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Evangeline Lilly: 'If you lined up all the characters I've played, it would be hard to identify me'

After years playing "super severe, kick ass" women, Evangeline Lilly finally found a role she could relate to that has transformed the way she approaches acting

Evangeline Lilly Photo: George Pimentel/Getty Images

Evangeline Lilly is speaking to The Big Issue from Hawaii. She’s still living island life almost two decades after Lost shot her to global fame. But castaway Kate Austen or her other famous roles, The Hobbit’s elf Tauriel and Avenger Hope Pym aka The Wasp, are far from her own character.

“Generally, the characters that I play are super severe, kick ass, capable women. If you lined up all the characters I’ve played, it would be hard to identify me. I’ve always liked to keep myself in the background but I wanted the opportunity to smile and laugh and be light and sweet.”

Those characteristics drew her to Annie in new film South of Heaven. Annie’s childhood sweetheart Jimmy, played by Ted Lasso’s Jason Sudeikis, gets parole after serving 12 years because Annie has terminal cancer. He vows to make the most of their time left together.

The film was made in March 2019, as the old pre-pandemic life we used to live was locked down.

“Suddenly, we’ve gone from the world is your oyster, dream it and you can achieve it, to there being very little you can actually plan for,” Lilly says. “What I learned from Annie probably helped, to remember to seize and embrace and take advantage of the freedoms I still have. And not to give them away before they’re taken.

“I look around and I see a lot of people who psychologically are so beat down by the last few years, that it’s almost like they can’t recognise the freedoms they still do have and use them and enjoy them.

“One of Annie’s greatest acts of rebellion against the sadness of death, is to rejoice in what’s left and put all of her energy into that.”

But those expecting South of Heaven to be a bittersweet romance would be wrong. “No, it’s gonna grab you by the collar and throw you down on the asphalt when you start watching,” Lilly laughs.

Within a day, Jimmy is drawn back into his life of crime that risks not only his future but the limited time Annie has left. Against the grim twists and grisly violence, Annie is a beacon of understanding and forgiveness.

Evangeline Lilly and Jason Sudeikis in South of Heaven as troubled couple Annie and Jimmy

“I actually think that’s one of the reasons I felt like, ‘Oh, this is me!’” Lilly explains. “I’ll often read scripts and see people unable to forgive or being very vindictive. They get entrenched in that, and I just can’t relate. I think they’re being childish and petty. I start judging, which is death to a character. I mean, as an actor, you have to embrace who they are even in their faults and flaws.

“So it was so refreshing for me to see a character who was able to be like, ‘Yeah, I’m furious with you Jimmy Ray. But where’s that gonna take me?’ There is a really important balance between allowing yourself to be walked all over and drinking poison hoping it will kill someone else.

“Forgiving is a really beautiful thing you can do, but before that happens, really acknowledge how you’re feeling. And make sure the other person understands how they’ve hurt you. From that, forgiveness can come in a really healthy way.

“If you skip that step – which I used to do, I would just skip that step and be like, it’s cool, I forgive you – then you end up harbouring emotions that never get dealt with. And you’re going to pay the price later.”

Lilly belies that playing Annie reinforced beliefs she already had and taught her lessons she wishes she’d learned long ago. The film came along at a crucial point in her life and career.

“Before I played Annie I had gone through about two years of very intense health issues myself,” she says. “By fluke of chance, because it kept getting pushed back, I got to play her on spring side of the dark night. It was a moment in my life where I was challenged to learn how to step out and into the world in a new way, having lost some of my strength and confidence.

“Acting is like being the only naked person in a room. The crew, they all get to do their jobs in a way that they can keep their guard up – they have to in order to do their jobs well – then we come out and show the insides of ourselves. That is a very scary and vulnerable place to be.

“What I watched happen during filming – I think for the first time ever – I was able to fully and completely let my guard down on camera. That’s what every actor is aspiring to do but very few of us accomplish it all the time. If ever.

“I noticed that acting for the first time ever was, dare I say, easy and fluid and delightful. There was sort of none of the angst and pain and struggle that usually goes along with bringing a character to life.”

Lilly says that she’s always acted as a mediator onset, making sure everybody else is happy.

“As a result, I was often compromising what I needed,” she says.

“What I’ve learned is that if I put my needs as a priority and I fight for them, everybody ends up being much better served because I will do my job to the best of my ability, which means everyone else could do their job to the best of their ability too.

Her description of acting seems a million miles away from how many of her co-stars must feel. Is it difficult to work with people who are loving the spotlight while you feel uncomfortable?

“Well, it’s very lonely. Very lonely. I have to say that that’s probably been the greatest struggle of my career, feeling like I’m the only person who feels this way. While everyone else is like, ‘Isn’t this amazing? Isn’t this the greatest?!’ When I’m going: ‘Oh, my God, it’s like torture. I don’t know how you can enjoy this, it’s so painful!’”

On South of Heaven, Lilly learned to push for what she needed to make the experience more comfortable. Easy to do on a small independent movie, but she’s continued to do that on big blockbusters as well.

“I just finished shooting Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania in England. And it was the same thing where I was learning how to really assert my needs. As a result, I had a much more positive experience on that job.

“It’s a big task to figure out how to do that when there is such a large machine in motion,” she continues. “You’re trying to say, well hang on, time out, I need this. That’s not easy. It’s one of the reasons I’ve never done it before. I mean, every day on this film is like $500,000, something enormous or crazy. Am I actually going to insert myself there?

“And I’ve learned that yeah, I am. That’s what I have to do. In the end, it’s worth it.”

South of Heaven is now available for digital download

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