Evangeline Lilly has been in three of the most high profile franchises of the last decade, from Lost to The Hobbit and, now, Marvel’s upcoming Ant-Man, but she’s also adding novelist to her resume, with a new series of illustrated children’s books, The Squickerwonkers.
We spoke to her about her preference for writing over acting, how close she came to leaving Ant-Man along with Edgar Wright, and why Marvel’s style of forward-planning might be the best thing for the industry.
Can you talk a little about how the book came about?
When I was 14 years old I was crazy about Dr Seuss. I loved the words he made up, and I just thought ‘well, if he can make up words then I can make up words.’ So I was just sitting in my room, as you do when you’re 14, by yourself doing nothing, and started making up words. One of the words I made up was Squickerwonkers.
So I made up this list of words and the one that really stuck out, stuck on my tongue, that felt delicious in my mouth, was this word – the Squickerwonkers. It was originally just Squickerwonker and I thought I needed to make up a poem to accompany the word, and I made this poem up about this motley crew of outcasts that pop a little girl’s balloon and ultimately inherit her intended fortune – which was the main plot of the poem, and kind of remains the plot of the poem but isn’t the main plot.
The main plot, now that the book is a series of 18 books, is that we’re introduced to this character named Selma and we discover how she comes upon this group of Squickerwonker puppets, and enters the Squicker-Show, which is essentially a test of character, and does not pass. So it’s a cautionary tale for kids, teaching them to recognise the vices within them and learn how they can make good choices to hopefully not come to such terrible ends as the Squickerwonkers.
Is there going to be a different vice for each book?
Each book will explore a different Squickerwonker character, and they each have their own vices, so there’s Andy the Arrogant and Lorna the Lazy and Greer the Greedy. Each one will have two books – one book will be in the Demise Of The Squickerwonkers series and one book will be in the Origins Of The Squickerwonkers series. Both are nine books each, so the entire series will be 18 books.
It’s a fun way for kids to identify with the vices and say, ‘oh, who do you think you are?’ and ‘I’m Papa the Proud’ or, you know, ‘my mum’s definitely Mama the Mean’ – to have fun with that but then also to recognise that the Squickerwonkers look weird and they behave badly, but they’re still quite lovable and kind of fun.
It’s a way for children to bravely face their own shortcomings without feeling shamed, learning how to make good choices.
Why publish it now?
Essentially, what happened was that I was aiming towards a career in diplomacy of some sort, or humanitarian work, and then I accidentally stumbled onto an acting gig that propelled me into the international spotlight. I didn’t really like acting very much – it was a great day job, it paid the bills very, very comfortably and I’m super grateful for it and would never say otherwise – but it wasn’t my passion and it wasn’t what I love to do.
And when you’re given such an incredible gift, it’s very dangerous to look a gift horse in the mouth, and that’s what I was doing, so I thought, ‘well, if I’m saying that I don’t especially like this, then I better figure out really quickly what I do like, and I better start pursuing that.’
And I realised that my first passion has always been writing. I have written all my life. I have never not written. I was published in my school newsletter when I was eight years old and I wrote The Squickerwonkers when I was 14 – I love writing. So I decided about three years into Lost that when I finished with the show, my goal would be to make the shift and start focusing on the writing career. And that’s what I’ve done, I’ve been working full time as a writer for three years.
You describe yourself as a reluctant actress, but you’ve been in three of the biggest franchises of all time…
It’s totally inexplicable! It doesn’t make any sense. By rights I should be an out of work actress because I just don’t want it as badly as some people want it. Sometimes I feel like it’s unfair – they should get it, they deserve it because they want it so much more than I do.
I can’t explain it, all I can say is that the people that are creating those franchises, for some reason, decided that I’m the person to play the role that they’re creating and, I kind of believe in higher powers that are at work in everything in our lives. We can’t always explain, we don’t always understand, but they do – or he does or she does or it does – however you want to describe it. I trust that, I have a lot of faith that life works itself out for the best of everybody.
I think one of the reasons you’ve been cast in these films, though I hate this phrase, is that you’ve got a reputation for the ‘strong female character’ roles – is that something you’re comfortable with?
Thank you – I do too by the way!
Just to address the ‘strong female character’ comment, which I think is very astute, very wise and I’m not surprised it’s a female saying it. What I think is interesting is that we never use the term ‘strong male character’. We only use the term ‘strong female character’ to somehow imply that almost every woman is not strong, and that this woman is unique because she’s strong, and I really disagree with that.
But, that said, I understand exactly what you’re saying, and I do seek out the roles that I think 1) would be fun to play, and 2) accurately represent all the dynamics of a woman, not just one or two.
Usually that means it’s representing her vulnerability, her emotions, her compassion, her beauty, her fears, her strength, her power, her talents, her intelligence – all of those things. And all of us have them, and some of us have them in spades and some of us have them in a jack of all trades-style, but we all have these qualities, and I always look for all of those qualities in the characters I play.
So I will turn down a role if I think that the character is too one dimensional or she’s boring, and I’ve been lucky enough to have gotten a reputation for playing characters who have all of those dimensions – not just vulnerability and weakness, or vulnerability and emotion.
You recently spoke about having to rethink Ant-Man after Edgar Wright left – how close were you to actually leaving and what made you stay?
I was very close to leaving. I was holding out on signing my contract until I got to see the script that was the crux of the divide between Edgar Wright and Marvel. And I wanted to see if the script had in some way improved the project or kept the integrity of the project intact, in my opinion, or if something had been desperately lost and I would be leaving with Edgar.
In the end what I realised was that Edgar had written a script that I wanted to be in, he’d written a script that everybody would have loved to see – and I still feel that way, I would love to have seen Edgar Wright’s interpretation of Ant-Man – but he hadn’t written a script that would necessarily seamlessly fit into the Marvel universe that had already been established, and the new script that I read [did] fit.
All of a sudden I realised that this divide happened over, truly and purely, visionary differences, not because Marvel were being bullies or because they wanted a puppet for a director, but because they just had different visions of the story. And I liked their vision and I liked Edgar’s vision and I would really like to see both versions, but I’m just grateful that I get to be in at least one of them.
How different are the two?
I think what Edgar was doing was creating a comic book movie that would feel like you were watching a comic book coming to life, and Marvel make modern movies that are adaptations of a comic book story. They’re much more grounded in reality and grounded in simplicity and relatability, whereas comic books are fantastical. They’re very fantasy-driven and grounded in fantasy, rooted in fantasy, so that would be the greatest distinguishing factor between the films.
There’s been a lot of discussion around the Marvel slate, with six years worth of movies planned out, do you think that’s a positive or constructive thing?
What I think is very positive about it is that there’s a tendency nowadays for projects to come together in a panic, and casting to be done very last minute, writing to be done continuously while you shoot, and all because studios are running scared – they’re not sure what will sell. That stifles creativity – fear stifles creativity.
Marvel are so confident that what they’re doing is working, and that confidence creates an environment where everybody is free to play. I think that’s what happens when you line up all those projects and you start planning ahead, more thought and creativity goes into them and you have a chance to really massage them and make them perfect before they go out to the world. Instead of, in a blind panic, realising some trend has shifted and ‘we need this next zombie movie so let’s put it together and get it out to the audiences’ and it’s not actually fostered in any creativity. So I would actually say the opposite.
What do you have coming up next?
I’m in the middle of working on the second Squickerwonker book, the first of the Demise series, and I’m also working with Titan on trying to figure out a schedule for a new publishing deal for a young adult/adult graphic novel series that will be based on a story that I plan on adapting into a novel – it was originally written as a screenplay. But, you know, all of that is dependent on whether or not Marvel give me a couple of days off!