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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Sophia Lillis, new Scream Queen, is learning her true power

By Caitlin Busch
Sophia Lillis in Gretel & Hansel

In Gretel & Hansel, the Osgood Perkins-directed horror reimagining of the classic Grimm Brothers fairy tale, Sophia Lillis (It, It Chapter Two) plays Gretel, the elder of the titular siblings. While Gretel and Hansel may share names with their fairytale counterparts, their story diverges from the get-go. Their world is dark and unforgiving, and when famine strikes, their mother kicks the duo out of their home to fend for themselves.

Or, rather, for Gretel to fend for both of them. This is, for all intents and purposes, Gretel's story.

"I really love [Gretel]. Despite all the stuff that's happening, she's fighting against it, and that's kind of a thing that happens in all of my roles: fighting against the monster or the witch or life," Lillis told SYFY WIRE.

After a short time of trying to find their own way, they happen upon that ever-reliable fairytale staple, a witch in the woods. Per the Grimm story, the witch (Alice Krige) seduces the pair with food and shelter — and then the film takes a hard 90-degree turn. Gretel, whose name has been flipped with her brother's in the title to cast her as both narrator and subject, learns of a hidden power hiding within. She just has to choose what she'll do with it.

It's a movie Lillis, 17, describes as "pretty dark," and one she admits is something moviegoers have likely come to expect of her after her breakout role as young Beverly in It and It Chapter Two. Not that she's upset about it.

SYFY WIRE spoke with Lillis ahead of the premiere of Gretel & Hansel to discuss horror, growing pains, and Scream Queens.

What's the scariest thing about Gretel & Hansel, to you?

Besides the witch? [Laugh.] For the character, I think trying to find her role and trying to have a better purpose in life than just helping her brother, despite the life she lives and the world [being] a society that is kind of against people like her: women with strong values and morals and such.

And for me, it was trying to act good. [Laugh.] I love acting a lot, but I'm never not nervous on set because I always have this need of "I need to do well" and I don't want to disappoint people. That's just a constant thing that I have, that I think everyone has to a certain degree. So that was very nerve-wracking for me. It always is.

Is there anything that calms you down and makes you feel more at ease once you're on set?

I feel like everything is always scary when you start out. Once I'm there and once I've gotten a handle on the character, I can kind of calm down a little bit. I also always have my mom around for legal reasons but also because I want her around. And whenever I get in a kind of downward spiral, she says "Stop. Don't do that. Please." And then I stop. [Laughs.]

Sometimes you just need someone to say "Shut up." And then I do.

It helps to have someone to ground you at the end of the day.

Yeah, exactly!

How long did it take you to feel comfortable with Gretel as a character and feel like you had a handle on her?

It was very gradual. I was very nervous, but I always this thing where, there's always going to be one specific day where it's going to be the worst day. And you think, "Man, I'm gonna do better from here on out. This is the rock bottom. I know I can do better than this," and it kind of gets better from there. There's always going to be a one-day dip.

On the first day, I was very nervous, and I was like, "I'm not gonna do so great," but then after that, it slowly gets better. So by the end of the day, I felt like, man, I got the gist of the character.

Which is always kind of sad in a way. It happens every time. And then you're done, and you're like, "Man, I wish I could go back to the very beginning and do it again."

Because after the end, you've got the whole character down pat. You're like, "I know this character like the back of my hand." I played [Gretel] for a month or so. I wish I could go back to the day where it was my first day shooting and do the same thing again [with this level of comfort].

I guess that's might not be something you'll be able to do again with Gretel, since this movie doesn't seem like it will have a sequel …

[Laughs.] Yeah, I know.

… But you did get to do that with Beverly in It Chapter Two.

That's true. I was nervous for It [Chapter] Two for a different sense that I was working on [other projects] and now I'm going back to play the first character I ever played. So it was a little strange going back to it. But I felt like I understood the character already, so it was kind of fun going back and playing the same character all over again.

It's like, "Ah, man, I'm going back to this character, I can just be this character again." And I felt like I did a slightly better job than the first time around. So it was actually a lot of fun.

Jaeden Martell and Sophia Lillis in It

Gretel & Hansel has been described as a "coming to power" story. What does that term mean to you as a young woman coming into her own in Hollywood and finding her way?

You find the role you want to play in and kind of gain confidence and/or power from that.

I feel like for Gretel, she feels like she's sort of powerless in a way in the beginning. She doesn't really know what she can do. The only thing she knows she can do is protect her brother, and that's pretty much it. Then suddenly she starts to realize that's not her only role and she can be a lot more and she can do a lot more by herself, [rather] than having to constantly look after someone.

I've been working for a few years. And now that I'm turning 18 and getting out of school and figuring out how to become independent, I realize that I need to find my place and see what I really want to do with my life and how I'm going to do it.

I think every child goes through the same thing. You can lean on your family ... but it's also good to gain independence and do things by yourself. It's a hard transition to do, personally, for me. I'll always go to my mom for help with figuring out what I want to do, which job is good — [I need] someone to ground me, like we said previously.

I'm starting to realize that I'm going to have to start doing that. Not totally by myself, but a little more independently. And so that's part of a coming-to-power story: [I'm] starting to realize you can do more and trying to have this sort of independence and power to do what you want and to go through obstacles yourself.

Do you have an idea of what you want to do in the future, professionally, as you become more independent?

Let's see. Well, I want to continue acting — that's a given. [Laughs.] I feel like I already have done so much already and I just really want to expand my horizons and do more with my life.

For instance, I'm doing more movies now. There's a movie I'm doing ... It's going to happen pretty soon.

That's going to be toward the end of my high school life. And so while I'm doing that, I'm going to try and become more independent and go through things myself. It's going to be like a transition, in a way.

Does expanding your horizons involve moving away from horror?

As much as I like the horror genre, I do kind of want to expand. I don't really want to do one specific genre for the rest of my life. I want to kind of try and find a range and slowly learn to do different things and play different roles.

How do you feel about the label "Scream Queen"?

[Laughs.] I just heard this label recently. I don't hate it. [Laughs.] I'm just wondering how it all started.

I don't think I'm going to do horror for the rest of my life, but if I'm recognized for the horror genre I'm in, I'm glad I got recognized period. So that's really nice of them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gretel & Hansel is now in theaters.