Rising star Sophia Lillis has put together a mightily impressive resume for an actor still in her teens.
She’s already appeared in monster box office hits, played younger versions of Oscar-nominated actors and headlined her own Netflix series — and she only earned the right to vote this year.
“It was my first time voting — and what a first election,” the bubbly 18-year-old says with a laugh over the phone from her New York home after her country’s presidential poll. “I was nervous at first, like I was going to put in the ballot wrong. I don’t know what I was thinking — but it was a lot easier than I expected it to be. They were probably like ‘who let this child in?’ ”
Lillis’s breakout role as tortured tomboy Beverly Marsh in the adaptation of Stephen King’s It – which made close to $1 billion at the box office — earmarked her as a talent to watch.
She followed it up by playing a young Amy Adams in the acclaimed psychological thriller Sharp Objects, (Jessica Chastain played the grown-up Beverly in It 2), while also taking a detour into young adult territory with the title role in Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase and returning to the horror world in Gretel and Hansel.
But it was her lead role as Sydney Novak in the I Am Not Okay With This that proved to be the biggest step up. The Netflix supernatural comedy-drama, in which she played a teenager wrestling with her sexuality and burgeoning telekinetic powers was one of this year’s underrated streaming gems and was cruelly cancelled after one season due to COVID-related production complications.
Lillis says she was devastated — but philosophical — about the cancellation, especially because the first season ended on such a cliffhanger. She’d pressed creator Jonathan Entwistle repeatedly about where the second season might go but she’s as in the dark as the audience is — and is desperate to find out.
“Whenever I asked him, he never gave me a full answer, so I am in the same boat as you all,” she says. “We were about to hear something and then we didn’t and I after I while I started thinking ‘I don’t think this is going to happen’. Then when we finally heard, it didn’t really come as much of a shock to me. But who am I going to get angry at? I mean, damn you COVID, but what are you going to do?”
As is the way in Hollywood, Lillis says she was inundated with horror scripts after the success of It, and while she’s happy to return to the genre at some point, was looking to broaden her horizons too. She took guitar lessons and English accent lessons during New York’s lockdown earlier this year and says she’d love to try her hand at a comedy or a musical. But she was thrilled to get a chance to show off her dramatic chops in Uncle Frank, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama by Alan Ball of Six Feet Under and True Blood fame.
“It was good to take a step in the other direction — I was looking for that. I have always wanted to do a comedy or at least something a bit happier and in a different direction. I like trying new things.”
Based on Ball’s experiences and family stories of growing up gay in the American South, Uncle Frank tells the story of a college professor (Paul Bettany) who can’t come out to his redneck family and instead leaves his stifling upbringing to live in bohemian New York. Lillis plays his favourite niece, who also yearns for a more fulfilling life, and reconnects with her uncle when a death in the family brings them both home. Lillis says she only found out it was partly inspired by Ball’s life when they did press together at the Sundance Film Festival this year, but says it makes sense in hindsight.
“You watch the movie and there is something about it that you can tell it’s personal,” she says. “It’s so specific to him when he is talking about it and you can kind of see the parts that are his story and how he put them into this film. I don’t think it would have been as good if it hadn’t been so personal.”
Lillis, whose character in I Am Not Okay With This was also same-sex attracted, says her generation is far more accepting and understanding of LGBQTI issues compared to the more repressed 1970s era depicted in Uncle Frank. “We still have a lot to work on, but I think one thing this movie shows is how much we have improved. We are more open and we are more accepting. That’s one thing about my generation that I love.”
She’s also grateful to be surrounded by a family that encouraged her to follow her acting dreams and continue to be her biggest supporters.
“No one in my family is an actor or anything in the acting business, so you would expect me to go in that direction, to be a lawyer or something. But even though I walk in a different world, my mum goes with me to all my jobs, she helps with my auditions, she talks to my team. I appreciate my family a lot for doing everything for me.”
Like many others in her profession around the world, COVID has thrown Lillis’ acting plans into disarray but she was able to finish her schooling unencumbered by work commitments.
“I got done with high school – and absolutely nothing happened because everything shut down and the whole industry went silent. It’s pretty unpredictable but I am staying positive and am hoping for the best and hopefully that happens. That’s all I can do.”
Uncle Frank streams on Amazon Prime from November 25. I Am Not Okay With This is on Netflix. Sharp Objects is on Foxtel.