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Two ‘Yellowjackets’ stars bring out the grit and vulnerability of the show’s most essential character

At the center of the ensemble cast are Melanie Lynskey and Sophie Nélisse, whose portrayal of Shauna Shipman helped make the show a breakout hit

Melanie Lynskey as adult Shauna in Showtime’s “Yellowjackets.” (Kailey Schwerman/Showtime)
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Note: This story contains descriptions of plot developments throughout the first season of “Yellowjackets.”

There’s something special about the kind of person who, in a crisis, can become a group’s designated throat-slitter. On “Yellowjackets,” the breakout Showtime series that follows the unraveling of a high school girls’ soccer team after their plane bound for a championship tournament crashes in the wilderness, that person is Shauna Shipman.

For the 19 months the team spends stranded in no man’s land, Shauna’s not the best with the hunting rifle (that would be Natalie), the Christian who keeps faith when others falter (Laura Lee, RIP) or the one most likely to poison your food (thank you, Misty). But when her teammates drag their downed game back to camp, it’s Shauna who takes the knife to the deer, the bear or — as it is strongly suggested will eventually be the case — the person who is about to be barbecued and devoured.

“Yellowjackets” plays out across two timelines: In 1996, as the team lives out a “Hatchet”-style fear-fantasy of scavenging, hunting and trying not to die; and 25 years later, as four of the survivors struggle to maintain “normal” lives while some anonymous force threatens to expose their darkest secrets. Though the series is an ensemble piece, Shauna is the primary way into the story for viewers. “We wanted her to seem relatable but have lots of layers underneath,” said co-creator and showrunner Ashley Lyle. “Someone who had secrets she was keeping and could surprise us.”

Grown-up Shauna was the first role to be cast. Lyle and her husband, co-creator and showrunner Bart Nickerson, had been fans of New Zealand-born actress Melanie Lynskey since she made her film debut as a teenager with Kate Winslet in 1994’s “Heavenly Creatures.” “She’s able to play someone, for lack of a better word, normal and relatable,” Lyle said. “But there’s so much bubbling under the surface. There’s something about Melanie that is very gentle, but there’s pointy edges under that gentleness. She just felt like Shauna from the word go.”

Lynskey, 44, was drawn to the unapologetic way in which all the female “Yellowjackets” characters were written. “With Shauna, I felt like the possibilities were endless,” she said. After a phone call with Lyle, Nickerson and pilot director Karyn Kusama (“Jennifer’s Body”) — in which Lynskey pummeled the lot of them with questions to confirm they did, in fact, have a plan for how the series’ mysteries would play out — she was sold. Then she waited over a year to find out who would play her teenage counterpart.

Sophie Nélisse, a French Canadian actress best known for starring in “The Book Thief,” was the series’ final hire, getting the offer to play young Shauna just two days after submitting her audition tape and a week before filming began. “I fell in love with it just immediately,” she said of the pilot script. “The dark sense of humor, the potential it had … how every character had so much to tell.” Now 21 years old, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Nélisse wasn’t exactly a Lynskey look-alike. Still, Lyle said, “There was just something about her performance, in those early auditions, in her, for lack of a better word, essence, that did feel so on point.” Lynskey felt the same way: “I don’t know what it was, because there were none of those commonalities that initially stood out to me,” she said. “But there was something energetically.”

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Until they met for a “Yellowjackets” makeup consultation, Lynskey and Nélisse were total strangers who looked nothing alike, born approximately 8,530 miles and 23 years apart. Casting them to play the same person “was a bit of a leap of faith,” Lyle conceded. But through the alchemy of their performances — with an assist from a crack hair and makeup team — they’ve managed to seamlessly share this character, passing her back and forth across time and space like relayers handing off a baton.

When Nélisse met Lynskey, she confessed that she didn’t see the resemblance between them at all. Lynskey didn’t disagree. But while Nélisse was extremely concerned about the whole thing — at the first table read she panicked, convinced that Lynskey’s voice was noticeably higher than her own and spent the hour terrified that she would be fired — Lynskey felt at ease with their pairing.

“She was worried and I could tell she was worried,” Lynskey said of Nélisse, adding that Kusama was also a bit distressed about the differences between the actresses’ voices and “was trying to get my voice pitched lower during the pilot. But I don’t think we sound that different!” The deep voice didn’t take (to Lynskey, it just sounded like she was doing a bit), so she dropped it. “I just wasn’t worried. I just thought: There’s something about you. I think we can make it work.”

You would never know from watching the show that there was ever any doubt that Nélisse and Lynskey could play two versions of the same person: Though it’s probably a little creepy to use the term “dead ringer” in a show in which so many people meet violent ends, it’s hard to think of a term that could better apply. Nélisse as a teenage Shauna — her hair dyed brunette and eyes browned with colored contacts — feels totally of a piece with Lynskey.

What makes this feat even more remarkable is the fact that Lynskey and Nélisse don’t actually work together and were on the same set at the same time for only one shoot during the entire season. Neither one saw the other’s dailies or could use the other’s performance to inform her own, save for what they’d see during table reads over Zoom. (Though Nélisse was quick to say that Lynskey “was always a phone call or text away,” accessible to the young cast in case they had any questions or on-set discomfort.) All they had to go on was the pilot, which did provide some useful material: For Nélisse, she tried to incorporate Lynskey’s dry wit and comedic timing; Lynskey picked up on “how comfortable [Nélisse] was with confrontation, and the eye contact that she was able to make, the body language,” she said, and worked to incorporate that into her performance. For the most part, though, they’re flying pretty blind, trusting that their mutual understanding of this character will result in a cohesive whole.

“There have been moments where I’m like: Oh, I won the jackpot, getting this person to be young me,” Lynskey said. “The work she’s doing, the character she’s building, when people go back and see her in the older timeline, this thing has been built by this person who I think is brilliant.”

For her part, Nélisse is floored that Lynskey can make the connection so seamless, considering she views Lynskey’s job to be the tougher lift — “because everything that she’s experiencing later on is based off what I do,” she said. “She did an amazing job, and I just feel like it sticks together.”

A year after the pilot was shot, when “Yellowjackets” got picked up to series, Lynskey and Nélisse met for coffee in Vancouver, where the series is filmed. “Just to talk about ourselves, really, and who we were as people, and who we thought Shauna was in her heart,” said Lynskey. “And we both came up with something that I think is really important: Shauna has a confidence in who she is as a woman, in her appeal as a woman, that is unshakable. … She has a belief in her own power that is really interesting.” Both she and Nélisse could relate. “I think it really helped us both with the core of the fact that this person is someone who is underestimated by everybody.”

We were “finding things that Melanie and I had in common with Shauna,” Nélisse said. “Which mostly is this underlying power that she doesn’t have [at first] that really progresses.” Shauna, Nélisse went on, is “in this constant struggle [to] accept her darker side, the darkness I think she doesn’t want to admit that she has, that kind of scares her almost, at times. … I think there’s this constant conflict [between] being herself and being who people want her to be.”

Shauna is someone who is often dismissed as the sum of her relationships to other people — the best friend to popular Jackie; the wife of a guy she sort of stole from the aforementioned best friend; the mom of a very mean daughter — but who quietly possesses an inner life more vibrant and complex than the people around her would ever guess. Even before the plane crash, she’s leading a double life right in front of her best friend’s face: sleeping with Jackie’s boyfriend while pretending to be a virgin, getting accepted to Brown University while maintaining the ruse that she plans to attend Rutgers with Jackie. In the wilderness, her subtle mettle is gradually revealed, and not only because of her alacrity with a knife; in a harrowing scene, a terrified, pregnant Shauna tries to self-administer an abortion with the underwire from her bra.

As an adult, Shauna is suspicious and cautious but wild, too, having an affair with a hot younger guy and slaughtering a bunny that’s been getting into her garden, then serving rabbit stew for dinner to her oblivious family. She seems to relish the dissonance between how she is perceived by almost everyone who thinks they know her (bored wife, doormat mom) and what she knows she’s capable of (cannibalism probably).

Though the first season of “Yellowjackets” closes out with an impressive body count, we’re still left with plenty of potential survivors in the teenage timeline we haven’t yet seen in the present day. Viewers only know for sure that four girls made it out alive: Alongside Shauna, there’s no-nonsense aspiring politician Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown in the past, Tawny Cypress in the present); troubled, sensitive Natalie (Sophie Thatcher and Juliette Lewis); and overeager Misty, a possible sociopath (Sammi Hanratty, Christina Ricci). All the matches are striking in their way, but there’s something especially doppelganger-y about Nélisse and Lynskey.

“It’s so funny because that is the pairing, the most out of any of them, that people have responded to [by] saying they could be related, or [Nélisse] could be [Lynksey’s] daughter,” said Lyle. She thinks their portrayals are tapping into some shared Shauna wavelength that’s helping the audience buy into the mirage. “They’re almost having an effect on how people are seeing them, the visual comparison.”

“It’s a real testament to them and their abilities as actors,” said Nickerson. “Because they are both finding the same thing that exists in the ether, and I think it does have a tremendous impact on how we see them.”

We will avoid spoilers here for those viewers still catching up, but Nélisse thinks there’s still a more uninhibited, completely realized Shauna waiting to emerge in the present day. “Shauna has always kind of been what other people wanted her to be, and it’s interesting to see how that hasn’t necessarily changed that much,” she said. “Even though she had all these dreams, they never actually end up happening. … Despite coming into her own and finding her voice in the wilderness, she’s still never managed to be fully herself yet.”

Even though Lynskey did more than her due diligence before signing onto the show, she maintains, “I don’t know every single secret. I’ve been surprised many times reading this.” She’s (almost) as in the dark as the rest of us about where her character will go from here. “Next season,” she said, “anything could happen.”