Canada’s own Evangeline Lilly is winning over Hollywood on her own terms. Michele Sponagle uncovers the mystery behind Lost’s leading lady Photography by Matthew Welch
It’s a Hollywood story that sounds too grandiose to be true: Canadian Evangeline Lilly went from never having uttered a single word onscreen in a true acting role to snagging a gig as a leading lady on a major TV show. But that’s exactly what happened. And it wasn’t just any gig she landed. It was on Lost, a show that has become a megahit among rabid fans and critics alike. Its pile of awards and accolades is growing to include a slew of Emmys, recent SAG and Golden Globe wins and big kudos from Entertainment Weekly to the cast as its 2005 Entertainer of the Year. Much credit for fuelling the show’s success belongs to Lilly, who infuses her character, Kate Austen, with a mix of unfettered sexiness, true grit, street smarts and a hefty dose of mystery—qualities that come to the fore offscreen as well. It could be why the woman behind the TV star has seemed so elusive and seductively enigmatic even as her star-wattage powers up.
To unravel the mysteries of Evangeline Lilly, rewind to June 2005, the end of Lost’s first season. Lilly should have been having the time of her life. At just 25 years old, she was a bona fide star working on one of the biggest hit shows on television. From the outside, her journey to the idyllic island of Oahu (where Lost is filmed) seemed pain-free. She avoided the usual pitfalls of would-be actors: years of struggling to make ends meet and suffering through bad roles in bad projects.
In fact, Lost was her first real acting role (with the exception of the odd TV commercial and gigs as an extra where she played the role of a corpse—twice). Despite this, she says that newfound success left her feeling empty.
On a lunch break from the Hawaiian set of Lost, Lilly recalls the turmoil she experienced during the show’s rookie season. “The first year was very difficult. I found it so hard because people kept [saying] in interviews, ‘You must be so thrilled,’ ‘This must be so exciting—a dream come true.’ I always felt that I wasn’t grateful enough. I was really confused and shell-shocked. I wasn’t used to the kind of pressures that were on me. I was continually trying to work out [whether] this was where I should be, how I should behave or if I should be in this industry—all that kind of stuff. By the end of season one, I was in a bad place where I felt like I had lostmyself. I had a little bit of a breakdown. I called my parents sobbing my eyes out, saying, ‘I don’t know who I am anymore.’ ”
To find solid ground again, Lilly escaped Hollywood and the looming trappings of fame and headed home to get a dose of normalcy from her friends and family in Canada. Then, she went to Africa to work with a friend who was a missionary in Rwanda. Those experiences helped her reconnect to the person she was before she landed the Lost role: a University of British Columbia student on her way to earning a degree in international relations with hopes of becoming a missionary, a foreign dignitary or an aide worker.
“I wanted to be used in the world in a way that required more than just being pretty-faced onscreen,” she explains. As she figured out exactly how to do that, she worked odd jobs—as a flight attendant, as a waitress, she even changed the oil in big trucks for a time. Acting was barely on her radar screen until a representative from Ford Models handed her a business card as she was walking down the street in Kelowna, B.C. Lilly didn’t jump at the opportunity. “I was so uninterested in Hollywood, because it seemed like [acting and my interest in humanitarian work] weren’t reconcilable.” She chose instead to remain a university student while she pondered her next move. Eventually, she made the call that would point her down the road toward acting.
Lilly is realistic about how long she’ll stay in the limelight, however. “I can’t see myself acting for 40 years. I just can’t. I love acting, but the pressures of this industry are enough to wear a person thin by the time they’re 40. Eventually, the pendulum will swing the other way, back to my original goals. I am sure I will spend some more time in university. We’ll see….”
Lilly’s conflicted feelings about her new career are understandable when you consider the intensity of the attention she’s received. She’s been stalked by the paparazzi and even had her undies stolen off her clothesline by an overzealous fan. “Privacy has been the hardest thing to give up,” she admits. “I’m still hanging on to it for dear life. I’m still that person who will realize that someone has noticed me in a grocery store and I’ll quickly get out. I recently went to a star-studded charity event [where] I avoided the photo line and tried to duck under cameras. I’m having a really hard time accepting the notion that I’m public property now.”
A steady stream of stories about her love life hasn’t helped Lilly maintain her desired low profile. Reports of a former husband left back home and an on-set hookup with costar Dominic Monaghan (and their possible engagement) have been providing juicy fodder for the tabloids. In the midst of flying rumours, however, Lilly is standing firm. She’s committed to staying mum about her private life—a last-ditch effort to cling to the remaining shreds of her life as an average girl.
Yet there are other personal subjects Lilly willingly discusses—her painful battle with depression being one. “It was a really conscious choice [to talk about it],” she explains. “My number 1 goal in all of the publicity that I do is to put out the message that I am not remotely perfect. Nobody is. And no matter what Hollywood stars want to make you believe, we’re all so severely flawed and normal. We’re klutzy people or we’re forgetful people or we’re sad people. I didn’t want to perpetuate the myth that we have it all together.”
One can only imagine her inner dialogue when she was asked to strip down to panties and un-buttoned shirt for the cover of Rolling Stone’s Hot issue. It was an undeniably sexy image that caused a bit of a stir. Some conservative types criticized her for behaviour unbecoming of a lady. Lilly’s not buying it. She stands by her decision to pose. “I am kind of prudish and I have very strict standards about how I present myself,” she says. “But one of the things that I’ve always stood by is that women are beautiful and sexy. We shouldn’t be afraid of that. [But] we need to make sure that we present that beauty and that sexiness in a way that says we are in control of our bodies. We’re strong, we’re classy, we’re beautiful, powerful beings to be reckoned with, not victims.”
It’s unlikely that anyone would call Lilly a victim. Despite her shaky beginnings in showbiz, she is now in a happy head-space. “We’re halfway through the second season [of Lost] and I feel like I’m in a wonderful place,” she says with the confidence of a veteran TV star. “I’ve gotten used to Hollywood and I understand who I am within it.”