Child stars come and go. For every kid actor who makes it in the business, there are dozens of others who don’t. Rarer still is the very young actor that is so magnetic, they practically steal an entire movie in their first major theatrical role. Sophia Lillis is just such an actor.
The 17-year-old first broke big in 2017’s It playing the childhood version of Beverly Marsh. As Bev, Lillis that intangible factor that draws the eye to you whenever she’s on screen, that undefinable je ne sais quoi that immediately endears an actor to an audience and makes that audience want to root for them. Her new project, in theaters this weekend, is Gretel & Hansel, an updated twist on the dark fairy tale. Lillis plays Gretel, who is tasked with keeping her younger brother, Hansel (Samuel Leakey), safe after their parents send them off into the woods in a desperate attempt to find food or work. You know what happens from there – eventually Gretel and Hansel stumble across the cottage of Holda, who teaches Sophia about magic. But eventually, things take a dark turn as evil starts converging and Gretel realizes it’s up to her to keep her brother safe and escape.
I recently spoke with her on the phone about playing Gretel and what it’s like building a career in Hollywood at such a young age.
After It, Hollywood wanted to typecast Lillis as the go-to horror girl and she passed on every script. “I read the script first and within a few days of getting the script, they said, ‘Oh, you should talk to the director on Skype,’ and that’s basically what I did,” she explained. “I read it, I enjoyed it and said ‘Oh, this seems interesting.’ I got multiple horror scripts – after It, that was basically a thing – but this one seemed different.”
What got her to say yes to playing Gretel was director Oz Perkins: “What really hooked me was Oz. He had this kind of way of talking, he’s a very fun, interesting, likable person, and by the end of our talk, I thought, ‘Man, I would love to work with him.'” (Other directors she wants to work with? “Terrence Malick! I love him.” Also Whit Stillman, Wes Anderson, and she grows despondent when thinking about Agnes Varda’s recent passing: “I get so depressed because I just realize how much I would have loved to have worked with her.”)
The role is a dark and challenging one for Lillis. The young actor seems to gravitate toward these types of roles, the ones that initially seem too big or scary or dark for a teenager to tackle. That begs the question: Is that by design or by chance? Lillis explained that it’s not something she consciously thinks about – she just knows that if someone tells her she can’t do something, that’s exactly what challenges her to try:
“You know, I thought a lot about it myself, like, ‘Wait, why am I doing this?’ I feel like, knowing me, seeing a role like this, especially at a young age, I always try to take things that are a challenge. So when I hear, ‘This kind of role is hard for a kid like you,’ I’m like, ‘Oh, man, now I’m definitely going to do it! I’ll show all of you!’ If I see something that may seem difficult, or that makes me think for my age, it might be tough, I take that ball and just go for it. That’s my attitude toward acting. If there’s something that seems scary to me or difficult, I want to learn how to make it not difficult. I love tough characters like that and characters that go through difficult things like that. Because that’s the most real, I mean, not everyone has a happy-go-lucky life. I’m pretty lucky to have the life that I have, but by becoming those characters, it makes me know more about the world.”
As someone who isn’t even old enough yet to legally smoke, drink, or enlist in the military, Lillis feels like the best thing she can do for her career at this point is to never close herself off to an opportunity. I wondered if she ever thought consciously about building a brand or trying to shape her blossoming career to fit within a certain context. The contextlessness is the context, she explained, and a commitment to trying everything the thing that drives her right now rather than thinking about a manufactured image.
“I’m still learning as I’m acting, I’m never not learning,” she mused. She went on to explain it in a way that sounded like a young college graduate working their first entry-level job, where learning and growth are key to building a long and satisfying career. “Every project that I take is something that’s different and something I’ve never tried before and will be, in its own way, something difficult. I like that. I don’t have a brand – other people do and that works for them, I’m not criticizing them – but for me, picking something that I’ve done before always feels like I’m playing it safe.”
To that end, Lillis is an information sponge, always wanting to absorb everything she can from her costars and others on set, and from the roles themselves. While she’s not the type to badger fellow actors for tips, she has grown a tremendous amount from just being around them.
“I never necessarily pick their brains – I’m not totally a social person or one who can go up to someone else and be like, ‘Hey, how do you do this?’ I don’t think I have the ability to do that. But I like to learn a lot just by watching and listening and seeing how they work and then working with them. By acting in different projects I’m constantly learning from my coworkers.”
For all that she enjoys tackling diverse roles and challenging projects, Lillis revealed she does see a common thread in most of the characters she’s played to this point.
“They’re all learning how to grow up. I can relate to that. So am I.”
Gretel & Hansel is in theaters on Friday, January 31st. Get tickets here.