Photo: Emilie Hébert

Sophie Nélisse

Award-winning Canadian actress, Sophie Nélisse has returned for the second season of Yellowjackets, which premiered on March 24th on Showtime. Nélisse plays young Shauna, while her counterpart, Melanie Lynskey, plays the adult version of the character in the American thriller and drama series, which centers on a group of teenagers who survive a plane crash and the aftermath as they make it back to civilization 25 years later. The series also stars Tawny Cypress, Ella Purnell, Christina Ricci, and more. Not only did the cast and crew receive rave reviews, but they also won Best Drama Series at the 2022 Critics Choice Awards, Outstanding Drama Series at the 2022 EMMY Awards, Outstanding New TV Series at the 2022 GLAAD Media Awards, and much more. 

Nélisse began acting at the age of seven and her first film was the French-Canadian film, Monsieur Lazhar. This role earned the 22-year-old actress a Genie and a Jutra Award for Best Supporting Actress. Over the years, she kept up a steady stream of film and TV credits, framing her to be one of the top young actresses of this generation. We chatted with Nélisse about her projects, her love of books, and the upcoming season of Yellowjackets.

Can you tell us about growing up in Montreal and how you stumbled into your passion for acting?

Growing up in Montreal has been so amazing. I moved to Montreal when I was four years old. The first thing I remember was how cold it gets in the winter. Which I have grown to love and yet I still hate sometimes. Definitely more of a summer person and warmth, but you get used to it. It’s just an amazing city to grow up in. I’m very lucky to be in the midst of the city but in a chill neighborhood where I remember playing hockey in the street. Because yes hockey is a big sport back in Montreal. And I played hockey on ice for a couple of years as well. Just lots of parks and stuff. I’ve always felt very safe and I’m very lucky that I can take the subway everywhere and not get harassed. It’s such a cultural city, there are so many cultures, and it’s so diverse and artistic with the music scene, and the film and TV scene.

How I stumbled into acting is basically I was training for the Olympics for gymnastics I was competing for Canada, and I just needed money to pay for my coaching to pay for all my expenses when I was competing abroad, and my brother wanted to become an actor so when he enrolled into an agency I just kind of went along with it. I auditioned for the agency as well hoping I would do commercials and get some pocket money to pay for my training and one thing led to another, and a few months into the agency I booked my role in Monsieur Lazhar and that was kind of the beginning of everything.

What do you remember about being on the set of Monsieur Lazha and getting to work on your first film?

It was kind of like a vacation. It was like in the summer all these kids going to camp, like day camp. I was like I get the best of both worlds; I get to have fun on set with a bunch of kids my age and we get to fool around. And coming from my gymnastics background I, of course, had a very competitive background and there was this competitive element of trying to do the best in every scene and trying to make the director proud and my acting coach proud. And having to learn so many lines from such a young age and having very emotional scenes, I saw it as a challenge and a fun little two months where I get to play around. That was really what my experience felt like. I feel like I didn’t know that it was going to be so successful and change the whole course of my life.

You’ve also done several French television roles. Is that something you’d like to continue doing in your acting career?

I would love to keep acting in French. In Montreal, we have so many gifted directors and actors. So, I would love to keep working in Montreal. There’s something very special and unique about shooting back home because it’s a smaller industry and it feels more like family. Very often when I work back home, I come across the same people on set. It feels a little less like a job to me and more like just having fun. There’s also somewhat less pressure when I’m on a Montreal set. Although I always try to do my best, so I always feel pressure. I do feel that maybe not just coming from Montreal but shooting indie, in general, has a vibe that people are more there for the pure enjoyment of art and doing something they’re passionate about. I find that sometimes in Hollywood it can get a little corporate and you can just tell that people are in it not always for the good reasons and you rarely find that back home.

In The Book Thief, your character was stealing books. Would you consider yourself a bookworm? If yes, what is your favorite book and why?

I definitely would say that I’m a bookworm. I always have a book on me when I’m traveling, when I’m on set, and before going to bed. I’m quite an avid reader. I love it because it gets me off social media and my phone. There’s something about holding a book in your hands that feels very soothing and comforting. You kind of escape reality for a second. I think right now my favorite book that I read recently is called Normal People. Not a shocker, I feel like everyone has read it. But then I watched the TV show and I just love everything about the book and the show. I’m obsessed with it. There’s also a French book called Aliss that is kind of a twisted version of Alice in Wonderland. It’s about this girl growing up and moving to Montreal and it gets very dark. That would be another one of my favorite books.

You’ve done several films with your younger sister, Isabelle. What is it like sharing the screen with her? 

I have been so lucky to work with my sister for so many reasons. First of all, to this day I think she is one of the most talented actresses I’ve seen. There’s just something in her presence and the way she looks at you that is just so captivating to watch. Learning from her whenever I’ve worked with her has been amazing. Also, just because she’s my absolute best friend and I admire her so much. I aspire and look at her, even though she’s younger than me. I feel like she has so much to teach me. Working on set with her feels like the best of both worlds because she is the one I miss the most whenever I’m on set or far away from home. So being able to work with her is just so much fun. And we know each other so well and know when we’re tired or how to make each other feel better if we’re not feeling well. It sometimes can be really hard though that we know each other so well that we can get the giggles easily or snap out of character too quickly because I feel like laughing when I know that she’s on the verge of laughing too. But I’m just dying to get to work with her again.

Tell us about your character Shauna in Yellowjackets

I feel lucky because she has been just an honor to play. She’s so complex and I relate to her in so many ways. I think we both have this sort of underlying confidence where you know she’s not the stereotypical popular girl, she’s always been in Jackie’s shadow, and she’s kind of accepted to sit back in the role of the observer and is more of an introvert, but she still knows that she is interesting and smart and pretty to some extent. She knows she’s full of good qualities and yet there’s this dark side to her that I think she knows is also there. She’s just waiting to explode and I think she keeps it hidden but it slowly comes out, especially for the older Shauna. And for younger Shauna, I think she will slowly find her inner confidence and her voice as the season progresses and she’s just filled with so much complexity because she’s caring and nurturing and kind, but she’s done mean things that she regrets but also felt liberating in some way, so I think she just feels conflicted inside which has been interesting to bring to life.

What was it like returning to play her for season 2?

Getting back into season 2 has been so cool. Obviously, with Shauna, there is the whole pregnancy aspect where she is further along now. So that’s been kind of fun to be able to play around with the belly and see how it affects my body language and how I stand and how I carry myself. Just the way she copes with Jackie’s death as well, I think the writers did an amazing job at taking such an interesting twist on it. Which again taps into her conflicting feelings of feeling so guilty about what happened to Jackie but also like there’s been a weight lifted off her shoulders. So, it’s been fun to juggle that. Also heading back into season 2 has been a little more stressful than the first season because there was such a big hype around the first season that we hope to meet people’s expectations. And having such a big audience follow us and support us has been so overwhelming and fun. I feel so blessed but like I said it feels so stressful because now I’m scared to let people down. So, it’s been a mixture of excitement and nerves.

If you were put in a similar situation to Shauna and her friends, do you think you would survive and get through to the end?

If I were to be stranded in the wilderness I genuinely do not know if I would survive. I feel like the mental aspect I could handle. I feel like I’m quite tough and wouldn’t be scared to get into a fight, if needed, and I could also potentially be a good leader. Not just the physical aspect, which I feel like coming from a sports background, I would be able to run and do all of that and to fight, I think it’s more that I’m a little oblivious sometimes. I feel like I would probably die from doing something stupid like picking the wrong mushroom or walking straight into a trap or maybe having a wound and not knowing how to clean it properly and it gets infected and stuff. I think I would die of something stupid.

You get to share the screen with a lot of seasoned and renowned actors. Do you ever go to them for advice on anything, whether that be acting or life in general?

It’s been interesting to be able to share the screen with such great actors. I’m not one to bother people or to look like I am a fan in any way so I rarely will go up to them and ask them for advice. Also, we just happen to not to be on set together so it’s kind of hard to find a moment to do that if I were to want to do that. I would say that Melanie [Lynskey] is the one that’s taught me the most so far on so many different levels. First of all, just how to be the most amazing lead on a show ever towards the people on set. She’s just so kind and always looking out for everyone. She’d send emails if there was ever a little hiccup. She’d send emails making sure everyone was okay. She’d always check up on me, always making sure I’m uncomfortable with every scene. She’s been so easy to talk to and to be able to communicate with. If ever I did feel uncomfortable about anything I felt like I could run to her, and she would be waiting for me with open arms. It’s very inspiring to see someone that not only do I look up to so much as an actor but then to work with her and be like wow she’s genuinely the nicest, kindest, most loving human being ever. It’s so refreshing. Then on an acting level, I just find it so amazing to see how she does so much by doing so little. I find that she has this presence on screen that’s so lively and the little things that she does with her face. Her body language just says so much and yet it feels like she’s just flowing through the space and that she’s not even trying to do anything. It just works. Watching her act, I don’t get to see it on set but when I get to see it in the episodes afterward there are a lot of tiny little tricks that I note down and try to bring into my acting.

Yellowjackets not only received rave reviews from critics and viewers but it was also nominated for a handful of prestigious awards. How does it feel being a part of a show that is making that level of impact?

It’s been a crazy roller coaster being a part of a show that has such an impact. I definitely was not expecting it. I’m always one to set my expectations really low so that I don’t get deceived. Coming out of the first season, I think our show is very particular in that we touch on subjects that can be sensitive and we cross some lines and test the audience’s capacity and open-mindedness. I was kind of scared of how the audience was going to receive the show. And then it just really blew up. I feel pretty lucky that I’m from Montreal, so I didn’t feel how enormous the impact was. There just wasn’t much of a buzz about it back here. Then we started doing stuff for awards season and everyone was calling me asking how it feels to be on such a big show and then I was like, wow, I guess it really is a big show. Then I went to LA and I saw the posters everywhere and was getting recognized. I feel very grateful and overwhelmed and mostly proud. I’m so proud to not only be able to do a job that I like but to be proud of the project that I’m on and proud of the girls that I’m acting with. I think they’re all so talented and have taught me so much on a professional and human level. I’m just so happy for everyone that’s worked so hard on the show and as I said earlier there’s also a part of me that’s nervous because it means that we touch the audience in some way and that they connect with the characters. Which is amazing and what I hope for when I act – that I can connect with people and that my work speaks to them. But then again, it comes with the expectations to deliver season after season, so it’s stress that’s added as we go along.