Tawny Cypress Answers All Your Burning 'Yellowjackets' Season Two Premiere Questions
Welcome back to the Yellowjackets hive! Every week we'll be interviewing someone from the addictive Showtime drama to discuss the shockers from the latest episode, get hints on what to look out for in the rest of the season, and to break down the Easter eggs that abound in the show's scripts, props, and even in its killer '90s soundtrack. (After all, it's the only series that deploys dramatic devices like Chekov's Tori Amos lyric.) Spoilers below.
It's been just over a year since the season one finale of Yellowjackets, Showtime's runaway hit about a 1996 high school girls' soccer team stranded in the wilderness for 19 months and the "darkness" they still carry with them in the present. And while viewers didn't have to wait quite as long for help to arrive in the form of a second season, we may have gone to some even more messed-up places trying to unravel the show's myriad of mysteries. Co-creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson have teased a five-season plan for the series (it's already been renewed for a third season) and meticulously piled every frame of the show full of hints and red herrings. (Which is why we asked them to walk us through them all after last year's finale.)
As Taissa Turner, Tawny Cypress is the core cast member (alongside Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis, and Christina Ricci) whose long-simmering trauma has taken the longest to boil over. In flashbacks, we meet teen Tai (played by Jasmine Savoy Brown), someone who is driven and ambitious, but who often stops to show compassion to her teammates and help shoulder their burden. On the other hand, present-day Tai has her eyes only on the prize. She opens the series as a lawyer running for New Jersey state senate; she had a well-appointed home, a photo-op-ready wife and son, and all the bounty of a high-achiever with an unrelenting drive to succeed. She buried her trauma, and with it vestiges of her younger, softer self. Or so she thought, until the reappearance of her sleepwalking alter ego—one with a penchant for climbing trees, eating dirt, and ritualistically killing dogs. It first manifested out in the woods all those years ago and has re-emerged to wreak havoc on her life. As we enter season two, we're left to ask: is this "Other Tai," as Cypress calls her, evil? Or is she the reason she survived out there? Or both? And why is she back?
In the first of our weekly interview series with the various twisted minds behind Yellowjackets, Cypress answers all our burning questions from the second season premiere. Did we see Tai actually praying at that spooky basement altar? How much do her personas overlap? Should we read into her cryptic election night smile back in season one? And, most importantly, is Steve the Yorkie going to be okay?
Going into this season, did you know more about Tai and her long-term trajectory as a character than you did in the first season?
I have very little information, and I have a lot of questions. But I ask not to be told things if they don't pertain to what's happening in my character's life at the moment I'm playing her, because I don't like to play ahead. So I don't know a lot. What I do know is that Tai's storyline does not wrap up in a tight little bow at the end of the season. Season three is going to keep addressing her deeper issues.
You mentioned not wanting to play ahead. There was a huge reaction to the show in the first season. Fans pored over every minute detail of the show looking for clues. Did that change the approach you took to the acting process or the choices you made this season?
I just put my faith in the creators and in the editors of the show. At one point this season, I'm in a place that has movie posters everywhere—and there are Easter eggs everywhere. I know for a fact that people are going to be fucking freeze-framing this thing frame by frame. But I'm not standing there as Tai, subtly pointing at the poster for, you know, She's Gotta Have It. I just have to play the character and put one foot in front of the other. It's a terrifying experience. Coming back to the show after the fan reaction we got in the first season, I think we were all pretty scared that we were going to fuck it up. So we just have to walk in a straight line.
What does Tai know about her other self? On the one hand, she seems genuinely shocked by the altar in the basement. But on the other hand, she’s dealt with this behavior before, so it’s not completely out of the blue.
I don't think she knows a lot about it. I think that it disappeared from her life for a long time and the last time she experienced it was probably when she was a teenager. She's a completely different person now, and this other personality presents in a different way than it used to. It's a more sophisticated, so I don't think Tai understands it fully yet. She starts trying to stay awake to keep it at bay, but that doesn't work. She attempts to stave it off, but she realizes she can't control it. I think I just gave you a spoiler, but whatever.
Well, I would assume that for dramatic purposes alone, Tai isn't going to go see a therapist in episode two and then everything's fixed. Do you have names for Tai's split personalities? How do you refer to them on set?
We call them "Our Tai" and the "Other Tai." That's how we talk about them.
In season one, there was a scene where we cut between Tai's wife Simone finding the basement altar and "Our Tai" at her election party giving a cryptic smile. Should we be reading anything into that smile?
It was actually written in the script that Tai smiles. And that was all. So I went in assuming that she smiles because she won the election. The show cuts between her and the altar, but I didn't know that at the time. I smiled a few times and then Ashley came out from video village, and I was like, "Shit, what did I do wrong?" And she said, you know, that we need to see a little of the evilness of Other Tai. That was when I first realized that this Other Tai is not just a broken persona that eats dirt during the night and causes a little mischief. She's a corrupted, morally bankrupt force.
In this episode, Tai visits the altar, and there’s a moment when it looks like—
You can already tell what I'm going to ask! There's a moment when it looks like Tai is praying to it. Was that deliberate too?
It was literally written that way in the script and I did it exactly as it was written. It said something like, She looks like she's praying and then breaks down. I was like. "What's that about?" I didn't totally understand it until I saw it on screen. That's why you really just have to trust the process.
But it's not always the case that you walk onto the set of a show with a five-year plan, where you can trust the process and trust that everyone knows where that process is headed.
Yeah, totally. I mean, God, this is the best job I've ever had. It's such a collaborative process. I feel like a part of the team. I love Ashley and Bart. Ashley's my little party girlfriend. If I get her drunk, I know I can get answers. And Bart's my little fucking weirdo. I love him to death. They're two crazy minds. After the first season, how can you not trust them?
In a flashback scene this episode, Van says to Tai, “You killed a wolf for me, which is about the most romantic thing imaginable.” It wasn’t lost on me that Tai sacrificed a dog to her altar in the present day—and now I’m worried about her new dog Steve! Are canines safe around Tai?
Do you really want to know?
Oh God, not Steve!
[laughs] No no no, Steve is fine! I'm not going to kill a tiny little Yorkie! Well, you know, I'd never say never. But so far he's okay!
Honestly, Steve seemed pretty chill about it all, even with a fake severed dog head right in front of him.
We tried for so long to get that dog to lick the fucking fake dog head on the altar. We tried for so many takes, and he wouldn't do it.
That dog's got some sense.
Yeah, he might be able to escape after all!
At the end of the first season, we saw a young Van and Misty as part of Lottie’s cohort in the woods. But we didn't see where Tai ultimates stood with Lottie yet, if she was ever one of her acolytes, or if she always remained a skeptic. What can you tell us about what we'll see between Tai and Van and Lottie this season?
There's a long way to go with the whole Lottie story, especially in the flashbacks. We've got five seasons, so there are going to be a lot of different iterations of the group that follows Lottie, or if anybody follows Lottie, or if they start following somebody else. So when adult Tai comes back into contact with Van and Lottie, there's a lot more history between them than what you've seen so far. Even I don't know it all. How Tai and Van and Lottie and Shauna and Misty and Natalie all interact with each other this season really cannot be relied on, especially based on what you've seen of their youth. Who-likes-who and who-doesn't-like-who is all different than it was before. We spend about half the season all together again. So we've got a long, long way to go to get the whole story.
How much did you and Jasmine Savoy Brown, who plays young Tai, work together on the character between seasons, as more of her backstory emerged?
Jaz and I did a lot of character work in the first season, just nailing the character down. But you've got to give it to the casting directors, because Jaz and I both naturally carry ourselves the same way and have a lot of the same mannerism. How anybody was able to see that, I can't even figure out. It's genius. So we approached Tai with the same body language to begin with and then worked on the character extensively together for the first season. We have it pretty down pad at this point. We still tweak it here and there with phone calls, though we're mostly we're just catching up on each other's personal lives. This season, we really got into Other Tai a lot more. During the first season, we were like, "How are you gonna eat the dirt? Like this or like this?" Now it's more like, "Who is this Other Tai? How does she hold herself? Is she feral? Is she evil?"
You have colored contacts to match Jasmine’s eye color. But fans notices that they sometimes have a reddish hue and have begun speculating about whether or not there's meaning behind that. What kind of thought went into something as seemingly minor as your eye color?
I went to an optometrist who specializes in colored contacts for television and movies. She did all the tests and just whipped up a pair of brown contacts. Then there's a lens wrangler on set who comes in every single day, pops them in my eye, takes them out of my eye, comes over every hour and offers me some drops. And that's it. I wish there was something cool about them. I wish that my eyes turned red when I became the Other Tai or something like that. But no, I think they just look red sometimes when the light hits them weird.
In the flashbacks, Tai has a leadership role amongst the Yellowjackets. As an adult, she craves a leadership role in her professional life. But she doesn’t take a leadership role when dealing with the fallout that's occurring in the present. In fact, she seems to want distance herself from Shauna, Nat, and Misty. What's behind that distinction?
We're shadows of who we were as teenagers. Tai is Type A both in the past and present, but young Tai allows for love in her life, she allows for caring. She cares for people constantly. If you look back at season one, there are many times when young Tai is there for another girl or when she's the one that they turn to. But then all this shit happens to her in the woods. Then she gets back and life happens. And now she has something to prove, and it switches something inside her. She turns into this very driven narcissist. "Everything's going to go the way I say. I'm going to do everything I set out to do. Just watch me. None of what happened in the woods affected me." But as this season progresses, she becomes a lot more like she was as a teenager. The confidence disappears, the in-your-face, just-watch-me attitude disappears, and she in some ways regresses back into her teenage self.
The others seem to crave going back in some way. Nat talked about losing her sense of purpose. Shauna keeps chasing the rush of being someone else, someone more adventurous. Misty is…Misty. How do you approach the conflict between wanting to put it behind you and maybe craving to go back on some level?
Well, she's a very different Tai now than in season one. The shell she built has been broken. She's desperate to get rid of this Other Tai and she will do anything necessary. She goes back to an old relationship and falls back in step with this old relationship. She regresses back into somebody who does what other people tell her to do instead of forging her own way. She lets other people lead her.
When I took this role, they told me that Tai is the success story, that she's the person who wasn't touched. They never even brought up Other Tai. All they said was that there are three levels to Tai: the success; the love for her wife and her son; and then underneath everything is a darkness that she doesn't even know is there. Other Tai explains that darkness they were talking about!
So they never said, "By the way, you're going to be eating a lot of dirt."
No, and I'm glad they didn't tell me because I would have been anxiously waiting for that day the entire time.
But it's not really dirt, right? What's it made of?
Cake mix and crushed Oreos! Turns out I could eat it all day along.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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