Nancy Drew was not a complete mystery to Sophia Lillis before she was cast to play the female sleuth in the new feature film “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.” She had heard of the crime-solver, but the 17-year-old had not read any of the books in the series that started in 1930.
That changed as soon as Lillis got the part.
“Once I started working on the project, my aunts and uncles and family got me all these Nancy Drew books. Now I have a parts of my room stacked with Nancy Drew books. So, I started working on them,” Lillis says.
The research helped her find clues to playing the character in the film, which features Nancy and her father (Sam Trammell) moving from Chicago to the small town of River Heights. It doesn’t take long for Nancy to find some excitement in the sleepy city. Her curiosity takes over when she hears that a local woman (Linda Lavin) is living in a haunted house. It is up to Nancy to come up with a logical reason behind floating lights, mysterious creatures and a house that comes to life to save the day. She doesn’t attack the mystery alone but gets help from her two new friends (Mackenzie Graham, Zoe Renee) and her new frenemy, Helen (Laura Slade Wiggins).
Despite the original stories being written almost 90 years ago, there were clues in the books Lillis could use in playing the more updated version of the character.
“I think she is still the same type of character. She is still the very strong-willed, quirky, fun girl, but this is a more modern version,” Lillis says. “She skateboards instead of drives, which is one big thing. You also see a lot of her relationship with her father and her friends and you don’t see a lot of that in the books.
“When you read the books, she is like this really old, mature girl, and in actuality she’s just a teenager who’s trying to live her life and be with her family. You don’t see that often, and I feel like that is more realistic.”
Lillis laughs at the mention of her skateboarding scenes. She had not been on a board before filming started and learned what she calls “just enough” to make it look like Nancy could zip around a town with ease.
Playing a character so positive and energetic in a light family mystery was a welcomed change for Lillis. She made “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” between starring as Beverly Marsh in the feature film “It” and filming the sequel, “It: Chapter Two,” opening later this year. Toss in the dark cable drama “Sharp Objects” and the horror film “Gretel and Hansel,” and Lillis was looking for a slight change.
“This was a much happier film to shoot than ‘It,’ Lillis says of working on the horror film based on the Stephen King novel. “This was more of a family-friendly movie instead of blood and gore and guts and horror.”
The direction change comes early in her life as the New York native has only been working in front of the camera since 2014 but started acting when she was 7, taking classes at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. Acting was a way for Lillis to help deal with being a shy child.
She laughs and says she was so shy that many people told her that English was not her first language.
“That really hurt as a child. That made me feel like a loser and I didn’t like it,” Lillis says. “I didn’t know I wanted to act professionally. I didn’t really know that was really a thing. I just thought it was a fun thing to do. I felt like I needed to get out more because I was a shy kid.
“I wasn’t very great at speaking. But, it really did help me get out of my shell. I really did like it quite a bit.”