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When Evangeline Lilly commits to a project, it’s because she’s genuinely inspired. She picks her spots, and her filmography reflects that approach, unlike many of her peers who go from set to set, project to project, all year long. In Aharon Keshales’ South of Heaven, the Canadian actor returns to the screen as the terminally ill Annie Ray, a Texas woman who’s just been reunited with her childhood love, Jimmy Ray (Jason Sudeikis), after his 12-year prison sentence. For Lilly, Annie not only hit close to home, but she was also a welcomed departure from her usual work.
“She was a character that I not only wanted to play, but I also felt she was the closest I was ever going to get to playing somebody like me on screen,” Lilly tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And that was really exciting because it felt like I was going to be able to let the shackles of being the tough, formidable, kick-ass chick go and be more like myself. I would get to smile and laugh and be lighthearted and gentle. And who doesn’t want to work with Ted Lasso?”
Lilly, who’s currently shooting Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania in the U.K., admits that she doesn’t quite have a firm grasp on who Hope van Dyne/The Wasp is yet despite playing her since 2014. However, Peyton Reed’s Quantumania seems to have provided a breakthrough for her.
“Hope is an odd enigma for me. But the truth is that I find it harder to know and understand Hope than any other character I’ve ever played before,” Lilly admits. “And I will say that after I read the script of [Quantumania], I did have a kind of eureka moment; I said to Peyton [Reed], ‘Oh my God, I think I finally get her.’ So I’m hoping that when we come to wrap and when I see the movie, I’m going to know the difference.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Lilly also looks back at South of Heaven‘s most intimate and challenging scene. Then she reflects on the 10-year anniversary of Real Steel and its potential sequel, as well as the 17th anniversary of Lost‘s pilot.
So you strike me as someone who only commits to a project when she’s genuinely inspired. You don’t go from set to set all year long or work just to work.
So when you first read this script, what was the first detail to grab you en route to committing?
The first detail that grabbed me en route to committing was Annie. She was a character that I not only wanted to play, but I also felt she was the closest I was ever going to get to playing somebody like me on screen. And that was really exciting because it felt like I was going to be able to let the shackles of being the tough, formidable, kick-ass chick go and be more like myself. I would get to smile and laugh and be lighthearted and gentle. (Laughs.) So that was really appealing to me, but it wasn’t the clincher because the script was much more violent than the kind of movies that I ordinarily am drawn to as an audience member. I know I’m in a lot of violent movies, so it sounds really crazy, but if the violence is over the top or too much, it’s something that can really turn me off. But then I went and watched Big Bad Wolves, which was Aharon Keshales’ previous film, and the violence was so masterfully and sensitively and graciously handled. The violent topic he was dealing with — which in that film was homicidal pedophilia — is an impossible topic to handle with grace and sensitivity, but he managed it somehow. And somehow, he managed to approach that film with beauty and with wit and with care. So I came away from it feeling like I had a really moving experience, and as an audience member, I just had a blast seeing a film that was like no other film I’d ever seen before. So he was really the lynchpin for me and I wanted to work with him. I had my concerns, worries and uncertainties about the level of violence in South of Heaven, but he did not let me down in the way he handled it. Even though I’m not a fan of violent films, I really feel like the film is the kind of film that I would go watch and I would love, and I would still be impressed by what he’d done in this film. And who doesn’t want to work with Ted Lasso? (Laughs.) Of course, Jason wasn’t Ted Lasso when we made this film together, but he was Jason Sudeikis, who couldn’t be more charming and lovable if he tried. So it was a no-brainer in those three respects.
You and Jason have recognizable chemistry together. Was there any time to get to know each other first, or is that perceived chemistry a result of great acting?
In this case, it was the first time that I actually had a lot of time to get to know him first, and I was really grateful. We met two years before the project ended up starting its first day of production. We went for dinner together, we hit it off, and he was so easy to get along with. He was so respectful, smart, confident and easy to be around, and he didn’t seem to have the typical horrible blend of ego and insecurity that so many leading men in Hollywood have. He just seemed genuinely confident and comfortable in his own skin. So we hung out again. We played ping pong together, we had drinks together and we had a great time together. We shared music over text for months. We really had a good time getting to know each other. I think we both knew that what we were doing was laying the groundwork for these two characters so that when we showed up on the first day on set, there would be no acting required. We would really care about each other and like each other, and hopefully, we would have a great time working together.
Did that familiarity help you during the authentic bedroom scene where they were both anxious about the fact that they hadn’t been with each other in 12 years?
That bedroom scene was really difficult, actually. So it was interesting because the script was actually much more comedic; it was a lighter script. And when it was time for production, Jason came to the table with an interpretation of Jimmy Ray that was really serious and really dramatic, which was a turn that none of us expected. I think we all expected comedic, lighthearted Jason Sudeikis to show up and play Jimmy Ray. And so the fact that he was playing the character from such a different angle meant that Aharon Keshales, the director, who is a really dedicated collaborator, pivoted immediately once he saw what Jason was delivering. He said, “Okay, well, we’re going to take the film in a different direction.” And at that point, I had already pitched to Aharon that I wanted to change that scene a little bit because that scene originally was Jimmy being kind of bolshie, a little bit horny and being like, “Come on, honey, let’s sleep together.” And Annie was being a bit shy and demure because she was a bit uncomfortable that she hadn’t been naked with Jimmy in 12 years. So I pitched to Aharon that I thought it might be a lot more interesting to see these characters both deal with re-entry from a space of insecurity, fear and discomfort. I think that there’s a version of a man coming out of prison who actually feels really uncertain about what it means to touch his woman again in an intimate way. And so with the combination of Jason playing things really dramatically and with me asking for this much more serious and weighted scene, the room became really thick. The air was stiff. It was really stuffy in there in a beautiful way. It created a tension that we didn’t have making any of the other scenes. The rest of the scenes pretty much flowed and we were in beautiful sync with one another. But that night, we both had to dig deep because it felt a little bit method. It just felt very uncomfortable.
As far as your characters are concerned, did Jason enjoy losing to you at bowling?
(Laughs.) He was so mad! When I was younger, I used to be on a bowling team. I had my own bowling ball, I had a bowling bag and I had very good form. I was a decent bowler. I could bowl a 325 to a 350 very consistently. [Writer’s Note: Lilly is from Canada, which has bowling variants with higher scoring.] But I couldn’t hit a single pin in that scene, not one! The ball went in the gutter every single time I threw the ball. The ball was way too heavy, and I was so stressed out with the cameras rolling and having the scene ahead of us. So I couldn’t hit anything. And then Jason would walk up and he would hit a strike or a spare every time. (Laughs.) So he just completely put me to shame. So it was a little bit embarrassing, and compared to the scene, it was the exact opposite in real life. He kicked my butt.
Annie is this beacon of light in the film as she gets some awfully bad men to not be awful for five minutes. Did you bleach your hair and wear white or beige costumes in order to represent her as this angelic source of light in the story?
Absolutely. So I asked Aharon, “In creating this character, do you want to see that she’s sick? Do you want her cancer to be present with you in every moment of every scene?” And he said, “No.” He said, “This is a movie about a woman who is dying and is surrounded by men who are fully living. And yet, those men will all represent death and she will represent life.” So I wanted to show that visually and so did he. The visual design of Annie was that she would like the sunshine and she would be the bringer of life.
Annie and Jimmy believe that they’re meant to be together, but the universe keeps pulling them apart and placing obstacles in their path. So could a case be made that all of these hurdles are indications that they’re not actually soulmates?
(Laughs.) I’m going to say no. I’m going to vote for them being soulmates. What I see as getting in the way is that Jimmy is trying desperately to put the past behind them and make up for the past. while Annie has fully integrated the past, accepted the past and just wants to live in the present moment. All she really wants is to be present with Jimmy, but Jimmy can’t meet her there. He can’t be there with her because he is completely absorbed in his own guilt and his own disappointment for the ways that he’s let Annie down. That’s really the biggest obstacle in this movie, so much more than any of the gangsters or bad guys. Those gangsters and bad guys ultimately don’t faze Annie, but they really faze Jimmy. And there’s a reason for that. Annie is fully accepting that she’s going to die, and she just wants to have every breath of life count between now and then. But Jimmy is striving for something that’s in the future — that he’s going to make happen eventually — instead of being there with his dear Annie.
Evangeline Lilly in Lost.
The Lost pilot just had its 17th anniversary. While the common question is what would you tell your 2004 self, I’m more curious about the inverse. What advice would the 2004 version of you be able to tell you or remind you of now?
The 2004 me would remind me that I am good, as in I’m a good person. When I was 24, I was still in the beginning of my life. I was wondering what shape my life would take, what it would look like and what I would do in the world. I was wondering if it would be amazing, if it would be beautiful, if it would help people and if it would make the world a better place. I know that’s all I wanted to do; I wanted to make the world a better place. And because that’s what I wanted to do, I felt like I was a good person. And 20 years later, I’ve lived this crazy, beautiful, amazing life. I have a partner who I am madly in love with. I have two beautiful children, and I have a career I can be very proud of. But I can’t help but constantly be plagued with the question of, “Have I made the world a better place? Am I making the world a better place? Am I good? Am I doing all of the right things?” Because I’m no longer looking at a blank slate of a future going, “What will I do? It’ll be wonderful.” I’m looking at 20 years of adulthood behind me going, “Was it good enough? Did I do enough? Did I help enough people? Was I kind to enough people? Did I make the right choices?” So hopefully, she could take me by the hand and just remind me that I’m the same person now that I was then, and that my heart is in the right place, and that I’m doing my best and that makes me a good person.
You played Kate Austen for six consecutive years, and you started playing Hope van Dyne seven years ago. Even though you spent more time on set as Kate, do you feel like you know Hope just as well at this point?
No. (Laughs.) Hope is an odd enigma for me. I wish I could say otherwise because I want to honor her; I want to honor every character I ever play. But the truth is that I find it harder to know and understand Hope than any other character I’ve ever played before.
Do you still have a ways to go on Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania?
We’re just a little over halfway through. And I will say that after I read the script of the film, I did have a kind of eureka moment; I said to Peyton [Reed], “Oh my God, I think I finally get her.” (Laughs.) Three or four films in, I thought, “I think I get it now.” So I’m hoping that when we come to wrap and when I see the movie, I’m going to know the difference. But I don’t think anyone else will. I think I’m a good bluffer. That’s what I do for a living. But I know the difference and I’m hopeful that in this one, I’ll feel like I can watch it and go, “Yeah, you had a better handle on her in this one than you ever have before.” That’s my goal, anyway. That’s my hope.
Did you know that Shawn Levy is looking at a Real Steel sequel after its impressive Netflix performance last year?
I did! Actually, we just spoke recently. Today, October 7th, is the ten year anniversary of Real Steel. So Entertainment Weekly is actually running a tribute to it today, and they interviewed Shawn, Hugh [Jackman], Anthony Mackie and Dakota Goyo. So in between interviews today, I was trying to watch the half-hour special that they did. Real Steel is one of my favorite films I’ve ever been a part of. I thought there ought to have been a sequel because the film was so good and it was so beloved. But I know that the reason there wasn’t was because the film was marketed as this testosterone-driven, rah-rah, beat-him-up kind of macho movie for boys between the ages of 18 and 35. But in actuality, it was a beautiful, heartfelt father-son redemption story for the family to watch together. And families didn’t find the film until after it had gone to DVD at that point in time, and then streaming. So it wasn’t marketed to them, but had it been marketed to families, it would have most certainly had a sequel. When I go and do a comic con, so many people in my lineup will say that Real Steel is their favorite. It’s become a real treasure. People love the film and I’m so happy because it is, like I said, one of my favorite films that I’ve ever done. Because it’s been so long, I don’t know now if I think a sequel would be a beautiful thing or if it would kind of tarnish the purity of what we made back then. It’s been ten years, but I really trust Shawn. I think he’s an amazing director, and he’s one of my favorite directors I’ve ever worked with. So if Shawn is doing something, I’m sure it’s going to be incredible.
Damon Lindelof named one of his The Leftovers characters after you [Jasmin Savoy Brown’s Evangeline “Evie” Murphy], and the character was often called Evie. Out of curiosity, do you also go by Evie in your personal life?
Yeah, I do. (Laughs.) I also have a very soft spot for Damon.
What does a good day on set mean to you? What constitutes a good day at work?
What that constitutes is when I showed up to do the scene, everything that I had to say and everything that I had to feel felt completely alive. And usually, that’s very dependent on my co-star, first, and my director, second. It depends on my co-star and if they’re present with me and if I’m present with them, and the environment that my director is creating for us to feel safe to do that. And ultimately, that’s it for me. And then there’s the rest of shooting and all of those shenanigans that surround that moment, which is most of the day, really. I mean, the amount of time you spend acting is much smaller than the amount of time you spend getting ready to act. All of that for me is a beautiful hodgepodge and myriad of human experiences, human flaws, human beauty and human frailty. And I love all of that. I love the mess of humanity. But when the cameras roll, I’m a hyper perfectionist. If anything goes sideways while the cameras are rolling or I don’t feel it — even if the director loved it, but I don’t feel it — I’m plagued. Then it’s very hard for me to sleep and it’s very hard for me to have any job satisfaction. So for me, a good day at work is just entirely about whether or not I felt completely alive in the scene. And when that happens and when I feel good about what I’ve done, it’s an amazing feeling. So that’s it for me.
South of Heaven is now available in theaters, on digital and VOD.
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