It takes a strong stomach to deal with sudden-onset stardom. Sophie Nélisse insists she doesn’t have one, but fame found her all the same. As one part the teen contingent of Showtime’s feral, feverishly successful series Yellowjackets, Nélisse, the 23-year-old Windsor-born, Montreal-bred ingenue, has already attracted her own personal cult following for her portrayal of the deceptively deceptive midfielder Shauna Sadecki.
In real life, Nélisse got her start as an artistic gymnast, only following her siblings into acting as a way to fund her Olympic dreams. But soon, commercial gigs gave way to star-making turns in 2011’s Oscar contender Monsieur Lazhar and, two years later, The Book Thief, whisking her onto a different path entirely. One that eventually led her deep into the British Columbia brush, with fictional teammates in tow.
To hear her explain it, Nélisse seems most at ease neither here nor there: on the road, in the woods playing TV’s current biggest covert threat, and also in the kitchen, making Instagram-ready dinners with her co-stars. Just don’t ask her to skin a rabbit. (She knows how, she’d just prefer not to).
You have to be pretty fit to hack it in the Canadian wilderness. I read that you started out as a gymnast?
Yeah, when I was four years old. It was 2004 and I was trying to make it to the 2016 Olympics. I trained 35 hours a week: I had school from 9 a.m. to noon, then trained from 12 to 5 p.m. on floor, beam, vault and bars. We needed money to support my coaching, travel and competition expenses. At the time, my brother wanted to be an actor, and I thought: I’ll just enrol in the agency with him, and if I get a few commercials, that’ll pay for gymnastics. I got Monsieur Lazhar, my first feature, after a few months. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. That put me on the map.
Were you in any commercials that Canadian audiences would remember?
I did an IKEA commercial, in English and French. I also did one for the Quebec pharmacy Jean Coutu. I remember being in one of their stores saying, “One day, I want to be in a commercial for them!” So random. Then I ended up booking one.
The Yellowjackets certainly have an atypical high school experience. As a child actor, do you ever feel like you missed out on any big milestones?
I mean, I definitely did not have a typical upbringing. I spent afternoons going to auditions. When I did The Book Thief, I was gone for months. I never really got the sense of community that kids get at school. I hung out with my teachers because they were the ones I was in contact with the most. And I missed my prom, but I didn’t really care. I didn’t have a close circle of friends; I was always just in the now. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. I still feel that sometimes.
Have you experienced the kind of high-emotion, hot-cold teen-girl friendships that we see on the show?
I don’t do well with anyone who’s mean. Popular girls don’t like me because I’m too blunt. I’ve definitely had some rocky friendships, where I liked the person a lot but not certain decisions they made. Like with Jackie and Shauna on the show: they’ve been friends since they were super young. They know each other’s deepest secrets, and that’s what holds the bond. It’s hard to let go of someone you love. I’ve had friends like that in the past, and I’ve had to cut cords with them. It’s not easy.
Do you get home to Montreal often?
Yeah, I do. We got to go home two or three times during shooting, which was great. But I get a weird feeling, kind of like the girls in Yellowjackets. They’ve spent so much time out in the wilderness that no one can quite understand what they went through, except for that group. When they’re thrown back into society, they’re strangers in their own world.
I imagine it would be hard to casually ride the metro or visit the Couche-Tard after that.
When I come back to Montreal after being gone for a long time, I feel like an alien. We’ll be in Vancouver shooting the show, where we’re all very bonded. And then we all go back to normal life. My best friend, Courtney Eaton—who plays Lottie—goes back to Los Angeles. We obviously keep in touch, but it’s still weird to not see her daily. We lived together for six months. Back at home, my friends will have lived things I don’t know anything about because I haven’t been there. I call them, and try to keep up with what’s going on, but it’s always a bit of an adjustment to get my footing again.
At certain points in the woods, the vibe is very much “every Yellowjacket for themselves.” But were there any extreme off-screen bonding moments? I saw on your Instagram that you and Courtney made risotto. That takes a lot of patience!
We’re both huge food fanatics, so we cooked a lot. We made really good salads. We also hosted Thanksgiving and made an apple pie. A lot of people brought store-bought ones, and we did a pie tasting. Our guests said mine and Courtney’s was the best.
Speaking of food, the series is constantly teasing cannibalism sequences. How do you, as an actor, prepare to eat your friends? You’re not vegetarian, are you?
I’m not, but it was definitely harder for the vegetarians on set. I don’t think you can prepare for it, honestly. I remember us all sitting in a circle filming that, thinking: What is our job? What is our life? But you gotta do what you gotta do. We all had buckets next to us and when they yelled, “Cut!” we just spat it all up. The “meat” was pretty good, though. It was jackfruit with rice papers that had gone all soggy to simulate skin.
Would you say you have a high tolerance for gross-outs, in general?
No. I’m scared of needles. I’m scared of blood. I could never be a doctor. You’d think you’d eat the “meat” once and be like, “Okay, I’ve done one take! I know what this is about!” But it got grosser and grosser.
The opposite reaction probably would have been weird, but…
Yeah, like you suddenly start enjoying it? No.
Did you pick up any surprising survival skills while doing research for your role?
Not really. What’s most interesting about the girls is that they don’t know how to survive—except for maybe Misty. If anything, I learned things while shooting, and even then, it’s all a propped set. I know a little bit about how to skin a rabbit, but if you gave me a rabbit right now, I don’t think I could do it. I don’t even think I could find north, south, east or west.
So you weren’t a girl scout at any point.
No. My ex was a scout and he taught me some tricks, but I don’t really remember them. I think I would die immediately.
Melanie Lynskey, who plays adult Shauna, has really nailed the role of doe-eyed everywoman. No one would expect her character to conceal any cruelty. Do you feel like that element of surprise is your acting strength, too?
I relate to Shauna a lot. She’s kind of expected to sit back in the role of the observer, but there’s a lot of inner strength to her that she doesn’t quite know how to control. To some extent, that’s even scarier, because of how thrilling it feels for her to finally let it out. Me, on the other hand, I hate disappointing people; I think it’s my biggest fear. But even though I’m kind of quirky and shy on the outside, I’m still confident—in a mysterious way.
Your co-stars Christina Ricci and Juliette Lewis have had their own cult followings since the ’90s. Have they ever given you advice on acting or how to handle fame?
It’s not like anyone told me anything. The best advice often comes from just observing. Melanie, for example, is the kindest, most generous person. She’s always checking up on us, like a mom on set. And she’s so respected. My goal is not only to be a good actor, but one who people love working with. I also watch how the other girls act on set, like Sophie Thatcher, who plays Natalie. She’s so good at taking up space when she acts—the way she moves and uses her arms. I sometimes feel like I don’t know what to do with my body. If I don’t have pockets, I don’t know where to put my hands.
Have you ever read Lord of the Flies? Do you think the comparisons to Yellowjackets hold up?
Yeah, I think they do, especially when you see the characters’ animalistic sides toward the end. It’s interesting how, even when there are no rules, they still feel the need to have someone be the leader. People also assume that girls would just sit around and braid each other’s hair. What I love the most about season two is how physical and down and dirty it gets. It’s refreshing to see women go so dark. We’re not scared to go there.
Are there any genres aside from psychological thriller that you’d like to explore in the future, or is this your happy place?
I would love to do, like, a rom-com. I want to do everything. If I could be on White Lotus, I would be in heaven.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.