Welcome to Thanks, I Love It, our series highlighting something onscreen we’re obsessed with this week.
You don’t really notice Misty Quigley in the Yellowjackets pilot.
She’s there, lining up cones, passing out snacks, and otherwise doing the duties of a student equipment manager to a championship girls’ soccer team. Yet the mousy teen doesn’t make much of a first impression. Really, it’s not until episode 2 — when Misty amputates assistant coach Ben’s leg next to the flaming wreckage of an airplane — that who she is and what she’s capable of begins to sink in.
Yellowjackets co-creators Bart Nickerson and Ashley Lyle say being overlooked is a problem that Misty faces a lot.
“The idea was to create a character that is wanting to relate with people in this profound way, but is just utterly unable to,” explained Nickerson in a joint phone interview with Lyle. The two are married and have been writing together for nearly 17 years.
“All she wants to do is be loved,” Lyle said with a knowing sigh. “But the more Misty wants people to love her, the less inclined they are to do so.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Misty seemingly combines your classic high school reject and romantic obsessive tropes. Think Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club meets Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. The glasses-wearing outcast is then thrust into a maybe supernatural, Lord of the Flies-type situation. The result is a lightning-in-a-bottle characterization that plays a pivotal role in the series. When Misty finds the tracker of the airplane the first night the team is stranded, she destroys it.
“It wasn’t that she thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to strand us out here for 19 months,'” Lyle expounded. “In our minds, she was thinking, ‘Well, this will buy me a few more days of this moment in the sun.'”
It’s the kind of notoriously bad decision teenagers make all the time, and something the writers said was integral to getting their Yellowjackets pitch off the ground.
One of four central women in Showtime’s spectacular survival drama, Misty is portrayed by two actors. Christina Ricci plays her in the present day, as a slightly creepy hospice nurse, who moonlights as an internet sleuth. Samantha Hanratty plays her 1996 predecessor, whose two-time Red Cross babysitter training proves invaluable when catastrophe strikes the Yellowjackets’ flight to nationals.
In a solo phone call, Hanratty said, “It’s not until Misty is out in the wilderness, after this plane has crashed, that she starts to get a glimpse of what life looks like when she is needed. And she is willing to go to all ends to make sure that she never goes back to feeling unneeded again.”
Hanratty auditioned for Yellowjackets five times, having first gone out for the role of Natalie (played by Sophie Thatcher and Juliette Lewis). She described fighting for the part of Misty, at one point walking out of a casting session and then walking right back in asking to do it again.
“I’m not gonna lie, I was so crushed [when I didn’t get Natalie] because I loved the project,” Hanratty explained. “They said they would keep me in mind. Then, I think it was about a week later that I got the audition for Misty, which was so exciting. Because I was like, ‘Oh, this girl is interesting as can be.'”
As soon as she read that scene for us, we said, ‘OK, she is Misty.’
Despite a casting process that Hanratty describes as “intimidating,” Nickerson and Lyle knew they wanted her in the show.
“We just needed to find the exact right part,” Lyle said, noting the physical transformation Hanratty needed to achieve for Misty. “Samantha is a beautiful girl, and we weren’t sure at first if she would be able to portray the mousy, unnoticeable quality that we saw [for that character].”
So the two creators wrote a Misty scene specifically for the casting process, one that doesn’t appear in the final show. It’s a faceoff between Misty and a teacher over alleged cheating. As Hanratty recalls, the script crescendoed with Misty getting her way, only to quietly flip the teacher off and cuss her out.
“It was immediate,” Lyle recalled. “As soon as she read that scene for us, we said, ‘OK, she is Misty.'”
“Because that’s a difficult line to play,” Nickerson added. “On some level, Misty is a character that’s always kind of acting [to get what she wants] and often she is not great at it. She’s doing a performance to get something out of someone. So you need a very skilled actor who is able to do a mediocre job [on purpose.]”
With Ricci already on board and Hanratty locked in, the process of melding two portrayals into a cohesive portrait began. Hanratty described collaborating with Ricci, whose icon status precedes her, as “all the emotions you can imagine.”
“I’m a big fan of hers, so I already knew that she was going to do an amazing job, but I felt like I almost needed to prove myself,” Hanratty said. “It wasn’t until Christina and I got to sit down and really talk about Misty and got to meet each other that I felt just so quickly at ease.”
“But the more Misty wants people to love her, the less inclined they are to do so.”
From the start, Hanratty and Ricci were in general agreement about the character. In fact, many of Misty’s most consistent quirks — the way she pushes her glasses up her nose, for instance — appeared without explicit discussion. Though, the cast and crew did work to ensure specific details matched perfectly.
“I had brown-eye contacts in the show because my eyes are blue, and I had to match Christina’s,” Hanratty remembered. “And that was honestly one of the more challenging things because I’m not used to wearing contacts. Then, because we’re out in the dust all the time, I would just constantly be getting stuff underneath them.”
“Misty is just taking it all in.”
Consequently, Misty doesn’t blink much. It’s a trait carried over into Ricci’s portrayal that accents the profound strangeness of the character. When the plane goes down, Misty’s wide-eyed stare appears almost dreamy.
“I, Samantha, would be flailing around and freaking out and having a panic attack,” Hanratty said with a laugh. “Whereas Misty is just taking it all in. It’s almost more fascinating than scary to her.”
These nuanced justifications ripples throughout the character’s final form. Nickerson explained that her almost ‘80s costuming as a ’90s teen acts as a sign of both not fitting in and not knowing how to fit in. Conversely, her inconsistent matching of club-wear and granny accessories in the present, Lyle said, is a sign she’s “really, really trying to be up on trends, but still kind of gets it wrong.” The press-on nails Misty pops off in episode 3 were Ricci’s idea.
What ends up on screen is a shining evolution in a series with many of them. Misty’s burning desire for a better life — not to mention a complicated relationship with the other survivors — grabs viewers’ attention and doesn’t let go. This is true even in episodes where she isn’t heavily featured. Her magnetic presence makes the show better all around, with an anti-hero bend that constantly leaves us asking if we’re supposed to be rooting for her and why.
“I don’t know that she’s the villain,” Nickerson said, “So much as she’s trapped in this thing that everybody is trapped in.”
“We try to approach these characters as each and every one of them being a hero and a villain in their own,” noted Lyle. “We want everyone to give their inner Misty a little hug.”
Still, Hanratty knows: “Some people are going to hate her and you know, and that’s totally fine. I understand it. But I find it more fascinating when people tell me that they love her because then I’m like, ‘Ooh, why? Tell me more.'”
The praise Misty’s teammates give her in a memorable scene from episode 2 comes to mind. While Yellowjackets wouldn’t be “completely fucked if she weren’t here,” you know things would be a whole lot less interesting.