When Sofia Wylie was a little girl, she’d dip her finger in water and pray to God, asking to be transformed into a mermaid. Inspired by her love of fantasy movies, fairy tales, and a redheaded Ariel, she’d wish to escape to a place like an underwater kingdom far, far away from her predominantly white suburb in the Arizona desert. “I was always wondering why I didn’t look like everybody else, and why I didn’t feel like I belonged with everybody else,” Wylie says. In her imagination, she’d no longer be a fish out of water. While she never got an iridescent tail or a tiara, her wish came true in a very different way: at just 18 years old, she’s now a certified Disney star.
Originally trained as a dancer, Wylie started working in Hollywood at age 10, appearing in Kidz Bop music videos, Justin Bieber performances, and shows like So You Think You Can Dance before giving acting a shot, winging it at auditions next to kids who’d been running lines for years. “I was like, ‘I'm just a dancer pretending that I can act right now in all these auditions and hoping that the casting director can't tell that I'm totally faking it,’” she says with a laugh over Zoom. “I really only knew how to move my body, but I didn't really know how to make all these lines mean what they're supposed to and emote with my face the way that I'm supposed to. It was all very scary at first.”
Despite her lack of experience, Wylie’s bubbly charm got her cast in Disney Channel’s Andi Mack as Buffy Driscoll, the loyal and stubborn best friend of the show’s titular character. But while Andi Mack may have put her on the map, Wylie scored the golden ticket with her role as Gina Porter in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, the same franchise that made superstars out of Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Tisdale.
For three seasons, Gina has shaken things up as the self-assured and hyper-competitive transfer student among a new generation of drama kids at East High who are just as popular as their forerunners. Is she buddy-buddy with Olivia Rodrigo? Of course. “I'm so proud of Olivia. She is such a dear friend of mine,” Wylie says, gushing over how gracefully Rodrigo has handled her transition from East High’s sweetheart to a solo musician selling out packed arenas around the globe.
On the series, Gina and Rodrigo’s Nini Salazar-Roberts started off as frenemies competing over a starring role, or for the adorable Ricky Bowen, played by Joshua Bassett, the rumored inspiration behind Rodrigo’s “drivers license.” With Rodrigo’s exit from the show to focus on music, Gina wrapped Season 3 with a steamy kiss from her longtime crush, Ricky, after an excruciating “will they or won’t they” lead-up.
But don’t worry, Rodrigo’s departure and the Gina/Ricky ‘ship has only strengthened Wylie’s friendship with the “good 4 u” singer. “She has such a beautiful heart that is making all of her success so much more exciting,” Wylie says. “Because you get to see someone who is truly a good person thrive, and you get to see the world fall in love with her too.”
Though Wylie admires how Rodrigo has evolved beyond Disney, she’s following her own path, with no plans to pursue pop music or leave the House of Mouse anytime soon. “I don’t know what the future brings, but I know for certain that I’m going to continue to act,” Wylie says. “I do think it's interesting when people say you grew out of Disney when, really, you're just growing. But there's no ‘out’ of anything. There's just this natural progression of growth. When you want to do another project, then you move to that other project. And if that happens to be at Disney or somewhere else, that's where it resides.”
That somewhere else is now Netflix. This month, Wylie stars in Paul Feig’s adaptation of Soman Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil series opposite Sophia Anne Caruso and alongside Kerry Washington, Charlize Theron, and Michelle Yeoh. She plays Agatha (aka Aggie), the daughter of a witch and best friends with Caruso’s aspiring princess, Sophie, who is especially ready to leave their humdrum hometown. Just like a young Wylie, Sophie asks the village Wishing Tree to whisk her away to the School of Good, only to be taken to the School of Evil as Aggie enters the School of Good instead — a supposed mistake that tests their friendship and self-perceptions.
It’s a darker and slightly more serious role than any Wylie’s landed before. And working with Hollywood titans like Washington, Theron, and Yeoh was certainly a challenge, too. “I would go into the scene and I was fangirling the entire time,” Wylie says, explaining that being star-struck made it difficult for her to get into her insecure and brutish character.
After all, Chainani wrote Aggie as a grumpy, greasy-haired, and awkwardly tall young woman letting go of self-doubt. So to strike the balance between Aggie’s angst and her pure heart, Wylie borrowed personality traits from past characters — Buffy’s bullishness, Gina’s closed-off nature; both their feelings of inadequacy. “I think the most interesting thing about my character is that she's not a typical princess,” Wylie says. “It was so different and I think it added a lot more reality to what a princess can be like.”
Aggie also looks different from the archetypal princess. Wylie, whose father is of Black and Korean ancestry, and whose mother is white, expected some fans of Chainani’s series to take issue with her not being the “ghostly” pale girl described in the books, especially given the recent uproar caused by Halle Bailey’s turn in The Little Mermaid and the debate over Harry Potter’s Hermione being Black in the West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
“Knowing how I feel about books, I knew other people were going to be shocked when I was Agatha, because she’s described in the book so differently,” Wylie says. “And I did see some people who were quite angered by it, which was definitely more shocking than I was expecting.” She pauses. “Like, I knew people were going to be surprised, but I didn't know people were going to be upset.”
Even so, the backlash only served to further underscore the importance of representation for Wylie. In 2019, she founded AIFOS Entertainment — a production company with an emphasis on telling diverse stories — after hearing from so many young Andi Mack fans about what Buffy meant to them. For its first major project, Wylie and AIFOS optioned Jenny Torres Sanchez’s The Fall of Innocence, a profound YA novel about the crippling pain and long-lasting trauma of sexual assault. It’s all in the service, she says, of helping other young women and women of color feel seen and a little less alone.
In a lot of ways, Aggie’s journey in The School for Good and Evil mirrors Wylie’s own journey in Hollywood. Arriving as a young girl from Arizona, Wylie went from being told she was different to finding her place at Disney and discovering self-love. And now, she wants to help others understand that they don’t have to fit into a stereotypical mold in order to be special.
“In the first book, we see that [Aggie] believes herself to be so ugly, because of the way the world has been perceiving and acting towards her. And then she realizes that she really has been beautiful all along,” Wylie says. “I’ve had a lot of opinions in my head of me not being beautiful … [like Aggie], I’m now learning more and more to love myself for who I am, and realizing that internal love literally changes the way the world sees me.”
Even as an adult, Wylie still hopes for some fairy-tale magic. “I’m still not a mermaid,” she says with a little laugh. “So maybe I do need my own Wishing Tree.”
Photographs by John Jay