Major spoilers for Yellowjackets season 2 below.
None of the teens in Yellowjackets are having a particularly good time. Our favorite ’90s soccer team is still stranded in the wilderness, knee-deep in winter, and starting to experience the effects of prolonged starvation. But arguably no one is having a more difficult time than Shauna (Sophie Nélisse), who ended season 1 casting her best friend, Jackie (Ella Purnell), out of the cabin, where she froze to death in her sleep. Now, over the course of season 2, Shauna has resorted to cannibalism and risked her life giving birth to her baby boy, only to learn he was stillborn. Afterwards, in order to release some of Shauna’s pain, Lottie (Courtney Eaton) lets Shauna beat her to a pulp. “She becomes ice cold,” Nélisse tells ELLE.com “At this point, she’s lost so much that she’s completely shut off from her emotions…”
But it’s Shauna’s arc that creates an essential setup for episode 8, one of the most chilling of the show so far. With emotions—and hunger levels—higher than ever, the girls randomly choose one of their own to kill and eat in order to survive. But the planned execution turns into a full-out hunt when the chosen one, Natalie (Sophie Thatcher), runs away. “I remember before one of those scenes at the lake, we all got into a little huddle, and we started yelling and howling together to get in the mood,” Nélisse says. “I don’t want to say it comes naturally, but it kind of does.”
Below, the actor discusses what it was like to film those harrowing scenes—and why Shauna was chosen as the executioner.
We’re here to talk about episode 8, but before that, we must discuss the ending of episode 7, where Shauna beats up Lottie. I was shook. When you first read that scene, what were you thinking?
I was so excited. Courtney and I live together, and we’re best friends in real life. We were so excited to see that more animalistic, feral side to the characters. Just to see that feminine energy going off the wall. So when that scene got written, I was just so happy to be able to play it. Then getting to do it with Courtney was even better, because I’m like, I get to mess up my best friend. We wrote each other like, “Did you read the scene?” And we were really excited to shoot it.
Did your friendship make the scene more comfortable to film? Because watching it, it’s so brutal.
With a lot of the scenes on set, we try to find a lot of lightness, because otherwise it would be very hard every day. We try to find humor in those darker moments. Courtney and I would mess around in rehearsals. It looks really great edited, but sometimes stunts can look like a little silly when you’re doing it without the whole choreography, so we definitely would break character and laugh about it. It also made it comfortable, because we have such trust in each other and such great communication that we know our boundaries and our limits. I could tell when she was getting tired, and she could tell when I was getting tired and just needed a breath or a walk outside. We relied on each other a lot to get through those harder moments.
I could not get over the moment when you realize Lottie is still alive, and you essentially roll your eyes.
I know. I love that beat though. Shauna has such a great arc this year, because she goes from being so vulnerable and timid—and obviously, there’s that whole episode with the baby—and then she just becomes a cold human. She becomes ice cold. She has so much anger, and she has so much guilt that turns into anger. At this point, she’s lost so much that she’s completely shut off from her emotions, and she’s pretty out of it. I think she’s sort of in a trance when she’s beating up Lottie. So that little eye roll at the end, I’m like, oh my God, she’s hardcore. I’m excited for us to see more moments like that moving forward.
How did you feel when you read the script for episode 8? Obviously the show took a turn when it introduced cannibalism earlier in the season, but this feels like a real shift in what these girls are willing to do.
Yeah, the cannibalism scene is obviously hard to watch, but it’s almost more understandable or human behavior, because you’re like, “Well, they need to eat.” But deciding who to kill, that’s just another level of insane. I felt really bad for Natalie reading it. There’s something so eerie, especially when I was doing the ADR [automated dialogue replacement] for it, of Natalie hiding behind a tree, and people were howling; you just hear our screams in the back. It’s, to me, one of the scariest scenes in the show. To be put in that situation when you’re already out in the wilderness trying to survive, but now you have the only people that you know trying to hunt you down, and you have no one to rely on. Then the way it’s written at the end, where Javi is the sacrifice, and it’s kill or be killed. The way he dies is so sad and tragic.
How did you all prepare for what the hunt was going to look and sound like?
We never really talked about [it] specifically. We kind of just all started howling and trying to match each other or give different howls. What was interesting was when it was written a little bit in the first season [Editor’s note: in season 1, episode 9, while high on mushrooms, the girls briefly hunt Travis], we didn’t really know how hard to commit to it, because we were walking such a fine line and treading unknown waters. We didn’t really know how the audience was going to react to that kind of behavior. Now that we’ve seen that it’s something the audience loves, we are like, oh, we can go full out now. I remember before one of those scenes at the lake, we all got into a little huddle, and we started yelling and howling together to get in the mood. The costumes also help us a lot. We’re covered in fur, and we have all these different weapons. I don’t want to say it comes naturally, but it kind of does.
Does it feel out-of-body in a way?
I will say I’m not the most method actor. I’ve always felt like an imposter in this industry, because I don’t really know what it feels like to be in character. I can do really emotional scenes and literally be thinking about what I’m going to cook for dinner. So it doesn’t, for me, feel like an out-of-body experience. But I do, I guess, disassociate from it a little. To keep us sane, I think we do have to disassociate a little from what we’re doing. Otherwise, it’d be a lot to carry home.
I have to ask: Why do you think that you all put Jackie’s necklace on the victim?
I have never thought about that. I don’t really know. I think it’s sort of superstition maybe. It’s these tiny little things of superstition that—even though we know probably don’t make a difference—we still do. I don’t know why that was established, but I think that’s what’s so great about our show—watching the audience pick up on things like that and come up with their own theories. The show does such a great job at leaving a lot to the audience’s interpretation, and there’s no right or wrong answer, especially with the occult situation. Is there a higher power? Is there not? Are they just losing their minds? I think it could be anything you want it to be. I think it’s kind of the same with the necklace. We give out all these little hints, and we let it resonate with the audience, and they can take away what they want from it.
Do you think Shauna volunteered to be the one to kill whoever was chosen? Or did the group decide it would be her?
I honestly have not seen episode 8. There’s this scene, and I’m not sure if it’s still written in it, where [Shauna] talks with Lottie after she’s beaten her up. It’s supposed to be at the beginning of the episode. She says, “I’ll do anything.” Because Lottie sacrificed herself to get rid of Shauna’s pain in a way, I think she feels like she owes a lot to Lottie. She’ll do whatever she needs to do to make up for the sacrifices Lottie’s made. Obviously no one wants to be the one responsible for killing Natalie, so I think that’s what that is. She’s also been the one that’s been using the knife this whole time. She’s the one always cutting open the animals. That’s her weapon. She’s a knife girl. So I think it’s sort of this unacknowledged consensus that she’d be the one doing it.
The show plays with this idea of whether Shauna’s coldness comes from her trauma or whether it was always there inside of her.
I definitely think it was always there. I think, in the woods, she was herself more than ever, actually. I think Shauna feels very alive in the wilderness, and she feels very empowered, because she, deep down, feels unloved because of all of her dark thoughts, and because she’s always felt like a bit of a misfit. When she gets into the wilderness, she gets to finally let out that inner, darker side.
My theory is—we haven’t seen it yet but—when she comes back into society, she sort of falls back into the role of the observer and molding herself into the version that people want her to be and molding herself to other people’s vision of her. She settles into getting married and having a kid; she kind of loses herself again. I think that’s why it’s all resurfacing in her later years, because she’s actually deeply craving the strength and inner confidence that she had out in the wilderness.
You’ve said before that you relate to Shauna. Do you feel like playing her has changed you as a person at all?
A little, yeah. The first season, it was my first time living on my own, and making a bunch of new girlfriends has always been really intimidating for me. I gravitated toward Ella a lot, because she is so much like Jackie. She has this aura and this presence that everyone is just immediately attracted to her. I looked up to her so much, almost like a big sister. So we really had that sort of relationship [similar to the characters], not that she was ever mean to me like Jackie could be mean to Shauna.
She was kind of my little spokesperson, and she was guiding me through life. Not having her for the second season, I had to rediscover myself and speak up for myself and find my inner confidence. Even in acting, not always having to ask her, “How did you find this take? How did you like it?” Being more self-reliant. I definitely do think that I follow Shauna’s trajectory and rhythm in life. As she progresses, I progress; we kind of live life at the same time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Madison is a senior writer/editor at ELLE.com, covering news, politics, and culture. When she’s not on the internet, you can most likely find her taking a nap or eating banana bread.