For the past 10 years or so, Melanie Lynskey has worn seven different perfumes. Not in rotation; she applies them all at once, creating a bespoke combination of scents that requires her taking all of the perfumes with her everywhere she goes. When I ask Lynskey to break down the perfumes she uses in her custom scent, she demurs: “It’s not very interesting!” I disagree, so she generously obliges me: “One of them is a Frédéric Malle perfume called Portrait of a Lady. One of them is an amber oil that I buy off the Internet” — this is where Sophie Nélisse, the actor who plays the younger version of Lynskey’s character, Shauna, on Yellowjackets, chimes in: “That one is very you.” (The other perfumes Lynskey totes with her and applies daily are D.S. & Durga Bowmakers, three from Le Labo, and one from Sarah Jessica Parker.)
Seven perfumes, every day for a decade — can you even imagine? It’s a personality trait so downright glamorous it seems at odds with the roles Lynskey has most frequently been cast in over her nearly three-decade career. In films like Sweet Home Alabama, Coyote Ugly, and Up in the Air, she’s played the girl from back home, suburban women who married young and have content, if unspectacular, lives. They are the kinds of women who wear the perfume that came free with their body lotion and don’t see anything wrong with that.
But recently, Hollywood has caught up with Lynskey’s gifts for portraying strong, prickly women who bristle beneath the confines of domesticity. This year, in HBO’s post-apocalyptic series The Last of Us, she played Kathleen, the leader of a revolutionary faction that overthrew a city government, and she returns for Season 2 of Yellowjackets as Shauna, a former high school soccer player and plane crash survivor who returns to domesticity only to be haunted — metaphorically, but also maybe literally — by the trauma and memories of her adolescence stranded in the woods.
Shauna is a character that is frequently described as underestimated. Lynskey says she understands that characterization, but, well, “it’s kind of annoying to me when people say, like, ‘You’re underestimated, you’re surprising.’ Everyone’s surprising. All women are surprising. It’s just a matter of whether you want to get to know them.”
In person, Lynskey, 45, is polite but reserved, smiling when she talks about her 4-year-old daughter but slow and thoughtful in answering questions, like a cat exploring a shelf it’s not sure is stable. A week earlier, she’d tweeted her frustration at the celebrity-interview-to-aggregated-clickbait news cycle after a single paragraph of her New York Times interview was spun off into grabby headlines on other sites. “I see why people become guarded,” she wrote.
Sophie Nélisse, 23, a former competitive gymnast who rose to prominence in the 2013 film The Book Thief, is a ball of kinetic energy. Our conversation veers seamlessly from the fake dirt that stuck under her fingernails after she was done shooting Yellowjackets scenes to her BookTok selections of choice (she’s read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Colleen Hoover). Her answers to questions come out in paragraphs. (It was Nélisse who first mentioned Lynskey’s seven-perfume habit.)
Nélisse portrays teenage Shauna, first as a normal high schooler on the soccer team who follows around her charismatic best friend, Jackie (Ella Purnell), and then later as a starving survivalist in the woods. Though she doesn’t look like Lynskey — Nélisse is naturally blond, with blue eyes that she covers with brown contact lenses for the show — her performance emanates the same energy as Lynskey’s. Shauna is quiet, and quietly selfish, with big, watchful eyes that understand everything they take in. And, spoiler alert: She is the first of the teenage survivors to descend into cannibalism. (The “human flesh”? Rice paper mixed with jackfruit.) At the end of the first episode of Season 2, Shauna consumes the ear that cracked off Jackie’s frozen corpse.
“Everyone’s surprising. All women are surprising. It’s just a matter of whether you want to get to know them.”
“I love that Shauna is the first one to step into the whole cannibalistic mindset,” Nélisse says. “I thought it was so interesting because I don’t think she meant for it to happen that way. She just instinctively put the ear in her pocket… Once it was in her pocket, and she takes it out and looks at it and examines it, I think this idea sparks inside her head of — I mean it’s meat, right? And this weird twisted curiosity.”
Because Nélisse and Lynskey play the same character during different time periods, they don’t interact on screen. Nor do they film together: The teenage versions of the characters originally filmed on location in the woods of Canada, but for Season 2, the “freezing” cabin where the girls would slowly starve in the wilderness was created on a soundstage. (“We were actually sweating; we’re wearing so many layers,” Nélisse says. “And there’s this little fire pit that’s always on, so it’s almost harder. You think you know how to act cold!”)
The three of us sat down on an uncharacteristically rainy day in Los Angeles to talk about critics, cannibalism, and crying on screen.
On their first table read:
Sophie Nélisse: I remember all the producers and the showrunners around, and I had heard tales about people being fired after the table read.
Melanie Lynskey: It’s always scary.
Nélisse: [Melanie] obviously speaks in a little higher pitched voice than I have. I was like, “Oh, I’m going to get fired after this. They’re not going to see the resemblance.” I was blond with blue eyes back then. I just remember spending the whole table read looking down at my script, making myself as quiet and high-pitched as possible.
Lynskey: And you were worried in the hair and makeup test also. You were like, “Nice to meet you. I don’t think this is going to work. I have blue eyes; I have blond hair.”
Nélisse: I don’t think we look like each other.
Lynskey: I don’t think we do, either.
Nélisse: But there’s just something in the show that I do see.
Lynskey: Me too. It’s weird.
Nélisse: They’ll put a frame side by side, and I’m like, “Oh.”
Lynskey: I know.
Nélisse: My first instinct was like, “Wow, they really nailed this.”
On getting into character and matching their portrayals of Shauna:
Lynskey: I think the writing is really good. The character’s so consistent from then to now, and that helps. We both were so on the same page about the energy that we wanted her to have. Neither of us are people who would do well trying to remember mannerisms or trying to be like, “Oh, this is the bit where I blink twice.” We’re too instinctive.
Nélisse: And I even tried, because you naturally have a lot of tiny mannerisms. You’ll put your lips together when you’re thinking, or when you’re feeling awkward, and I tried to recreate it. I tried doing it in front of the mirror, and it just doesn’t work at all. I was like, “I’ll just stick to what I’ve been doing in the first season,” which I don’t really know what we’ve been doing, but…
Lynskey: It’s been amazing.
Nélisse: We’ve never discussed anything. Every time we’re like, “Let’s go and have dinner,” we end up talking about random things that have nothing to do with Shauna. But I do think there’s something in the writing, the way Shauna is quite an imposing character but doesn’t even try to be so, and there’s a way she sits and observes, and when she speaks, it matters. But, especially for younger Shauna, she doesn’t have big chunks of dialogue when she’s very taking control. But she’ll just say things and people immediately are attentive to what she said.
Lynskey: Yeah. I think a lot of that is to do with your performance and how good you are at being commanding and doing a lot with a little bit of dialogue. You’re so good at leaning into things with a lot of presence and a lot of power. That is something I stole. I’m trying.
On how much of the mystery they knew in advance:
Nélisse: I mean, not much. They hinted that Shauna was going to be pregnant, and that was honestly kind of it. We knew that Jackie was going to die because she was only there for one season. We would just get the scripts a week before. For me, it kind of worked because I try to see it as younger Shauna doesn’t know what’s going to happen to her — she’s just left there and everything is just kind of hitting her as it goes. It was so much harder for Melanie because she has to play all this trauma and carry all this weight on her shoulders as a character without even knowing the extent of what she’s undergone in the show.
Lynskey: [I didn’t get] every single detail, but I knew, obviously, cannibalism. I knew all the Jackie stuff. The whole first season they gave me my whole arc and quite a lot of detail. And then they had a very, very, very broad outline of the subsequent seasons.
On fake crying in scenes:
Lynskey: There’s a scene where I’m holding in a lot of emotion, and I have to burst into tears and say a bunch of things as I’m crying and also holding a goat. And it’s hard for me to do that multiple times. So that was a tricky one. I think we probably did it about 10 times, [but only] the first take is any good.
Nélisse: I didn’t know this, but [my brown contacts] prevent me from crying because they dry my eyes up. I remember doing a scene in Episode 2, and I got so in my head about it because I was like, “I can’t cry. What is going on?” I realized it was the contact lenses, because even if I tried to put a tear stick in or anything, it would just dry out, when usually if I were to ever use a tear stick, I start sobbing. For some episodes, I had to request that we take [the brown contacts] out for her specific scenes, and then they would CGI the brown in.
On filming that stomach-churning dream sequence bacchanal:
Nélisse: We got to the table that they set up in the middle of the forest and this beautiful feast. We had different costumes and that was so fun, because we were always in the same costumes, and we all looked so pretty. It felt like we were shooting a completely different show. We were like, “Oh, this is going to be so fun. We’re all going to be eating and having fun.”
But then by the end, it looked like a war camp. The director, Ben, was just like, “Eat everything, and I want it to be feral.” We were putting anything and everything in our mouths. At the same time, I was pouring wine down my face, and mixing vegetables with cheese and fruit. It was the weirdest, most disgusting combo. By the end, I was literally picking up what Courtney [Eaton, who plays teenage Lottie], who was sitting to my right, had spat out. So I was eating pre-chewed food, just full of saliva.
On getting hair and makeup to look stranded in the woods:
Nélisse: We usually did nothing with my hair because I just wouldn’t wash it. I literally would not wash my hair for a week straight, which is so convenient because it’d take me no time. I’d show up, my hair was greasy, knotted, ratty, and they’re like, “You look amazing.” It wouldn’t look as cute when I would pull up to the gym afterwards and people thought I just never showered. In my daily life, I would go to get a coffee, and I would still have the fake dirt under my nails and sometimes a little bit of blood. I was like, “Listen, I swear I haven’t just murdered someone, but just please give me my coffee.”
On the online reaction to the show and fan theories:
Nélisse: I didn’t really realize [Yellowjackets was a hit] for a while, to be honest. I mean, I’m from Montreal, and the show was obviously a hit in Montreal, but there wasn’t as big of a buzz as maybe in LA. I like being out of it because it keeps me a little more grounded. I didn’t see the posters everywhere. I didn’t see everyone talking about it. I think it’s moments like when you’re Emmy-nominated that I [realized], “Wow. I guess it is really good.”
Lynskey: I read every single review. I love reading reviews. I love criticism. Well, I looked on Reddit a little bit, but it was interesting. Every time I looked, I saw something I didn’t want to see, that made me feel bad about myself. People have so many feelings… It’s not all just fan theories; it’s people complaining about stuff.
Nélisse: Most of them are [just] theories, but some people pick up on details, and I’m like, I need to pay more attention to what we’re doing because I didn’t even realize that was going on. It is really nice to see how committed they are. We just want to live up to the expectations. Because they’re so excited for the second season, and I’m more scared.
Lynskey: That’s the thing. We have no control. All we can do is do our best with the material we’re given and just say, “OK, I’m just going to play the same character and just show up and do good work, hopefully.”
Nélisse: I don’t even know how we did it on the first season, so I’m winging it again.
Lynskey: You just have to trust your instincts.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Top Image Credits: On Melanie: Veronica Beard vest and pants, Bottega Veneta tank top, Talent’s own necklaces, Elizabeth Hooper Studios cuff; On Sophie: Alexander McQueen clothing and earrings
Photographs by Tawni Bannister
Styling by Jarrod Lacks
Video: Samuel Miron
Associate Creative Director, Video: Samuel Schultz
Photo Director: Alex Pollack
SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid
SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert