[Editor’s Note: The following story contains spoilers through the first season of “Yellowjackets.”]
Melanie Lynskey is not your best friend. But boy, it’s easy to wish that she was.
This is a huge part of Lynskey’s lasting appeal. She slips innocuously into roles and the audience projects onto her whatever they choose to see, often an everywoman, when the actress is so much more. And it’s never more true than it is in “Yellowjackets,” where Lynskey plays Shauna, a woman who survived a plane crash as a teenager before enduring 19 months stranded in the wilderness, and now struggles under the weight of her accumulated secrets.
In 2016, after sitting down with the actress for a profile in the Los Angeles Times, I wrote “The New Zealander is genial in conversation, her expressions somehow familiar, a visage seen in her countless television and film roles where Lynskey’s often played a confidant trustworthy enough for all your deepest secrets.” This time around, in a phone call instead of a sit-down, Lynskey nevertheless remembered our past conversation, and it’s that innate thoughtfulness that serves as a testament to the power of her performance as Shauna, within whom bubbles a secret cauldron of unexamined rage — an anger that she has every reason to feel in the extreme.
“Yellowjackets” as a whole has four protagonists, played by (at least) eight different actresses, that the audience sees existing in two primary timelines. One follows the events of the 1996 plane crash of a championship soccer team (the eponymous Yellowjackets) and the aftermath, centering primarily on Shauna (Sophie Nélisse), Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown), Natalie (Sophie Thatcher), and Misty (Sammi Hanratty) in addition to their teammates. The other is focused on the present day lives of Shauna (Lynskey), Taissa (Tawny Cypress), Natalie (Juliette Lewis), and Misty (Christina Ricci), more than 20 years after their rescue.
But Shauna’s anger didn’t flare up when the plane went down. It started burning long before.
“There’s got to be some anger to be secretly sleeping with your best friend’s boyfriend,” Lynskey said. “There’s got to be something going on. And I think part of it is resentment that Jackie [the aforementioned best friend] doesn’t really see the person [Shauna] truly is.”
Lynskey is no stranger to unquenchable wells of teen angst, having broken onto the film scene in Peter Jackson’s 1994 psychological drama, “Heavenly Creatures.” Based on the real-life case that saw two New Zealand girls, Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) and Pauline Parker (Lynskey), forge an unbreakable bond that results in premeditated matricide, “Creatures” reveals not just the deep wells of anger that lurk in the hearts of teenage girls, but also the fluidity of relationships between them. Love looks like lust, lust looks like loathing, loathing looks like loneliness, and so on.
“There’s a lot of things that are predicted upon teenage girls. There’s a lot of sexuality, but there’s also being on a weird cusp between being an ‘innocent’ — in quotation marks with a bit of an eye roll — and being a woman,” Lynskey said, regarding why pubescent girls seem to make for such good horror. “And I think it’s interesting to see somebody who, you don’t really know how to look at them, you don’t know whether to be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a person who is going to be able to take charge of this situation and get through it,’ or ‘This is just a person who’s far too young for this and is not going to be able to handle it.’ There’s an interesting push-pull in watching someone who’s on that cusp in their life.”
The complexity of the cusp is also why it can be so difficult to discern the true heart of any friendship between young women. It was true for Juliet and Pauline in “Creatures” and plenty of fans wondered if the same was true of Shauna and Jackie.
“I think that that relationship is so, so, so complex,” Lynskey said. “I just think that Shauna’s sexuality is a little bit of a gray area, but I might be projecting my own onto it? When I was a teenage girl, it was confusing at times. Sometimes my friends and I would kind of mess around and you think each other is the most beautiful person you’ve ever seen. And boys are scary sometimes. I think that is very normal. And healthy.”
But the question got Lynskey thinking.
“That is interesting, because when I was watching it, I was like, ‘Oh, there’s a little bit of a vibe between them,” she said. “Ella and Sophie adore each other so much and have such incredible chemistry. They’re very loving and physical with each other, but not sexual. The power of loving somebody that much and feeling so safe with them informed their acting in a really beautiful way.” (Purnell and Nélisse spoke about their platonic, intimate friend vibe with Teen Vogue.)
Lynskey and Nélisse, who each play Shauna at different ages, formed their own special bond, despite never sharing any scenes. The former expressed that after watching the pilot, there were many things in her co-star’s performance that she wanted to echo in her own.
“There’s ways that [Nélisse as Shauna] carries herself that are very confident, and it’s something that I don’t naturally do,” Lynskey said. “Like, I had a director tell me, ‘You look like you’re apologizing with your hands when you’re acting,’ in an audition, and since then I’ve been sort of self-conscious about it. And [Shauna] is not a character who would be apologizing with her hands. And Sophie doesn’t apologize with her hands. So I was trying to have more of a stillness than I usually would and trying to just inhabit some of this fierceness that Sophie has. It’s really, really cool.”
That fierceness seemed to leave some audience members a little cold, however, the actress said, sharing that some viewers theorized that Shauna was sociopathic for her response after stabbing her pseudo-boyfriend.
“It was like, ‘Oh, how interesting that some people don’t understand a trauma response. Or understand PTSD and how somebody can just be going through the motions and just putting one foot in front of another,'” the Critics Choice Award-nominated actress said. “I wanted to be crying my eyes out. So much terrible stuff was happening and it was so intense, but I felt like this is somebody who’s just not processing anything. Certainly not as it’s happening.”
“I think as an adult, unresolved grief can attach itself to you in some really weird ways. And I think she doesn’t feel like she deserves to feel sorry for herself. I don’t think she feels like she deserves to really mourn or process the life that she lost,” Lynskey said.
Of course, filming a show like “Yellowjackets” can’t always be heavy, particularly given the wacky schemes that the adults stumble into while attempting to keep all of their secrets just that — secret. And yet few things delighted Lynskey more than a single line tossed off in the penultimate episode of the first season.
The line in question comes after a series of revelations between Shauna and her husband Jeff (Warren Kole), which escalate to a point where she admits she had an affair. This comes as a shock to Jeff who is left reeling, but never so much as a moment later, when Shauna, mystified, murmurs, “I can’t believe you thought I was going to book club this whole time.” To which a bewildered Jeff replies, “What!? There’s no book club?”
“We got to the blocking rehearsal and I said to Warren, ‘I’m going to apologize to you right now. I’m not going to be able to get through this and not laugh for probably the first 10 takes and I really do apologize,” Lynskey said, explaining that as soon as she saw the episode’s script, she knew that this was a punchline the fans would be talking about for days.
“I actually don’t know who wrote that line and I think it’s brilliant. And his delivery! But yeah, it was hard for me to get through it without cracking me up.”