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Eternals star Lia McHugh on why it's okay to look silly in a Marvel movie
The young MCU actor talks how her character, Sprite, changed from the comics and working with director Chloé Zhao.
The Eternals are a group of ageless, essentially immortal beings who were tasked by their Celestial makers to guide and protect humanity over the millennia. For the past several centuries, however, these superpowered individuals have basically just been chilling, blending in with humanity. That can be a little hard to do when you don’t age — but it’s especially hard when you’ve looked like a child for 7,000 years.
That’s the struggle that one of the Eternals, Sprite, faces in the new Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. Played by Lia McHugh, a young actress who was in her mid-teens when Eternals was filming, Sprite has fantastic illusion powers and a plucky attitude, but both hide some simmering sadness and resentment over her perceived, unchanging age.
McHugh spoke with SYFY WIRE during Eternals’ press junket to talk about Sprite, how she changed from the character’s traditionally male comic depiction, and looking silly on the set of a Marvel movie.
Sprite is the only one of the Eternals who doesn’t look like a grown adult. How does that change who she is or who she has become over the centuries?
It really affects her in a big way. Emotionally, she struggles with a lot of her relationships in her life, and her struggles as the Eternals were sent to blend in with humanity, and not aging, especially when you’re stuck as a child, is really difficult, as you can imagine. She sort of masks her feelings and emotions with a bit of sarcasm and acting a bit like a cranky old lady, in a way.
Obviously, it’s fantastical acting when somebody of any age plays an immortal being, but with Sprite, it seems like an especially noticeable challenge because you, in real life, are young. What was it like for you as a child actor to have to play a character who is beyond adult, like millennials old?
I sort of felt a connection with Sprite. For a lot of my life, I felt sort of stuck in my age and wanted to grow up. I’ve also worked with adults most of my life, some of my really good friends are adults, so I found that stepping into the role was sort of easier for me, just based on my life experience. That was really helpful with putting those last few pieces into place to really understand my character.
Sprite is a boy in the original comics, but here he’s one of many characters that has been gender-swapped for the movie. Does being a young girl rather than a young boy change what sort of character Sprite is, and how?
I think it definitely changes. If you see the movie, you’ll know the specific reasons why. But generally, yeah, her storyline is a little bit different than it would be in the comics because she is a girl. I think some of her emotional trauma over the last 7,000 years of being immortal, I think because she’s a girl she struggles with some different things than a boy would.
Does Sprite’s superpower — creating illusions —impact who she is as a character? To me, there’s a thematic connection between someone who only looks like a child also having the ability to create things that aren’t as they seem.
That’s a really interesting way to look at it. I guess I never really thought about it that way.
What was it like to portray her illusion powers? Was that fun or are you kind of just standing around waving your hands?
I mean, as an actor, I’ve had to do some pretty embarrassing things on screen, and I think one of the things that all actors really have to accept is that the embarrassment is inevitable. When I learned the motion for Sprite, I really just tried to focus on the moment and the scene and try to envision it as real as I could. But, honestly, we all did look a little bit silly on set, just waving our arms around — especially because you have to put your body into it, you have to make it feel like it’s power coming from you. We all looked a little ridiculous.
What was it like working with Chloé Zhao?
Chloé Zhao is one of the most talented directors I’ve ever worked with. She really understood each of the characters and went above and beyond, working her very hardest, to make all of us understand our characters and really become them during the shoot. Having the family dynamic and really the underlying sort of theme in the movie, which is love, was very important to her. I thought she brought a new sort of side to a Marvel movie. It has the DNA of a Marvel movie, but she really made it her own, which I think makes it really very special.
Can you talk about what it was like to shoot on location so much?
Working on a Marvel movie, I was expecting to be on a stage with a green screen every day, and I don’t think we really did any green screen until we did a couple of reshoots. We went to the Canary Islands, we went to multiple locations in London, we were in the woods until like 5 a.m. one night with real action happening around us. It really brought you into the moment and it connected us more to each other and to the film, being on those real locations.
Eternals hits theaters on Nov. 5.