Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment
When Evangeline Lilly was cast in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug two years ago, there was an uproar worthy of an Orc army. Hard-core J.R.R. Tolkien fans cried blasphemy over director Peter Jackson’s addition of Lilly’s character, Tauriel, a fierce woodland elf noticeably absent from the dude-dominated books. Even Lilly’s admirers-who’d watched her kick butt for six seasons as the fugitive turned plane crash survivor Kate on Lost-were startled. It was an open secret that the 34-year-old actor had quietly bowed out of the Hollywood scene. The 2011 birth of her first child with boyfriend Norman Kali at their Hawaii home seemed like the start of an off-screen life in paradise.
“I thought I had retired when Peter Jackson called me and blew my plans right out of the water,” says Lilly. It wasn’t the first time one of her well-laid plans had been redirected. Lost creator J.J. Abrams famously knew he’d found his Kate when he watched an audition tape sent in by the freckle-faced Albertan, then a University of British Columbia coed. Lilly was on a plane to Hawaii from Vancouver six weeks later. But Lost didn’t make her fall in love with acting like she’d hoped, so she stopped going to auditions halfway through the show’s run, anticipating retirement once the final episode had wrapped.
Like Abrams, Jackson knew exactly what he wanted: Lilly’s mix of vulnerability and toughness. And so Lilly packed up her newborn son and boyfriend and headed off for a full year of filming in New Zealand for The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again, the second and third instalments in the Hobbit trilogy. If she was going to return to work, she had picked an extreme way to do it. “People on the cast and crew would tell me, ‘You have no idea what you’re in for. It’s going to be crazy.’ And I would think, Actually, I do,” says Lilly. “Being a part of Lost has prepared me well for passionate geek culture, for people who see these things as more than just stories-it’s their life.”
If Lost enthusiasts were divided over their feelings for Kate, Tolkien fans are committed to duking it out online regarding the creation of Tauriel. Lilly is equanimous about the hue and cry. “I would rather be the controversial character than the character that no one really noticed and forgot about,” she says. “Tolkien was writing in a time when it was okay to portray women as not being contributing members of society. But today it’s not okay to have children watch nine hours of film without seeing one female face.” Though plot specifics have been kept tightly under wraps, rumours have been circulating that Tauriel will be more than just an ally and friend to Orlando Bloom’s pin-up elf Legolas. “I can neither confirm nor deny those suspicions,” jokes Lilly.
Though she prefers to keep her private life private, Lilly admits that her current situation made acting on location much more enjoyable than it was when she left Canada to film Lost. “Last time, I moved somewhere new with no one, and it was lonely and challenging. I was not in a happy place at that point in my life,” says Lilly. “This time, I had my family with me, and that made it so wonderful because we went on an adventure together. I would come home at night to a baby, and work would get left at the door. That was such a freedom. It gave me, ironic-ally, a greater ability to perform.”