A FEW YEARS AGO, Evangeline Lilly decided she was done with acting. The 34-year-old had rocketed to worldwide fame on the back of her role as Kate on Lost, had wrapped her first big budget movie, Real Steel, with Hugh Jackman, and had just given birth to her first child, Kahekili. As far as she was concerned, she had retired. Then the phone rang.
Two months later, Lilly was jetting off to New Zealand, where she would spend the next year playing elf warrior Tauriel in part two of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug.
For Lilly, being asked to play the part was approaching fantasy itself. She has been a fan of JRR Tolkien for as long as she can remember, and her favourite characters in the books were the woodland elves. She says she used to dream about being one and would make up little stories about them in her head. So even though she had convinced herself she was done with acting, she says she spoke to her partner and said, "I really have to do this."
For hardcore Hobbit devotees the addition of a new character could be perceived as nothing short of sacrilegious. "People struggle with it - purists who want to keep Tolkien exactly as it is," the actress acknowledges. "I respect that. But I am content that as a huge fan of Tolkien myself, the changes they have made just make the film better."
For Lilly, incorporating a strong and capable female figure into a film where men make up most of the cast was simply the right thing to do. "There are no women in the book," says Lilly on a recent afternoon in Beverly Hills.
"I don't mean to undermine Tolkien, because he wrote these books when women were sub-citizens," she says. "[But] … to make nine hours of cinema in 2013 where there is not a single female on the screen, what message [would] that send to that 10-year-old girl who goes to the movies?"
"I don't do any scenes with Cate [Blanchett, who reprises her role as Galadriel]; there are two plots going on and they put a woman in each one, and there are more female background characters."
Lilly says that starting filming so soon after giving birth was nothing short of challenging. Still carrying some baby weight at the time, she went straight into stunt training.
"She fights not for greed or revenge, but for what's right," says Lilly of Tauriel. "She's ruthless, a little reckless, passionate and dangerous, and she really cares about justice and the truth," she says. "I am so proud to play her because one of the things I struggle with is when I watch modern-day films where women think that to be empowered is to be like men … I want to be distinctly feminine. I think that where a man would consider it strong to kill his enemy, a woman might consider it strong to forgive her enemy. Our great power and gift is our compassion. So Tauriel has her own story going on. You think she's going to be delicate, like Tinkerbell, but really you need to get out of her way."
Lilly still refers to herself as a "small-town girl from Canada", and talks about having struggled with being thrust into the limelight when Lost came out.
Born in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, Lilly was discovered while walking down the street by an agent for the Ford Modelling Agency. She had some small television parts before she landed the role of Kate Austen in Lost in 2004.
She says there is something in her DNA that has cultivated a sense of fortitude and perseverance.
I had two sisters growing up, and my dad used to tell us all the time, 'You girls are seven times smarter than any guy, more intelligent, more capable'," she says. "My sisters and I have become incredibly forthright, stubborn, controlling, strong and proud women. I'm proud of my upbringing. If it weren't for the men in our lives, it would have been hard for us to have gained any ground in our own self-worth."
On the coffee table in front of Lilly is her first book, The Squickerwonkers. It's a children's fantasy book that she first conceived at 14. "I was a loner when I was a child," she says. "I was obsessed with Doctor Who, and I wrote a poem. I read it to my mother who said, 'You have to publish that.' My mother always believed that everything her daughters did was a touch of genius, so I didn't take it seriously."
Every few years her mother would ask her about the book, and Lilly decided earlier this year that she would publish it. She worked with acclaimed illustrator Johnny Fraser-Allen, and after multiple rewrites, the book came out.
"My mother is so happy; she choked up when she saw it," Lilly says.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens on December 12