Could Sophia Lillis be the ultimate IT Girl as Chapter Two of horror franchise hits cinemas?
With the 'IT' sequel in cinemas, Donal Lynch talks to Sophia Lillis about fear of failure and how she connects with troubled characters
Sometimes the most memorable horror movie scenes are the most understated. Whether it's the sound of the pig squealing expectantly behind the door of the house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or the image of nuns hurrying along a twilit street in The Exorcist, the imagination fills in the blanks and the horror is heightened. All of which is why the most arresting scene in the film adaptation of IT Chapter Two doesn't, as expected, show the clown, Pennywise, extracting the souls from unsuspecting teenagers. It is, instead, the sight of Beverly Marsh, played by then-15-year-old American actress Sophia Lillis, standing blank-faced in front of the mirror.
You are primed to expect blood to spurt from the plug-hole - this was one of the TV series' most famous and frightening images. Instead, Beverly takes a pair of scissors to her head, and, with total dispassion, shears her beautiful long hair close to her skull. It's a quiet jolt in a film full of them, and its effectiveness owes itself to the talent and timeless beauty of its young star - the now 17-year-old Lillis. Her open, innocent features are redolent of a young Twiggy, but with a spark of Mia Farrow.
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"That was a pretty intense scene, she's an incredible character," Sophia says of Beverly, whose on-screen nemesis isn't after all a deranged clown intent on destroying her, but her neglectful father. "It was actually the director's (Andy Muschietti) idea. He thought I looked good with short hair, but the producers liked the long hair. So it was decided, after a few scenes, that I would cut it off. I had already done scenes with extensions in my hair up to the point where I had to cut it," she explains, adding that Muschietti's original plan was to plant new strands among her extensions, so that she wouldn't have to cut her actual hair in the process. "But it wasn't really working on camera," she admits. "It didn't really look real enough, so he said, 'You know what? Just cut it all off. Hopefully you don't ruin it too much.' I didn't really have a choice, but I just said, 'OK. I'll do it'. I only had one take, because those were our only hair extensions and I just had to go on a cutting frenzy and chop it all off."
The haircut scene is effective because, like Twiggy and Farrow, the short hair seems indicative of a burgeoning adulthood, and because the new IT film sequel focuses thematically on the loss of childhood innocence and questions the difference between necessity and free will. The American writer, Grady Hendrix, described the books as being "about the fact that some doors only open one way, and that while there's an exit out of childhood named sex, there's no door leading the other way that turns adults back into children".
In fact, the sequel, IT Chapter Two, which is projected to have the best opening of any film in the US in September, is much closer to these themes and the Stephen King novels than the 1990s miniseries on which it was based. The human themes and rites of passage of the teenage characters are given equal billing with the horror of the clown. And this is perhaps why Lillis was perfect casting. Despite her tender years, she seems to specialise in giving emotional texture to troubled teens. "All the roles I've had, it seems like there is something awful that the character has to deal with: A dead mother, a mother who leaves, a predatory father… it's definitely a pattern," Sophia says of past roles that include Addie in 2013 short The Lipstick Stain and Camille in HBO's psychological drama Sharp Objects. "Maybe one day, I'll get a happy role!"
She was bitten early by the acting bug. "I started acting, I think, when I was around eight," she says. "I was helping my stepfather for this film class, and he needed someone to be in his student film. So I sort of agreed to be in it and it turned out that I actually really enjoyed it. I got signed up for an acting class and I've been doing it for a while now. One of the teachers I had in my acting class recommended me for this NYU (New York University) film, The Lipstick Stain. That helped me to do other NYU films and led me to all of the different stuff I've worked on. It kind of set me on the path I'm on now."
Her facility with what she calls "dark" characters is belied by the fact that her portrayal in IT Chapter Two is undoubtedly one of the gleaming high points of the new film.
The plot has moved on 27 years. The self-styled original Losers Club are now adults, and evil demon It has returned to terrorise the town of Derry, Maine once more. Kids are being abducted and it feels strangely familiar, so Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the only one of the group to remain in their hometown, calls the others back, where they will once again pit themselves against the psychological horror of the clown (played with fiendish facility by Bill Skarsgard).
As the only girl of the Losers Club, Beverly finds ways to bond with what seems like the only classmates who aren't trying to stab her in the back. In fact, the other Losers feel like the only people Beverly can trust as the town becomes consumed by the evil It, as well as the horrors to which human beings subject each other. The film is infused with a kind of humour that its predecessors lacked, and Lillis says there was easy banter between her and the mainly young cast, of whom she took beautiful photos, to be posted on Instagram. "I had such a great time filming this. I think the story really developed and the actors bonded more as people."
In the last couple of years, besides IT Chapter Two, Lillis has also filmed the acclaimed Sharp Objects, where she played a young version of Amy Adams's character and Nancy Drew and The Hidden Staircase, which came out earlier this year to mostly positive reviews. Along with the box office smash of IT Chapter Two, it all bodes well for her surviving the sometimes fraught transition between child and adult star. She has almost the opposite of the starry entitlement of, say, a young Lindsay Lohan.
"The one thing I worry about sometimes is failure," she says. "There are so many people working on these films, I want them to be a success, not just for me, but for everyone who works on them."
'IT Chapter Two' is now showing in cinemas nationwide
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Johnny Depp's career began with his turn as Glen Lantz, one of the teenagers who fell victim to Freddy Krueger in 1984's Nightmare on Elm Street.
It's not exactly a horror, but Kirsten Dunst's Claudia (above) in Interview With the Vampire is sufficiently creepy, and her subsequent career sufficiently starry, that we're letting her in.
Sissy Spacek was actually 27 when she played the high school teenager Carrie (above), in Brian De Palma's adaptation of the Stephen King book.
So good was she that the late ferocious film critic Pauline Kael, of The New Yorker, wrote: "I don't see how this performance could be any better."
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