This article contains spoilers for Episode 6 of Season 2 of “Yellowjackets.”
Sophie Nélisse keeps a close eye on what she eats. When picking out a restaurant for her 23rd birthday dinner last month, she opted for an Italian spot in Montreal that specializes in naturally leavened pizza, pies without commercial yeast. She shops at Erewhon, the trendy health food store, when she is in Los Angeles. She loves organic buffalo cauliflower.
“I’ve been eating clean,” she said in a recent video call from her home in Montreal. “If it’s pizza, I just want it to be fresh ingredients, farm-to-table kind of vibe, organic meats.”
Nélisse’s character in the hit Showtime psychological horror series “Yellowjackets,” however, has a craving that isn’t so clean: human flesh. In the Season 2 premiere, her character, the teenage version of Shauna, snacks on her dead best friend Jackie’s ear. Later, she leads a bacchanal feast of Jackie’s barbecued corpse. (Don’t worry: The show used jackfruit and rice paper.)
Since the show’s opening scene, “Yellowjackets” has foreshadowed its high school soccer team’s descent into cultish ritual and cannibalism; by this week’s episode, the season’s sixth, as a terrified Shauna is forced to give birth in the wild, we’ve already gotten a clear view of what it looks like when the food runs out.
It’s a harrowing, excruciating performance by Nélisse. As she waddled around the soundstage during production with her prosthetic baby bump, she knew the stakes were high, she said. She cried a lot. But the support from her cast members made the experience easier.
“They would all come up to me before every day and be like, ‘Hey, is there anything today we can help you with?’ a little tap on the shoulder, a hug,” she said. Her co-star Samantha Hanratty, who plays Teenage Misty, gave her foot massages.
Nélisse speaks discursively, excitedly, swallowing all punctuation. She insists she doesn’t like being the center of attention. (“I still get super shy and quirky when introduced to a group,” she said.) But it may be time for her to get used to the limelight. “Yellowjackets” has been renewed for a third season, and Showtime has submitted Nélisse for Emmy consideration in the lead actress category.
Raised in Montreal, Nélisse, like her character, didn’t have a typical upbringing. She began training competitively for gymnastics at age 4, some days practicing as early as 7 a.m., breaking to attend school and then returning to the mat after, putting in around 30 hours a week. Hoping to offset the costs of coaching, training and competing abroad, she gave acting a try, auditioning for a Montreal agency.
“Maybe if I book anything,” she described hoping at the time, “I’ll make pocket money.”
She did better than that. Like Shauna, she sometimes feels as if she skipped her youth. Her first peck happened on set at age 9; her first real kiss came at 16, again on set. In 2012, she appeared in the Oscar-nominated Canadian movie “Monsieur Lazhar,” which brought her international attention. When, still an adolescent, she landed a major role in the 2013 film “The Book Thief,” she realized it would take months away from her elite training regime. She decided to commit to acting.
More roles followed. She wouldn’t change anything, she said, but she admits the success came at the expense of some of her innocence.
“I’ve never grown up with kids my age,” she said. “I’ve always been on a set with mostly adults, and I’ve always been told, ‘You’re so mature.’”
Deprived of their high school ring ceremonies and seasonal dances, the teenage girls in “Yellowjackets” are also forced to grow up fast. In Season 1, Shauna plays the timid sidekick to the intrepid team leader, Jackie (Ella Purnell). But after a fight in the season finale drives Jackie into the woods, where she dies of hypothermia, Shauna must struggle to find autonomy as she also struggles with guilt, starvation and the demands of pregnancy.
In a sense, Shauna’s conversations with Jackie become more honest in Season 2. They just happen to be with Jackie’s corpse.
Ashley Lyle, who created “Yellowjackets” with her husband Bart Nickerson, said it felt natural that this intimate friendship would be the show’s entry point into cannibalism.
“I want to be you; I want to destroy you; I love you; I hate you — all of that could feed into this impulse that she has,” Lyle said. “And it allowed us to introduce the actual act of cannibalism through a very specific character.”
As Nélisse watched Melanie Lynskey portray a restless and clearly traumatized adult version of Shauna, she tried at first to imitate Lynskey’s lip-biting mannerisms but later rejected that approach after it felt inauthentic. (Nélisse said she had an emotional breakdown after dying her blonde locks brown.)
Lynskey insisted that Nélisse has a harder shell; Nélisse would nudge her, she said, to bring more aggression to the role. Ultimately, the two decided to try their best to relate to their characters rather than to each other. Lynskey was moved by Nélisse’s ability to lean into confrontation and create tension with the viewer — a stillness juxtaposed with simmering rage that imbues the role with great power.
“She’s a very gentle, sweet person, but she definitely has more of a steel core than I do,” Lynskey said.
That steel was vital for the bloody, agonizing Episode 6, in which Shauna is forced to give birth at the winter cabin where all the teenage Yellowjackets are stranded. Nélisse hadn’t given birth before, so she studied the stories, good and bad, of women who had. Liz Garbus, who directed the episode, instructed Nélisse to watch hospital videos and birthing scenes from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a show Garbus helped direct, and from “Juno.”
Nélisse spent days weeping, sweating and screaming. Between takes, she would chug throat-coat tea, with honey and lemon, and try to produce real tears behind her brown-colored contacts. Garbus said she remembered calling cut on set, and the emotional impact the heartbreaking moment — the baby doesn’t make it — had on all involved.
“Not just Sophie was crying — I was crying, and her castmates were crying,” Garbus said. “We all felt so deeply this horrifying loss and sense of betrayal and fear and grief and anger.”
Nélisse said she hadn’t expected the baby to survive — she always prepares for the worst while filming “Yellowjackets,” she acknowledged.
Two months after wrapping the wintry Season 2, Nélisse’s home was struck by an ice storm — just in time for those 23rd birthday plans. As the power went out for her and more than a million people across Quebec, she had to improvise, doing her hair and makeup at a friend’s mother’s office in order to get to the restaurant on time.
It wasn’t like starving in a snowbound cabin, but it was perhaps a bit close for comfort. Luckily, no one had resort to cannibalism. But the experience made for some memorable pizza.
“In the moment it’s a nightmare,” she said, “but I love stories like those because those are the ones that you remember.”