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by jon warech
photography by warwick Saint | January 15, 2015 | People
Actress Evangeline Lilly is back in the spotlight with the latest installment of The Hobbit series, but this time around, she’s controlling the wattage.
There’s a level of honesty to Evangeline Lilly, star of the current film The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, that would induce an eye roll from the public if it came from some other actors. She thinks the paparazzi are “a plague,” Los Angeles has “an emptiness” to it, and she “did not enjoy [her] job” when she was starring as Kate Austen on Lost, the hit show that made her famous.
But Lilly pads every bold statement with a remarkable amount of charm and punctuates her words with such an intoxicating laugh that it becomes impossible to hear her opinions and not take her side on nearly every issue. She can describe how she chooses her roles—wanting to contribute to the creation of her characters in order to feel as though she is doing more than just acting—and you understand that she’s not trying to be controlling; she just wants to have a little fun at work. “My forte in life is overcomplicating things and overthinking things and being much too deliberate and serious about everything while laughing my way through it all,” she says. She’s a bit of a Hollywood rebel, to say the least, choosing Hawaii as her home base, although she’s a self-described “nomad” who hasn’t lived in one place for more than six months in a very long time. “I’m kind of all over the place. [But] I don’t live in LA, and I never will.”
Her life is filled with paradoxes that, just by being matter-of-fact about them, she persuades you to accept. It’s why she can say things like “I’m a bit of a loner, always have been,” and before you can ask how such a thing is possible for a successful actress in a schmoozy industry like entertainment, she continues, “Oh my God, I just took a big bite of peanut butter, and now my tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. I’m having peanut butter and red wine right now. How bizarre is that combination? So, yeah, I don’t know why I’m a loner.”
It’s the charm of the gregarious introvert—a common Hollywood oxymoron—that allows Lilly to be a successful loner, with complete control of her career and the ability to make bold statements both on-and off-screen.
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On the Hobbit films, she gained the control she was looking for. “From the get-go, I was offered this opportunity to play a hand in creating her,” Lilly says of Tauriel, a character that didn’t exist by name in the books by J.R.R. Tolkien. “That process of creating Tauriel with [screenwriters] Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens and [director] Peter Jackson really changed my perspective on acting. Up to that point in my career, I felt as though acting was a bit of a backseat job and difficult to use as a creative outlet because I just felt like I don’t get to create; I have to perform someone else’s creation. As a person who is a writer at heart, that was always hard for me.”
The change in perspective even has Lilly seeing her Lost days in a different light. She looks back now, remembers watching whales breach the waters off the Hawaiian coast, and says, “There were those moments where you pinch yourself and you go, ‘Oh my God, this is my office.’”
What the Canadian-born actress really had trouble with during those years was fame. “We’ve got lumberjacks and flannel shirts and pine trees and snow,” Lilly says of her hometown. “It could not be further from Miami culture, which is sleek and sexy and colorful and Latino and sunny and oceany and beautiful and blue and white. When I think of Miami, it’s almost like I would imagine it would be going to an exotic petting zoo.”
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As a child, she thought she’d be an internationally acclaimed kid author or “the first 16-year-old CEO of a multiconglomerate company.” Lilly never connected with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, but then the success of Lost and an off-camera relationship with cast mate Dominic Monaghan threw her into it. “Fame didn’t fit well with me,” she says. “It just didn’t work for me.” But she has since figured out the whole fame game. “What’s happened over the years is I’ve had to find ways to come to terms with it and understand it in a new way, and not turn my nose up to it and think that it’s all sort of perverse and distorted. I had to learn not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
She came to terms with fame (and now calls her time with Monaghan “a beautiful relationship that lasted for five years”) and in the process gained a confidence in navigating life, with the help of her partner, Norman Kali, who was a production assistant on Lost when she met him. “He’s a down-to-earth, humble guy,” she says. “He helps remind me that none of this matters.”
Most importantly, motherhood grounded her. “I spent a lot of time in the clouds,” says Lilly, who had son Kahekili Kali (which means “thunder” in Hawaiian) in May 2011. “Becoming a mother has really helped me put my feet on the ground and given me a very powerful sense of self and a powerful sense of priority in life. All I have to do is see my son to do that mental check that says, Is this really important? Do you really need to be doing this? Do you really care? It helps put everything in perspective when things get stressful or when there’s a demand or pressures on me. At the end of the day, it’s our family, it’s being a mother and a partner and seeing love all around.”
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This new outlook has led Lilly to a life in which she now calls the shots. She’ll act when she wants to. She took two years off between shooting the Hobbit films and Ant-Man, the Marvel flick she recently wrapped, to work on her writing career. During that time, she says, writing was “a 9-to-5 job,” and it spawned the first in a series of children’s storybooks called The Squickerwonkers, a deal for a graphic novel, and plans for another novel based on an earlier script she had written. “Believe it or not, I’m not kicking back and drinking piña coladas in the shade when I’m not working on an acting project,” Lilly says. “It’s a huge endeavor.”
And she plans to have more kids—when she wants to. “What I wanted originally was six kids,” she says. “I frickin’ love being pregnant. I’m one of the lucky women who just had a blissful pregnancy, but I wanted to adopt four. My partner and I have really been through the ringer in the adoption world and it’s hard, so we’ll see what happens. Life is magically beautiful, and it brings you what is perfect.”
Lilly will also get married when she feels it’ll benefit her family in some way, although she’s not rushing—and quite possibly never will. “Every other 16-year-old girl wanted to look at bridal magazines; I could not have been more bored with the notion,” she says. “I have an American son and an American partner, so marriage might logistically make sense at one point. My partner is a stay-at-home father, so if he wants to be on my health plan, or taxwise, or maybe on paper we want to have our I’s dotted and our T’s crossed, but emotionally neither of us really feels the need for it. We love each other today, and we hope we’ll love each other tomorrow. In my world, I don’t believe in forever promises. I don’t think it’s realistic.”
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Lilly makes no promises about the future of her acting career, either. “I’m a bit delusional, but every time I do a job, I think I’m retired,” she says, adding that Hollywood brings mixed emotions. “I love it for a time. I love the entertaining and to see the lights and the shows and enjoy the restaurants and see my friends who I never see, but there’s an emptiness that settles in very quickly. There’s no nature. There’s no trees. I fly into LA and my heart sinks, because I look at this vast landscape of concrete and I get sick to my stomach.” She stays away as long as possible, but “then some project comes along that just lures me out of my false sense of retirement, and I end up going off and shooting it.”
Most recently, it was the anticipated summer blockbuster Ant-Man that lured her back on-screen, mainly because she was again allowed to shape her character and, well, Paul Rudd. “When they told me Paul Rudd was playing the lead, I was like, Hang on a minute, this is going to be so much fun.”
And, of course, she was right. While on location in San Francisco, Rudd, Bobby Cannavale, and company spurned her plan for a cast dinner, opting instead for karaoke and a night that she’ll remember forever. “I had to go get pizza and liquid courage, because I’m not much of a karaoke singer,” says Lilly, who belted out “Dreams” by the Cranberries and “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence and the Machine so loudly that her voice was hoarse the next day. “It was one of my best off-set experiences.”
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Then, when the dog days of filming were over, it was back to writing books, which is an experience she enjoys for a completely different reason. For Lilly, writing is more of a grind than film but also comes with more of a reward. She’s highly regarded in both mediums, and that success allows her to live this life, have this family, and do it all on her terms.
Eventually, though, she’ll have to pull away from what she calls her “cozy little insular writing world” and promote Ant-Man, but she does it now with a newfound gratitude for the entertainment industry. “If that means putting on sparkly shoes and dancing for the crowd, then that is what I do,” she says, “and I do it with a sense of peace now.”
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She’ll also talk to reporters and answer the same five questions about the movie and her haircut a hundred times. She’ll even answer the same questions about Lost. (“I love the ending,” she says. “I’ll never put myself in a ‘Jate’ or a ‘Skate’ camp,” referring to her character Kate’s two on-screen love interests, Matthew Fox’s Jack and Josh Holloway’s Sawyer. And to save you the trouble of reading it elsewhere, she adds, “There will never be a Lost movie with me in it.”)
She’ll turn the press junket into a game, she says, and see how often she can make the journalists laugh. And she’ll do it all with a wink and a smile, because while Lilly may not be “Hollywood,” she certainly now appreciates what it does for her. “There are a lot of things that used to be frustrating to me that aren’t so much now,” she explains. “It’s just a mind-set of ‘It’s my job. That’s why they pay me the big bucks, because I can do that, because I can continue to be charming even when I want to punch you in the face.’”
Of course, she follows that statement with a laugh, and of course, you just have to love her.
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