Lia McHugh
Credit: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Lia McHugh has probably seen more horror movies than your average 14-year-old. It makes sense. She has starred in more horror movies than most kids her age. At 10, McHugh appeared on Discovery Channel’s A Haunting series for a dramatization of a family’s paranormal encounter in the 2016 episode “Tunnel of Death.” By 13, she added Totem (2017), Along Came the Devil (2018), and Into the Dark (2019) to the list. It’s only recently that she actually started watching horror movies.

“I’ve seen all the Saws. I saw Us. I’ve seen both Its,” she says, listing off the limb-severing Jigsaw horror franchise, Lupita Nyong’o’s double-duty performance in a Jordan Peele movie, and director Andy Muschietti’s updated take on Stephen King’s insane clown posse. “I like the horror films that really develop the characters and that have more of a storyline than just, you know, a monster chasing them. I like ones that are unexpected.”

That certainly describes her next outing in the genre, The Lodge, from Austrian filmmakers Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, who helmed Goodnight Mommy. (McHugh’s seen that one, too.) Against the still-dwindling population of theatergoers these days, it’s unclear how many mainstream audiences will latch onto this small-scale, high-intensity psychological scare-fest. But with McHugh’s star ascending, thanks to her casting in Marvel’s The Eternals, the teen starlet gives Hollywood a crash course in all that she can do, even with so little.

The Lodge storyline is so crazy, and you never know what’s gonna happen,” McHugh says. “You’re second-guessing yourself the whole time and I really like that about horror movies.”

The film sets the actress opposite It’s Jaeden Martell — the star of her first major horror-watching experience. Mere months after facing a family tragedy, Mia (McHugh) and her brother Aidan (Martell) join their father (The Hobbit’s Richard Armitage) at their isolated cabin over the winter holidays to get to know his new girlfriend, Grace (Mad Max: Fury Road’s Riley Keough). But when work pulls the dad away, the siblings are left in Grace’s care as a blizzard traps them together and rising tensions begin to blur their sense of reality. Everyone pulls their weight in this primary cast of four, including McHugh, who began filming this role not too long after her 12th birthday. Her performance runs the gamut between gutting emotional resonance and subtle chills. It helps to get in the zone when you sit around a hotel that looks like the Overlook, thinking about how to get into character.

“We stayed in a hotel that literally looked like The Shining,” McHugh recalls, thinking back to the remote filming location outside of Montreal. “It was a golf resort for the summer, so we were the only people there. They shut down the kitchen sometimes ’cause there weren’t enough people in the actual hotel because the crew would leave on the weekends and we’d have to stay there. There was so much silence and I was always pondering and thinking about my character.”

The cold helped, too. “You don’t have to act like you’re cold. You’re really in that and it makes you emotional,” she adds. “It was challenging, but it was a good time.”

Salma Hayek, Ma Dong-Seok and Lia McHugh
Credit: Chelsea Lauren/Variety/Shutterstock

For McHugh, acting feels like playtime, even when that playtime involves stories about someone’s descent into madness. The way she tells it, her family — which includes younger brother Gavin, who features on Fox’s 9-1-1, and older siblings who are involved more in the music space — followed her into acting.

McHugh was about 6 when she started performing in musical theater. That includes the role of Mary in The Secret Garden put on by Powerhouse, a group from John Burroughs High School in Burbank, Calif. that inspired Fox’s Glee. She still sings these days but enjoys “dramatic scenes” most. “I don’t know why. It seems like they’d be depressing to do, but I have a lot of fun doing them. I think it’s more my strength and it’s something comes really easy that I really enjoy.”

It wasn’t until she and her family moved to Los Angeles that “everything took off” for McHugh, who will next star opposite Angelina Jolie and Richard Madden in The Eternals, the Marvel superhero movie about a group of immortal beings that protect the earth from enemies known as the Deviants. “It was really strange going from The Lodge [with] a lot of smaller crews, smaller cast to something as big as The Eternals,” she mentions. “It was really exciting and at the same time…”

McHugh takes a moment to consider her next words. Understandably, it’s still a lot to wrap her mind around.

Credit: Eric Ray Davidson for EW

She was formally introduced to the comic book-loving crowd in the role of Sprite at San Diego Comic-Con in July of last year where she met her new public for the first time on the grand stage of geekdom. From there, she joined her co-stars — including Kumail Nanjiani, Lauren Ridloff, Brian Tyree Henry, and Don Lee — at D23, the official Disney fan convention, for even more press. It’s only been a week now since she completed filming on the movie.

“The scope and the budget are so incredible,” McHugh says. “We filmed in Spain on top of volcanoes and in London and all over the place. It’s been an amazing crew, amazing cast.” At the same time, “It’s actually a bit strange having the movie being so popular and so famous and people are expecting so much from it before it’s even made. At times, it’s so incredible and so exciting, and you also feel like you have a lot to live up to.”

As Sprite, an Eternal who looks eternally young despite having lived for hundreds of years, she gets to play a grown-up. “I find it easier than the average kid to play an adult because I’ve been around so many and I understand the maturity a bit more that comes with being an adult,” she says.

Mostly, it’s been more exciting than stressful. After all, it’s all just make-believe, which McHugh has been doing since she was little. Well, little-er.

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