what's giving sophia lillis the shivers?
As Sophia Lillis takes a starring turn in the big screen adaptation of Stephen King’s IT, we meet the 15-year-old to find out more about that already iconic bloodbath scene.
This article originally appeared in i-D's The Acting Up Issue, no. 349, Fall 2017.
In director Andrés Muschietti's new iteration of cult clown horror, IT, there is one particularly memorable scene. And no, it doesn't feature Bill Skarsgård as the horrifying Pennywise, sucking the souls from unsuspecting teenagers. It is instead the sight of Beverly Marsh, played by 15-year-old American actor Sophia Lillis, stood before the bathroom mirror.
You wait, tensed, ready for blood to fountain out of the sink (one of the original series' most frightening images). Instead, Beverly takes a pair of scissors to her long auburn hair, and, blankly and unblinkingly, hacks herself a severe haircut. It's an unexpected moment in the film; rather than edge-of-the-seat fear, it's more a quiet horror and its potent poignancy is entirely down to the talented young actor playing her, Brooklyn teen Sophia Lillis. "I always get these kind of roles," Sophia says of Beverly, whose real on-screen horror isn't a deranged clown intent on eating her, but her abusive father. "It was actually Andrés Muschietti's idea. He really liked me with short hair, but the producers liked me with long hair. So he said, 'I'll give her long hair, and after two scenes cut it off.'"
IT, the film, is much closer to Stephen King's novel than the Tim Curry-starring miniseries of the 90s – the trials and tribulations of the teenage cast are writ large and given as much significance as the eldritch being pursuing them. "Every part I've ever played has something going on. A dead mother, a mother who abandons me, an abusive father…" Sophia jokes of past roles that include Addie in 2013 short The Lipstick Stain and Camille in HBO's drama Sharp Objects. "Maybe one day, I'll get a happy role!" The truth is, Sophia has a talent for subtle emotional gestures. Adopting a more internalised style of acting, she says as much with her eyes as her words, making her the ideal choice to play tormented female characters with a nuance far beyond her 15 years. "I do have a lot in common with Beverly," she decides, "in the way she deals with her emotions, and her connection to the others."
At the heart of IT is the friendship between the misfits who make up the high school gang the Losers' Club; from the talk-aholic Richie [Finn Wolfhard] to the solemn, downtrodden Bill [Jaeden Lieberher]. Beverly is the glue that keeps their little clan together, and of course they're all a little besotted with her. "They were very nice," she says of her male castmates. "I didn't know what to expect as the only girl in the group. I thought it might be awkward, but it wasn't." The on-screen bond between the Losers, which shines even during the darkest moments of this macabre movie, was motivated by Muschietti, who encouraged the teenagers to make the friendships as real as they were acted out. "We were outside, riding bikes, having fun. We had the whole experience, all of us together, and that kind of helped with our bond."
Sophia first fell in love with acting via her stepfather, who was enrolled in a film class and asked her to star in his final project. In addition to taking classes at NYU's Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute from the age of seven, and appearing onstage in A Midsummer Night's Dream at 14, Sophia had a pretty creative childhood. "I grew up watching a lot of old French films," she says of her formative education in cinema. "All of them have horrible endings. I'm a big Bill Murray fan too; Groundhog Day and Lost in Translation are my favourites." Murray makes a lot of sense; the pair share an esoteric detached manner – you're never quite sure if Sophia's joking, in on the joke, or making a joke. "I think the kids were emotionally exhausted," she deadpans of having to shriek at a green screen for 12 hours straight. "Whenever we did a scene that was good, instead of saying 'cut', Muschietti told us all to spit. At first we were very confused, but towards the end we were used to it." When the spitting was done, Muschietti had another group activity to help them recover from the day – group karaoke. "He's very good," she says of his take on Boney M.
Filming IT's iconic blood in the bathroom scene was another highlight for Sophia (spoiler alert – it goes everywhere). "Oh that was messy," she grins. "It was all on the walls, and all over me!" It was also one of the few moments that isn't CGI.
Next up, Sophia is working on another equally intense project, the aforementioned TV series Sharp Objects starring Amy Adams as a woman sent back to her home town to cover a grisly murder. "I would really like to go into comedy at some point, a happier kind of life," she mock pleads. She is also juggling her nascent acting career with school, which is of course a total horror for most people, but not Sophia. "I'm not really afraid of anything," she concludes. "I used to be afraid of spiders, but I got over that. My biggest fear is probably failure, I can't take that thought at all." Not that failure is on the cards any time soon – Sophia's mesmeric performance as Beverly is one of the best big-screen debuts in recent memory. "I've been very lucky," she says, when asked what advice she'd give to other budding young actors not fortunate enough to work with Amy Adams and Bill Skarsgård. "I guess I would tell them that everyone goes through it. And it will get better!"
Text Jack Sunnucks
Photography Collier Schorr
Fashion director Alastair McKimm
Hair Holli Smith at Art Partner. Make-up Dick Page at STATEMENT Artists. Nail technician Natalie Pavlovski at Bridge Artists using CHANEL Le Vernis. Set design Kadu Lennox at Frank Reps. Photography assistance PJ Spaniol, Erik Snyder and Jarrod Turner. Styling assistance Lauren Davis and Sydney Rose Thomas. Hair assistance Kelsey Morgan. Production Felix Frith and Evan Schafer.
Sophia wears all clothing Prada.