After Losing His Own Mom at Age 11, Lewis MacDougall Earns Acclaim as a Grieving Boy in 'A Monster Calls'

"Three years ago my own mother passed away from multiple sclerosis," MacDougall, 14, recently told PEOPLE

Lewis MacDougall is earning rave reviews for his performance as a child coping with his mother’s terminal illness in the dark, modern-day fairy tale A Monster Calls. Sadly, it’s a role he has already played in his real life offscreen.

“Three years ago my own mother passed away from multiple sclerosis,” MacDougall, 14, recently told PEOPLE. “That helped me connect and understand and empathize what [my character] Conor was going through, although the two circumstances were different, and that helped me portray him correctly.”

In the film, Conor copes with his mother’s illness with the help of a terrifying tree monster, who tells tales that give meaning to his feelings of grief, anger and loss. The film is directed by J.A. Bayona (The Impossible) and also stars Felicity Jones as Conor’s mother, and Liam Neeson as the voice of the monster.

MacDougall believes the film can help others cope with similar situations. “I think this movie is appealing to everybody, but I think it helps people going through loss,” said the actor. “Everybody is going to experience loss during their life, and it can help people.”

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Despite having personal experience to draw upon, MacDougall admits he still found it difficult to portray some of the film’s more emotional scenes. “The scene that was probably the most difficult was probably the nightmare scene at the end,” he explained. “Not only because I had to be such high emotions, but because it was so integral to the film. I’d almost get, like, frustrated with myself I couldn’t reach that level of emotion, but that frustration helped me get there.”

Working with actors like Jones and Neeson also helped elevate MacDougall’s performance. Speaking about his onscreen mom, MacDougall said, “The two characters’ relationship was less like a mother and son relationship in my opinion, and at times they were almost like brother and sister or two friends. I remember before we started shooting, me and Felicity went to the zoo to get comfortable with each other. I got really comfortable with her, she was really nice to me.”

The actor, who previously starred alongside Hugh Jackman in 2015’s Pan, also opened up about his biggest inspirations in the business. “I’m probably a bit biased, because working with J.A. Bayona and actors like Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver and Liam Neeson, they really inspire me to reach the levels they’ve gotten to,” he explained.

Moving forward, MacDougall hopes he can make the difficult transition from child actor to adult movie star. “I definitely do want to continue as an actor and make it my career,” he said. “There’s been circumstances where child actors haven’t been able to make the transition. But I hope I can. I’m very happy the movie is getting a lot of good reviews.”

While he doesn’t know where his career will take him, MacDougall already has the wisdom to live in the moment. Asked where he sees himself in 10 years, he answered, “I don’t know. Right now I’m only 14 years old, so I don’t need to work, I don’t need to be doing lots of work. I need to be finishing my schoolwork and get that done. If something comes up and I like it, I can do it. But really I don’t know where I’ll be in 10 years. I’m just going to take every day as it happens.”

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