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Horror's 'It' girl says she's just winging it. Netflix may beg to differ

Michael Ordoña, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES -- You may have seen her nearly getting pulled down a sink by a killer clown. Or going to extremes to cope with severe childhood loss. Or, lately, staggering toward you, covered in blood, recognizable only via her startling blue eyes.

But in person, Sophia Lillis is delightful. Tiny (about 5 feet tall), quick to laugh, eyes practically translucent, the 18-year-old star of "It" and "Sharp Objects" chats gregariously about her new show, "I Am Not Okay With This." You know the one: The trailers make it look like "Carrie."

In truth, the Netflix series, which premiered Wednesday, is a seriocomic story about angsty young adults confronting grown-up situations, including sex and drug use, mixed with superhero origins and a soupcon of horror. Lillis' character, Sydney, is an outsider teen in a small-ish, woodsy town. She's dealing with the death of her father, a damaged relationship with her mother, and her own emerging sexuality. Then, those pesky telekinetic powers assert themselves.

"She's not going to put on tights and say, 'I love justice!' She's just really trying to not do that," Lillis says with a chuckle -- though perhaps the Marvel Cinematic Universe should give this young, red-haired actress a call about a certain newly acquired mutant team. ("I would love that," she says).

If there's a through line to Lillis' career so far, it's roles with messed-up families. Dead or abusive parents and deceased siblings pock her characters' histories. Even her spunky girl detective in "Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase" has a late mom.

"I have a great family and I love 'em a lot. And I have all of 'em," she says with a smile. "I had this acting teacher when I was still in school, and she always picked me to do the roles of the villains. One day, I asked her why: 'Do you ... think I'm a villain?' She said, 'No! I actually think that it's good for you to do the roles that are the complete opposite of who you are.'

 

"That meant two things. She thought I was a nice person, which I liked," she says, laughing. "And also, that's such an interesting way of doing it, to help you develop. If you can find certain things about them, moments in your life when you felt that way, and you try your best, maybe you can play those roles accurately."

Lillis' performances feature emotional intelligence and easy emotional access that would be enviable in an actor of any age. She integrates those traumatic histories into her portrayals without indicating or pushing. It's why she can seem older than her age -- it's hard to believe she was really only 14 when shooting "It."

"It's intangible," says "I Am Not Okay With This" creator and director Jonathan Entwistle -- no relation to the Who bassist -- by phone. "It's what I'd describe as an old-fashioned screen presence. She has a way of holding the camera that you don't see so much. She doesn't move. She rarely blinks.

"Sydney seems natural. Beverly (Lillis' character in 'It') seems natural. But actually, they are very, very unlike Sophia as a person. She is completely unlike what I was expecting, the first time I spoke with her, and that really proved to me that she is an actual actress."

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