"Let this be your own escape from your own wilderness": Nicole Maines talks "Yellowjackets"

Salon talked to Maines about being in a show that's "unapologetically queer" and fighting for "women's wrongs"

By Kelly McClure

Nights & Weekends Editor

Published April 23, 2023 4:00PM (EDT)

Nicole Maines as Lisa (Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME)
Nicole Maines as Lisa (Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME)

Nicole Maines is one of the newest members of the "Yellowjackets" cast, joining in Season 2 as Lisa, the right hand of Lottie (Simone Kessell) at her tranquil but suspicious "intentional community." In the first introduction to Lisa, which we get in Episode 1, "Friends, Romans, Countrymen," she dives into the previously established spooky mix from the jump, getting stabbed in the face with a fork by Natalie (Juliette Lewis) and consistently standing out in episodes amongst a powerhouse ensemble cast.

Prior to "Yellowjackets," Maines was best known for her role as Nia Nal / Dreamer in CW's "Supergirl" series, making history as television's first transgender superhero — a character she furthers in her writing for DC Comics — but history was made even earlier than that. In 2014, at the age of 17, Maines set a precedent for trans rights by winning the discrimination case Doe v. Regional School Unit 26, barring a school district's ability to dictate which bathroom students could choose to use, based on their identified gender. 

Salon spoke to Maines via Zoom about her role as Lisa and the importance of representation in "unapologetically queer" shows like "Yellowjackets." 

Nicole Maines as Lisa (Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME)Lisa is a new character who, as far as we know, has no ties to the wilderness timeline. When the role was first pitched to you, did the showrunners give much insight into how much Lisa knows about what went down out there?

The way it was described in the breakdown for the audition was she's a bit of a young Natalie and she is a devotee to this cult and is a little over her head. So she doesn't really know anything about what went on in the wilderness and she doesn't know anything about the Yellowjackets. All she knows is there's this woman who is running an intentional community and, as far as she can tell, it's working and it's really helping her and she's doing really well. Never mind the fact that, oh hey, if you leave and you go off on your own and you don't have this woman to meet all of your needs then you completely fall apart.

You and Juliette Lewis seem to match each other's sort of impassioned yet guarded vulnerability, and your characters seem to be growing closer as the season progresses. Being that little can be trusted in this show in the sense that things aren't always what they seem, can we expect that vibe to continue or is there trouble brewing underneath the surface?

I think you can always expect to see trouble. I think it wouldn't be "Yellowjackets" if everything doesn't go up in flames. But their relationship is really special, and I loved it and I love Juliette. And I think one of the great things about those two is as Juliette and I got to know each other and got closer, I think so did the character. So I think that just worked really well on screen. But their relationship is really special because I think Natalie is of course coming into this thinking, "Girl, this is a cult. Like, this is bad news." And Lisa's saying, '"OK, well look around you. Everyone's doing fine. Everyone wants to be here. Don't you want to start finally feeling better?" I think they have a lot to learn from each other. Maybe Natalie should start embracing the cult a little bit, and maybe Lisa should hit the brakes. Maybe pull back from the cult thing. So maybe they can meet each other in the middle and actually find their way to being healthy people finally.

We've gotten a glimpse into Lisa's home life, which doesn't seem great. And though she seems fairly settled at Lottie's place, it does seem limiting. If Lisa were to break out on her own, where do you think she'd go?

I don't think she has any idea. And that's the lovely thing about cults, isn't it? You completely leave yourself incapable of leaving so then — even in a worse case scenario you do intend to leave the cult — then you realize, "I have nowhere to go and no one to talk to." And I think she's sort of in this position and she doesn't even realize it yet because as far as she's concerned everything's going great. I think between being in a cult and a lifetime of just gaslighting and abuse from her mother, she herself believes that she is wholly incapable of standing on her own two feet. Which is tragic because she completely is, and she's like Natalie; they're both — well, were — completely healthy people. There was nothing in the world wrong with them except that the environments they grew up in were unsafe. They're both victims of circumstance, which now leaves them as these two characters that have a lot wrong with them. And so Lisa herself believes everything her mom said, and I think Natalie is gonna be the first person that's like, "No, you're f**king fine. Why are you here?" Because Lottie's absolutely not gonna tell her that. So she's getting the support from Lottie insofar as, "You stay here and you stay dependent on me."

Simone Kessell as Lottie and Nicole Maines as Lisa (Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME)Dependent is a good word there. For as much as we know that the character Lisa works so closely with Lottie, we haven't seen exactly all that's behind that. We very much get the sense that she's sort of the right arm of Lottie, but there's still that hand on the shoulder. Lottie's steering this character but we don't know where Lisa is being steered towards. Working with someone in a cult, but being a trusted member of that cult, where is the back and forth where you're trusted, but not so much? Where do you see that dynamic going?

"It's giving Lisa the illusion of responsibility and 'I'm fine and I'm doing great,' and so she needs to come to the realization that that is not the case. And I think without revealing too much, I think for Lisa that is going to come very quickly, very unexpectedly and with high f**king stakes."

I think for Lisa the responsibility is giving her the illusion, "I'm capable. Oh I can do things. What are you talking about mom, I'm fine. I can stand on my own two feet. Look at all of the responsibility I've been given. I can go chop the heads off chickens, I can go to the farmers market. I can be kind of her right-hand guard dog." She's so protective over Lottie because she doesn't register any of that relationship as dangerous. And [Simone Kessell] does it so brilliantly because when she's giving these speeches and when Lottie looks at you . . . it was amazing to be on set with her because you feel this wave of like, me, Nicole, I was like, "Am I good enough?" Like, "Simone, I don't know how you feel about starting a cult, but I think this could be really great for me." So I think it's giving Lisa the illusion of responsibility and "I'm fine and I'm doing great," and so she needs to come to the realization that that is not the case. And I think without revealing too much, I think for Lisa that is going to come very quickly, very unexpectedly and with high f**king stakes.

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How long have you, personally, kept a goldfish alive?

Oh never. I'm dogsitting right now, and that's a lot.

Dogs are somehow easier than goldfish, and I don't know how that works but dogs kind of take care of you. But a goldfish, like a crumb drops in the bowl, and they're dead.

Tell me a goldfish isn't just a parasite. It just sits in your house. It doesn't do anything. It just sucks your time and your money. My dad has fish that he loves, and my mom I think is plotting a fish murder. She was talking to me on the phone the other day, and it was a little chilling.

Nicole Maines as Lisa and Juliette Lewis as Natalie (Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME)Do you know the full arc of Lisa's story? How much were you given walking into this?

Not a lot. And I do kind of like that because when you're doing these characters — and I think it's a double-edged sword because you don't get the backstory on Lisa till Episode 4 — so that made the first three episodes like, "Who is this lady?" I like that it creates this organic feel of things surprising the character and I don't know what's gonna come next so as I'm doing this scene I have no choice but to be in the present and work with what the character already knows. So I appreciate that. Now, having finished the season, I'm dying to know like, "Is something gonna happen?"

Not since "Twin Peaks" has there been a show so primed for theories and speculation. A pill bug could be shown in a scene and people will be like "That's Javi!" And there are some wild theories about your character for sure. Based on what you may have read, how close are fans in their theories regarding your character?

No one has any idea. I remember reading the scripts for the first time and I was like, "Oh my God!" It's a good show, and that's the best part of being on it. As a participant, I'm a fan of this. I remember watching the show for the first time. I hadn't seen it until I'd been cast and I came up to Vancouver and I had like a day before I needed to be on set and so I watched the whole first season in my hotel room that day, and that was not hard. It was so bingeable. And my boyfriend was like, "Hey you know, our buddies . . ." and I was like, "I'm watching my stories!" I think especially in the environment we're in right now where it's sort of like reboots and prequels and sequels and all that; this is something that's truly new. And I think that's why people love it so much, because the writing is so brilliant and it leaves so much room open for theorizing and engagement as fans of the show and it's something we haven't seen before. The way I like to think of the show is that Twitter meme where they're like, "I support women's rights but more importantly I support women's wrongs." And that's 100% what this show is. It's just women's wrongs after women's wrongs after women's wrongs, and it's amazing because as a viewer you're like, "Yes, yes, yes, yes, do the bad thing."

A lot of the show's queer Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) fans joke on Twitter and Reddit about wanting to be stabbed by her, and while we haven't seen your character meet her yet, or know if that's something that's coming, you actually got to experience what it would be like to be stabbed by a fork by Juliette Lewis. Based on that experience, who do you think would win in a fight, Natalie or Shauna?

My initial thought would be Natalie. I mean, this is also just because I'm like Team Natalie all the way. I feel like Natalie is scrappy. But I think Shauna has . . . we have seen Shauna surprise us time and time again with just how bad she's willing to be, and the places she's willing to go, enjoyably. And even as she's talking about the look on people's faces as they realize they're about to die, I don't know if I'd wanna see Shauna alone in a dark alley at night. I'd cross the street. [Melanie Lynskey] is insane. All of them are bloody insane. Watching these performances . . . and that is one of the things I'm most thankful for, being a part of the present-day cast, is me being a dumbass college drop-out like, "I'm playing dress-up," is being on set with literal legends who are so talented and being able to be there and just watch them do these scenes is like the craziest kind of masterclass that anyone could come up with.

As a member of the LGBTQ community myself, one of the biggest pleasures of watching this show is how queer it feels, and how the show isn't afraid of playing along with the audience when it comes to innuendo and just generally queering things up and allowing us to kind of claim the show as our own. With so many queer shows vanishing into the ether like the "Queer as Folk" reboot, "The L Word: Generation Q" and "A League of Their Own," was that element important to you when signing on?

I remember seeing "Yellowjackets" at the GLAAD Awards and being like, "Oh, cool, I keep hearing about this show." But I hadn't watched it until I was cast and about to go on set. So I signed up because I was like, "This audition is cool. She gets stabbed in the face Episode 1. I get to be in a cult." These are all just cool things that appealed to me as a performer because my favorite thing is to get to play with the other kid's toys  and play in these sandboxes and universes that are different from my own. And so I love genre and I love fantasy and the supernatural, and "Yellowjackets" just fits the bill. It's just so crazy and wild and weird. So that was the first thing that was really appealing to me, and then watching the show and realizing just how unapologetically queer it is . . . this show is really

There's a fine line to be walked when we're doing representation and we're telling these stories where it doesn't come out like an after-school special. But "Yellowjackets" has done it perfectly

spectacular and you're absolutely right, it is very hard to create content for the queer community — that's not true — it's very easy to create content for the queer community, it's very difficult for that content to stick around. There's a fine line to be walked when we're doing representation and we're telling these stories where it doesn't come out like an afterschool special. But "Yellowjackets" has done it perfectly, and it shows that it is possible because you just tell a good story and you put queer characters in there and it just works. Just write them like human beings and have them make choices and decisions that reflect who they are as people and the pieces all fall together.

Nicole MainesNicole Maines (Photo by Manfred Baumann)There's been some heated back and forth on Reddit and elsewhere about the assumption that because you're a trans actress, Lisa will be revealed as also being trans. What are your thoughts on that and does it ever feel too heavy to so often have that extra educational/ambassador role tacked on to whatever role you play?

The pressure of being an ambassador, for me, I've been very very fortunate because I grew up in a window of time where I was able to thrive as a person having access to gender-affirming care, having parents who — you know, maybe not at first — but got on board and were supportive and advocated for me and fought for me. And despite the fact that I had been discriminated against in school, being able to take that lawsuit up to the main state Supreme Court and land a precedent In support of the rights of trans kids and their families, I was very very lucky. And now it feels like the sand is slipping through our fingers, and it's terrifying.

Before I was an actor I was an advocate. And I will always be an advocate. My existence, my visibility on screen, the representation will always be advocacy because existing in spaces where people don't want you is radical and rebellious in nature. We will march, we will vote, we will be out there and protest and continue to radically and rebelliously exist, but what we're seeing is so many of these lawmakers who already made up their minds. And being able to at least make people smile, and at least be able to be a trans woman successfully existing happily. Being able to be on this incredible show, this unapologetically queer show, it's like escape into this, theorize about this, let this be your own escape from your own wilderness right now.

Watch Nicole Maines as Lisa in Season 2 of "Yellowjackets," and keep up with the furthering of the Nia Nal / Dreamer universe via DC Comics, for which Maines is a frequent writer. The latest from Maines is a full-length graphic novel titled "Bad Dream: A Dreamer Story."

By Kelly McClure

Kelly McClure is Salon's Nights and Weekends Editor covering daily news, politics and culture. Her work has been featured in Vulture, The A.V. Club, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Nylon, Vice, and elsewhere. She is the author of Something is Always Happening Somewhere.

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