Spoilers ahead for the ending of Netflix’s I Am Not Okay With This.
Sophia Lillis is no stranger to teenage rage. The 18-year-old actress starred in the It franchise alongside an ensemble of boys affectionately known as the Losers’ Club and played a young Amy Adams in the HBO miniseries Sharp Objects, based on the psycho-thriller novel of the same name. After recently taking on the role of Gretel in Hansel & Gretel, a spooky cinematic homage to the classic fairy tale, Lillis is now back on the small screen for more teen angst in Netflix’s I Am Not Okay With This.
I Am Not Okay With This shares a similar DNA with The End of the F***ing World, the previous Netflix project directed by Jonathan Entwistle and adapted from graphic novels by Charles Forsman. In the new series, Lillis plays Sydney, a 17-year-old stuck in a decaying patch of Pittsburgh suburbia. Over the course of seven bingeable episodes, Sydney reckons with the death of her father and a budding crush on her best friend, Dina (Sofia Bryant), not to mention her budding telekinetic powers. Things are certainly not all doom and gloom, particularly when she hangs with her goofy neighbor Stanley, played by her It co-star Wyatt Oleff. Vulture caught up with Lillis to discuss the show’s explosive ending, her newfound love of shape-up sneakers, and her relatively cliqueless high-school life.
Some of my favorite moments of the show are when you dance to ’80s songs like “Jessie’s Girl,” or when Stanley gets ready to the tune of “Here Comes Your Man.” As a self-professed fan of bands like Talking Heads and the Psychedelic Furs, what was it like to act and dance in that kind of timeless retro world?
I love those bands a lot, so it wasn’t that hard. As for the dancing part … [Laughs.] One of my favorite scenes to shoot is when we’re in the prom. It’s a very small clip, but I had to dance for at least 30 to 40 minutes, so that was a lot.
I love also Syd’s retro outfits, like her signature Dr. Martens and corduroy jacket. Do you share any fashion sensibilities with her?
[Laughs.] We wear basically the same thing. You know, I have to go to premieres and I wear all this fancy-pants clothing. In real life, I wear exactly what Sydney wears, like jeans and a sweatshirt. I have a lot of Doc Martens that I wear all the time. My favorite thing that I wore as Sydney was actually the workout clothes. I felt so comfortable. They gave me white shape-ups, which were so hard to run in — they’re basically rounded spheres on your feet — but I love them so much. Maybe at some point I can steal them and keep them.
You’ve worked on a few other projects adapted from books, including It and Nancy Drew. Before you start filming, do you typically you look to those texts for inspiration or guidance?
I try to read the books that the movies or shows that I play are based off of, except some of them are a little longer, like It. I could never get past that. [Laughs.]
In the graphic novel that inspired I Am Not Okay With This, the ending is quite different from the show’s finale: In the original version, Syd uses her powers to commit suicide after killing somebody else. In this one, she accidentally blows up her classmate Brad’s head right before he reveals her powers. What did you make of that change?
I’m pretty sure they wanted that change because they probably wanted a second season. If my head’s blown up, “Bye! That’s it, that’s all we have for you.” Maybe they can add someone else — like season two, there’s another girl with superpowers — and then you could start from there.
I also think it started something new. It’s less of the whole suicide thing. She still has so much to live for. But at the same time, they moved the head blowing up from me to Rich [Ellis]. Poor Rich — he’s Brad on the show, and his head gets blown up. That one head explosion turns everything upside down. It’s almost funny in an “Oh, no!” kind of way.
In the scenes where Syd’s powers come to the fore unexpectedly, what were the challenges of acting that?
The main thing that was really hard for me was the voice-over, because this isn’t just a voice-over talking about the story; it’s my actual thoughts in my head. I’m saying that I’m okay even though I’m not, and I still have to match it up with my facial expression.
The show draws a lot of inspiration from John Hughes movies, particularly in the detention episode. You’ve also drawn more than a few comparisons to Molly Ringwald, too. What do you make of that?
[Laughs.] Well, I’m so glad to be compared to Molly Ringwald. I feel like that’s a thing that keeps happening in everything I’m in. I’m not complaining. I love John Hughes. Every single John Hughes film is very iconic in its own way, and so many people take those and use it as tropes for other high-school films, but using that while also putting superpowers to it is such a weird mix. I just love the play between the two.
Totally. Before the show’s bloody climax, Sydney seems to be healing several important relationships in her life, but she’s still clearly dealing with her own powers. Do you have hope that she might find a bit more inner peace in a possible second season?
She has to do something. She’s tried denying it, she’s tried — well, actually, that’s all she’s done. [Laughs.] She’s been trying to suppress it this whole entire time, for good reason. She has to learn how to control it, but by learning to control it, she may hurt more people in the process. But I feel like that has to happen at some point, because if she keeps going the way she’s going, she isn’t gonna go anywhere.
With this show and other roles you’ve done, they’re often set in downtrodden suburban settings. As a Brooklyn gal yourself, are there aspects of your own upbringing that you’d love to see onscreen?
I feel like the high-school experience in New York is so different than the high-school experience in suburban places. You don’t really have too much of the cliques. The nerds and the jocks, we don’t really have that. The school that I go to has people who want to pursue different arts, so that’s the closest to “groups.” There’s the equestrians and the athletes, and then there’s the actors and singers and dancers. That’s basically the closest you get to cliques.
Also, going to school isn’t a walk or a school-bus ride. I’ve never taken a school-bus ride. All I’ve done to go to school is [take] either a city bus or the subway. Yeah, the high-school experience is very different. It’s a different way of growing up that isn’t really portrayed much. But going back to I Am Not Okay With This, I’ve talked to many people and they’re like, “Yeah, this is basically how I grew up.” I felt like, “Oh, this is what suburban life is like.”
What were you able to bring from your own experience to the show?
Just going through obstacles like a normal high-schooler, worrying about stuff like thigh zits and “My best friend has got this guy and now I’m alone.” It’s her trying to do her best in high school even though she doesn’t particularly enjoy it. Everyone can relate to that. Everyone’s always like, “Oh, man, high-school life.” That’s when you really try to grow up. That’s the peak period when you try to find your identity and what you wanna be and what you wanna do. That’s basically what I’ve tried to figure out: So, this is acting. Do I really wanna do this? What do I really wanna do with my life?