Words by Andre Lawes Menchavez
Nuha Jes Izman made her television debut in the newest season of the critically acclaimed Showtime series, Yellowjackets. The show follows a high school girls’ soccer team and their descent into madness after a plane crash strands them in the Ontario wilderness, toggling between the nightmare they went through and the grown-up present day for the surviving members. Izman, a Malaysian-born actress who plays the eccentric character Crystal, sat down with me via Zoom to discuss her career in acting, from Malaysia to New York City, what it’s like to be a queer southeast Asian actor in the industry, and her time on Yellowjackets.
The following interview contains spoilers from the newest season of Yellowjackets.
“I had seen the trailer for the first season of Yellowjackets when it came out, and I immediately was like, I want to be on this show,” Izman says. “I had been auditioning for [roles in other projects], and I just wouldn’t get them, and I had that little voice in my head going, ‘Well, it’s because you don’t check their boxes of who they want on their screen.’ But then I booked [Yellowjackets] off of one self tape!”
Fresh out of graduating from college in New York City, Izman’s single tape sent her directly to Canada to film the show’s second season. Her character, Crystal, was introduced as a plane crash survivor who created a close bond with one of the lead characters, Misty, played by Samantha Hanratty. The duo were two outcasts who befriended one another while surviving the winter. The pair’s comedic scenes turned fatal when Misty ultimately killed Crystal in a recent mid-season episode.
“I went into Yellowjackets understanding that, okay, I am here to support Misty’s character, but I’m here also to breathe life into Crystal, and there’s a reason why they’ve casted me and I’m not going to take that for granted,” Izman says about her process of creating this fan-favorite character.
With so much of Asian representation on screen being the one-dimensional weird or dorky side character, Izman’s acting prowess created a character with depth, emotion, and humanity. In Izman’s final scene, she masterfully shifts Crystal’s lively, Golden Retriever-like persona into one of shuddering fear. She finds out that her closest friend Misty had purposefully broken the locator of their crashed plane, revealing her closest friend was the reason why the girls could not be found. Misty, in a panic to conceal her secret, forces Crystal off a cliff to her death, leaving fans in shambles on social media—in major part due to Izman’s outstanding portrayal of this character that made her so easy to love and root for.
“I think it’s important for us to see ourselves reflected on screen and in media, not just as caricatures, but as full-fledged human beings,” Izman says. “A lot of the time, I’d get the script and I’m like, ‘Oh, Crystal says some pretty funky shit,’ and it could so easily turn into a caricature. But it was so important for me to draw the line and make sure she didn’t…In her final scene with Misty, you really get to see her be a full human being.”
Although her run on the show has come to a dramatic end, Izman looks back on her time fondly, grateful to have had her Hollywood debut be a project as game-changing as Yellowjackets.
“It’s the diverse cast and the really brave storytelling that they do on this show,” Izman says on her favorite aspects of the series. “You have all these fully complex female characters. You get to see female rage, grief, love, everything. I think a big part of the show is that, you know, they go off the deep end, and they do all these really horrific things. But it’s also about how we’re fucking capable of doing whatever the fuck we want. Like, obviously, I don’t promote cannibalism! But the point is, we’re capable of surviving and doing what it takes to survive…it honestly was such a dream first project to be a part of.”
The show’s themes of resilience, survival, and the strength of women under pressure are topical to Izman’s journey from Malaysia to the United States.
Izman’s interest in the arts was formed at an early age. Her father was a writer who created a theater company called the Tree Theater Group, meaning she and her father would travel around the world singing songs about saving trees, writing and performing plays to raise awareness on environmental issues. Izman shared that despite being in a creative family, as the youngest of six and as the child who excelled the most in school, she felt immense pressure from her family to be the one who went the law or medicine route instead of the arts. But Izman felt that she “wanted to be able to pick and choose herself.”
“I think there was a part of me as well that knew I fully wouldn’t be able to be myself if I was still in Malaysia.”
“I remember when I was 6, I had a vision of myself in New York. When I was about 12, I made a deal with myself. I said, ‘Okay, I’m gonna respect my parents’ wishes and do really well at school, but the second I graduate high school, I’m sorry, I’m out of here,’” Izman says. “I needed to. I think there was a part of me as well that knew I fully wouldn’t be able to be myself if I was still in Malaysia. Malaysia is beautiful, we have such beautiful culture and heritage. But also, I think a part of me recognized early on that I couldn’t ignore the fact that it is still very scary to live there and be able to fully embrace who you are. I just knew I needed to get out.”
Izman auditioned for drama schools in the United States in the early hours of the morning in Malaysia from her bedroom without her parents knowing. Those late-night incognito auditions led to multiple acceptance letters that helped garner her parent’s support for her big move. Her college acceptances and awarded scholarships allowed her to leave behind her home country, a country Izman felt too limited by considering it’s illegal to be queer in Malaysia.
“Growing up in Malaysia, it’s obviously so beautiful, our culture and heritage, but it’s also, I personally find, really suffocating,” Izman shared. “I’m queer. And so growing up it was really hard because I grew up with a lot of guilt. I thought [being queer] was something I had to fix. There really isn’t any conversation around being queer in Malaysia and if there is conversation, it gets censored. It gets beaten to a pulp. It’s suffocating…coming here [to New York], I think the distance helped.”
“Make sure you know for yourself that you are the hot piece of shit that you are! Get all of that bullshit out of your mind, because it’s not helpful and it’s not true!”
But Izman continues to be critical about creating space for queer Asian people, not just in conversation and legislation in her home country, but also in the entertainment industry here in the United States.
“There weren’t any other Asians in my class in my year, in the year above me, or in the year below me either,” Izman says about her time in her performing arts school in New York. She shared how she questioned her belonging in the program and industry, oftentimes feeling like she was just the “tick of a diversity box.” But Izman has learned a lot since her time in her program about her position in this industry, and had advice to share for the future of Asian, and queer Asian, actors.
“You can be a leading lady, you can be in these big hit drama shows and big blockbuster movies, there is a space for you,” Izman says. “So you step into a room and know that! Stand in that! Make sure you know for yourself that you are the hot piece of shit that you are! Get all of that bullshit out of your mind, because it’s not helpful and it’s not true!”
As for the future ahead, Izman hopes to be a part of an industry where those in power continue to carve out spaces for talent from our community, “greenlighting more nuanced stories of Asian people in Hollywood.” While she does hope to be a part of more amazing projects like Yellowjackets in the future, she also stated a major career goal of hers is to one day establish a foundation that provides funds for creatives in Malaysia—funds that could support actors who, like her younger self, may not have the financial stability to seek out an education in the arts in the United States.
“There are more people like me,” Izman says. “I don’t see them in the industry right now, but I know that they are out there.”
Published on May 11, 2023