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Exclusive Interview | Sophie Nélisse is The Great Gilly Hopkins

Oct 06, 2016

By: Lynn Barker

16-year-old French Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse made a few films in her native language before winning the role of Liesel, a German girl facing Nazi evil during World War II in The Book Thief based upon the popular novel. Currently you can see Sophie as lead character Gilly in The Great Gilly Hopkins also based on a novel. Gilly is a tough teen. She has to be. She is in the foster care system and moves from home to home but dreams that someday her glamorous Hollywood-based mom will come for her.

Gilly at her new schoolGilly at her new schoolCourtesy of Lionsgate Premiere

Sophie has an interesting background. She was a high-ranking Canadian gymnast hoping for Olympic gold when an injury to her ankle ended that dream. Not to be kept down, Sophie went on to develop her acting and it has paid off. Check out what this talented teen has to say about cute boys on set, blowing huge bubble gum bubbles and crying on cue.

Kidzworld: Both your character Liesel in The Book Thief and Gilly are “involved” with books and both are in foster families. Is this just a weird coincidence or did you think about that?

  • Sophie: Well that is actually funny. I hadn't thought about the fact that I was a foster child but, did notice that (in films) I'm often without a mother or father or both.

Kidzworld: What scene was the most challenging for you and why?

  • Sophie: The most challenging scene is definitely when I have to leave my foster mother Trotter. This scene was difficult because I had to go from being happy to sad, very sad and crying. It's not hard for me to cry but I need a moment to get to that place. In this scene the change was rather drastic so was hard to go directly from one feeling to another.

Gilly says goodbye to Maime Trotter, her foster momGilly says goodbye to Maime Trotter, her foster momCourtesy of Lionsgate Premiere

Kidzworld: Had you read the book before getting the role or did you read it after?

  • Sophie: I did go on to read it after but, I never read a book if I'm auditioning for a film based on it. I like to stick to the script only because that's exactly what I have to play.

Kidzworld: You were once training to be an Olympic gymnast. Did you watch the last summer Olympics and feel a little sad watching the gymnasts or are you glad your injury steered you to acting?

  • Sophie: Of course I watched the Rio summer Olympics. I would not have missed them for the world! Some of the girls competing there this summer I had actually competed against and even trained with in the past. So I rooted them on “Go team Canada!” and I was hoping for the best for all these girls that train so hard day in and day out to get to this special event. I will always love gymnastics.
  • I won't tell you what my email address is but I can tell you the word gym is in there somewhere. I'm happy today about the choice I made because my ankle still bothers me even today. But, I can tell you this, if I had been 100% injury free, someone else would have had to have been the book thief because I probably would have kept up my training. Of course I'm happy my feet got me to where I am I love acting and I hope I'm fortunate enough to get good, interesting roles and I hope directors and producers will keep giving me the opportunity to act as I really love doing this.

Gilly (Sophie) with foster mom Trotter (Kathy Bates)Gilly (Sophie) with foster mom Trotter (Kathy Bates)Courtesy of Lionsgate Premiere

Kidzworld: A few years ago, I interviewed you in L.A. for “Book Thief” and you said you would like to work with Octavia Spencer (among others). In this film you got your wish. Did you enjoy those scenes with her as Miss Harris? 

  • Sophie: Yes I did. It was great working with Octavia Spencer. She is a real hoot. Not only is she a great actress but she also was lots of fun. On set, I was doing this video “Star” with all the crew and I asked her “Hey, Octavia, do you want to be in my video “Star?” and, without hesitation, she answered “Yes” and went on to let me film her dancing while the snowflakes are falling down through the screen.

Octavia Spencer as Miss HarrisOctavia Spencer as Miss HarrisCourtesy of Lionsgate Premiere

Kidzworld: What funny thing happened on set maybe between set-ups that you can tell us about? 

  • Sophie: There was this funny time we were supposed to shoot a scene where we really had to drive and there were police to make sure that nobody would walk on the streets and as a factor of security, they had to check if Billy (Magnussen who plays Gilly’s social worker) had a license to drive the car but Billy's license had actually expired from like two years ago so he wasn't allowed to drive the car. We had to stop the whole shooting for like two hours to try to negotiate something with the police officers but they didn't want to cooperate and we ended up using the props guy to drive for him.

Gilly (Sophie) with her grandmother (Glenn Close)Gilly (Sophie) with her grandmother (Glenn Close)Courtesy of Lionsgate Premiere

Kidzworld: Was someone a “jokester” or prankster on set?  If so, what silly thing did they do?

  • Sophie: I guess probably me! I love kidding around and having a good time. I had this code on set with the hairdresser and the makeup girls and my PA where if we saw a good looking guy we would say “Cheeseburger”. I can't actually remember how that all started but by the end of set there was cheeseburger number one, cheeseburger number two cheeseburger number three etc.

A local girl tries to befriend GillyA local girl tries to befriend GillyCourtesy of Lionsgate Premiere

Kidzworld: So funny. Because she is angry and upset, Gilly gets really insulting. Was it hard for you to be so “mean”?

  • Sophie: Not really. I actually thought it was fun because it was something I could do that I wouldn't be allowed to do in real life. Also since I'm not a method actor, I don't actually feel angry or feel that I'm being mean, I just do it because I'm acting the part, doing my job and playing the role. Once they call “Cut” I'm back to joking around with my costars.

Kidzworld: How did you really relate to Gilly and how are you very different from her?

  • Sophie: I guess I relate to Gilly in the way that she is very strong-willed and an achiever in school. But, for the most part, she is very different from me, especially the way she dresses and because she is a bit of a tomboy which I am not.

Kidzworld: Have you always been able to blow giant bubble gum bubbles like Gilly?

  • Sophie: I actually didn't know how to blow a bubble before I played in Gilly. We actually tried out a whole bunch of types of bubblegum to see which one made the biggest bubbles. My jaw was sore from chewing so many different brands of gum and trying to blow the biggest bubble ever. I think that was my favorite rehearsal because I’m not one who likes rehearsing too much.

Gilly (Sophie) blows a giant bubbleGilly (Sophie) blows a giant bubbleCourtesy of Lionsgate Premiere

Kidzworld: Was there anything you learned from playing Gilly that you can apply in your own life?

  • Sophie: Probably to cherish what I have and also never bully and to defend someone who is being mistreated by their peers.

Kidzworld: Tell us why tweens and teens would really enjoy seeing “The Great Gilly Hopkins”.

  • Sophie: Well I think one of the reasons is that there are many animation films out there for teens, tweens and family but there are not that many real life stories. I also believe Gilly's story could be theirs or someone’s they know but, it is told with humor and in a way to please kids of that age.

The Great Gilly Hopkins PosterThe Great Gilly Hopkins PosterCourtesy of Lionsgate Premiere

The Great Gilly Hopkins in theaters and on demand on Friday, October 7th!


Have Your Say

Have you been in the foster care system or do you know anyone who is or has been? Do you believe that “family” can be blood relatives but also a group of friends? Talk about it below.