There are certain pockets of the Pittsburgh area where, once you’ve set foot in them, it feels like you’ve traveled back in time. Having lived there for more than a decade myself, I know how progressive certain parts of the city have become, especially as it tries to distance itself from a polluted past, but it’s a fact that some regions remain stuck in that same past, unable or unwilling to move forward. That’s what makes the ‘burgh a perfect setting for the darkly comic coming-of-age story, I Am Not Okay with This, which centers on a troubled teen who’s grappling with adolescent angst, the loss of a parent, and her newly emerging and incredibly destructive superpowers. (Be sure to check out Lauren Thoman‘s review here.)
While on set for the Netflix series last year, along with a small group of journalists, I was able to chat with series star Sophia Lillis (IT, Gretel & Hansel) about all things I Am Not Okay with This. The following interview is relatively spoiler-free since this was during filming of the series itself, but you might want to wait until you’ve seen the show anyway, for context. Lillis talked about her experience on the shoot, the challenges of playing Sydney, how she prepared for her role and how the character differed from the source material, and just how much the cast bonded off-screen. See what she had to say below:
Generally, how’s your experience been?
Sophia Lillis: It’s great. I love it. Yeah. I really love Pittsburgh and being here. It’s fun, you know? And I really like the sets. The set is amazing. I love working on location, but just seeing everything built, like, “I personally built that.”
Kathleen [Rose Perkins] said, “You are the nicest, most pleasant person” she’s ever worked with. So being in scenes where she has to yell at you …
Sophia Lillis: She’s a very nice person as well. So her yelling at me, it’s kind of surreal seeing it, first yelling at me and then second …
But for this really nice person, how do you bring the anger and the frustration and the sadness to the role?
Sophia Lillis: I’m personally not really an angry person, I don’t think. But I don’t know. When I was learning acting, I always tried to do sense memory. So I always figure out, whenever there are moments when you are angry, try to bring it out in the scene. So I tried to do that and hopefully it’s effective. But yeah, no, technically I’m not really an angsty teen, but once you’re acting like an angsty teen, you kind of have to play the role. So, that I do.
You’ve got a couple more years as a teen, so you can build up to the angst in your life should you care to.
Sophia Lillis: That’s true.
Bring it into your 20s.
Sophia Lillis: Exactly. No, it’s funny because I try not to be an angsty. I think I’ve kind of learned from my character, try to not be that person, but it’s kind of funny. Maybe I’m turning my angst towards my role, and then the rest I don’t really need to be angsty the whole entire day?
So, to be the lead character, how has that sort of adjustment been for you?
Sophia Lillis: Yeah, it is a little bit of pressure, but I don’t mind the challenge. You do have to be here every day, but at the same time that’s great. I actually personally love that, because I get to really feel like I belong here, and really get to know people, unless you’re kind of the side character. It has its own perks, but at the same time you don’t really feel like you know everybody. But I kind of worked with all the crew, and the director, and everybody, day after day. So I get to know them, and I really like that.
What’s Jonathan [Entwistle]’s direction like on set? We’ve heard a little bit from some other new cast members. But what’s his direction like for you?
Sophia Lillis: Right. I really like the way he works. I tell this to everybody, but I really like working with different directors, who work differently. So I love seeing how they work and kind of trying to collaborate and work alongside them, in a way that works for him. And he’s very visual in a way. He has a plan, has an idea, and he knows what to do with it. And I really, personally, I love that. I love seeing him in work and I mean, I really loved End of the Fucking World.
Actually, one of the reasons why I really wanted to work with him is because I saw that, and I was like, “Oh, that’s amazing.” And that was also from the same author who did, I Am Not Okay with This. So, I thought that was great. I thought if he did so well, and he’s now working with the same author and everything, and I can’t wait to help him and his vision and, yeah.
So what surprised you most about Sydney, when you started reading and from being on set, that you learned about her?
Sophia Lillis: When you first read the script, when you first see Sydney you think, “Oh she’s just some angsty teen who has troubles with school, and troubles with her mom,” and you think that’s kind of it. But once you really get to know her, you get to understand kind of who she is, and why she’s acting in a certain way. And you get to really sympathize with her.
And I really started to enjoy that, being Sydney, because at first glance you just thinks that she’s just kind of sad. But once you get to know her, you really see how she just really wants this certain life. She just wants to be normal. She just wants to have the troubles that she has now, instead of having the other supernatural side to it, that she does not want to be a part of. And towards the end of the day, it’s just all about a girl, a coming-of-age story of just trying to get to know yourself, and trying to accept yourself, both the regular and the whole power business.
And, without spoiling anything, what was it like filming the first scene where she uses her powers and we see that happen?
Sophia Lillis: I know. I was really excited for that, personally. I’ve never really gotten to play a character with major superpowers. You always watch superhero movies and just think, I always think, “So cool. I wonder what it’s like doing that scene.” And then now I get to do that, and it’s a lot of fun. I love it. Just the kind of looking behind the scenes at the same time you’re part of it, because you’re acting in it. And I’ve always wanted to do it, now my goal is fulfilled. So, yeah.
What was it like reuniting with Wyatt and getting to work together on another project?
Sophia Lillis: That was fun. I’m glad he got this role, I was so excited to be able to work with him again. We’re friends, and we’re acting as friends in this series, so we don’t really have to pretend. I already know him. So, “get to know him” is off my to do list, I’ve already been there, done that. So yeah, it’s real fun working with him again.
Do you have other projects lined up yet? Are they secrets?
Sophia Lillis: Oh yes, Gretel. Yes. I worked and finished that, so I get to talk about it. Yay! Yes. I was in another horror film of sorts, and it’s basically “Hansel and Gretel.” But it’s called Gretel and Hansel. Yeah, so it’s about that famous fairy tale, if you call it fairy tale of sorts, but with its own spin to it. You get to really actually know more about the wish, which you don’t really … It’s just kind of like a kids, gory storytelling story. But, in the end it’s actually, it’s quite interesting. It’s quite psychological and it’s fun. It was fun to work on that. We worked on that in Ireland, and that was great.
Where do you see this falling between Stranger Things and The End of the Fucking World? Where’s Sydney in between Eleven and Alyssa?
Sophia Lillis: It’s own category I think, because it kind of has this timeless feel to it. It’s not really periodesque, because you kind of can’t really tell what time period it’s from. But yeah, no, I think it’s kind of been its own category, because it’s kind of, like John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles.
John Hughes elements were put into this. It kind of reminded me a lot of Edge of Seventeen. I love that movie. Little bits of it kind of reminded me of Sydney, kind of the main character trying to fit in and try to be normal at same time. I just thought a lot of parts of it just kind of … It’s very nostalgic, even to me who is a 16 year old, 17 year old. So, I can’t really say it’s, “I’m kind of growing up in that scenario.” But yeah, no, I kind of think, Stranger Things is kind of supernatural in a way that, it’s kind of, I’m Not Okay With This is like that also, but at the same time it’s kind of cut off from all of that.
When you come into a role like this, how much background research do you do? Especially since it is based on a graphic novel to begin with. And how much do you just let the experience help to form your own character?
Sophia Lillis: I read the graphic novel of course, so I could kind of get the feel of what the main storyline about and what it’s based off of. But I kind of try to talk to the director, because he probably has his own vision to it. And I don’t want to put my own spin. I do try to do as much as I can with the character, but at the same time I want to do it within the guidelines of the director. So mainly I just try to talk with everyone, to kind of see what they think, and with that I can work on the lines of, “How can I contribute to this role?” That’s what I do.
Sofia [Bryant] said that you, her, and Wyatt all had good camaraderie on set. So, what is that sense of play like on set? Do you get to explore different ideas a little bit? Maybe add a different shade or tone, or bring some authenticity to a scene?
Sophia Lillis: I think that Jonathan has allowed us to do that, which is really nice. One of the reasons I love working with Jonathan, is that you feel not only like you’re working with him, you’re working on the project, and actually contributing to it in that sort of way. So if you have an idea or think, “Oh I think she would do this or that,” you can actually talk to him, and he would allow you to do it, and kind of see which works the best, which I really love.
How does it feel to be joining the Netflix team canon?
Sophia Lillis: It’s great. I love Netflix. I kind of do this thing, I’m known to binge a lot of things. So once I start binging something I will end it in an almost impossible amount of time. And I like just pressing a show or movie on random, and see if I enjoy it or not. Because I like discovering new shows. I actually haven’t done it a lot because I’ve been working.
What can you recommend that maybe we haven’t seen?
Sophia Lillis: Oh I don’t know. I actually just finished, for the third time, End of The Fucking World. Is that weird? I know I should, it sounds like a kind of nudging, but now I’m not. I actually literally just finished that again, so that I recommend.
Could Sydney and Alyssa be friends?
Sophia Lillis: I would think so. They kind of have the same … Though she kind of speaks out more and more, while Sydney’s more reserved and constantly worrying all the time. I think they can, if they’re ever trapped together in a way they would. They both kind of have family problems. Her dad, they had kind of problems with her dad, and she has problems with it.
Are you the kind of person who keeps a journal?
Sophia Lillis: I’ve attempted multiple times. I’m still attempting, actually. I love collecting kind of journals or books. I love to draw. I’m not the best, but I love doing it. And the thing is, oh, I’m horrible at keeping track of things all the time, so I can start the first page and then that’s pretty much the end of that. But no, maybe I’ll start one again after working on this. Yeah.
Did you bring that drawing into your character at all? Is that something you suggested?
Sophia Lillis: Actually, Jonathan has asked me to; every day I draw a character. First one I drew Wyatt, then I drew Brad. Brad is so hard to draw. So mad whenever I was drawing him. It was a real emotional wreck. And I’m working on Kathleen right now, so that’s fun.