Melanie Lynskey Previews a Pivotal ‘Yellowjackets’ Confrontation and Shauna’s Fear of Herself

Melanie Lynskey
Michael Buckner / PMC

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “Flight of the Bumblebee,” the eighth episode of “Yellowjackets.”

Melanie Lynskey has been one of the most sought-after and versatile television and film actors for years, from a scene-stealing supporting role on sitcom “Two and a Half Men” to a leading lady on “Togetherness.” She’s also been part of ensembles such as “Castle Rock,” “Mrs. America” and, most recently, Showtime’s “Yellowjackets.” Lynskey recently picked up a drama actress Critics Choice Awards nom for the latter, in which she portrays the adult version of Shauna, a former teen athlete and plane crash survivor.

In the eighth episode of “Yellowjackets,” titled “Flight of the Bumblebee,” Shauna’s world starts to crash around her as her daughter Callie (Sarah Desjardins) points out her young boyfriend Adam (Peter Gadiot) is probably not who he says he is, which sets her down the path of finally Googling him, only to find evidence in her own home to lead her to believe he is the one blackmailing her and her former teammates.

The episode, Lynskey tells Variety was her favorite of the season.

“Episode 8 was directed by Ariel Kleiman and he was just so incredible, the way that he worked with us. He just knows how to talk to actors. He said to me at one point, ‘Just do whatever instinctively feels right and then my job is to build a beautiful shot around it.’ And a lot of directors in TV can think of the shots first and then you have to fit into their composition. So, we just all had a lot of freedom,” she explains.

She was also thrilled to share so many important moments with Tawny Cypress, who plays Taissa, and see a spotlight put on Jane Widdop in the 1990s-set storyline.

“Because it was Ariel directing, we were able to play around and do so much. The story that I tell [Taissa] about, ‘I was going to go to college and meet this poet who would run a literary magazine,’ that is something that I improvised from an actual love affair that I had in university,” she reveals. “It was fun to get to improvise that much. We didn’t most of the time on the show. It was [also] nice to have a moment that was lighter and where you remember that these were two girls who were really close at one point. I think also it also shows what’s going on with the younger Shauna and Taissa, who were increasingly more and more there for each other. You were starting to see their bond really take shape and how protective they were becoming of each other [in the wilderness], and I just thought it was so beautiful to have a call back to that moment.”

Here, Lynksey talks with Variety about unraveling Shauna as the season has gone on, the emotional implications of confronting Adam and what that means for her marriage, and what questions she still has about her character that she hopes get answered in Season 2.

There are so many secrets in Shauna’s life, from her time in the wilderness after the plane crash, as well as the affair she has in the present day that she keeps from her husband. Were these specific pieces you needed to know in order to play her?

I’m very commitment-phobic with television. I’m very scared of signing on to something for years and years, which is what it was pitched as, and not have it be something that’s creatively satisfying for that long a period. So, I just really wanted to ask [the showrunners], “Do you have a plan?” And they went into specifics: They talked to me about what they wanted to do in Seasons 2 and 3, and they told me Shauna has an affair that doesn’t go well, they told me what happens with that person. They told me how it works out with Jeff, how we’re two people who don’t know each other at the beginning of the season — we’ve just been living together as strangers, just in this weird sort of holdover from our teenage years and we both jumped into this thing because we decided that that was the right thing to do, and we never really took the time to find out who the other person was. And they said they wanted the arc of the season to be us getting to know each other and building a gradual respect for him, realizing, “Oh gosh, I’ve really underestimated this person.”

I’m glad to hear you say that because as I’ve watched this season, some of my big questions have been, “What did she see in Jeff?” and “What does she still see in Jeff?”

Well, he’s cute. [Laughs] Honestly, the deeper answer to that is I think initially she was attracted to the danger of it and the, “Fuck you, Jackie” aspect of it, which is something she would be ashamed to admit, but it’s a choice that she made, and I think she liked sneaking around. And then I think when she came home, she had a lot of guilt about what happened — survivor’s guilt where you’re like, “Why am I a person who made it out of that? Why am I here now?” Especially living with the knowledge of having done some truly crazy shit, I think she just thought, “This is the responsible thing to do.” But I feel like she hasn’t been living her life for the last 25 years. She felt guilty to go on with the life that she had thought she was going to have.

When you speak of the guilt she feels, did you know exactly what happened between Shauna and Jackie from the beginning of the season? How did that affect how you wanted adult Shauna to carry herself around Jeff?

They were not clear with me initially about what Jackie’s arc. Even though they had given me quite a bit of information — because I had forced it out of them — I needed to know, when this person appears in front of me in my adult life, what am I remembering; what am I thinking about? And so, they ended up telling me that, so I had a concrete memory for when I saw her and it wasn’t just sadness. That was really helpful. And a couple of times I got together with Sophie Nélisse [who plays teenage Shauna] and we compared notes because neither of us had all of the information, but both of us had enough bits and pieces. I just feel like for my performance, I don’t like any vagueness around it. If something happened to me when I was young, I would remember it.

And I imagine it would affect her behavior in the present.

Yeah, and I think this is a show that would be great for rewatch, and if there’s something specific in the performance, when people go back and rewatch, they go, “Oh, my God, I see why she’s feeling that way in this moment.”

She gets into a relationship with Adam without really Googling him, and admittedly she couldn’t have Googled her boyfriends the last time she was dating, in the ’90s. Do you think that’s a sense of arrested development versus trust?

Completely. I think she’s made a choice not to find this Instagram and see a million pictures of him with his hot ex who’s like 25: “I don’t need to see it, I want to just be in the moment.” It’s also something that she’s not trying to carry on; it’s this thing that just keeps happening. So, she’s not planning for a future with him. I think she gets to a point with him where it’s feeling nice, and what if it is something real? And that’s where it all starts to come crashing down and her daughter’s like, “Don’t be an idiot, he’s probably not who he says he is.”

At the end of Episode 8, Shauna confronts Adam because she now believes he is the blackmailer. Did her daughter get to her or is it bigger than that?

In a way, it is just everything was culminating, but also, as a woman in her mid-40s, who’s not super thin and hasn’t done a lot of stuff to maintain her face — I think she’s a regular-looking woman, like me, because it’s me playing first person, obviously — I think that there’s an element of, she doesn’t really believe that this young, hot person could really be into her. She’s kind of grabbing her last little bit of self-esteem and being like, “What if he does?” The core of Shauna is somebody who, even though the world is telling [her] that I’m not, [knows she’s] awesome and has a lot to offer and is sexy. I think that’s a big part of her identity: She’s a sexual, interesting person. And I think it feels really nice to her to remember that and have that be validated. But when her daughter’s like, “Don’t be an idiot, no one will be into you,” it’s this horrible voice that is in the back of her head that she’s been trying to push out. And I think there is a really lovely moment where she’s like, “What does he want from you, Mom?” and she’s like, “He wants me. I know that’s impossible for you to believe.” And I think the tragic moment is where she gives into that little voice and goes over to confront him.

Where is her mental state when she knocks on his door, in the sense of, is there anything he can say to convince her he is who he says?

I think despite herself she’s fallen for him at this point, and it’s the kind of relationship she thought she was going to have in college with this artist who thinks she’s really interesting and fun and sexy, and I think it feels great so she doesn’t want it to end. But it’s partly this deep embarrassment of having fallen for it, so she goes over there to confront him with this shame about, “How could I have believed that you would look at me and find me desirable?” She’s living in this place of self-loathing and shame and all these horrible things. Her headspace going over there is not great.

When we first met Shauna in the premiere episode, she seemed subdued compared to where her arc over the course of the first season takes her. Were the moments where she let loose with Adam or chased a blackmailer opportunities for her to reveal her true nature or play a character, so to speak, as she still figured out who she was?

I think it’s a combination of those two things. Part of it is, she discovered stuff about herself in the wilderness that felt like the truest part of her — and that’s not the best feeling because a lot of those things are things that, when you’re back in the suburbs, there’s not a lot of places for that energy to go. When she’s killing the rabbits and cooking the rabbits, I think that’s a nice feeling for her to be in control and she’s very competent at doing this thing, and there’s not a lot of need for her to be butchering stuff anymore. She’s repressed a lot of stuff because she’s afraid of it and afraid of how much she wants and the feelings she has. I think she’s scared of herself and over the course of the season, she’s figuring out how to be herself without hurting people.

Even after shooting the first season and talking to the showrunners about plans for future seasons, what are some of the biggest questions you still have lingering about Shauna?

Embarrassingly, I’m realizing something I don’t know is what happens to this pregnancy. I’d been trying to be so specific and get all the stuff that I need, and then I was like, “That’s a big missing piece!” It’s very important, so that’s something that I’m really interested in. And then I’m just interested to see, for older Shauna, if the choices she makes in Season 2 start getting a little more sensible. It’s hard to talk about without talking about the very end of the show, but there’s a lot that I’m interested in exploring. It’s a really nice feeling to be like, “Oh I could play this person for a really long time.” It’s really satisfying.