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May 23, 2019

Sophia Lillis on reviving Nancy Drew, seeking out dynamic feminist roles, and her return to horror

March 15, 2019
Sophia Lillis (left) stars as Nancy Drew in “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase,” in theaters on Friday. (Warner Bros.)

Nancy Drew is back for another mystery.

The teen detective is the subject of “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase,” out Friday — the latest in a stream of classic literary characters to be revived for a new generation.


The film follows the ever-curious Nancy, a troublemaker with a heart of gold and moral compass to be reckoned with, as she helps a neighbor uncover what is “haunting” her house.

Nancy is played by 17-year-old Sophia Lillis, who made a name for herself with roles in the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s “It” and HBO’s “Sharp Objects.”

Lillis is a striking presence on-screen – not least because of her trademark red hair — but her choice of roles has set her apart from other up-and-coming actors. Most well-known for portraying teenagers burdened with adult-sized demons, the role of Nancy is a playful turn for the native New Yorker.

“It is a kind of more family friendly movie, which is a nice change, you know?” Lillis told the Daily News of the movie, which is directed by Katt Shea and lists Ellen DeGeneres as a producer. “‘Cause some kids were coming up to me telling me that, ‘Yeah, I really wanted to see ‘It’ but it was too old for me, so it would be more fun to have a movie that would show a range and also appeal to the younger audience.”

Though the character has had several incarnations since its 1930 inception, Lillis tried to steer clear of the portrayals that preceded her own, including a 1939 version of “Hidden Staircase,” explaining she didn’t want her performance to be influenced by earlier ones.

Sophia Lillis attends the world premiere of "Nancy Drew And The Hidden Staircase" at AMC Century City 15 on March 10, 2019 in Century City.
Sophia Lillis attends the world premiere of “Nancy Drew And The Hidden Staircase” at AMC Century City 15 on March 10, 2019 in Century City. (Amy Sussman / Getty Images)

Aside from Nancy Drew’s legacy as a reflection of the cultural ethos of the time in which each story was published — the stories have been penned by several ghostwriters, modified to be resonant of the particular era — the canon has spawned several spin-off series and adaptations. Nancy’s last big screen appearance was in 2007’s “Nancy Drew,” starring Emma Roberts in the titular role, and received a mix response by critics.

Despite Nancy’s young age, the character is often regarded as a significant feminist portrayal, something that enticed Lillis.

“A lot of [scripts] actually have these characters that are just like the same angsty teenager that really doesn’t have a reason to be angsty, and also just like kind of the same story line. … You don’t really know much about the character besides she’s a girl,” she said. “But there’s a lot of stories that are coming out now which have more of like these feminist roles. In those characters [there’s] more depth. … So I guess that how I kind of choose them. In a way I guess all of [my characters] are kind of feminist.”

Lillis will return to darker projects with the horror films “It: Chapter Two” and “Gretel and Hansel,” both set for release later this year.

Unlike “It,” the sequel centers on the Losers Club as adults and takes place 27 years after the events of the first film.

“It’s just going to be a lot of the adults. Only the kids are there for flashbacks. … They kind of [filmed] it separately,” she said. “They did like all of the adults, and then all of the kids.”

As for “Gretel and Hansel,” a more female-focused version of the Grimm Brothers’ classic, Lillis teased the film as “even more twisted [than the original] already is.”

“Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” opens in theaters March 15.

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