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No More Kiddie Stuff for The Nether's Young Star Sophia Anne Caruso

The 13-year-old actress sinks her teeth into the mature MCC drama and is hungry for more.

Sophia Anne Caruso stars in Jennifer Haley's The Nether at MCC's Lucille Lortel Theatre.
(© David Gordon)

Pre-show meal? Cheetos. Beverage of choice? Coffee…black.

Thirteen-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso is filled with almost as many dichotomies as her character in MCC Theater's The Nether, Jennifer Haley's futuristic drama now in extended performances at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Caruso stars as Iris — a picture of untarnished innocence that exists solely in the artificial universe of "the Nether." Behind this Internet avatar, however, is an adult, worn by life's sorrows and disappointments. The young actress is not nearly as weather-beaten as her onstage alter ego, but her tiny frame and fresh-faced exterior hide a surprising maturity that she is itching to let loose in her blossoming career.

Caruso (third from left) in The Sound of Music LIVE!

A native of Spokane, Washington, Caruso made her professional debut at age nine in the 2011 Interplayers Theatre production of The Miracle Worker, directed by Patty Duke. Since then, she's moved on to the world of musicals, performing opposite Carrie Underwood as Brigitta in The Sound of Music LIVE!; headlining the brassy Bad Seed spoof Ruthless! at Stage 72; joining the world premiere of Ahrens and Flaherty's Little Dancer at the Kennedy Center; and appearing with the legendary Bernadette Peters on the NBC series Smash. She's a triple-threat-in-the-making, spending three to six hours per day dancing when she's not in a show. Yet ever since The Miracle Worker, she's carried a torch for so-called "legit" theater not shared by many of her contemporaries.

"I really like doing plays, and this is the first play I've found since then," she says, referring to The Miracle Worker. "All I could use was my body language. I thought that was a more real way of expressing my emotions than belting out a song."

Caruso has access to all of her faculties for this role, but the character of Iris poses her own set of unique challenges. The play's disturbing premise makes her the subject of older men's depraved fantasies — fantasies that they can act upon within the consequence-free confines of the Nether where moral law of virtual reality is called into question. "The first time I read it I was like no no no no no. No way!" she laughingly recalls. "And then I thought, you know what, this actually is saying something. These are things that are happening and going to happen in the future. Clearly they're wrong and I think something needs to be done about it."

Of course, at 13 years of age, the final decision fell to her parents, who were eventually won over, due in no small part, undoubtedly, to their daughter's yearning for the part. "We had a family discussion," she says. "I read the script a couple times and after that I was like, Okay, I can do this. I wanted to do it." According to Caruso's director Anne Kauffman, it was a challenge she was ready to take on. "I started out being very cautious, not just with the sexuality of it, but even just learning how to talk to her as an actress," Kauffman told TheaterMania. "It became very clear that I could just talk to her like I talked to the rest of the cast. She may be the most professional person in the company — including me."

Even so, constantly being the youngest in the room is a cross she'll frustratingly have to bear for a while longer. "Sometimes I just wish I was an adult," Caruso says offhandedly. "People would actually take me seriously."

Until then she can enjoy the small amount of normalcy her life as a newly christened New York tween affords her: Netflix till 3am, sleeping in on her Mondays off, and FaceTiming with friends on her beloved iPhone. The play hasn't changed her Internet habits, but the irony doesn't escape her: "It's not like I was doing anything bad on there before," she jokes. "Of course," she says, she would never sacrifice her real life for an artificial existence. "But I am on Netflix a lot."

She goes on to share a few more details about herself:

Dream role?: "Yitzhak in Hedwig" (her favorite musical, starring her favorite Broadway performer Lena Hall).

Favorite singers?: "Norah Jones, Eva Cassidy, Edie Brickell, Ella Fitzgerald — and Pink Floyd, of course" (tastes she attributes to her father's music collection).

Other skills?: "I play the ukulele and I just started learning guitar. And I like to rock-climb."

Caruso is a multitalented kid with eclectic interests and confidence beyond her years that will serve her well far past The Nether. "If I wasn't acting I'd be singing. If I wasn't acting or singing I'd be dancing. And if I wasn't doing any of the three of those — I don't know what I would do," she says, pausing for a moment. "I might be a post-office woman or something." As for Spokane, Washington: Is a hometown return on her list of options? "No way. Not in a million years."

Caruso and Ben Rosenfeld in a scene from The Nether, running through March 29 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
(© Jenny Anderson)