PHOTOS BY KAT IRLIN WORDS BY ELIZABETH WALLACE
Tapped For The It Franchise And A Series Of Roles In Dark Stories, In Real Life Sophia Lillis Is A Bright Shining Star
Much of Sophia Lillis’ body of work is scary. Known for her roles in horror films It and sequel It: Chapter Two, and last summer’s haunting-to-the-bones HBO mini-series Sharp Objects, Lillis is doubling down on the fear factor with her next film, Gretel and Hansel, as the title girl in the dark reimagining of the classic Grimm Brothers fairy tale. Which all goes to underscore Lillis’ chops as an actor, because in real life, the 17-year-old is the converse of moody or unsettling.
In fact, her childhood has been about as normal as it could be, except the growing up a working actor in New York City part. But Lillis welcomes the disturbing roles. “In order for me to become a good actor, I have to challenge myself and experience a lot of things that I have not experienced,” which, in her most memorable characters’ cases, would be childhood abuse and trauma, shrouded in mystery and literal darkness (she’s walking into the woods, or racing through underground tunnels). “Doing a role with a perfect family and a perfect life and perfect skill set and you’re just overall perfect, is very boring!” Particularly as Lillis is coming of age herself, she says, she’s growing up in real time with her onscreen portrayals. "With my roles that are overall challenging and dark, as the character learns a life lesson, I am learning that life lesson at the same time".
But Lillis’ art has called her to that challenge. In real life, she shows few glimmers of moody adolescence; she presents as an earnest, grateful, slightly gawky teenage girl, showing up for our interview in a plain white boatneck tee, black leggings, and flip flops. Also, surprise: she’s not a natural redhead. Lillis first dyed her hair red for the film It, for her role as Beverly Marsh, a girl with hair “like winter fire,” and then she naturally began to win other redhead roles, like young Camille Preaker (portrayed as an adult by Amy Adams) in Sharp Objects.
A born and raised New Yorker, Lillis has grown up in Brooklyn, and has no shortage of hometown pride. “I love New York!” she says of being raised just a few subway stops from New York University’s theater program, where Lillis landed her first roles, in student films, through her acting teacher at Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. “A lot of people who move here think it’s hard to live here because it’s not what they’re used to. But for people in New York, we might like to move to another place but… we’re stuck in New York!” She is cognizant that she’s living the working-actor-in-the-city dream right now though.
"With my roles that are overall challenging and dark, as the character learns a life lesson, I am learning that life lesson at the same time".
For this story, we took advantage of the pixie cut that Lillis rocks so successfully, to emulate the look of another iconic young New York woman: Mia Farrow from Rosemary’s Baby. Lillis had watched the 1968 film as prep for Gretel and Hansel — she asks her directors for recommended viewing and reading as she’s learning a role — and she was game for the makeover. “I don’t mind getting dressed up. It’s my job! It’s what happens when you act as well. They give you stuff that fits your character, and you just wear it,” Lillis says, not necessarily entranced by the glamour and fantasy of fashion, but seeing it more like an occupational responsibility, like learning to ride a unicycle for a role. She’s still figuring out her personal style. “Normally when I go outside, I get questioned by my family members about what I’m wearing. 'You’re wearing that?' Not like a teenager wearing crop tops, but more like, that does not look right with that. Although I feel it looks fine!” Lillis is testing out working with different stylists right now for red carpet appearances (she’s got a few of them coming up, as she’s been busy on multiple projects), and enjoying that each stylist can have a different vision for her.
Promoting It: Chapter Two (out Sept. 6) and Gretel and Hansel (out this winter), of course we had to ask Lillis what scares her. She lists off a couple of fears: Spiders. Failure. And then she unloads her biggest, one that tracks perfectly for a native New Yorker. “Recently I figured out I am pretty terrified of driving,” she admits. “Terrified of it, horrible at it. When you first start something, you’re afraid of not doing it right. With acting, you can slowly get yourself into it, but with driving, the way you learn is to get into the vehicle, this chunk of metal you’re going to drive around! You are responsible not just for yourself but everyone in the car and everyone around you. You’re responsible for everyone’s life!” Lillis bravely admits she has taken her drivers’ test twice — and not passed, twice, encountering two fears in just one experience. She knows she has to take it again and she’s scared to death. Next time she’s going to ask her twin brother Jake to accompany her and take it with her.
“Doing a role with a perfect family and a perfect life and perfect skill set and you’re just overall perfect, is very boring!”
“I’m talking a lot about New York today,” Lillis says, remarking that she’d love to be part of a New York City high-school coming-of-age story. “I remember watching Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club, that show this very suburban high school life, which is so different from New York. People are like, 'it’s so relatable,’ but I can’t really relate to it at all. It’s actually very strange and interesting growing up in New York City, and it would be very cool to do a film about it.”
She would also love to do comedy. Asked what actors she looks up to, Lillis answers not other young women actors in her same arena but … Bill Murray. “I’ve seen a lot of his work!” She lists The Man Who Knew Too Little, What About Bob, Groundhog Day, and of course Caddyshack . She wouldn’t call her comic sensibility slapstick, exactly but… she’s seen Groundhog Day more times than she’d like to admit.
She’s also proud to have portrayed one of the great childhood book characters on screen, Nancy Drew. Lillis read some of the books when she was cast in the film (she hadn’t read them before that, but she had read nearly every book in the Encyclopedia Brown crime-solving series). Her portrayal of Nancy Drew was called a punk-rock role model for girls, an evaluation Lillis called “terrifying!” But she’ll take it. “Being called a role model is very nerve-wracking but I guess I’ll try to work as hard as I can so that I can be one for them and future generations, I guess?”
Lillis is graduating from high school this year, and, unlike her twin, she is not going to college. She’s taking a few years to focus full-time on her career, which hasn’t slowed since she started acting just a few years ago. “I am so glad I’m not going to college!” she says, having visited some schools with her brother. “Everyone seems so stressed! It's a lot of money and time, and a whole lot of stress!” If her acting work slows down, maybe Lillis will pursue art school. She finds it relaxing to draw, and can do it anywhere, specifically in a trailer between shots. “You don’t even need to use paper, you can use a napkin!”
She also tries to get some reading in on set. Currently she’s into a genre her mom pushed her toward: Jane Austen. She started with Pride and Prejudice, and has moved on to Emma. She laughs, “I am thinking, this is old-time Clueless, which is not right at all!” She also enjoys podcasts, name-checking a goofy comic one by the McElroy Brothers, and playing games of Dungeons and Dragons with her brother and her former science teacher.
“I am so glad I’m not going to college! Everyone seems so stressed! It's a lot of money and time, and a whole lot of stress!”
“I’m not that into it.”—Lillis on social media
One thing she doesn’t kill a lot of time on is social media. “I’m not that into it.” She follows a few art blogs, and does some Insta publicity for her projects, but she doesn’t Snapchat at all. Perhaps because of her untraditional childhood, leaving home for months at a time to work on film or television sets. When Lillis is home in Brooklyn, she tries to see her friends as much as she can in real life. Lillis will dig into the social life of today's teens in her next project, the Netflix series I Am Not Okay with This, based on a graphic novel about a girl struggling with coming of age. She’s also costarring with Paul Bettany in Uncle Frank, an independent film by Alan Ball, coming this spring.
Lillis has created a lot in her few years in the business. Asked if she thinks of herself as a creative or a maker, Lillis demurs. “It feels strange to talk about myself as a maker. Maybe one day I’ll feel like I deserve that title. In the mean time, I like being a part of other creators' [work].”
Photographer Kat Irlin | @kat_in_nyc
SEPTEMBER 2019 COVER
and on location in Soho, NY
ASSISTANTS PHOTO: ROS HAYES FASHION: CHARLOTTE ALEXANDER