvious reasons: Sometimes in scripts, they actually will put the songs in there, just even as placeholders, and sometimes they won’t. Did you guys have any sense of what the soundtrack was going to sound like?
JL: No! They just did a brilliant job, and they did it right. When I saw the clip of Tracy Bonham — is that who’s in this? — with “Mother Mother,” her song —
Is it in this one?
JL: Well, I just fucked that up. It’s not in this, it’s in another one! The point is: Every music cue is just on point. Everybody’s talking about, “Oh my God, the ’90s!” because we’re all in this place, it’s an obviously simpler time, but it’s brilliant. When you have the right music, it puts you immediately in an emotional place — the place of the time — and they did that great. But it wasn’t in the script.
I’m gonna go down the front line first and then the back line, since we’re talking about the ’90s. For all of you who were coming of age or young adults during the ’90s, what do you miss about that era — if anything?
ML: There was a certain toughness and gritty sexuality as a teenage woman. I’m thinking of Courtney Love, PJ Harvey, Bikini Kill, all those women. There were a lot of role models that I had that were sexual, interesting women, but not necessarily “sexy” or “cute.” There was a vibe that I really identified with, and I felt very empowered by that. It was such a big part of the culture, and I miss that.
Tawny, what about you?
TC: I’m going to go with the first Lollapalooza, because there was nothing like it. Going to that was —
JL: Jane’s Addiction.
TC: Jane’s Addiction! Come on. That first Lollapalooza was the first of its kind, where we were all still so very innocent. That’s what I miss.
JL: I don’t miss anything. I like living in the present. I’m not looking back. [Applause]
CR: I wore a lot of Carhartt pants, and I really enjoyed that. I also have to say I agree with Melanie. I miss what was popular and considered alluring at the time for women, which was really being as interesting as possible and not being overtly “sexual.” We didn’t have to look like porn stars to be considered sexually viable. I miss some of that. it was about being tough and artistic and interesting, so I miss some of that.
JL: Yeah, that’s interesting.
CR: Not across the board, though. I could be wrong!
There was a New York Times article that was written in 1996 calling it “The Year of the Teenage Girl.” I don’t know if that influenced them to set it there specifically, but I thought that was really interesting.
JL: That wasn’t the case. I did photo shoots in the ’90s and they wouldn’t do it without makeup, so the ’90s is not romantic in that way. But it was pre–social media, so that was awesome.
CR: We were encouraged to be aggressive.
JR: I was not.
CR: I was.
JL: I just was. [Laughter]
For the youngins, since you were playing characters living in the ’90s, would you like to go back to that time period? What do you think you would appreciate about it, or not appreciate about it?
SN: I was born in 2000, so I’m not aware of what was going on during the ’90s. But now that I’ve done some research, I really liked all the rom-coms. I thought they were way better back then!
JSB: Yeah, you’re not gonna get too much better of an answer from me! I feel like women’s rights are better now. It’s better to be a queer person of color now. I don’t think I would have had that much fun in the ’90s.
SH: I was born in ’95, and when I think of the ’90s, I think about my sisters. I’m the youngest of five girls. Growing up, the coolest thing ever was my sisters, and when I think of them, I still have them in my head as “the ’90s.” I just think about their Caboodles and them trying to do my makeup.
ST: I was also born in 2000, but there were a lot of music references for me to draw. When I was in high school, when I was Natalie’s age, I was listening to what she probably would have been listening to, like My Bloody Valentine, a lot of shoegaze, a lot of punk, so it was easy for me to go back into that mind-set. I also think My So-Called Life came out in ’96 [Editor’s note: It was ’94!], and Angela Chase was a reference for that.
It’s very different now with Instagram. I feel like people are more calculated, less adventurous, more monitored, which sucks. It really sucks.
EP: Well, my first thought was those butterfly hair clips! And then I was thinking more about it, and I don’t really have anything better. But … I’m not going to say that actually.
Oh, now I’m dying to know what that was!
EP: My teenage crush was Johnny Depp from the ’90s, pictures of [guys like him] on the red carpet, and Drew Barrymore. They had the dark lip and the grungy thing, smoking on the carpet. That was so fucking cool. Can I say “smoking on the red carpet”? Is that terrible?
CR: We got to smoke anywhere we wanted.
EP: Really? That’s news to me.
CR: We’ve got pictures. It was great. I miss that from the ’90s also — all the smoking. [Laughter]
Melanie, you inadvertently answered this earlier, and I know it’s a little premature, but it sounds like from what you’ve heard from the showrunners, they have a whole vision beyond what happens in this season.
ML: Yeah, God willing there’s something beyond the first season. I would love it because I don’t know if you can tell, but we love each other so much. Don’t, I’m a crier!
TC: I’m not going to touch you!
ML: It was such a great experience. I would love for more. But yeah, they have it sketched out for beyond. Some things they’re wrapping up quickly within the first season, and then there are other things that play out over a much longer period. You know, I asked them very specific questions: “When does this thing happen? When does this thing happen?” They have a real long, long-term plan. I hope they get to do it.
JL: Can I say something? Natalie was really depressing to play and she’s a de-evolution, so you sort of devolve. I didn’t know that. But every one of these people up here is so beyond talented and wonderful. This was a post-pandemic show. It was very difficult, but the show is awesome. My character’s like [“ugh” noise].
But you play her beautifully.
JL: I did. I just showed up and did the best I could. It wasn’t what I expected.
TC: By the end of the season, winter hasn’t even hit. There are more stories to tell, for sure.