Thursday 18 December 2014

Life after Luna: Evanna Lynch has peace and prosperity

She's best known for her role as Luna Lovegood in 'Harry Potter', but Evanna Lynch is so much more than the sum of her parts. The Irish actress talks to Tanya Sweeney about working with UNICEF and carving out a secondary career as a yoga teacher

Tanya Sweeney

Published 13/07/2014 | 02:30

Evanna Lynch, the Harry Potter star who is originally from Termonfeckin. Photo: Faye Thomas.
Evanna Lynch, the Harry Potter star who is originally from Termonfeckin. Photo: Faye Thomas.
Evanna Lynch
Evanna on a visit to the Phillipines with Unicef.
Evanna practising yoga alongside her cat.

Proof positive that the 'Harry Potter' phenomenon has seeped into the furthest crevices of the globe: when actress Evanna Lynch went to the Philippines with UNICEF to witness the devastation wreaked by Typhoon Haiyan recently, she was promptly recognised as Hogwarts' oddball schoolgirl Luna Lovegood.

"That was the really strange thing," she muses down the line from her home in Los Angeles. "These people were living in tin huts with no sanitation, but they had camera-phones and knew instantly what 'Harry Potter' was.

"On the trip, I wanted to learn about the country and really get my hands dirty, but I found I was having to be a celebrity. I thought to myself 'this is so useless', and I felt like a bit of a bimbo, to be honest. But after a while I was like, 'get over yourself'. These people want hope, and that's what helps them in the long term. What they want is a voice in the world."

It soon becomes clear that Lynch, who grew up in Termonfeckin, sees such work as a boon of having a celebrity profile. She has spoken out and written extensively about other issues and causes; from body image and same-sex marriage to online bullying and MS. Yet far from casually jumping on any old bandwagon, she's learning and soul-searching as she goes.

"I'm aware of my ignorance of countries that have suffered disasters," she says. "I often get caught up in feeling sorry for myself, and I have to work hard to combat that. Nothing forces you into gratitude more than being in a disaster-struck country."

Even as she speaks down the phone, it's easy to see just why 'Harry Potter' producer David Heyman was once moved to comment of Lynch: "Others could play Luna; Evanna Lynch is Luna."

Her voice is girlish, playful and kooky; spiced with more than a dash of LA cadence. Yet in a way, Lynch is a bubbling cauldron of contradictions. She speaks often of her crippling shyness as a teen, and how acting forced her out from under her antisocial shell. From the age of 11, she battled with eating disorders, moving in and out of clinics for two years.

"I was odd and eccentric and I was really afraid of people and it blocked me in a way," she says. "I realised I was missing out on things in life, being so insecure and trapped in my own world."

Yet the teenage Lynch was also gutsy and tenacious. In 2003, the then-unknown 11-year-old was a patient at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, but was let out for the morning so she could queue outside the O'Connell Street branch to get her signed copy of the latest 'Harry Potter' book.

After writing fan-mail to author JK Rowling as a youngster, she sourced casting calls via 'Harry Potter' fansites, of her own volition. Under the watchful eye of her slightly bewildered parents, Lynch took herself off to London to audition alongside 15,000 other hopefuls, and landed the Luna Lovegood role at the age of 14.

So far, so fantastical ... yet it becomes quickly apparent that in the years since that momentous coup, she's been doing lots of soul-searching off-camera, too. She admits to reading spiritual texts and doing plenty of work on herself ... as much out of necessity as anything else.

Asked whether she is religious, Lynch tells me that she's had to recently figure out her feelings on her Catholic upbringing.

"I stopped going to mass a few years ago, mainly because I disagree with the rules," she recalls. "I don't like anything that's about punishing yourself and making you feel bad about yourself, and growing up I felt bad about indulging myself or doing anything for fun. That's the thing about an eating disorder: it's all about deprivation and punishment and self-flagellation. Tackling this with love and being very forgiving to yourself is really important."

After the seismic success of the 'Harry Potter' franchise, it was always going to be interesting to see how its stars would adjust to post-Potter life. Would they enjoy a seamless glide through Hollywood, with doors opening every which way? Would they find it hard to shake off the child actor tag, or the sheer weight of typecasting? Would working on 'Harry Potter', as one older actor warned them, be as good as it gets for them? Would they be forced from their broomsticks and blue-screens into the grind of a grown-up job?

Lynch has befallen all of these fates, to some extent. As Pottermania raged around the globe, Lynch's co-star Jason Isaacs encouraged the then-19-year-old to move from London to LA to capitalise on the franchise's success.

"We were told that this might be as good as it gets, but I didn't want to believe that," laughs Lynch. "I met a lot of amazing people, but [working on 'Harry Potter'] didn't teach me a lot about the industry, or how tough it would be to get another acting job. I didn't know at the time I was meeting this great producer or that well-known casting director ... they were just people to me."

Working on the set was clearly a dream come true for Lynch, but still, there were dark nights of the soul along the way: "I think there's that Catholic part inside of me – you have to work hard and earn your rewards, and there has to be blood and sacrifice," she admits. "In a way I don't feel I worked for it. And when you push hard and badger casting directors, you feel such a sense of victory when you do get a job."

As evidenced in her younger years, Lynch certainly has the tenacity needed to survive in Hollywood. Yet in the three years that Lynch has lived there, the big-screen roles haven't necessarily come as thick and fast as she might like.

Perhaps the long shadow of Luna Lovegood loomed large in the casting room: "My manager was sending me for a lot of conventional, America's-sweetheart roles, and I thought, 'damn, I'm not going to get these'. I'm an eccentric actor, which means I'm not right for many things," she says.

Two short films, a stint on TV epic 'Sinbad', an ill-fated TV pilot, an indie flick ('GBF') and a never-ran film project ('Monster Butler', co-starring Malcolm McDowell and Gary Oldman) later, and Lynch's other big break remains at large. From the dizzying vantage point of a box-office smash franchise, it proved to be quite a land back to earth.

"When 'Monster Butler' fell through at the last minute, I was heartbroken for a few weeks, but it was my first big lesson in LA," Lynch admits. "I remember Jason [Isaacs] saying to me that to move out to LA, you have to make sure you really want it," she continues. "People aren't doing you any favours here. You can't coast on something you did before as there are so many talented and ambitious people here."

Amid the heady carousel of auditions, pilots and almost-ran movie projects, it soon became clear to Lynch that she needed something to tether herself to reality. Something that would provide the spiritual grounding she craved; not to mention a steady pay-check.

Teaching and studying art were options for a while, but as an avid fan of yoga since the age of 11, Lynch concluded that yoga teacher training was the perfect fit.

"The funny thing is that I've been told that to make it as a yoga teacher in Los Angeles is harder than making it in Hollywood," she laughs.

For now, she gives private sessions, and the occasional public class, where she mercifully doesn't get recognised for her most famous alter-ego.

"Anyone who has been through an eating disorder needs to do something physical to give themselves peace of mind," she explains. "I don't believe in nourishing just one part of the soul or mind or body: I want to pay attention to all of them. I don't think anyone can just be an actor. Acting jobs, when they come along, I see them as a real gift ... but I needed a real person job. Acting can be very solitary, and very 'me-me-me'. Yoga puts it all back in balance."

Lynch readily admits that she's bought wholesale into the 'whole LA thing': "I sound like such a cliché," she laughs. She is currently vegan; not exclusively for health reasons, but because she loves animals so much.

"I've had the horrors seeing dead animals on plates," she admits. "My mum has a hard time with the vegan thing. But I feel better when I eat clean. You feel less guilty."

Lynch goes home to her native Louth about three times a year, spending most of her time "chilling at home and baking with my mom".

"We joke that my dad has this side business of selling my autographs," she laughs. "He has a stack of my headshots that he always wants signing. I'm like, 'surely I've signed all the pictures for all the kids in Drogheda by now?'

"What I love about coming home is that feeling that things don't ever change," she adds. "When I was younger, that was part of the reason I felt I couldn't live there – because nothing happens and things stay the same – but it's now the reason that I love coming back."

Even now, Lynch's parents Donal and Marguerite – both teachers – are still getting to grips with the cut-throat nature of the film industry.

"I know well not to call home when I've had a bad audition, because my parents are like, 'ahhh, just come home'," says Lynch. "I think my family were given a false idea of the industry when I got the 'Harry Potter' role. I think they expected it to happen again and again, but I've had to explain that lightning doesn't necessarily strike twice."

She still keeps in touch with her 'Harry Potter' compatriots; just last month, many of them – including Domhnall Gleeson, Helena Bonham-Carter and Bonnie Wright – convened for the opening of the Potter-themed Diagon Alley attraction at Universal Studios in Florida.

"I saw Domhnall Gleeson there and we were talking about his role in the new 'Star Wars' film," enthuses Lynch. "I remember him saying, 'it's great that this is happening, and I really love to act, but you also have to make time for your real life too'."

Lynch appears genuinely excited for the fortunes of her onetime co-stars, though admits to a minor crisis of confidence every so often. It wasn't long ago, after all, that Lynch was being mentioned in the same breath as Saoirse Ronan, a similarly ethereal young talent who came to prominence around the same time.

"Sometimes I wish I was working more, and you get jealous of actors, but I like where I am better," she says. "If you spend your time comparing yourself to other people, you'll go crazy."

Whether Lynch will follow Emma Watson or Ronan down the path to silver screen stardom remains to be seen (ironically, Watson has also reportedly revealed that she is now a trained yoga instructor).

Yet the smart money says that Lynch might find herself sharing more common ground with her original idol JK Rowling in the future. Already, Lynch has written an acclaimed essay on body image, entitled 'Why The Body Bind Is My Nightmare'.

"JK and I still write letters to each other," reveals Lynch. "I've done that since I was a little girl and I love that we haven't stopped.

"I'd love to write books," she says shyly. "I have so much respect for writers, and they're doing the most noble thing. But I'm only 22 so I'm not sure I have too much to write about yet."

Once Lynch realises that she already has plenty to say, there will likely be no stopping her.

Evanna Lynch is a UNICEF Ireland High Profile Supporter. She is leading a joint UNICEF-European Union campaign to raise the voices of young people in emergencies. Visit childrensvoices.ie to find out more.

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