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How Yellowjackets Assembled the Best New Cast on TV

Showrunners Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickelson break down how they assembled the likes of Melanie Lynksey, Juliette Lewis and Christina Ricci to fill the two timelines on Showtime's Yellowjackets.

By Tierney Bricker Dec 05, 2021 1:00 PMTags
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It's a tale as old as time. Boy and girl meet. Boy and girl fall in love. They then get married and write a show about a soccer team who turns into cannibals. Classic love story, right?

Okay, so it's not traditional, but that is the very loose origin story behind Yellowjackets, Showtime's buzzy new drama created by husband-and-wife showrunners Bart Nickerson and Ashley Lyle

The duo, who previously worked on Narcos and The CW's The Originals, first thought of the concept for the show in 2017, during one of their many marital pitch conversations. Some couples argue over where to order out dinner, Lyle and Nickerson debate storylines. 

"We are married to each other and spend an obscene amount of time together, and so we are just always throwing ideas back and forth, and some of them get a 'huh' response and others might even get that same response but then they kind of just take hold, take root a little bit," Lyle told E! in a recent phone interview. "Then, a couple days later the other person will be like, 'You know, here's a thing we can do with that idea or here's an idea for a character,' and they kind of end up having their own gravitational pull. This is one of them."

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It's easy to see why. Yellowjackets is a little bit of everything, which somehow makes it entirely its own: It's a coming-of-age tale, psychological thriller, high school drama and survival story, all melded together and told in two timelines. Think Lost meets Lord of the Flies and then starts a group chat with Mean Girls and Netflix's canceled-too-soon teen drama The Society.

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The premise is simple but gripping: In 1996, a high school soccer team finds itself deserted in the remote wilderness after their plane crashes en route to their championship game. Now, in the present-day, the survivors are still grappling with what exactly happened during that time. Spoiler alert: There are no red cards or referees in the woods.

While Lyle and Nickerson got their start as writers on The Originals, a spinoff of The Vampire Diaries, Yellowjackets is basically The CW After-Hours. Sure, half of its cast would more than fit in on the network and there are love triangles and teen angst, but cannibalism? That's a pretty dark storyline destined for cable and a crucial element that was part of the pitch for the show since day one, long before the idea of alternating between two timelines.

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Christina Ricci, Juliette Lewis and Others Prove Yellowjackets Is More Than a Survival Story

"It was a girl sports team, lost in the woods, well, obviously they have to become cannibals," Nickerson explained, adding that it was the third idea that sprung to mind when they started debating, "What if we track the survivors 25 years later?"

Rather than save the cannibalism as an episode- or season-ending shocker designed to land the show in Twitter's trending topics widget, viewers see what the girls have turned into starting with the very first scene of the show. It's a strategic storytelling decision, a shock-and-raw approach if you will. (Consider this one barbecue we were happy not to receive an invite too.)

"We knew very early on that we wanted to put that out front because in our minds this isn't a story about what happened versus why it happened," Lyle explained.

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And that mystery will continue to reveal itself over the course of the 10 episodes in both timelines. As the soccer team contends with the elements in the wilderness, the survivors are attempting to keep the past buried 25 years later after receiving mysterious threats. But that doesn't mean viewers should expect all of their questions to be answered by season's end. 

"When we were formulating and developing the idea we always saw this as a multi-season story and our goal in the first season is to very much answer certain questions, because I personally get very irritated with shows that drag everything on forever and don't give you any answers," Lyle said. "So, we wanted to answers some questions and ask some new ones, so that is hopefully what we accomplished over the course of this season."

To tell the story of the Yellowjackets, the showrunners put together a top-notch cast to play the team members in 1996 and 2021, with four sets of actors sharing roles. Here, Lyle and Nickerson break down how they cast each character and how the stars—including Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci and Juliette Lewis—bonded with their counterparts.

There's No "I" in Team

Finding one ensemble cast to bring a show about a high school soccer team that becomes cannibals after a harrowing plane crash was always going to be a challenge. Now imagine searching for two casts, one to portray the 1996 timeline and the other to present the survivors in the present-day. 

Somehow, Yellowjackets was able to stack both sets, but the process wasn't without its turbulence. (Too soon?)

"It really felt like production was bearing down on us," co-creator Bart Nickerson said. "And it was, 'Oh my god we have so many roles to fill and we are not finding the right people,' but then it just all somehow comes together after hours and hours and hours."

Nickerson and his writing partner and wife Ashley Lyle were heavily involved in the casting sessions, which Lyle described as "emotionally devastating."

"Oh man, it's just a tough day," she added. "I have so much empathy for every single person that walked into the room."

While they were casting two people to play one character, a physical consistency wasn't the top priority for the creative team.

"Early on we said this is a really big challenge and I think we really need to focus on the essence of the character as opposed to the specifics of their physicality," Lyle explained, "and in a weird way, by doing that, we ended up with actors who miraculously all could look a lot alike."

Nickerson added, "We can't believe the cast we have." 

Past Meets Present

The similarities between the younger actors and their adult counterparts are jarring at times, with body languages mirroring one another and facial expressions matching up almost perfectly.

To foster that connection, Lyle and Nickerson facilitated meetings at the beginning of production, which the actors than continued to grow on their own. 

"They just took it upon themselves to be in constant contact and spending time with each other and talking character," Lyle said. "It was actually fascinating the extent to which there are just a lot of similarities amongst them in real life."

Shauna

Played by: Sophie Nélisse and Melanie Lynskey

Because Shauna is the entry point into the world in the first episode, Lyle said the role was "the trickiest to cast" as they "wanted to find an actress who could embody somebody who is really trying to figure out who they are, which is kind of a tricky internal thing to express through her acting."

Lynskey was the first to be cast for the show and given her reputation as one of the most consistent and underrated actors in Hollywood, finding her younger counterpart, one who could "convey the emotional intelligence but also a hesitancy," noted Lyle, was a challenge. But The Book Thief star Nelisse "knocked it out of the park," Lyle said. "She is so incredibly talented."

In order to cement the connection, the naturally blonde and blue-eyed Nelisse dyed her hair brown and wore contacts to match Lynskey. After those changes were made, "It was like, 'Holy shit, she could be Melanie's daughter,'" Lyle said. 

Nat

Played by: Sophie Thatcher and Juliette Lewis

"What we were looking for was a sort of rock star," Nickerson said of the search for Natalie, the team's resident "burnout" with a sensitive soul who later struggles with substance abuse. "Someone who was really free-spirited and unique who could play both a sort of wildness and a vulnerability." It's a difficult combination for one actress to strike, let alone two, but they were able to find Thatcher and Lewis, who both had that "sheer charisma" the character needed. 

While the majority of the auditions were held in-person, Thatcher sent in a self-tape that blew Nickerson and Lyle away, thanks in large part due to her delivery of the line, " ." Lyle said, "She just leaps off the screen."

Thatcher was cast before Lewis, her adult counterpart, with Nickerson admitting, "It was just like, 'Wow, we really put ourselves in a corner,' because who else could match? And then we found the perfect person." Hello, Oscar nominee and real-life rocker Juliette Lewis. But the creators couldn't have predicted how similar the stars were.

"It's just so adorable they just have a lot in common," Lyle said. "They bonded over their musical taste and talking about '80s and '90s icons and Nina Hagen and punk rock. So it was just delightful to watch them bond in that way."

Misty

Played by: Sammi Hanratty and Christina Ricci

Raise your hand if you are terrified of both the past and present versions of Misty, the mousy team student manager who takes to life off the grid a little too well. Now, she's a nurse with a penchant for true crime and manipulation. 

Because Misty is a character that could veer into the cartoonish or overly villainous, Nickerson said it was vital to find "two actors who could infuse it with such a deep kind of humanity that could make it feel lived in and real."

Enter Hanratty, a child actor who once played a live-action American Girl doll and someone Lyle described as "a revelation."

"She is so incredibly kind of committed to that role it is actually so adorable," she continued. "If you watch any scene where Misty is in the background, she is still being so fully Misty, sometimes I will just catch little things when we are watching cuts and I'll be like, 'Hell yeah, Samantha! You are being so Misty in this moment.' It's such a god damn delight." 

And it was something she shared with Ricci, who delivers a weird, whimsical and most welcome performance as the adult Misty.

"It is really funny because Christina is also the same way," Nickerson said. "Slthough they as people are not very similar, Sammi and Christina, there is something about their approach and craft that is actually very similar. [They were] just finding all these little ways to contribute character."

Taissa

Played by: Jasmin Savoy Brown and Tawni Cypress

Taissa, one of the team's strongest players who will go on to run for senate, is a force to be reckoned with. (Just ask TK, whose leg she broke during practice in the first episode. You could see the bone!)

"She is the character that is too strong for her own good," Nickerson explained. "We very much imagined her as this person that is this sheer force of talent and will. And, in that relentless drive for forward progress through achievement and success, there is this thing that is sort of chasing her from her traumatic past."

No easy feat to convey, but both Brown and Cypress were actors who had "that level of dynamic strength but also vulnerability and fragility because we are, at the end of the day, telling a story about characters who are deeply wounded."

Jackie

Played by: Ella Purnell
The Yellowjackets' captain proved to be one of the most difficult to cast, mostly because she was "the most likely to slide into tokenness if we allowed her to," Lyle explained. "You know on the surface, classic, popular girl who has everything she has ever wanted. And we wanted to from the very beginning, show that there are little cracks of that façade and that's not how that role usually plays out in real life. I think that her insecurity, her vulnerabilities needed to be on display pretty early on or you'd end up hating her and that was sort of the opposite of what we wanted the audience to feel."

Purnell, an English actress known for the Starz drama Sweetbitter and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, sent in a taped audition, which the team watched while in a van scouting locations. Lyle recalled, "We were immediately on the phone like, 'Cast her, cast her, cast her!'"  

While Jackie was the team leader back in New Jersey, she finds herself lost and losing favor in the wilderness. She is one of the Yellowjackets we don't see in the present-day timeline, meaning Purnell single-handedly is responsible for making the audience feel for Jackie. 

"Ella did such a lovely job of believably being the sort of confident, popular girl but also you see that vulnerability. It probably helps that she has the biggest eyes I've seen in my life," Lyle said. "The beauty of Ella is that she is incredibly smart and approaches this character from such a thoughtful place, and was always asking just the exact right questions of what Jackie is feeling, where's she's at, and she really just popped into the humanity of the character."

Yellowjackets airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

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