From lost girl to elf star
Evangeline Lilly talks about her dream role in The Hobbit, her battle with depression and strong female role models
Evangeline Lilly bounds into a hotel room in Berlin, beaming and cracking jokes. It's the afternoon before the premier of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and unusually for a star of her stature, she seems genuinely thrilled to be here. She's already all glammed up; smokey eyes peering out from behind her heavy fringe, wearing a black backless sheath dress that is a cheerful flash of boldness at this hour of the day.
Perhaps she's pleased because in Berlin she's managed the feat of getting out to see the famous Christmas markets without being bothered by the paparazzi.
"I've been out at the Christmas markets enjoying myself a little bit -- and I managed to do it without anybody noticing," she says, sounding pleased with herself.
"In Europe, getting anywhere without the paparazzi is a feat. You pat yourself on the back and go well done me, I did it."
Or perhaps she's just happy to be here, finally taking part in the promo for a Peter Jackson film.
Almost 10 years ago, she met the director of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings mega franchise at the Golden Globes and he made a passing statement that was both encouraging and disheartening.
"He said, 'If I had met you before I made Rings I would have made you an elf.' And I was like 'Oh my god you're killing me. You can't tell me that. I'm never going to get to be an elf and you're telling me I could have been?' And I never would have imagined that five years later I would be flying to New Zealand to play, not just any elf, but a Sylvan Elf, which were my favourite characters in The Hobbit."
Lilly has been a Tolkien fan-geek since childhood. Elves, says Jackson, are hard to cast. It takes a special quality to convincingly inhabit the skin of a species that are, by design, physically perfect, elegant and immortal.
Controversially, the role that Lilly plays in his adaptation of The Hobbit is a latterly invented character who didn't appear in Tolkien's original. Predictably, this caused much consternation and teeth-gnashing by Tolkien purists, but it's unlikely they won't be won over by her -- she seems born to be an elf, with those regal cheekbones, her finely drawn nose and searching green eyes.
In any case, she embraces the discussion -- having made her name working on Lost, she's no stranger to playing a character that invites fervent, often divisive, reactions from fans. "I would rather be the character at the centre of controversy than the marginal character that nobody is talking about. I was on the show for six years, it was controversial. So I was used to being at the centre of controversy."
Lilly is Canadian. She grew up in a strictly Christian household in British Columbia and studied International Relations in college while taking small acting roles to pay the bills. She was mostly doing bit parts when she was cast, out of the blue, to play Kate Austen in Lost and was turned, almost overnight, into a global star.
After being cast in The Hobbit she had to move to New Zealand, but has spent most of the last few years living in Hawaii, with her partner, who works in the entertainment industry as a production assistant. They have a son who is now two years old.
By the sounds of things, she enjoyed being in New Zealand. For one thing, she loved the food there. And she seems to have fun on set with all the dwarfs and wizards and hobbits.
"I had a great time filming with all those boys -- because they kind of act like boys when you get them all together in a big group. They were charming and kind and gracious and chivalrous, and flirtatious -- which I am never opposed to. So it was great."
This upbeat, wise-cracking demeanour of hers is partly spontaneous, but also, she admits, is partly a conscious effort that she makes to stay positive.
Because Evangeline has had a brush with depression. "I think the biggest dragon I ever slayed," she says, "was I have battled clinical depression. And have come out the other side, and have been free of it for many years now. And finding the place in my own mind and heart to win that battle without using medication, but just to find joy and to find the place within myself where I could be alive again -- fully alive."
Does she have a strategy for keeping on top of her mental health?
"Physically there are things that I do," she says. "For example one of the things I was shocked about, I -- just out of interest of health, having no thought of my mental state of being at all -- tried to switch at one point when I was working on Lost from eating whatever, to trying to eat primarily, as much as I could, organic food. And I was astounded what a difference that made, after about a year or two years. By the second year I started to feel something physically lift out of my brain. And I believe it was the amount of chemicals I was probably ingesting."
Having a healthy lifestyle helps her to feel good. But part of it too is an act of sheer will.
"Even just emotionally, I would rather pretend to be happy than allow myself to be miserable. It's sort of the idea of fake it til you make it. Put on a smile until you believe your own smile."
This strength of character, and emotional candidness is something she brought too to Tauriel the elf.
"One of the things we were very determined to do was to represent femininity in its most powerful form. And by that I don't mean a violent woman. I think that is a mistaken connection. I think nowadays there is this idea that if a woman is on screen and she's killing things then she's this empowered woman, which I think is bullshit. Because frankly I think that's a woman trying to pretend to be a man so that men will respect her."
For her, Tauriel is more than just a fantasy fiction character, but a role model too.
"Really I think our power and our place in this new movement of women taking their place in the world, is through our compassion, it's through our vulnerability. And it's teaching the world and teaching men, that those are not the mark of weakness. Those are our unique strength and through that, that is how we do great things... [Tauriel is] simultaneously, a very lethal killing machine but also vulnerable.
"Elves have this sort of austere veneer. That makes them a little bit difficult to relate to as a human being. And because she's not a high elf -- she's not one of the royalty they wanted her to be -- [she is] slightly more relatable, through the fact that she didn't have this perfect, impenetrable veneer. You can actually get in and feel her a little bit and get a sense of what was going on inside of her, and witness that she felt things."
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is in cinemas now.