First look at Zoe Saldana, Nicole Kidman, and Laysla De Oliveira in the spy thriller series ‘SPECIAL OPS: LIONESS’ from Taylor Sheridan.
Something about Special Ops: Lioness intimidated Zoe Saldana. She’s starred in some of the biggest blockbusters in modern times—Avatar, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the Avengers movies.
But she found herself feeling overwhelmed when Taylor Sheridan, the powerhouse producer behind Yellowstone and its spin-offs, among other hit shows, asked her to join his next project: an espionage thriller about a CIA program that trains and dispatches women around the world as undercover operatives.
So, she stalled. “We were in the middle of the pandemic. The thought of me committing to a multi-seasonal show was just daunting,” Saldana says. “I told him that I just wasn’t ready. I was scared shitless, in other words. I was just like, ‘I’m going to fail. I just do science fiction. I don’t do this.’” Still, she was tempted. “It was Taylor Sheridan. Nicole Kidman was already attached to produce, and she was going to play a part in it as well. So obviously, that was a dream for me.”
Sheridan envisioned Saldana as Joe, the station chief of the Lioness program, who once served undercover herself and has graduated to overseeing the next generation of operatives. Joe lives Stateside now as a married mother of two, but she’s still consumed by her duties, often at the expense of her family. The role was so good, Saldana says, she had to get over herself and say yes—with a little nudging from her own spouse.
“He was like, ‘Just do it. You haven’t been able to let go of this pilot. You are a fan of Taylor’s work. Just fucking call him!’ So I texted him, and he called me back immediately,” Saldana says. “Once he started sending Nicole and me episode after episode, we just couldn’t believe that we were going to be a part of something this great. So we shot it. We did it.”
Lioness is set to debut on Paramount+ this summer, and in this exclusive first look, Saldana, Kidman, and Laysla De Oliveira (best known for Neflix’s Locke & Key) guide us through the newest saga in the Sheridan-verse: a drama focused on women who commit themselves fully to the protection of others but can also be ferociously deadly. “There’s power in having a female identity,” Kidman says. “They have access in a different way than a lot of men who are working undercover do.”
The characters of Lioness aren’t the femme fatale types from fantasy spy thrillers like 007. Its women are low-key professionals who excel at going unnoticed. The foreign groups who stand as the biggest threats to US national security often underestimate women in their circles, a truth the CIA’s Lioness program exploits for its own benefit.
“It’s a secretive world,” Kidman says. “They put their country before themselves by remaining anonymous. They have to remain anonymous to preserve their program.” That means their work and accomplishments tend to go unheralded—something even women who aren’t in clandestine special-ops divisions may find relatable.
Kidman had some trepidation of her own, but it was mitigated by her prospective role on the show. “Before he’d written anything, he was just like, ‘I want a woman to produce this with me,’” Kidman says of Sheridan. “I said, ‘But I’d also love to be in it, in a sort of pivotal supporting role. I didn’t want to play a lead in a series, but I wanted to speak his dialogue.”
Nicole Kidman as CIA senior supervisor Kaitlyn Meade. GREG LEWIS/PARAMOUNT+
As with Saldana, Sheridan already had a role in mind for her: Kaitlyn Meade, a DC veteran and senior CIA supervisor who oversees the program from the corridors of Washington. “She’s had a long career in terms of playing politics, but also she’s been in the field,” Kidman says. “She’s actually running the Lioness program. But she also knows how to be a soldier.”
While Saldana’s Joe manages the women in the field, Meade manages power brokers at the highest levels of the US government. Among them are Morgan Freeman as Edwin Mullins, the secretary of state, and Michael Kelly (House of Cards) as CIA Deputy Director Byron Westfield. “I’ll just say she’s very smart. She’s very, very suited to the job she does,” Kidman says. “There are particular personalities that can handle these situations. Kaitlyn has the ability to compartmentalize, she has the ability to lead, and she has the ability to make decisions under enormous stress, with very little sleep. I find that fascinating, particularly being an emotional person. You know, 99% of the population can’t do this. There are very few people who are equipped for these kinds of positions.”
At the boots-on-the-ground level of Lioness is De Oliveira’s Cruz Manuelos, a Marine recruited to gather intel and identify key targets within a global terrorist network. But the world she’s infiltrating is not in the mountainous caverns of Afghanistan or the bustling streets of Iraq. She’s sent by the CIA to get close to the money: the wealthy elite who live large while secretly funding violence that destabilizes countless others.
“She goes in to befriend the target’s daughter,” De Oliveira says. “So this girl becomes her mark. She wants to get close to this girl so that they can get to the target. But when you’re hanging out with somebody every day and get to know them as humans, it gets really hard to do what you have to do.”
Manuelos is used to being on the battlefield, De Oliveira says, where the bad guys are easier to identify: They’re the ones shooting at you. “She’s not used to these interpersonal relationships, or getting this deep,” De Oliveira says. “It really tests her because Cruz is somebody who’s very tough on the outside but super sensitive on the inside.”
This mission will require her to soften that armored exterior. “She basically just infiltrates this friend group. And it’s very different for her because she’s used to being a Marine. She’s not used to shopping and wearing tiny bikinis,” the actor says. “It’s so fun because I got to play the extreme of being this very tough Marine with the boys, and then I would go and shoot the stuff with the girls, and we were shopping and going clubbing and dancing and wearing this scrunchy, tight dresses with heels.” The primary focus of her attention is Aaliyah (played by Stephanie Nur), the daughter of a billionaire businessman believed to be a source of funding for a terrorist network.
The mission is disorienting for Manuelos—as it was in real life for De Oliveira. “Sometimes I would have to try to stay as grounded as possible because I felt like I was on two different shows. One day, like I said, I would be with the guys in my gear. And then the next day, I would be in the dress and heels. But that is what the undercover world is.”
While each of these central characters in Lioness exists in their own spheres, there is an intense relationship between them—sometimes supportive, sometimes combative—that fuels the show. “Cruz’s relationship with Joe is so interesting because Joe is really hard on Cruz. She has to be so that Cruz can complete this mission,” De Oliveira says.
That’s not always the best way to motivate the Marine turned undercover agent. “Cruz comes from an abusive relationship,” De Oliveira says. “That abusive relationship becomes a catalyst of her becoming a Marine and completely switching her life around. So, she doesn’t always respond to Joe in a way that somebody would in her position.”
Saldana says Lioness leans into those tensions. “They each represent a different sort of generation in this program,” Saldana says. “One is just starting, so there’s this freshness and passion. Then you have me [as Joe], who’s in the middle of it all. [Joe’s] been here long enough to be burned out but long enough to understand the mission and be resolved with what needs to happen. Then you have someone like Kaitlyn, who may appear on the surface to be the North Pole—she’s just complete ice—but she’s the one who’s having to deal with everybody in the White House, keeping her program alive.”
That’s the hidden tension of the show: None of these women truly exist to protect the others. They’re just supposed to achieve their mission, which sometimes comes at a severe cost. “You’re dealing with all the politics of what happens when you’re ground zero, and how expendable these girls have to be, sometimes,” Saldana says. “Inevitably. Unfortunately.”
That’s what makes Saldana satisfied that she ultimately said yes to Lioness. Hard things are worth doing. “What’s hard about Joe? It’s losing assets, while also maybe losing the connection with her child, and maybe losing her marriage, and maybe losing a grip on what’s real and what side she should be on,” Saldana says. “I don’t think it’s becoming easier. I think it’s becoming harder for her.”
Joe’s children are growing up in her absence, and her marriage is crumbling. But other people’s lives are at stake if she doesn’t prioritize her work. “Having to talk to parents of these assets, and give them some bullshit story on how they’re not coming back home because they died in some training exercise, versus they actually died because they were spies for [Joe’s] program…. Those are the things that are eating Joe alive,” Saldana says.
Saldana insists that although Lioness focuses on a group specifically designed for women, the show is not about a battle of the sexes. “Not a single episode talks about women versus men and how women do it better,” she says. “This program could have been about men the same way it could have been about women, and that’s why I signed up for it. I don’t think I wanted to sign up and have a history lesson or a social conversation and preach to people. I wanted to shed light on a world that women do inhabit. They don’t necessarily get their stories told, and this is their reality. Their fights are more about saving a nation, saving communities, and less about fighting men.”