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A Tale of Two Tais: The Dual-Timeline Casting Magic at the Heart of ‘Yellowjackets’

Showtime’s breakout hit centers on a team that’s unafraid to revel in its victories. But as the actors and casting directors can attest, the real win in Season 1 was capturing performances across timelines that felt so fully from the same playbook.

Carson McNamara

When Jasmin Savoy Brown and Tawny Cypress arrived in Vancouver to film Yellowjackets, the ghastly yet winsome new Showtime ensemble series about friendship and mushrooms and homecomings and bloodlust, their early interactions were appropriately uncanny for two people tasked with playing then-and-now versions of the same troubled gal. For starters, neither actress arrived alone. “We were the only people that brought our cats,” recalls Brown, 27, in a Zoom conversation, “and also, we both have a tortoiseshell cat.” They’d coincidentally booked accommodations in adjacent apartment buildings. They had very little idea of everything that their character, Taissa—a high school soccer player turned plane crash survivor turned presumptive state senator with, ah, some skeletons in the closet—would become. (They also had very little idea of everything Yellowjackets writ large would become.) They shared a landlord, and they shared strolls in a nearby park.

Sometimes, when Brown was called out of town to film her harrowing half of the series in the Canadian woods, Cypress, 45, would let herself into her younger costar’s apartment. In the hectic universe of Yellowjackets, such a visit would probably involve brandishing a knife or hiding a camera or administering an incapacitating drug or—as in Sunday night’s Season 1 finale—something much, much, much worse. In the kinder, gentler real world, however, Cypress was just there to make sure Brown’s tortoiseshell cat was well-fed. “I had a key to her apartment because I would take care of her cat,” Cypress tells me over Zoom. “So we got pretty close.”

As their chats broadened from their pets to their roles, both actors found they were already on the same page about Taissa. They saw her as ambitiously stubborn and ruinously strong, and they manifested that personality assessment into both their spoken performances and into a shared physicality. “We both had the same positioning with our bodies,” Cypress says. “Like, forward energy, from the head,” adds Brown, thrusting her own upper body forward toward the camera to demonstrate the way Tai moves through the world.

She might as well be describing Yellowjackets itself. The series skipped into the world in November like a team tearing face-first through a pregame sideline banner. And that was before the real competition had even gotten going. Since then, the show has delivered it all: a propulsive, repulsive premise; killer ’90s tunes; issues of Sassy scattered about; dismemberment; best friend breakups; gouged-out eyes; and pivotal glitter.

Yellowjackets the show crackles with the same earned and earnest self-assurance as Yellowjackets the Jerz state champion soccer team at the show’s center does. It is a series that knows all the words to “Shoop” and a series unafraid to revel in its own victories. And its most basic ingredient—its players’ teamwork—is also its greatest strength. Tai is one of four primary characters (for now) who are double-cast both as high school students in 1996 and as middle-aged women in 2021. And in all four cases, the paired actors feel totally in step with each other, like they’re working from the same playbook, like they’ve been practicing together their whole lives.

In her portrayal of Tai, Brown is a teen capable of breaking a teammate’s leg, but also of protecting another teammate’s biggest secret, and she does both with visceral commitment. As the current-day Tai, Cypress wheels and deals through New Jersey politics a quarter-century after the crash with a frozen political smile, sleepwalking as her waking life crests and crashes around her. In both cases, Tai tries to mask her sorrows with her leadership, and in both timelines, she reacts to uncertainty by choosing a vector and boldly striding toward it, even when that way lies horror. In both performances, unable to control the world around her, Tai consumes it.

Like—she eats dirt, one of a handful of things the two actors collaborated on getting just right. (Another was synching on Tai’s pronunciation of the word “either.”) “We would get together and have lunch in the park,” Cypress says, “and work out some characterizations, like the eating-the-dirt thing. We just sat in the park and just were like, ‘Well, should we do it like this? Nom-nom-nom-nom-nom?’” Telling the story, she too lurches forward, kinda baring her teeth and shoveling her hands toward her mouth and transforming, for an instant, back into Tai: all forward energy, from the head, same as her younger self.

What’s so successful about Yellowjackets isn’t just that the individual stars are exciting to watch, or that, in an implied inversion, the older cohort of actors—Juliette Lewis! Christina Ricci!—were actually part of the IRL ’90s canon often referenced in the show. Those things are fun notes, but what makes the series sing is that the time-hopping relationships between each of the paired actors are so synchronous. What stitches the series together is the way even its most ragged edges—the deception, the rage, the trauma, the vulnerability—feel so seamless from one performance to the next.

Take Juliette Lewis’s tough-yet-trembling turn as Natalie, which is a delight on its own and is only enhanced by Sophie Thatcher’s work as her younger counterpart: so tender one minute, so self-consciously snide the next. “I think that Juliette and Sophie’s handling of Natalie is just absolutely incredible,” Brown says. “They capture the duality of this delicate, broken person and this gruff, angry outer shell so well, and they even have the same voice and the same bizarre walk.” As the outcast equipment manager turned sadistic nurse Misty, both Sammi Hanratty and Ricci (who herself once played a young Rosie O’Donnell in Now and Then, which brings up the question of whether that film exists in the Yellowjackets universe, but I digress) share a constant tic: never has adjusting one’s glasses with one flat hand looked so dorky and so sinister all at once! But they also seem to share a soul—a really fucked-up soul, as Shauna might put it.

Which brings us to Shauna, the show’s broken heart. Melanie Lynskey’s characteristically engaging performance, one in which she shifts between threatening and chirpy in a snap and is rarely far from a blade, has earned her industry accolades and online shout-outs. She was, according to casting directors Libby Goldstein and Junie Lowry-Johnson, who helped staff the pilot, the first person cast—way back in a distant and hazy pre-pandemic time. Her character partner, Sophie Nélisse, meanwhile, was one of the last pickups, and well worth the wait. Colored contacts and dyed hair completed Nélisse’s look. She has been a revelation with her quiet, desperate intensity, which was always a match for Lynskey—even if there was, according to The Washington Post, a period of concern about whether their voices diverged too much. But “more so than initially trying to get somebody that looked like each other,” Lowry-Johnson says—or sounded alike!—what they and showrunners Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson were really seeking was “the essence.” Yellowjackets, after all, is all about summoning the spirit of things.

What’s amazing about speaking with Goldstein and Lowry-Johnson, who have themselves collaborated since the ’90s on projects ranging from True Blood to Six Feet Under, is that even though they are part of a small group of people who are pretty directly responsible for the show’s gestalt, even they sound caught off-guard by how good it is. They point out that their involvement was a long time ago; that Lyle and Nickerson are the ones who set the tone, have the chops, and believe in the vision; and that the pilot also thrived thanks to the initial directorial hand of Karyn Kusama. “She had an enormous impact,” Lowry-Johnson says. “She was very thoughtful about the relationship between the girls in the wilderness and the older ones in their current environment.”

The pilot was shot in 2019, in Los Angeles and up at California’s Mammoth Mountain. But it wasn’t until the spring of 2021 that the shooting of the full series began in Vancouver. “One thing that stands out to me about this project,” Goldstein says, “is this young cast. These girls, these young girls, seemed to know immediately how good this project was. They wanted to do it.” (Goldstein says that when they did Zoom table reads, some of the young Yellowjackets were dialing in from next to each other on a sofa, “like they’re with their college roommate or something.”)

Cypress describes it in a similar way: “The youngers are incredible actors,” she says. “The funny thing is that they started their group chat as soon as they got the pilot. They had been in a group chat for years! We [the adults] started a group chat when we started shooting the series, back in April.” (It didn’t take long for them to have each other’s backs: Lynskey told Rolling Stone that when she felt disrespected on set about her weight, she had the full support of her costars.)

Even when production began in earnest, it was structurally unusual, with very little overlap between character cohorts. Shoots often alternated between weeks, and the younger set spent a lot of time during their on-weeks in the woods. Occasionally the groups rendezvoused briefly by whale-watching or brunching. But that wasn’t the norm, nor were the actors able to access the other half’s work with much regularity. (Cypress says she hadn’t even seen the pilot, and therefore the work of “the youngers,” until May of this year.) In an Interview interview between Ricci and Hanratty, that pair discussed the logistics:

RICCI: This project was so interesting, because it’s like we were on two different shows. You did all your scenes with the younger cast, and I was with the older cast. For me, that’s brand new and strange.

HANRATTY: I imagined that we would all be on a soundstage together, even though we were in different scenes.

RICCI: I never got to see you guys because you were always in the woods.

HANRATTY: Did you ever see the set in the woods?

RICCI: Never.

With this in mind, the ease of the show’s physical and emotional transitions between high school and adulthood, and the affinities between the sets of actors, feels even more impressive. “We already have chemistry between us,” Lewis told Vogue about her rapport with Young Natalie. “We bonded swapping music, and she has a very laid-back nature. She very specifically was watching me.” Ricci and Hanratty commiserated to Interview about how as soon as they put on their fusty Misty wigs, people almost subconsciously started talking down to them. Lynskey tried to replicate Nélisse’s talent for eye contact, the better to stare deep into souls.

When I speak with Goldstein and Lowry-Johnson, they haven’t seen the finale yet and have just been watching along like the rest of the viewership, getting a real kick out of how well everything has come together. And their industry colleagues have been noticing, too. Recently, Goldstein got a phone call from a casting director acquaintance at another studio who was “going on and on and on,” she says, her tone one of conspiratorial wonder, “saying she can’t believe how smoothly the show moves from past to present.” It’s not the only feedback she and Lowry-Johnson have received. “You know,” Goldstein says, “some people think that Sammi Hanratty and Christina Ricci are, like, the same person.”

“Yeah!” Lowry-Johnson says. “Like, they think that Christina Ricci is playing both parts.”

“You know how we know that?” Goldstein says. “Somebody told us that their uncle thinks that. And then somebody else in the room was like, ‘My uncle thinks that too!’”

It isn’t just the uncles who have become so wrapped up in the world of Wiskayok, New Jersey. After all, even some members of the cast have made it no secret that they browse places like Reddit. And they can understand what it’s like to be caught off-guard by a new plot twist. “We feel the same way reading the scripts as the audience does watching the show,” Brown says. It wasn’t until well after she and her castmate Liv Hewson, who plays Van, hit it off and decided to partner on a Netflix podcast called The Gay Agenda that they learned their Yellowjackets characters would be romantically involved. “It was revealed to us that we were playing, you know, teens in love,” Brown says. “We were like, that’s funny, and that’s gonna be good for the podcast, because people love a ’ship!”

The conclusion of Season 1 obviated some of the popular fan ideas about who eats whom and who survived what (“I’m excited for people to see that their theories are wrong,” says Brown; “every moment is a banger,” says Cypress) while introducing a whole new set of messed-up questions about everyone. Did Misty screw up by overlooking that Adam’s torso features a highly identifiable tat? Is Shauna the one updating Jackie’s prescient diary entries? Who nabbed Natalie? What is the scope of Lottie Matthews’s discipleship? Does … does Taissa consciously know about what’s in her crawl space? (“She might be evil,” grins Cypress.) Or is she being set up (or helped!) by a shadowy antagonist (or guru!) who will turn out to be Van? If so, who should play Van?! Lauren Ambrose? Natasha Lyonne? Who has the essence? Did you know that Phoebe Cates is married to Kevin Kline, a fact I learned when I started to cast Elder Lottie in my head?

Plenty of shows cast two people as one character, and many shows employ flashbacks at some point. Some shows, like Station Eleven, even do both things really well at once. But it is striking, on all levels of casting and writing and acting, how well all the core then-and-now relationships work in Yellowjackets. No matter which timeline is being shown, the clear links between the teens in the woods and their futures—as the political candidate in the tree, the wacky nurse at the morgue, the mourning woman with the gun, the murderous book club truant—don’t just widen the plot, they deepen the characters and enrich the relationships between them.

For all the gore in Yellowjackets, some of its very gnarliest scenes are the ones that explore, without sentiment but with lots of tough love, the ferocity and tolerance and venom and heartbreak of female friendship. The crack of a bone is one thing, but the crack of Jackie’s voice when she says, “How could you? You were my best friend,” is legitimately hard to stomach. We see Tai as a high school girl trying to summon a resolve well beyond her years when a distressed, pregnant Shauna hands her a piece of wire fashioned from a bra; we see adult Misty reverting to being a dorky tween at a school dance when she spots her grown friends at their 25-year reunion. There is a shared comfort among the former Yellowjackets teammates, but also the risk of being smothered. Each woman has the others by the balls, but that also helps strengthen their solidarity. For now.

“The femaleness of it is embraced,” says Brown, “not just in the positive side of what it means to be a woman, but more so the savagery, the ugliness, the backstabbing—which we need to see more of because that is true to the female experience, especially when you’re in high school.” She pauses and thinks about what lies behind and ahead, maybe for her, maybe for Taissa. “But then again,” she says, chuckling, “also when you’re in your 40s, I guess.”

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