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"I see myself as a writer who has a fantastic day job."
Talk to Evangeline Lilly for more than three minutes, and one thing become remarkably clear. She's positively overflowing with stories she wants to tell, and Hollywood isn't necessarily where she wants to tell them. So when you sit down with her for nearly an hour, as we recently did, the insight is profound.
For six seasons, she navigated the mysteries of The Island as Kate Austen on the show that defined binge-worthy TV: the addictive and ultimately divisive Lost. Though she tried to retire from acting once Lost ended, Peter Jackson brought her back by personally reaching out and asking her to play Tauriel in his adaptation of The Hobbit. How do you follow up playing a woodland elf? Well, you play a superhero (Wasp) who becomes the first female character to headline a film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Though her three biggest roles may seem, at first blush, to be incredibly different, they all share one very clear trait: Each draws her strength by embracing her flaws. And that’s the theme that pervades so many of Lilly's own stories (including the character she tried to nab in Star Wars).
"Acting is my bread and butter. It's what puts a roof over my family's head and food on our table, and it's something I rely on very heavily and is important to me," she tells me. "But my passion — my truest passion — the thing that fulfills me and makes me feel whole as a human being is writing."
As is evident from the roles she's chosen to play, the stories that mean the most to her — the stories worth telling — are those that skew close to the brutal truths of life and don’t pull any punches. Stories that are true to life but still show a path toward redemption. And that’s true even — perhaps especially — if those stories are meant for children. Crack open the first book in her children's series, The Squickerwonkers: The Prequel, and you'll see what I mean.
Illustrated by WETA Workshop conceptual designer Johnny Fraser-Allen, the book is dark, clever, creative, and emotional. And there’s nary a "happily ever after" in sight. The book ends on an unquestionable downbeat of a cliffhanger that sets up the second book, The Demise of Selma the Spoiled (out this May from Quiet Cocoon and illustrated by Rodrigo Bastos Didier).
The first book sets up the series (which will eventually include an ambitious 20 books) and the players: a colorful cast of 10 vice-ridden marionettes who inhabit the upside-down and creepy SquickerWorld. The following nine books, collectively known as The Demise Series, will bring those misfit characters to their inevitable and terrible demises. Yes, they'll all "die."
Lilly first started writing the story when she was just 14, and it’s followed her around for almost 25 years.
"I don’t know many stories that have lived with someone as long as this has lived with me," she says. "I was a reclusive young woman and a bit of a loner. I was somebody who came to literature very late, and when I did, I just fell in love with such a passion that I kind of became very focused on not just reading but writing as well. And seriously, that was my idea of a great Friday night at 14 – staying home and writing by myself.
"I was a big fan of Dr. Seuss, believe it or not. Where most people come to him at four, I was reading him at 14," she continues. "And I think the adult side of me realized what he was doing. The subtlety of the messages he’d thread into these simple, silly poems really struck me as meaningful. And I realized that this adult took the time to put these sophisticated, important messages into my childhood stories."
That approach was formative for Lilly, as was the famed author's inventive use of language.
"I also dug his irreverent use of language. If he was making a rhyme, and he was lacking a sufficient rhyming word, he would just make one up. And it was silly and wonderful, so I wanted to make up my own words," she reveals. "And I started making a list of silly, irreverent, wonderful words, and one of the words on that list just stuck in my head and on my tongue, and I really liked it. And that word was squickerwonker."
Fans of A Series of Unfortunate Events or Edward Gorey will quickly pick up on the mood Lilly is going for here. The Squickerwonkers books embrace and are honest about the flaws we all have. They shine a spotlight on human frailty and say, "It's OK not to be perfect." And that honesty is even more critical because the books are for children.
Young readers should be exposed to the world as it is. Presenting kids exclusively with teddy bears, rainbows, and happily-ever-afters does them a massive disservice. For many kids, these sweet stories simply don't resonate with their reality. If we never tell our kids that it's OK to fail or have flaws, then their unrealistic expectations — and anxieties — about the world and themselves balloon and quickly get out of control.
"Who are you in the face of that hardship?" Lilly says, explaining what her books tend to focus on. "Because that's what will bring you happiness. That's how you understand who you are, even in the mire. Even in the murk. Even in the horror. That's our internal compass."
In the absence of such stories, the anxieties that develop can have serious ripple effects that follow us throughout our lives. For Lilly, they manifested as clinical depression and an attachment to the idea of the tortured artist.
"My first speaking role was on Lost, and I was very unhappy. I didn't get joy from my job." And even though her job was, admittedly, many people's dream job, her unhappiness with it inspired a lot of soul-searching. Which ultimately led her to the realization that the only thing she'd consistently done her entire life because she enjoyed it was writing.
"Nowadays, in 2019, there's a lot of emphasis put on [the idea that] you must have your passion be your livelihood," she says. "And I think there's such an innate danger in teaching young people that somehow they have failed at life if they have to have some kind of a grind. If the job they do — the one that pays the bills and gives them food and a house — if that job is not their passion, then somehow they’ve failed. They're not doing life very well. And I just think that's not true.
"There's a righteousness [among artists] that your art has to be this pure thing that you’ve sacrificed yourself to. I was clinically depressed through most of my life, until my late 20s. I dealt with depression through artistic expression," Lilly reveals. "And I remember when I first got diagnosed, I was told I should go on antidepressants. I remember having this moment of panic right before I put the pill in my mouth because I thought, 'I'm never going to be able to create again!' [Because I thought] my creativity came from my angst and my sadness and my struggle. I was terrified because my whole life was art. I thought it would all end if I didn’t have the angst anymore.
"But in the end, it was all total bullshit. Oh my God, stability and happiness allow me to be productive with my creativity?" Lilly exclaims. "Suddenly, I’m creating way more and putting it out into the world instead of hammering away in a dark little hole and never going anywhere. That wasn’t productive creativity. It was insular and self-perpetuating, but now there’s this beautiful health that allows creativity to happen from a place of stability and happiness."
Like Kate Austen, Tauriel, and Hope Van Dyne, there is no character in Lilly's books who is above reproach. They are, all of them, flawed — some more deeply than others. And that’s the reality she wants to show young readers.
Evangeline Lilly has been fortunate enough in her career to inhabit characters who had the ability to grow and develop. She had over 100 episodes on Lost and multiple films as both Tauriel and Hope Van Dyne of Ant-Man series fame. That’s not an opportunity every actor gets. And even though we haven’t yet seen the end of Hope’s story, the character whose arc she’s most satisfied with is both revealing and not at all surprising. It’s the one that — ironically, given the world she inhabits — is truest to life.
"I was really excited about the potential for Kate's character and who she was and what it meant for how much room for growth there was – because she started out deeply, deeply flawed. I don't feel I ever got the satisfaction I was looking for in terms of a full character arc," Lilly says. "I didn’t come to the end of that show and clearly see how she'd grown and what she'd learned. I felt like some of that got lost in the intensity of the mythology of the show. That became the priority and the focus, and the character arcs became secondary. So I never really felt like I got that satisfaction with her, even though I'm very proud to have played her and will always be proud."
Her role in the Marvel Universe gives her a bit more... hope.
"Hope is mid-journey. I don’t see her journey as being over by any stretch," she says. "But from being practically an orphan — a girl who lost her mother at eight years old and left with a father who emotionally abandoned her — to being a woman who has an intimate and meaningful relationship with her father and who has been reunited with her mother, that’s a pretty epic arc. That’s pretty great."
It'll take a really solid landing, however, to outshine her arc in The Hobbit.
"Tauriel, though, was cool because she was left with a bad ending. Things did not end well for Tauriel. Her last scene, really, was tragic. She was in tears and pain and sorrow," she says. "And what I like about that is it allows for two things. One, it allows for the viewer’s imagination to then say, 'Where does she go from here? What happens now?' And two, it's truer to life. I don't know if I’ve ever had anything resolve itself with such a pretty bow as we see in stories. I like that we can do that in stories, but it is refreshing sometimes to see things not wrap up and be left more like life."
The nice thing about Tolkien’s elves is that they don’t age very quickly, so Tauriel could conceivably pop up in almost any era of Middle-earth's history. So might we see her in the Amazon show that's currently in development?
"If that happens," Lilly admits, "I assume it'll be played by someone other than me. Because I've not heard anything about it."
Secrets. There’s always so much secrecy.
"It’s all I've ever known. My career has been filled with a lot of secrecy. With porters who hand deliver scripts to me after flying across the country because they’re not allowed to put it in the mail or email it to me," she marvels. "I'm doing a film this spring, and I'm so excited to finally be doing a film where I’ve gotten a complete script in advance. To have a script memorized before I start work is going to be an incredible luxury. I can actually do my job the way I’m supposed to!"
But that doesn’t mean it’s gotten any easier to keep everything under wraps. She’s certainly had her own Tom Holland moments.
"Oh, I totally did. I got so lucky because it somehow magically got buried and no one ever heard about it. I was sweating bricks for about a week. Then I started breathing easier when I realized that nobody was going to see it. It’s hard not to slip up! It’s no coincidence that it’s always Tom Holland and Mark Ruffalo because those two are such genuine, sweet, open, vulnerable human beings. Their nature is not cagey or to hide, lie, and defend. They’re just lovers whose arms are wide open to the world."
Lest you think she’d have no interest in the galaxy far, far away because of the SECRETS, think again.
"Several years ago, when I found out that J.J. Abrams was remaking, or rebooting, the Star Wars franchise, it was the only time in my career that I’ve ever put a call out," she admits. "I wanted to be Leia. If I got to be a woodland elf and Kate from Lost and Leia, that would cover it. And then I got to be the Wasp! That’s all the big franchises."
"I was so in love with Leia when I was a little girl. Those were my two fantasies – to be a woodland elf and to be Leia tied to Jabba the Hutt in her sexy bikini. But then they called me back and said, 'Well, there’s a little-known actress called Carrie Fisher who will be playing Princess Leia.' Well, FINE, I guess that’s OK."
So is there anything she can share about the Marvel universe, asks everyone in the country?
"They keep these things so under wraps that no one’s said anything to me about anything that will happen after [Avengers: Endgame]. But you know… anything can happen."