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Television

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

Sophia Lillis poses for a portrait in Los Angeles
Sophia Lillis: “I think the real reason I stuck with acting... I wasn’t really socially awkward, but I didn’t warm up to a lot of people.”
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

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.”

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In truth, the Netflix series, which premieres Wednesday, is a seriocomic story about angsty young adults confronting grown-up situations, including sex and drug use, mixed with superhero origins and a soupçon 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.

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“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.”

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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.”

Sophia Lillis sitting at a desk in front of a chalkboard in “I Am Not Okay With This.”
The mind-blowing travails of youth: Sophia Lillis as Sydney in Netflix’s “I Am Not Okay With This.”
(Netflix)

“Sydney is mean to her mom and doesn’t want to talk to people — a misanthrope. Sophia is definitely not a misanthrope. She’s a very positive, happy person. There are definitely some similarities. She’ll be the first to admit she’s quite a clumsy person.”

Lillis, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native, lists her two cats and one dog among her family members (though if we’re being honest, she spends more time with the older, hairless cat than the other one). She’s said she likes to draw and read fantasy books, and she doesn’t consider herself exceptionally smart. That may be because she grew up with a twin brother who always excelled at academics. Her stepfather encouraged her to try acting, so she enrolled in the youth program at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in Manhattan and found her community.

“During the time when I was trying to figure out what to do” — “not ‘what I wanted to do with my life’; I was 7,” she interjects laughing — “I was trying different things. I think the real reason I stuck with acting... I wasn’t really socially awkward, but I didn’t warm up to a lot of people. I warmed up to the people in my acting class. Because they’re kind of the same people as me. They took care of me.”

Those values have begun to color her career choices. Of taking the part in the arty, horror re-imagining “Gretel & Hansel,” Lillis says it was predicated on connecting with director Oz Perkins.

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“It was much less of him pitching me the role than it was him just talking to me. He’s a very funny person. He knows how to talk. He knows how to capture your attention. He was such a weird guy, but I love those kinds of people. I wanna work with the weirdest person.”

Sophia Lillis and Wyatt Oleff in Netflix’s “I Am Not Okay with This”
“It” couple: Sophia Lillis and Wyatt Oleff reunite in Netflix’s “I Am Not Okay with This.”
(Courtesy of Netflix)

“I Am Not Okay With This” is based on the graphic novel by Charles Forsman (“The End of the F***ing World”), which Thomas Hobbes might have described as “nasty, brutish and short.” While the series shares the same bones, though — the outsider teen whose father killed himself, sexual discovery, uncontrolled powers — its tone is considerably lighter, expanding the world beyond the source material’s narrow focus and opening up new possibilities.

“One of the key elements of the character is struggling to hide her superpowers,” Entwistle says. “There’s this little bit of darkness behind Sophia’s eyes, and a true vulnerability to her. Originally, the character was a little bit more angry and voiced the anger. As the voice-over became more of a feature in the show, the insular elements that Sophia brought really helped us shape the character in the script. We crafted it towards her.

“Someone else might be like, ‘Hell yeah, I’ve got superpowers!’ Syd was like, ‘Oh, no, I really don’t want them.’ And that is definitely something Sophia brought. Seeing that, we were really able to [put it into] the voice-over element.”

Lillis says she gets where Syd is coming from.

“She’s in this situation she can’t get out of and it keeps getting worse, but she keeps trying. I can relate to that because I do it too. I wing it,” she says, laughing at herself.

“I kind of use my intuition on a lot of things because I’m extremely indecisive. People don’t always make the right decisions, and I think that makes her relatable. It makes her human. It makes her me.”

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