It’s pouring with rain, she’s locked-down with her parents, and most of her planned projects are either cancelled or on hold – but it’s hard to imagine anything putting Sophia Lillis in a bad mood. Far from the scared, scarred teens she’s played in emotionally heavy hits like It and I Am Not Okay With This, the bright, slightly goofy 18-year-old Lillis seems like nothing could ever get her down – even killer clowns, uncontrollable superpowers and the coronavirus.
Now starring alongside Paul Bettany in LGBTQ comedy drama Uncle Frank, Lillis is pleased to be talking about a film that doesn’t involve any running, screaming or crying. “It was nice to be on the other side of all the drama, for sure,” she laughs, chatting to NME from the same Brooklyn apartment she grew up in. Her mum is sitting on the sofa behind her, flicking through a magazine. “I personally love Uncle Frank, except for, y’know, that one girl called Sophia… Everyone else is great in it!”
COVID might have put most of her plans on hold, but Lillis is already part of Hollywood’s latest ‘Brat Pack’ – a group of talented up-and-comers that cross cast lists on Stranger Things, It, I Am Not Okay With This and, weirdly, the music video to Sia’s ‘Santa’s Coming For Us’. Bigger things are on the horizon, which means a lot more awkward time spent watching herself on screen.
Luckily for Lillis, she has a great eye for scripts. So far avoiding all the traps that usually swallow up other child stars, Lillis puts her smart choices down to her family. “I give all my scripts to my mum,” she says, turning to the sofa behind her. “My stepfather has written a few plays before too and he loves reading my scripts. I trust them both completely. If something’s well written and if the story’s good and the character goes through something interesting, then I like it. I try and look for different things too. I like being someone different every time I go to work.”
“If the acting doesn’t work out… I’d be a sailor”
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Lillis and her twin brother Jake were given a good grounding in film culture by their arthouse-loving parents – growing up watching Fellini movies and idolising Italian film star Giulietta Masina. When she wasn’t watching films she was drawing. “When I’m on set I always bring a stack of notebooks with me so I can sketch,” she says. “Even right now I’m doodling stuff [she holds up a sheet of paper with what might be a rough life drawing of our Zoom call]. It’s my second option, if the acting doesn’t work out, I’ll probably go to art school. If I had a third option I’d be a sailor…”
She’s joking, but only sort of. Genuinely considering the possibility that her career might not continue, Lillis seems to have her feet firmly planted on the ground. “Right now, I’m still figuring it all out,” she laughs. “I just finished high school so I’m thinking about what else I want to do, other than acting. What if in 10 years or 5 years or next year I change my mind about movies and TV? I want as many options as possible.”
Taking the traditional route into acting via drama school and bit parts in student films, Lillis came out of nowhere in 2017 to play the female lead in It – a performance that drew instant comparisons with Millie Bobby Brown’s lead in the similarly themed (and similarly cast) Stranger Things.
“It made me realise I could act as a profession,” remembers Lillis. “I knew people were actors, but it felt like some outlandish thing to me at the time – it didn’t seem like I could actually be one of them. But after It I realised, ‘Oh, I can do this’. I got immersed in this totally different world… and I liked it.”
“‘It’ made me realise I could act as a profession”
Cast as Stephen King’s famously tough heroine, Beverly Marsh, 15-year-old Lillis took on a debut role that stretched across two blockbusters and saw her dealing with sexual abuse, long-term trauma and extreme violence – something she shrugs off with the same grin she gives to everything. “Aww I was used to all that though because I started out doing NYU films to get some camera experience. College students only ever write dark edgy stuff!”
She had a lot less experience in doing stunts with giant monsters, fighting evil clowns and getting pulled into a blood-filled bathroom sink by a CGI hair clot, but she took all that in her stride too. “That’s what I love, getting to experience different things,” she says, “I know this is going to sound weird but I’m kinda shy as a person. I don’t really know what to say in a conversation. But then I realised that when I act I get to experience things that no one else has experienced – like getting a bucket of blood sprayed in your face over a sink.”
It’s rare that any Hollywood actor sounds quite so grounded – rarer still to hear it from an 18-year-old at the peak of their fame – but Lillis has never been one to court the celebrity lifestyle. Her brother runs her Instagram account and she stays well away from potential hangers-on. “The one thing It didn’t change was my social life. People didn’t treat me any differently – and they shouldn’t! In New York, people don’t care! I went to a school in Times Square so everyone else was in the same boat as me – everyone’s doing plays and TV and movies.”
Teen mystery Nancy Drew And The Hidden Staircase followed the two-part It movies (“just for a change of pace”), and so did all the offers for photoshoots, endorsements and music videos. Of all the people calling, it was husky psych-rockers The War On Drugs who got through, getting Lillis to star in the beautifully surreal music video for ‘Nothing To Find’ in 2017 – driving through an empty desert with a slowly dying tree creature made entirely out of leaves.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect” she laughs. “When you watch most music videos everyone’s always dolled up on a stage or on a cool background or something. But when I did ‘Nothing To Find’ it was just so, so different. I got driven around by grass man! In a grass car! And then grass guy dies! It was such a surreal experience. I would do [more] music videos if they were all like that.”
What’s she listening to right now? “When I go on Apple Music I press the new music button. I’ve been listening to this French pop singer a lot…” she says, flicking through her phone to find the name. “Lous and the Yakuza. Her and Glen Campbell’s ‘Southern Nights’ is a really good song! I also have some Bloodwitch on here…”
“Working with The War On Drugs was such a surreal experience”
For anyone that doesn’t know, Bloodwitch is not a real band – created by Jonathan Entwhistle for I Am Not Okay With This, his American follow-up to The End Of The F***ing World. Lillis starred as Sydney Novak – an introverted, confused high school student whose raging teen emotions occasionally make things… break. Beautifully made, (and packing a killer soundtrack worthy of putting on anyone’s phone), the show was abruptly axed by Netflix after the first season when lockdown messed up the shooting schedule.
“It was horrible,” says Lillis, who starred alongside her It and Sia video buddy Wyatt Oleff. “It ends on such a cliffhanger too! I was super excited about the next season. What can you do? Hopefully it gets picked up soon but I honestly I don’t know how these things work. With films like It and short stuff I’ve done like Sharp Objects, you know they’re finished because the story ends, but with this it was just feels like it needs to carry on. It needs a second season.”
Remembering the time she walked into Entwhistle’s office and saw a whiteboard covered in story ideas for season two (before being told not to look at it), Lillis has no idea if the show still has a future or not. For now, at least, at looks like I Am Not Okay With This is going to be stuck with a half-told story, which is particularly gutting for a show that had so many fans – Lillis included.
“When ‘I Am Not Okay With This’ got cancelled it was horrible”
“It was so relatable,” she says. “Usually in high school movies you get these kids who are about 40 years old. I loved the way the show dealt with emotions too. I felt like a bit of an outsider in school myself. I was off working a lot, doing auditions and filming stuff, so I was often off school for months at a time. It never really felt like my home, or my school. I was never used to it. Things change. You come back home and it’s like, ‘That store wasn’t there before, this neighbourhood is different, school’s different, people are different – friends are already talking to other people’. Time doesn’t stop for you… It gets ya.”
But all of that was before 2020. Now stuck at home doodling instead of off somewhere acting, Lillis is happy to be in one place for a change. Better still, she’s finally getting to talk about the film she made before lockdown hit – Uncle Frank. Written and directed by Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood), the ’70s set film follows 18-year-old Beth (Lillis) as she accompanies her gay uncle (Paul Bettany) on a road trip back to his homophobic family in South Carolina. Poignant without trying to be hard-hitting, and genuinely touching in its warmth and humour, it’s a nice change of pace for Lillis – even if she didn’t have any idea who Bettany was before she signed on.
“I didn’t know he did Vision [in The Avengers]!” she laughs, burying her head in her hands. “He’s all purple and floaty in that! I knew him from this kids movie called Inkheart, which I was obsessed with. He played this man who has a ferret as a pet, so I grew up calling him the ferret man. When I first heard that I was gonna work with him I was like, ‘Oh my God it’s the ferret man!’ When I met him he told me I was literally the only other person that even remembered that film!”
Learning a Southern accent for the role, Lillis is adding it to her growing list of extra curricular skills – most of which she seems to have picked up in lockdown. “I’m actually learning to do an English accent right now – just because I’m not doing much,” she laughs, begging us not to make her try it. “I started a drawing class too – well I pre-ordered it anyway. The guy who plays Brad, the bully in I Am Not Okay With This, is actually a real sweet guy who’s teaching me guitar. Then I’m taking a literature class so I can get into Chekhov. I’m swimming a lot as well. I got a gym membership. And I was thinking of taking up boxing…”
Whatever she ends up doing in the future, it’s clear that Lillis is going places. Already lending her career far more perspective than most stars who find fame at her age, she’s on track to becoming one of the most interesting talents around – and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if she sidestepped into writing or directing (or sailing…) along the way.
But first she has to get through the rest of lockdown. “I still don’t really know what’s next,” she says. “This whole year has proved how unpredictable everything is. I could have a great streak that doesn’t come to anything. And I also don’t know what things are even going to start up again after COVID. All I know is that acting is something I love doing, so that’s my main plan. I’m trying not to think about the next few years, but hopefully I’ll be finding a new apartment nearby, I’ll be acting, and I’ll be taking each day at a step.” She bursts out laughing for the 100th time. “Wait, that’s not the expression is it?! Y’know what I mean!”
‘Uncle Frank’ is streaming on Amazon Prime Video now