From It, to Sharp Objects, to her most recent hit, I Am Not Okay with This, up-and-comer Sophia Lillis is moving up—and growing up.
“I feel like a kid,” Sophia Lillis tells me. The 18-year-old actress is sitting outside her apartment in a New York City borough, where she lives with her mother, stepfather, and twin brother. Faintly, I can hear a neighborhood dog barking in the background. I’m on the phone with her in Los Angeles, and I imagine her legs dangling off the side of a fire escape amid rows of brownstones—a convenient Brooklyn cliché—but she doesn’t mention that, and I don’t ask. Her tone is weighted with contemplation, and I think better of interrupting. “I understand the word ‘adult,’” she explains, after a momentary pause, “but I don’t understand the meaning of it.”
For many, adulthood is synonymous with career success, but Lillis had achieved that long before she could legally smoke a cigarette. Often cast as the headstrong if not heedless teen, bringing plots to their climax with her characters’ dogged resolve, the Brooklyn native has made waves as Hollywood’s next It girl. Not just because she’s a visual echo of Gen X’s beloved teen star Molly Ringwald, but also because, like her strawberry-locked predecessor’s, Lillis’s portrayals marry the unbearable tenderness of adolescence with sardonic wit beyond her years—a combination that has earned her some of Hollywood’s most coveted roles. In the 2017 reimagining of Stephen King’s horror It, she starred alongside Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard; it was a box-office smash whose profits launched the movie to fifth place on that year’s list of “Most Valuable Blockbusters.” In 2018, she teamed up with film veterans Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson for HBO’s gripping miniseries Sharp Objects, which earned numerous Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. The following year, she took the helm in Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase as the titular detective, and several months later, she returned to the It franchise for It Chapter Two, this time with Jessica Chastain (The Help, Zero Dark Thirty) and Bill Hader (SNL, Barry). In keeping with her gradual ascension, 2020 has been a pinnacle year, bringing the young actor a Netflix series of her own, I Am Not Okay with This, a critically acclaimed coming-of-age sci-fi show (think My So Called Life meets Sabrina the Teenage Witch) released two weeks after her 18th birthday.
It’s a pivotal moment in anyone’s life—the switch that flips adulthood on, revealing a bevy of unforeseen trials and critical decisions just waiting to be made. For Lillis, seemingly on the precipice of enormous success, “It’s a wake-up call,” she says.
The entire process of becoming an actor appears to be a wake-up call for Lillis. “I was very dreamy, the kind of kid who always had her head in the clouds,” she remembers. Even veering into the world of acting was a near miss for Lillis, who, at seven years old, stumbled into the arena when her stepdad cast her as the star in his student film Virgil’s Day Off. She soon enrolled in the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute for acting, and it stuck. “I just got along with the acting kids,” she says, the shrug practically audible through the phone. “I liked them and they liked me, so I stayed.”
That’s the power of friendship, and that’s what bonds Lillis to Beverly Marsh, her character in It and It Chapter Two. Marsh is the lone girl in a pack of socially outcasted boys, dubbed The Losers’ Club, who team up to fight Pennywise, a shape-shifting, fang-mawed clown wreaking murderous havoc on the town’s youth. On paper, Lillis and Marsh have little in common. Marsh is sexually and emotionally abused by her father, and Lillis, by her own account, had a perfectly happy childhood. But they connect in other ways. “Beverly became her own person by finding connections with her friends,” Lillis tells me. “She learned who she was by learning she wasn’t alone. I was her—I did that.”
Achieving autonomy through the collective is the crux that divides Beverly Marsh from high-schooler Sydney Novak, the protagonist whose angst—and superpowers—are at the center of I Am Not Okay with This. Based on Charles Forsman’s comic book of the same name, the story follows Sydney a year after her father’s suicide, just as she realizes that her moments of rage somehow result in supernatural occurrences: loaves of bread exploding off shelves, holes blown through walls, entire trees—big trees—toppling over
On the surface, it’s a story of frenching best friends, sassing moms, and jerk jocks breaking hearts, albeit within a spooky, telekinetic framework. But it’s also the story of loneliness in a crowd—the fear of facing who we truly are, of being seen. “Sydney already has friends, she already has connections, but that’s the problem,” Lillis points out. “She doesn’t want to bring them down or scare them, so she pushes them away.” It’s not an uncommon coping mechanism. One might argue, in fact, that it’s laid the basis for entire generations of emotional survival. But: “It just makes things worse,” Lillis says. “The more she suppresses her feelings, the more her powers overwhelm her and do harm to others. If you think about it,” she adds thoughtfully, “that’s true in our lives, too.”
Sydney Novak’s plight is rooted in secrets: the secrets surrounding the loss of her father, the secret of her sexuality, the secret of her superpower. What links each of those is the secret of her rage. Thematically, it’s become a hot topic. There’s Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven in Stranger Things, the circle of seething mothers in Big Little Lies (played by Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, and Reese Witherspoon, to name a few), and Joey King’s depiction of Gypsy Rose in The Act. The boiling point of women’s anger has increasingly gained traction in the zeitgeist.
Maybe most poignant within that category, though, is psychological thriller Sharp Objects. Amy Adams is Camille Preaker, a reporter who finds herself back from the big city in her small Missouri hometown, sleuthing around for a story after the brutal murder of two young girls. “Crimes of passion” the detective calls them—code for rage.
At its core, the show tackles generational trauma, inherited abuse, and matrilineal anger, all warped by the constraints of small-town etiquette and Southern decorum. It’s a world where women are all but paper dolls, and each must invent her own means of survival: Camille cuts, and pounds vodka from water bottles; her mother surreptitiously feeds her daughters rat poison, and (huge spoiler!) her younger sister murders her friends and rips their teeth out with pliers.
On the whole, the show inhabits hidden spaces, but there’s something particularly veiled about Lillis as the young version of Camille. Her depictions of Camille’s forgotten innocence and weathered willfulness draw from the shadows of memory—moments of unspoken suffering, cloaked and buried but still very much alive, operating ominously behind the scenes. Lillis’s delivery is both cutting and wispy, in exactly the way that memory is, and it sets the foundation for a person whose fury spills over gradually, as lava does, through alcoholism and self-mutilation.
Sharp Objects’ cautions transcend the personal. “Society has always told women they can’t show deep emotions. It’s a rule still today,” Lillis says, when I ask about submerging herself in Camille Preaker’s world. “It builds up, and that has to go somewhere.”
Lillis is familiar with that struggle, too. “Everyone holds back; no one opens up about everything they’re going through,” she says. But in her own life, Lillis has answered to the cultural taboo of emotional transparency with acting, a far more constructive outlet than those her characters adopt. “At the source, at the heart of it all, what every [artist] wants is to tap those hidden places, to say what’s unsaid.” It’s not work that benefits her alone, because, as she points out, “That’s what brings us together.”
Whether she’s embodying the lives of deeply traumatized girls, delightfully stubborn girls, or both, Lillis’ work has had the unintended effect of deepening her capacity for compassion—empathy by way of make-believe, rather than direct experience. “I didn’t have their lives,” she says of her characters, “but through acting, I can open myself to what they went through and understand them.” It’s not an insular process for the young actor; it’s the starting point for a kind of symbiosis, a collaborative relationship between Lillis and the largeness of all that still awaits her, all the unknowns. “It’s my connection to the world,” she tells me, “and to all the people in it.”
It’s also her ticket to success. Lillis takes on two feature films in 2020: The Thicket, a crime thriller with Emmy winner Peter Dinklage, and family drama The Burning Season, with Oscar nominee Naomi Watts. Working alongside such heavy-hitters would be a lot of pressure for anyone, but maybe particularly nerve-racking for a teen, especially one who knows too well the looming dangers of self-doubt. “I always have this fear of not being good enough,” she admits. “Once it starts, I get worse and worse. I can spiral.” Anyone with anxiety knows that story often ends in the fetal position. But when I ask Lillis how she handles the overwhelm, she proves that years of playing wily, savvy young women have left her with a few tricks up her sleeve. “I stop thinking, put things down, and then imagine myself forgetting, forgetting all the things I just did wrong,” Lillis says. “Then I look at the script like I'm looking at it for the first time and try to do it again, as if I’ve never done it before.”
Meeting strategy with self-awareness would be impressive in a 30-something, much less an 18-year-old. But Lillis has learned from the best: a motley group of intrepid, quirky, uncompromising young women, as much her companions as her guides. “These girls I play go through so much,” she says affectionately, “but I get to live through them and through their life lessons; I get to grow as they grow.” Which, she adds, “feels strange, because here I am. I’m still learning, I’m still trying to experience new things. At the end of the day,” Lillis says, her voice hemmed with anticipation, “I’m also trying to become my own person.”