“Every time I try and run it comes and finds me,” Evangeline Lilly says referencing not, as one might suspect, the smoke monster she encountered in the hit drama Lost, but her acting career.
Lilly maintains that her professional life thus far has been composed of stop-starts and near-misses, dating right back to when it all began. Having been selected to play fugitive Kate Austen by co-creator JJ Abrams in 2004, Canadian-born Lilly struggled to get a work visa to enter the United States in time for the start of shooting. The role was days away from being recast.
“I would say Lost was my destiny because it certainly wasn’t my agenda,” she tells The Independent (listen to the whole interview on The LOST Boys podcast here). “I was one of those very rare actresses who wasn’t trying to be an actress when I got that job – and the only reason I took it at the time was because I had enormous faith and really believed that everything in my life just continued to point me towards this thing.”
Fourteen years later, Lilly’s key roles can be counted on one hand. Not for the lack of offers, but rather because she’s that rare kind of star who displays a discerning judgment about the roles she accepts based on what that job constitutes. Alongside Kate, there’s Tauriel – the elf co-created by Peter Jackson for his Hobbit trilogy – and Hope van Dyne, otherwise known as The Wasp, whom she returns as in new sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp.
All three roles are united by an autonomy that Lilly has herself struggled to maintain working in the film and television industry. One such moment arrived three years into her tenure on Lost.
“In season 3, I’d had a bad experience on set with being basically cornered into doing a scene partially naked, and I felt I had no choice in the matter,” she tells me. “I was mortified and I was trembling, and when it finished I was crying my eyes out and had to go on and do another very formidable and strong scene immediately after.”
She continues: “So in season 4, another scene came up where Kate was undressing and I fought very hard to have that scene be under my control, and I failed to control it again. So, I said. ‘That’s it – no more. You can write whatever you want, I won’t do it. I will never take my clothes off on this show again’ – and I didn’t.”
It’s this experience that has since led to Lilly’s careful role-selection process. For one, naked scenes are off the table.
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“When I read scripts that involves nudity, I pass. And it’s not because I think there’s anything wrong with doing nudity, it’s because I don’t trust that I can be comfortable and safe. I’m also just not of that age anymore. I’ve been doing this for nearly 15 years. I kind of know the ropes and am better equipped now to not have uncomfortable experiences come up.”
Step forward, Hope van Dyne. As the super-heroine daughter of characters played by Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer (”12-year-old me was losing my shit,” she laughs, recalling the first time she met the latter), Lilly is the first woman to earn big-screen Marvel Cinematic Universe title status sharing equal-billing with Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man.
As is the norm for Lilly, it very nearly didn’t happen. Having been offered the role by Edgar Wright, she held off signing her contract upon learning the Hot Fuzz director had quit over creative differences with Marvel.
“I had the choice to walk away, and I almost did,” Lilly once told BuzzFeed, adding: “Because I thought, ‘Well if it’s because Marvel are big bullies, and they just want a puppet and not someone with a vision, I’m not interested in being in this movie.’”
Lilly soon discovered that Wright’s departure was an admirable decision on everyone’s part and, after meeting with Peyton Reed – who returns as director for Ant-Man and the Wasp – committed to playing a character that fully matched her proviso.
“One of the wonderful things about playing Hope van Dyne is that she’s covered up from head-to-toe from beginning to end,” she says. “That suit made me feel very safe. I didn’t have to be in a mini skirt and a bustier, and I was very grateful. Gal Gadot looked freaking amazing in hers [as Wonder Woman] but I would have been uncomfortable. I’m just not that person.”
Despite another instance which left her with abrasions on her arm, Lilly looks back on her Lost experience with immense positivity even if she continually locked heads with the way her character was written.
“I always thought she was obnoxious,” she says. “Not at the beginning – at the beginning, she was kind of cool. But as the show went on, I thought she became more and more predictable. I felt that my character went from being autonomous – really having her own story, journey and agendas – to chasing two men around the island. That irritated the shit out of me.”
Positioned as the female lead from the off, Kate – a fugitive being escorted back to Los Angeles at the time Oceanic Flight 815 crashes on the island – swiftly found herself drawn into a love triangle (later quadrangle), flitting between loyal doctor Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) and Josh Holloway’s bad-boy conman Sawyer. It was her initial status as one of the decade’s strongest female characters which heightened Lilly’s disappointment with Kate’s eventual arc.
“I wanted her to be better because she was an icon for strength and for women. I think I tried very hard to take what I was given and always find the way to show that strength, to have her own thoughts and to take moments I thought might be quite whiny and somehow make them... not whiny.”
She laughs. “I’m not opposed to having romance in a woman’s life. I’m one of those people who has never been able to be single, so there’s nothing wrong with women’s lives being characterised by their relationships. But there was this eventual lack of dimension to what was going on with her. It was just [mock gasps] ‘Jack!” “Sawyer!’”
Without Lost, it’s hard to know where Lilly would be – and the close-calls have continued years on. Lilly made a decision to quit acting in 2011, until Peter Jackson came calling to offer her a role he’d co-created alongside Guillermo del Toro for his final two adaptations of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit which, as fate would have it, was her favourite book as a child.
It was this appointment which saw Lilly become a published children’s author signing a two-book deal and releasing The Squickerwonkers, whose pages were brought to life by Weta visual artist Johnny Fraser-Allen in 2014. These close-calls ensure Lilly’s successes remain even sweeter.
“I can only chalk it up to fate and destiny, to what I’m supposed to be doing,” she says, channelling her inner John Locke. “It’s unprecedented and ridiculous – I don’t know why I’m so lucky.”
You can listen to the full interview above, and subscribe to The LOST Boys here. Ant-Man and the Wasp is in cinemas 2 August
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