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Sophia Anne Caruso Lives an "Other-Worldly" Childhood on Mars and Off-Broadway

The 14-year-old actress continues her unconventional career in the new David Bowie musical Lazarus.

Sophia Anne Caruso stars as "Girl" in David Bowie's world-premiere musical Lazarus at New York Theatre Workshop.
(© Kenneth B. Edwards)

It was Sophia Anne Caruso's 14th birthday when she got the call offering her a role in David Bowie's new musical Lazarus, now making its world premiere at New York Theatre Workshop. A sequel to the science fiction film The Man Who Fell to Earth, Michael C. Hall stars as Thomas Newton, the role Bowie originated in 1976, with Caruso carrying much of the mind-bending show on her shoulders as his unorthodox leading lady: a bleach-blond spectral figure titled "Girl" who has been sent to Earth to help the alien Newton find his way home.

It's only her second New York production, but Caruso is already carving out a theatrical niche left unclaimed by most of her contemporaries. The last time TheaterMania spoke with her, she was starring in Jennifer Haley's dystopian play The Nether at the Lucille Lortel Theatre — a performance that earned her a Lucille Lortel Award nomination at the age of 13. Her character was Iris, an Internet avatar who, as the picture of childhood innocence, becomes the subject of older men's depraved fantasies.

"I'm good at playing other-worldly roles," says Caruso, neatly categorizing this otherwise uncategorizable type she's latched onto. Hardly into her teen years, she's already taken a liking to the off-kilter downtown theater scene, and it has taken a distinct liking to her. "I enjoy doing stuff that's a little more dark and trippy," she says. "That's what I love about off-Broadway. There are a lot more funky shows and things that are more risqué."

Her role as Brigitta in The Sound of Music Live! qualifies as one of the more conventional entries on her résumé, though even that project satisfied her craving for new theatrical adventures. "That was fun because it was different than just doing The Sound of Music," she says looking back on the experience. "It was live TV. We were the first and I think that made history...I like creating things. New fresh stuff that's weird and has not been figured out by every little girl in the universe is fun for me."

Plays like The Nether and Lazarus are certainly not your next Sound of Music or Annie — the stuff of most young actresses' stage dreams. Under other circumstances, the roles they offer would not even be extended to a child her age. In Caruso's own words, "It's a hassle to hire a kid" — a fact of the business that made her all but write off her shot at booking Lazarus after taking a chance on an open call. However, it seems the determined young lady from Spokane, Washington, has succeeded in making herself worth the extra effort.

Sophia Anne Caruso in MCC's The Nether (left) and New York Theatre Workshop's Lazarus.
(© Jenny Anderson/Jan Versweyveld)

"I moved here and I realized there are like two thousand of me," says Caruso, recalling some of her first non-equity open calls, packed with hundreds of blond, brown-eyed triple threats. "You have to get so good that you can separate yourself from them. I think that's sometimes why they don't hire adults over me. I think I have something."

That "something," she's proud to say, is the result of a work ethic not many adults can even claim. "I'm very competitive," Caruso admits. "I like to excel at everything. And I guess I'm just really driven. So whenever I'm like, 'Oh my god I cannot do this number, I cannot do this dance again, I am so tired,' I [think], 'You can because you want to excel.' I used to not take days off. [Now] I think that everyone deserves a day off. But I'm glad that I did really push myself because I wouldn't be where I am without that. I'm so much more thankful for what I have because I worked so hard for it."

This time around, her diligence landed her in a room with David Bowie himself to rehearse his famous song "Life on Mars," which she performs every night at her newest downtown haunt. "I sing it in a lower key than he sings it," she notes.

Unlike other 14-year-olds, Caruso can also hold a rousing conversation on the supernatural, vintage clothing, and Arthur Miller. While she says other kids her age are experimenting with drugs and alcohol, she names acting as her unequivocal "drug of choice" and analyzes the details of her Lazarus director Ivo van Hove's Broadway production of A View From the Bridge.

And yet, surprisingly, Caruso's career started in the same way most child performers' do: An open call for Annie back in her hometown. "I think I was six and I sang 'Little Cowgirl' a cappella," she remembers, offering a demo of the adorable tune, choreography and all. "I was in these little cowboy boots and I had little braids and the pudgy Shirley Temple face."

It's a persona she can still pull off when the situation calls for it. But for the most part, it's a clever disguise hiding an old soul made for Bowie's theatrical experiments and her beloved otherworldly characters. She's fully aware that the blond hair and dimples can be deceptive — but does she mind? Not at all.

"Sometimes I like that."

Caruso singing the classic Bowie song "Life on Mars" in a scene from Lazarus.
(© Jan Versweyveld)