|Interview conducted by Sharon Knolle|
Since leaving Lost behind, Evangeline Lilly hasn’t given up acting as she once threatened to do, but making films like The Hobbit and Real Steel has allowed her to follow her other pursuits, including writing. The actress’s first book, the cautionary children’s tale The Squickerwonkers hits bookstores on November 18. In this dark fairy tale, a little girl named Selma encounters the odd sideshow creatures of the title at a fair.
It’s a project Lilly first dreamed up as a teenager, but it only became a reality thanks to the creative minds she met while making The Hobbit, especially Johnny Fraser-Allen, a senior sculptor and conceptual designer at Weta Workshop, who jumped at the chance to illustrate her book.
Before Lilly’s Comic-Con 2014 appearance, I was able to talk with her about The Squickerwonkers, what to expect from the final Hobbit film and which of her Lost costars she’s still closest to.
That’s right. It wasn’t what you see in the book today, but it was the original Squickerwonkers poem.
Why did it take 20 years to write?
[Laughs] My mother’s been asking the same question for 20 years. I think, in hindsight, that the book really needed time to incubate before I was ready to take it out to the world. I wrote a story that came from my heart, but I actually didn’t know, at the time, what I was writing or what I was trying to say. It was just a fun and quirky poem. For me, it’s really important that any story – whether it be on the screen or on the page – has a message. That’s the whole point of art, that’s the whole point of telling stories. I think it took 20 years for me to realize what I was trying to say in the story and know how to say it.
This reminded me a little bit of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with its warning of bad behavior for kids. Was that something you had in mind?
I loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a kid. I also see some parallels, in hindsight, to Pinocchio too, sort of a cautionary tale about behavior.
So yes, it is a cautionary tale. The thing I hope that defines this book from the old-fashioned cautionary tale to what I hope will be the new-fashioned cautionary tale, is that instead of saying, “there are good people and bad people, so be a good one,” what I’m trying to say is that in all of us is a good person and a bad person and we have to make choices about what our actions will be.
Our actions ultimately define us, not our nature. We start out the book and Selma’s a clever, passionate girl. We don’t start out saying “this horrible, bratty, spoiled little girl.” She’s a good girl, but she makes some bad choices and she reacts really badly when something happens to her that she doesn’t like. It’s a lesson about choosing to make good choices and good actions as opposed to being a good person.
The illustrator, Johnny Fraser Allen, works with Weta Workshop, so I assume you met on The Hobbit set. What made you choose him? Had you been looking for an illustrator?
I hadn’t actually been looking for an illustrator. I hadn’t anticipated publishing this book. I was working on The Hobbit and I was so incredibly inspired by all of the creativity around me and people living their dreams. I decided that it was high time I started living my dream, which was to be a writer.
I went to Weta Workshop and I said to the head of the company, Richard Taylor, “I write stories. And I’m looking for an illustrator. I wonder if anyone in your company would be interested.” There are incredible artists working at Weta Workshop. And Johnny was the first person to put his hand in the air and say, “Me, me, me, pick me!”
Within a day, I had a whole packet of material from Johnny. He was so enthusiastic. We actually started working on a different book first. Johnny had read a bunch of my stories and the one that led me to really pick him was The Squickerwonkers. So while we were working on another book, he put forward a concept watercolor painting for The Squickerwonkers, saying, “I really, really love it and this is what I would do if you want to publish it with me.” It was magical. It was exactly what The Squickerwonkers needed to be. It was all the things that weren’t on the page, that I wanted to be in the spirit of the story.
It completed my story for me. Immediately we shut down production on the other book and started on this one and haven’t looked back.
Do you think the book would have happened if you hadn’t made “The Hobbit?”
No. Who knows? Life is a mystery and essentially what wants to happen. I feel like there is a greater agenda going on than my own. So maybe it would have happened in another way, but I can’t imagine what that way would be. I’m just not that creative, I’m not that brilliant. It seems perfect.
Peter Jackson wrote the foreword, so he obviously liked it a lot.
Yeah, when I was working on creating it, I was living above Phillipa Boyens’s garage. Phillipa and Fran [Walsh] dedicated a lot of time on helping me working on my rewrites and my edit. I would put together a mockup and bring it to Peter and they were all so incredibly encouraging and positive and excited. They really loved it. I think it appealed to Peter’s dark sensibility. His whole family is really into this kind of stuff, so it was incredibly encouraging to have Academy Award-winning writers working with me on my first book.
Do you picture this being a film at some point?
I do! It’s a natural fit for a television series, since the books will be very serialized. And it’s so cinematic and visual. Johnny’s illustrations blow me away. I think he’s such an incredible force. I really believe this book will launch a very big career for Johnny Fraser. Richard Taylor at Weta has already said he’s first in line to do the stop-animation film. It’s an exciting prospect. But first, the book has to be successful.
You envision this as a whole series.
That’s right. The Squickerwonkers is 18 books. It’ll be up to the general public whether or not I’ll get to write all 18.
Have you already written the second book?
Yeah, the next one I wrote about a year ago when I was working on the initial illustrations with Johnny. It probably needs some editing and I will start working on that once we get the first book out. The whole series is outlined. It’s not a random, arbitrary number that I pulled out of the air. I know what each story will be and what my intention is with the whole series and where I’m trying to go.
Speaking of The Hobbit, what can we expect in the final film?
You can expect a lot of action, as the title The Battle of the Five Armies suggests, it’s the crescendo of the story. The original book was just one book, not three of course, but it ends on the battlefield. So the last third of the book itself is a lot of tension and the stakes are very high. The beginning of the story is a meandering, whimsical journey with hobbits and dwarves. By the end, it starts to take a more serious turn as the greater concepts of good and evil in the world takes the forefront. I think for the fans of Lord of the Rings, I think the third film will be their favorite out of The Hobbit films because it has a darker, more adult, heavier tone.
There was some outcry before people saw the second film, because you’re playing an original character that wasn’t in the book. But I think most fans ended up embracing Tauriel once they saw the film.
When I started to talk to Fran and Peter about the film – I’m a massive Tolkien fan — one of my concerns was, “You can’t screw with Tolkien.” You can’t create something that wasn’t even there. And they said, “Hang on, hang on, hear us out.” And they pitched their reasons for putting her in the film and I got on board. And also, at the end of the day, it’s Peter Jackson! He’s earned the creative license, he’s earned the right [to add to Tolkien’s work] because he’s treated the whole thing with reverence and he’s done such justice to the books. When you let something go and then you see a positive outcome, it’s such a delightful experience.
I had such an incredible time watching the world fall in love with Tauriel, even diehard fans of The Lord of the Rings trilogy telling me that I was their favorite part of the movie. It was so heartwarming and it was so encouraging. If you do something with integrity and try not to worry too much about what people think, usually it turns out okay.
After Lost, you swore you were through with acting, but now you have one of the busiest careers of anyone from the show.
Yeah. When I was working on Lost, I was the quintessential “reluctant actress.” I was so overwhelmed by the process of creating that international phenomenon … I didn’t have room in my heart or my mind or my life for anything else. I was quite turned off by the whole acting job.
And then I worked on Real Steel with Hugh Jackman and had a fantastic time. It was such a relaxed environment, and it was so much fun. I chalked it up to, “That was just a one-time experience. It’ll probably never be duplicated.”
And then Peter asked me to be in The Hobbit and I absolutely could not say no because that was my favorite book as a young adult. I was obsessed with the woodland elves. And that also was a wonderful experience. I had a fantastic time working on it. And so my eyes were opened that acting can be enjoyable. It doesn’t have to be all stress and strain and pressure and struggle. I’m having the best time of my life creating books and doing the odd film and growing my family and I could not be more happy with where my life and my career is at right now.
I know you’re happy that Lost has ended, but do you still keep in touch with any of your costars?
No, not really, actually. I don’t. The only ones I keep in touch with are Elizabeth Mitchell and Jeremy Davies. There were some very, very deep and profound friendships developed with those people. I also see sometimes see Steven Williams, one of the producing directors. I don’t hear from or see anyone else. But if we ran into each other, it would be great and we would catch up and it would be lovely.
Oh, and I sometimes see Jorge [Garcia]. We keep in touch here and there. He’s such a beloved fan favorite, that’s because he’s such a good person.
I was at the Lost 10 year anniversary panel at the Paley Fest and he got the most applause.
Yay! Of course he did! He gave all of himself to the fans in that show. I’m glad the fans are good to him too.
It sounds like you would never want to do a TV series again.
[Laughs] I don’t think so! My manager is constantly telling me, “You’ve really got to get rid of that bias you have against TV. You’ll have a great time, you can do a miniseries or something…” And I still am gun shy. I just feel like, “Oh my god, I can’t go there again.”
Especially not when I’m building my writing career, which is my priority right now. Television just takes so much of your time and energy, whereas a film just takes a few months and then you have the rest of the year to work on other things. I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve really enjoyed doing films, it gives me freedom to pursue the other things in life I’m passionate about.
Do you actually watch any TV?
Not really. I don’t have time. I’m so busy. If I do have time, I’ll watch on Hulu. The three things that me and my partner will catch up on are Modern Family, Justified – I love Timothy Olyphant – and The Voice. So I have one drama, one comedy, and one reality show. If I have time, those are the ones I catch up on.