Eternals Star Lia McHugh Is Used To Being Treated More Like A Child [Interview]

It's tough being the youngest one in the family. Even more so, it's tough being the youngest-looking for thousands and thousands of years, while the rest of your immortal, god-like compatriots get to blend into humanity as full-grown adults. But apart from playing the eternally youthful Sprite in Marvel's "Eternals," 14-year-old Lia McHugh had the opposite of a tough time on a set that included bonafide movie stars like Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek.

"I was really scared going into it," McHugh admitted to me in an interview ahead of the release of "Eternals." But she admitted that she had no idea who a few of her co-stars were, which helped ease her into the already-intimidating experience of starring in a Marvel movie. "I mean, it's the guy from 'Cinderella' and it's the lady from 'Maleficent.' I just didn't quite understand it, which was a good thing because I wasn't so caught up in the fame, I was really trying to bring my character through," McHugh laughed.

It's a tough character for any actor, no matter how experienced, to crack. How do you portray a being who has lived for millennia but is stuck in the body of a prepubescent child? What does that do to a person? Rather than trying to wrap her head around the impossibly vast life of Sprite, McHugh did what was most practical: she fell back on her imagination.

"I have a really good imagination," McHugh said, "and I think that was really helpful as a kid to come into the part, to play someone who's had so many life experiences."

I spoke with McHugh about playing a character older than her years, what it was like acting opposite industry veterans, and what love has to do with it all.

"She's really tired of humanity."

So with Sprite, you play a character who is far older than her years. What was the biggest challenge in portraying a character whose life experiences are so vastly different than your own?

Well, I thought the really cool thing about Sprite is ... I mean, from the moment I read the script, I felt that I really had a good understanding of her. And I felt for a lot of my life that I've sort of been stuck as a child. I've always looked younger than my age and I've always been ... I mean, not always, but sort of been treated more like a child than I feel like I am. And I mean, I felt that I had a really good understanding of Sprite going into the character. And Chloe [Zhao] was very good about casting a lot of people who were similar to their characters and a lot of us really meshed well together with our characters. And I really got to understand Sprite through the history of the film and through her feelings, throughout 7,000 years. I have a really good imagination and I think that was really helpful as a kid to come into the part, to play someone who's had so many life experiences.

How would you describe Sprite as a character and how do you think that she's changed over the millennia that she's existed?

I mean, there's a lot of complexity to Sprite and I think that's what makes her character so interesting in the movie is you sort of figure out things about her as you go along. And I feel that she masks a lot of her emotions and her struggles and her emotional turmoil of having to exist thousands of years is through being a little bit cranky, a little bit sassy. She's really tired of humanity, and she's tired of being stuck in this body and feels that she has so much more to offer than what she's treated as.

Another major element of Sprite's arc is her unrequited love for a certain character. Was that particular emotion a challenge for you, or something interesting to tackle?

A very strong theme in the movie is love. And I mean, just honestly seeing the movie at the premiere, I honestly realized more themes of love throughout the movie. There's family love, there's romantic love, there's love of just having a connection with someone and really caring about them. And I think a lot of people will be able to relate to this movie because this family in this movie has been through a lot and they struggle with a lot of love and loyalty throughout the film. And I think it's really interesting to work to understand them as you see it.

"I was really trying to bring my character through."

What was it like being the youngest cast member on set, working with industry veterans and legends like Angelina Jolie as well as international stars? And did they give you any advice or show you the ropes on anything?

I was really scared going into it. Honestly, mostly just because it was a Marvel movie. I wasn't really aware as much as I should have been about how famous this cast really was. My family and my parents were like really trying to get me to understand, you have no idea who you are working with. And I'm like, I mean, it's the guy from "Cinderella" and it's the lady from "Maleficent." I just didn't quite understand it, which was a good thing because I wasn't so caught up in the fame, I was really trying to bring my character through.

But I mean, as I worked on the movie with these people, I watched a lot of their movies and I became really interested in seeing how they worked on set. And I think that's such an incredible learning experience that anyone can experience while on a film is just seeing, I mean, the long hours that people work, how motivated they are to get a great film. And I felt that everyone who came into this really was humbled by the fact that we all got to play these incredible new superheroes in the MCU and have this opportunity. It was a great experience and learning experience for me all around.

So you starred primarily in horror movies up until "Eternals." What was it like making the leap from much smaller horror films to a big-budget Marvel superhero movie?

I sort of just took it as it went. I found that I've been able to sort of externally remain calm, but while freaking out on the inside. So many crazy things have happened in my life since I've gotten this role. It was crazy when I got to screen test for the role. They actually flew me to London, to Pinewood, and I sort of experienced a little taste of it. From getting the part, to going to London, to starting production. I feel that I've gotten a little bit used to the crazy, a little bit in all the new things that come my way and will continue to change in my life.

What more can we expect of Sprite in the MCU now that things are different for her at the end of the film ... which we won't go into detail about?

I honestly would have zero idea. They really don't tell us anything. Even during filming and after we don't know much, but hey, I would love to do another movie. I would be very excited to see what the possibilities are. And I think that's what's really cool about "Eternals" is it leaves open so many doors of so many future possibilities for the MCU and for this incredible cast.

"It'd be funny to see her with Spider-Man"

Were there any favorite moments on set that you had while filming or anything with that you remember?

I mean, there's so many. One of the really good days was we were doing a flashback scene and there was all 10 of us in this little room. You either got to fit the camera in there and Chloe and people, but it was just fun. We were there all day doing the same thing over and over, but because we were together, we really got to bond and have that sort of family experience. The days that we were off together were honestly my favorite because we all got to be together.

How did you keep track of when you were in those flashback scenes in ancient times versus doing things? There's such a big production and you have to do so many things at the same time. Was there a thing that you did to keep track of Sprite's arc and storyline throughout the ages?

I got to be honest with you some days some of us would go in and ask the other person, "So where are we right now? What's happening?" We were in our super suits for some of the flashback scenes and for some of the current scenes. So, we would really have to focus on knowing where we were and what day it was and what part of the script we were in.

I found it helpful to find the scene and read the scene that happened before and the scene that happened after. But I mean, Chloe was very good about that, she would really explain it to us all on the day. She'd be like, "Okay, this is where we are. This is what we're doing. This is how we're feeling." But yeah, some days it was a little difficult.

I have to ask, what Marvel hero do you hope to see Sprite at the height of her powers going up against, and what Marvel hero would you hope to see Sprite team up with?

Hmm. I don't know. I've only really been asked who she'd be good with. And I think it'd be funny to see her with Spider-Man because I feel like their personalities are so different, but they're both younger-looking characters. And for someone for her to fight ... I don't know. I mean maybe Loki I guess because they have similar powers. So I think that would be really confusing to fight someone like that.

"Eternals" opens in theaters on November 5, 2021.