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Sophia Lillis shifts from scary movies to the panic of live theater

With Studio Theatre’s ‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning,’ the 20-year-old star of the ‘It’ films and ‘I Am Not Okay With This’ takes on a new terror: Acting in front of an audience

Sophia Lillis, left, with Laura C. Harris in “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” at Studio Theatre. (Margot Schulman)

Sophia Lillis is no stranger to the realm of make-believe terror. For a 20-year-old actress who has already filmed not one but two projects that involved being drenched from head to toe in fake blood — the horror blockbuster “It” and Netflix’s supernatural series “I Am Not Okay With This” — trafficking in fear is all in a day’s work.

So after trotting the globe from one sprawling film set to another, Lillis decided to face down some real-life anxiety by pursuing work onstage. Having met writer Will Arbery at an industry party a few months ago and subsequently devoured his play “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” Lillis auditioned for and booked a production of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize finalist at D.C.’s Studio Theatre that runs through Oct. 23.

Sure, Lillis shot the fantasy epic “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” last year in Northern Ireland, as well as Wes Anderson’s star-studded “Asteroid City” in Spain. But stepping onstage in Studio’s 218-seat Mead Theatre eight times a week? That’s a nerve-rattling endeavor for one of Hollywood’s most magnetic rising talents.

“It’s very, very, very, very different,” Lillis says during an interview earlier this month at Studio’s 14th Street space. “I don’t know why I do this to myself. I’m like, ‘Okay, so I did this thing. Now let me try to do something completely different in a totally different environment and be completely frazzled.’ Because apparently I like that? I don’t know, maybe this is my way of being a thrill seeker.”

Set around a fire pit in a Wyoming backyard, where a late-night celebration among a group of conservative millennials grows combative, “Heroes” makes for a piercing deconstruction of evangelical ideals, right-wing moralism and intergenerational politics. Lillis plays the chronically ill Emily, the youngest, most open-minded member of the four friends on hand and the daughter of the local Catholic college’s newly appointed president.

“She is an exquisite and absolutely riveting performer,” director Sivan Battat says of Lillis. “It’s a really challenging play — politically, spiritually. The text of it is really intellectual, and she has brought a lot of wisdom and a lot of really interesting reflections on the character and on the world of the play into the rehearsal room.”

Lillis isn’t entirely new to theater: As a child studying at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in Manhattan, she played Winthrop Paroo in “The Music Man.” (“Could not sing at all,” she recalls. “But it doesn’t matter when you’re 8 and playing a little boy — the voice cracks are an acting choice!”) After she spent her teenage years jumping from one on-screen project to another, her desire to circle back to the stage only grew.

“I love TV, and I love film,” says Lillis, who earned plaudits for her leading roles in the 2019 movie “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” and 2020’s “Uncle Frank.” “But I felt like in order to broaden and get better at acting, you have to learn how to do theater. It’s kind of really scary.”

Lillis chuckles, lets that remark sit for a beat, then blurts out “oops” and continues: “I don’t know why I keep saying things that are probably going to sound bad. But it’s kind of an intimidating leap, to go into the theater world after being so accustomed to just being in front of [a] camera.”

The endearingly unassuming mind-set is a constant throughout the interview. “Sorry if I’m mumbling a lot — I have a very limited vocabulary,” Lillis says, through nervous laughter. After another answer, she apologizes: “This is very, very vague and not helpful to you at all.”

It’s that refreshing lack of ego that Lillis’s collaborators say carries over to the rehearsal hall, where the actress has eagerly learned the ins and outs of performing onstage while still bringing experience and maturity that belie her youthful exuberance.

“She doesn’t need you to know she’s in the room,” co-star Laura C. Harris says. “But she’s always listening, she’s always observing, and then she will make her point with just incredibly well-thought-out and incisive and emotionally intelligent insights. And there’s a worldliness there that you might not find with all people her age.”

That aids Lillis in her portrayal of Emily, who, at age 25, is five years older than the actress. Lillis says she was drawn to the character by her inherent empathy, and the implication that Emily’s desire to understand others’ anguish is fueled by — and possibly fuels — her own unnamed illness. To better comprehend Emily’s conservative ideology and medical condition, Lillis pored over various texts sent by the Studio staff and perused Dupont Circle’s Second Story Books for further resources. Lillis’s Catholic upbringing offered a window in Emily’s deep faith as well.

“She tries to understand what other people are thinking and tries to empathize with them and tries to feel for them, and I think she does it so much that it hurts her,” Lillis says. “Each character has their own ways of dealing with their inner turmoil and their faith and their views and how they rationalize them. But Emily has her own way of dealing with it, also having all of this pain and using that pain to connect with other people. And I just thought that was such a beautiful thing.”

When it comes to channeling such suffering, Battat praises Lillis for being able “to convey this complex and often painful interior of a character while also staying present in the scene.” It’s a raw vulnerability Lillis has tapped into before: She played an abuse victim in the “It” films, a teen struggling with self-harm in the 2018 HBO limited series “Sharp Objects” and an outcast working through adolescent anxiety in 2020’s “I Am Not Okay With This.”

“I think those are the most interesting characters to play,” Lillis explains. “I mean, to have a character that doesn’t have any inner turmoil or trauma to go through, it’s kind of unrealistic. Everyone is going through something. To really try to be these characters and understand them and love them … it’s more fun, it’s more realistic, and I think you learn a lot.”

After completing “Heroes,” Lillis figures she’ll end the year by heading back to Brooklyn — she has moved into her own place, four blocks from her family home — and taking some time off. Asked what kind of stage roles she’d like to play going forward, Lillis demurs: “I don’t know. Who can I play? Let’s see how well this goes.”

She then catches herself one last time. “That was a joke,” she exclaims. Lowering her eyes, she speaks directly to the voice recorder in front of her and reasserts: “That was a joke.”

Whatever comes next, Lillis feels “Heroes” will leave her better equipped as an actress — not just to work onstage, but to take on more mature characters, after making a name for herself as a teenage scream queen and coming-of-age heroine.

“With film, I look pretty young,” Lillis says. “But with theater, I think there’s a bit of a flexibility in being able to take the next step into playing actually, you know, an adult. It feels a little intimidating — just slightly. But I’m happy about this next step.”

If you go

Heroes of the Fourth Turning

Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St NW. 202-332-3300.

Dates: Through Oct. 23.

Prices: $65-$85.