“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Sophia Lillis says two times within the first five minutes of her Elite Daily photo shoot. The 17-year-old actor, wearing a heather-gray blazer and calf-high riding boots, has clearly just come off the end of her school day. She passes on the chance to touch up her minimal makeup, and doesn’t even notice when a quick wardrobe change messes up her textured pixie cut. In front of the camera, she artfully fidgets with her hands while staring down the lens with her wide, piercing blue eyes. For someone who doesn’t know what she’s doing, Sophia Lillis is working it.
Lillis describes herself as looking like “a scrawny little 8-year-old boy,” which is why she says she almost didn’t land the breakout role of young Beverly Marsh in the 2017 remake of Stephen King’s It. "They wanted [Beverly] to look a specific way and act a specific way, and of course, I don’t really fit that description.” But she’s not giving herself enough credit. Director Andrés Muschietti was so intent on casting Lillis he had her add in hair extensions to appease producers who wanted a more feminine vibe for the character.
I guess I’ve never kind of fit in that girly section; I wasn’t always one to wear extremely long dresses and whatnot — I don’t know what girls do.
Muschietti made sure Lillis didn’t have to put up with the extensions for long, though. Beverly chops off her long hair in the bathroom in the second scene of the movie, after her abusive father strokes it. "It worked so well in the script that [the producers] couldn’t say no,” she says.
Lillis’ short crop has since become something of her calling card. "I guess I’ve never kind of fit in that girly section. I wasn’t always one to wear extremely long dresses and whatnot — I don’t know what girls do," she says. "And short hair has gotten me a lot of jobs... not a lot of jobs, but it’s gotten me some jobs. And I feel like it’s just sort of a part of me."
Horror is proving just as central to Lillis’ brand as her signature haircut. Her next role is the titular sister in Gretel & Hansel, a very dark adaptation of the Grimm Brothers fairy tale, out in theaters on Jan. 31. However, while Lillis says she loves horror films, it’s clear she’d rather not be defined by them.
I shouldn't limit myself to one specific genre just because the first kind of big thing I was in was [a] horror thing.
"I feel like I shouldn't limit myself to one specific genre just because the first kind of big thing I was in was [a] horror thing," she says.
But she isn’t trying to totally leave scary movies behind. "Whenever I see a script, I don’t really say, 'Oh, since this is a horror I’m not gonna do it,'" Lillis adds. "I mostly focus [on] if the script — the story — is good, if the character I’m playing is interesting, and if the people on it are good."
Lillis has gotten to work with a handful of “good people.” In Sharp Objects, she played the younger version of Amy Adams' troubled character Camille Preaker, and in It Chapter Two, Jessica Chastain played Beverly as an adult. (When I ask if there's a third celebrity she'd like to partner with in this way, she draws a blank and looks expectantly at her mom, who suggests The Crown’s Claire Foy. "Maybe her next," Lillis says). She’s nervous whenever she gets an acting job, and working with famous faces helps her relax.
"I feel like, 'Well, I’m doing this with them; they can carry the scenes well,'" she says. "At least I know I have them, and I try to learn from them."
But as much as she’s picking up cues from her co-stars, she’s still very much doing her own thing. “It’s more of watching how they act and try to kind of feed off — that sounds like, really hippie-ish — feed off their energy," she says.
Lillis has been acting since she was 7, when her stepfather recruited her to be in a student film he was working on, and she began taking classes. Unlike other hobbies she picked up as a kid, like dance and violin, Lillis stuck with acting. After appearing in some indie films, she leveled up and joined the cast of It.
"I didn’t realize how big the Stephen King, and just the horror genre fan base in general, [is] ... It was something I’ve never seen before," she says. "And I didn’t know, just in general, that acting could make such an impact on other people. I felt like, 'This is great. I can’t wait to keep doing this.'"
Lillis’ blockbuster credits have the power to make you forget she’s still a teenager figuring out show business as she goes, which I’m reminded of every time she turns to her mother for advice during our interview. She is currently finishing up her senior year of high school in New York, where she was born and raised. When I ask about Lillis’ plans after graduation, she says she's thankful for her twin brother, Jake, whose grueling college admissions process reaffirmed her choice to forgo a degree (for now) and continue to pursue acting.
There are few teens who know what it’s like to juggle homework with high-stakes auditions, Lillis’ fellow members of the It Losers Club among them. She’s still tight with co-stars like Finn Wolfhard and Jaeden Martell, and they even have a group chat — although Lillis cops to being more of a lurker than an active participant.
"I have no idea how to respond to what they put on there," she says. "Sometimes I ... do the thumbs up thing and they’re like, 'Sophia, you’re still here?' and I say, 'Yeah, still here, still watching what you’re doing.'"
Lillis reunites with another It alum, Wyatt Oleff, later this year for the Netflix YA series I Am Not Okay With This, in which viewers will see her comedic side as a teenage girl coming to grips with mysterious superpowers. Like her character in the YA adaptation, Sydney, Lillis’ life is veering further and further off the "regular kid" path. But there's at least one major normie hurdle Lillis still needs to jump: getting her driver's license.
"I started taking classes again. I took a long break because I was busy and I didn’t really want to think too much about driving," she laughs. "I don’t do well under pressure in the car. Some people, driving is their thing, and other people, driving is not their thing. I guess it’s not my thing."
Luckily, she’s a fast learner.
Photos by Lauren Perlstein