By Danny Peary
Back in the long-ago days before movie trilogies meant three films, Evangeline Lilly became a huge television star in Lost as the clever, sexy, and gutsy Kate, who two male rivals voted “Coolest Female to Be Stranded on an Island With.” Now she’s establishing herself as an action movie star as the formidable wood elf Tauriel in Peter Jackson’s two-part final chapter of The Hobbit, and the upcoming Ant-Man. The “defining” third film in Jackson’s trilogy, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies had its top box-office spot taken by Taken, but it is still attracting large audiences in many Long Island theaters, including in Hampton Bays, and in New York City. So I am posting this one-on-one with Lilly that I did for the Australian magazine FilmInk prior to its release. For those who ask, “What’s Evangeline Lilly really like?,” my answer is, She couldn’t have been nicer.
Danny Peary: I know that you read J.R.R. Tolkien when you were 13 or 14. Back then it was almost only males who picked up Tolkien.
Evangeline Lilly: It was because of my dad. My dad had The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in a box set, which I still have at home, from when he was a boy, and he’d read it in the 1960s. I was a reluctant reader as a kid, I didn’t really like reading, but certain odd-looking books would appeal to me. It was always the ones that looked dark, that looked like there was something off. And the cover on dad’s book was the illustration that Tolkien drew of Smaug sitting on his pile of gold with a tiny little Bilbo in front of him. The combination of the black and red and the way they would write J.R.R. Tolkien to look like Elvish writing had an air of mystique that intrigued me.
DP: The other thing I know about your youth in Canada is that you played soccer. There weren’t a lot of girls playing soccer at the time.
EL: I was responsible for starting the first girls’ soccer team at my high school, with my math teacher. He was male and was originally from Latin America, so of course he loved football.
DP: Were you an active kid?
EL: Once I reached a certain age. I was very lethargic and very quiet and very passive as a little girl. And then strangely–even my family marvels at this now–when I reached about eight or nine years old, I went out and was playing soccer with the boys at lunch and I just happened to realize, as I did in the couple of years before from playing tag, that I was really fast. My speed was a new factor for me. I started playing soccer and that brought out a more aggressive tomboyish side that I didn’t know existed inside of me, and then I started getting really excited by the notion that I could compete with the boys.
DP: When did you first consider yourself an actress?
EL (laughing): I still don’t. To be honest. I never wanted to be an actor. I stumbled into the job. The way I became an actor initially was because I was scouted on the street. And I’ve been scouted probably half a dozen times, and I constantly say, no, this is not all there is, I’m an intelligent person, I don’t need to be a model, I don’t need to earn my living by looking pretty, I can do a hell of a lot more than that. But I think that is getting better and better every year. I think that women are being less and less pigeonholed every where, especially beautiful women. We’ve seen enough of them branch out in intelligent ways that they’ve paved the way, I think. I have been fortunate enough to keep working but I continue to look at other people out there and say, now that’s an actor, that’s truly a professional thespian. Like Cate Blanchett, who is clearly on a whole other level from most human beings, Robert Downey Jr. is a consummate professional, Johnny Depp. There are people who can embody another human being to the degree that, despite their level of fame, you get lost in their characters. And there are other actors out there who of course will remain nameless who have reached such heights of fame that I can’t get past them and get lost in their characters when I watch a movie. It’s so-and-so playing a role, it’s not the role.
DP: It is a pleasure meeting you because I saw every Lost episode and you were part of my life for so many years.
EL: Thank you. That means a lot to me. That was my life for so many years also.
DP: As a TV fanatic since I was a kid, I often think about great casting when someone nobody heard of is cast and is perfect for a part. That how I thought of you on Lost. How did they come up with you to play Kate from out of nowhere?
EL: It really was out of nowhere. J.J. Abrams is brilliant, and I speak from observing the other people that he’s cast.. He’s responsible for discovering Bradley Cooper, Kerri Russell for Felicity, Jennifer Garner.
DP: And you. Did you realize that was great casting from your end, that this was a perfect part for you?
EL: I think that I knew. I knew that it was risky casting, because I’d never done anything and I wasn’t trained so poor J.J. had to deal with a girl who was very inexperienced and didn’t have tricks and tools to use. But what I could recognize was that I was so much like Kate in real life. There were so many parallels between myself and Kate Austen. J.J. is a perceptive human being, and I think he can sense people’s characters when he meets them even for a moment, and he perceived in me that there was something about my spirit and my character that was like hers. And over the years as they were building Kate she was influenced by the writers getting to know me.
DP: She’s very loyal and she has that indomitable spirit and is funny. Is that what you’re talking about?
EL: I think about these things. She was really very independent and very scared to commit and be still, and I had a lot of that; and actually Lost was a particular challenge for me because I had to stay in the same place, on a small island, in the same job, with the same people for six years. I’d never done that before ever in my life. I went to five different elementary schools, I moved around a lot, I was a restless soul. I came from a progressive place, Vancouver, a was a very forward-thinking, aggressively liberal female. Kate had that in her. She had an “I can do whatever a guy can do” attitude, which is the attitude I came into the shooting process with at 24 years old.
DP: I was leading from your casting in Lost to Peter Jackson’s picking you for The Hobbit when he could have picked any actress in the world. Was this the right part for you, too?
EL: I think so. I dreamed about being an elf for years as a child. So not only did I already love elves and understand what it meant to be an elf before I was cast, but also I had a penchant for strong female characters and they wanted Tauriel to be the warrior. That’s something Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens had been dreaming of. Even when they were working on Lord of Rings twenty years ago, they were dreaming of creating a female warrior elf. What they said to me was that they wanted her to be strong, they wanted her to be a warrior, but they wanted her to also be vulnerable and relatable. And they felt that was something I knew how to do.
DP: Compete with men is what you have do in some of your roles, is that right?
EL: In a way I do. And the grace of being in these male-dominated films that I tend to choose to be in is that I’m not competing with anyone for attention because I’m the only female. So I get the best of what there is for the women. Physically and mentally, Tauriel has it the best but she has had to compete with other elves to reach the level that she’s at.
DP: She’s the head of the guards, but no one points out she’s a woman. Her gender is just accepted, right?
EL: She’s accepted. And I think that calls to Tolkien’s vision of that world, where women are equally as powerful and revered as men, there is no gender bias.
DP: The character’s always thinking, it’s kind of a survival instinct.
EL: And I suffer from that–insomnia–because I can’t shut off my brain.
DP: Let me read a quote of yours: “Tauriel is slightly reckless and totally ruthless and doesn’t hesitate to kill.” Is she “totally ruthless?” I don’t see her that way.
EL: First of all, sound-bites are often used as sales techniques, so it sounds cool to have a gal say that. When you have a film that hasn’t come out yet what you say isn’t always totally accurate to the character. But I do think that she is ruthless at moments, and what I feel happens inside of her when she witnesses injustice is that a righteous anger burns so bright in her that she can be slightly reckless, she can make impulsive decisions or take actions that otherwise she might not have. For example when they’re questioning the orc that they capture and trying to get information out of him about what’s going on and why his orc pack is on the move and why they’re chasing these dwarves, she wants to take his head off. That’s a somewhat reckless and ruthless moment for her, because the level-headed and wise thing to do is to question him for as long as it takes and get as much information out of him as possible. But she’s so angry and so impassioned by the fact that they’ve not only slaughtered innocent creatures but also have invaded her home, which is sacred to her. It’s never addressed in the films, but her parents died at the hands of orcs.
DP: So a female character is brought in and now there is a male/female dynamic. Peter Jackson doesn’t really have a lot of that in his movies. Was there a difference on the set when he directed intimate scenes and when he dircted action scenes?
EL: Oh yeah. He loves the action, the blood and the guts and gore. He got to be like a kid in a candy shop. But when it came to the more intimate scenes, he brought in his female back-ups, his two writers. Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens show up on set and now suddenly you’re being directed by two or three people. He was like, “I don’t know what to do with these scenes!” He leaves the mushy stuff to the women.
DP: Your character in The Hobbit is 600 years old. Does she want to have a kid yet?
EL: She’s so young! She’s just a baby.
DP: Is that an issue, though, for your creating that character? Does she want to get married and have a kid or does she want to stay a warrior? Which isn’t mutually exclusive, you can do both…
EL: Among the things we talked about on-set with Peter was: what is the elf notion of romance and love, and does it exist in the way it does for human beings? And do they procreate, and how do they procreate? And what does an elven baby look like? I was reading The Silmarillion when I was working on the film, and my perception of Tolkien’s view on elves and the way he created them was that elves were created in the beginning of time in different stages of growth and development. But I don’t know that they procreate. I’ve never read or heard or seen anything about an elven baby.
DP: Maybe for 200 years you’ll be carrying around a baby that doesn’t get older.
EL (laughing): It’s all a great big mystery to me.
DP: Last year I talked to Lee Pace about immortality because he plays a vampire in Twilight and an elf king The Hobbit. Did you ever think about playing an immortal? Is that important to your character? She’s immortal, so is life more precious? Or less precious?
EL: I threw out the idea of her being immortal, I just threw it out. I wanted my character to be relatable, I wanted her to embody the essence of youth, and I think all young people feel invincible. I think there isn’t a young person out there who has a proper sense of their own mortality. And so I just put the whole notion that I was immortal aside, and played the character without thinking about that.
DP: She can live forever, but she can be killed in battle, that’s what the king doesn’t want.
EL: Because he’s lived through so many eons his immortality has a profound effect on his character. Thranduil has to embody all of that experience. My character is only 600 years old, which sounds really old but in the elf world really isn’t. She hasn’t seen that much or experienced that much and I didn’t want to be playing beyond my years, so to speak.
DP: I read that you’d stipulate you’d not be in this movie if there was a love triangle, as in Lost. But there is.
EL: I didn’t want to play a love triangle, I’d done it for six years and it was always one of the aspects of Kate that I found less admirable. In this film it ended up needing it. We shot the whole principle photography without any love triangle, and when we were finished, the studio notes that came back were saying, “I’m totally confused. We don’t really get what’s going on with these characters.” And when we were shooting, I felt confused, too. It just hadn’t been made clear enough because when you have only a finite amount of time onscreen to tell a story, subtle and delicate human ambiguity doesn’t read. You have to amplify, magnify to get them across. That’s what happened with the love triangle, we had to amplify subtle things and make them bigger.
DP: How does love affect Tauriel? Is she thrown off by her feelings for the dwarf?
EL: I think she’s thrown off by them. It continues to surprise her, throughout both films. She doesn’t expect to ever be thrown off by anything. So she is thrown off by it.
DP: What happens in this movie in regard to her understanding romance?
EL: It ends up dictating so much of my character’s arc in the third film. It drives all of her decisions. There’s always something driving the plot and for my character in the third film there is this confusion over emotion. She starts the film in her youth, being so sure of herself, she knows what’s right she knows what’s wrong and she’s going to fight for the right things, and she starts to just get confused. And I’ve been through that. I love showing that on the screen, because sometimes I think that if could have my fifteen-year-old mind I could rule the world. I was so sure of myself twenty years ago, and now every time I come up against a big issue or a big decision, so much of me has enough life experience to know to doubt myself. And that’s what starts to happen with Tauriel. It’s basically a kind of coming-of-age film for her.
DP: You’re writing and doing charity work and protesting global warming, so it was a big decision to disappear from the world for a year and go to New Zealand to make the movie? Especially since you aren’t even an actress!
EL (laughing): The hardest decision about that was to go back to work when my son was three months world. I thought I’d be disappearing from the world but in a whole different way, I thought I would be holed up in a quiet little bungalow in Hawaii being a mama and writing. I got to do that eventually–once we finished filming The Hobbit I spent two years just working on my writing [including on her children’s book The Squickerwonkers, which came out in late 2014] and being a mom and it was blissful. I had to go out and promote The Hobbit last year, and I’ve done some work like that, but truly it was two years when I wasn’t on a film set. So those respites I hope will come to characterize my career. In an ideal world, I hope to do a film and then slip away and work on my books. For me, that’s sanity and that’s joy. I don’t want to jump from movie to movie.