Evangeline Lilly on The Hobbit and Elvish ears

Evangeline Lilly chats to us about her role as Elven warrior Tauriel in The Desolation Of Smaug...

If your associate Evangeline Lilly’s name with the character Kate from the hit TV show Lost, sitting on a beach and staring mournfully at the horizon, then rest assured that Lilly herself is a different personality altogether. Raucous and extremely funny, she had an otherwise subdued room full of tired writers from across Europe laughing within seconds of her appearance.

Despite some initial reservations, Lilly took up director Peter Jackson’s offer to play the Elven warrior Tauriel in The Desolation Of Smaug – a new character she throws herself into with breathless enthusiasm. And as Lilly herself explains, she was given quite a lot of creative input into Tauriel’s look and dialogue, which even extended to what size ears she should have.

Oh, and Lilly’s anecdotes about Peter Jackson’s creature comforts on set are utterly priceless. As she herself puts it, “He’s the happiest Hobbit in the world…”

Do you count how many orcs you killed in this movie?

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Aw, I thought you were gonna ask how many interviews I did today. [Laughs] I lost count at a hundred! I didn’t. Someone asked if I did the counting thing like Gimli and Legolas, but that would be such a rip-off. I couldn’t do that, but that was my favourite part of Return Of The King.

Isn’t it amazing that they had to invent a woman for this movie?

I know, right? Oh my God. It’s like, come on Tolkien. Get with the programme – it’s 2013!

What do you think of the Bechdel test?

Ah yes, I love it. You know I heard Geena Davis talking about it, she’s a great supporter of women in media. And it’s one of the greatest arguments for why this character should be created. There are so many reasons why, and some of them have nothing to do with feminism. But I think the greatest one has to do with the fact that this is nine hours of modern-day cinema, and little girls are gonna go watch this movie. [To female reporter] We’re gonna go watch this movie. And to not have a female character show up on the screen in nine hours of entertainment suggests that we are irrelevant.

And we know that women are not irrelevant. Tauriel proves that women are far from irrelevant. Tolkien himself seemed to recognise that, since he wrote The Hobbit in the 1930s when it was okay, in his defence, to write a female-less story. But then he went on in Lord Of The Rings to add women to his stories, and in his later works, he added significant amounts of female characters. He wrote them incredibly well and made them powerful and embellished them, sometimes, more than the male characters.

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Some of them were supposed to be embellishments of his earlier stories. It was a way of rounding out some of the stories he wrote when he wasn’t as intimate with Middle-earth as he was towards the end of his career. So I’m rambling on, but it’s all to say, Tolkien wrote Tauriel. 

You write books too, for young people and teenagers. Did you do that before you became a mother, or did having a child inspire you?

Hmm. Well it’s sort of a bit of both. The Squickerwonkers was the story I wrote when I was on The Hobbit. And I brought it to Comic-Con and sold out a thousand copies I had printed. I’m in negotiations with a publisher right now, hopefully for an April release. But I wrote that story originally when I was 14 years old. [Whispers] That was 20 years ago. Don’t tell!

My mom said at the time that I should publish it, but I was 14 – what do I know about publishing? But she re-addressed it, she said every five years, “When are you going to publish The Squickerwonkers”? That’s not how my mom talks at all [adopts unfeasibly high voice] “When are you gonna publish The Squickerwonkers?” [Laughs]

She really believed I should. And when I met Peter Jackson and all the WETA workshop folks, I saw that they were having a great time every day creating things, and I was insanely jealous. I wanted to created something of my own, so I hired a WETA Workshop illustrator, and we started working on this project together. Originally it was a different project, but the illustrator said, “I want to do The Squickerwonkers” so we did.

In the film, you’re so good with weapons. Are you really as good as all that, or was it all special effects?

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Well, let’s see. I’m good at looking good with weapons and stunts. But if you put a bull’s eye in front of me and asked me to hit it, I’d say the chances of me hitting it are about one in a million! Not to let you down, but it is my job to look good doing it. [Laughs]

In other interviews, you said you had to learn the Elvish language, and also the accent.

Yeah. The accent is a psychological thing that I swear is for the American audience. Because when the world hears people speaking with an American accent, you kind of give them this much respect. I’m only saying this because there are no Americans in the room. You can’t print that. [Laughs] I’m Canadian, so none of us here is American.

But when you hear someone talk in the Queen’s English, Old English, it has that sense of gravitas, and it takes you into an older time. Because the American accent is very modern, very new. That’s why you see this nearly – not quite but nearly – Shakespearean English being spoken in these films that are either set back in time or set in another fantasy place that’s supposed to be ancient. 

As you said, the character was created for you. How much personal input did you have in creating Tauriel?

When I came on, Peter [Jackson], Fran [Walsh] and Philippa [Boyens] had a pretty good idea of what they wanted to do with Tauriel, and they wanted her to be both lethal and vulnerable. I think that was something they thought I could bring to the table. So knowing that, I came on board ready to embellish it.

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I chose my ears, I chose the colour of my hair, I chose my costume. I was allowed to be part of the script meetings where I was a part of her lines and her actions. And I’ve never been so creatively rewarded as I was on this film, because they were so generous in allowing me in and allowing me to be a part of choosing who she would be.

So how was it to choose your own ears? [Laughs]

Oh, awesome. I’m a very decisive ear chooser. They gave me three ears – there was a small, medium and a large, and I immediately said, “I want the big ones!” And they said, “No honey, your face is tiny. Let’s put the middle ones on.” So we did, and they were kind of lame – [whispers] those were Legolas’ ears [Laughs] – and we put the middle ones on and they still weren’t good enough. Then I said, “Let’s do the big ones”, and everyone agreed they were fantastic. [Laughs]

We were told earlier today that you’re a big Tolkien fan, and that you hesitated in taking on the role because you were such a big fan. Could you explain a bit about that?

The best way of explaining that would be to go online and read all of the very angry forums that are saying, “No, Tauriel!” or have a problem with her. When you’re a fan of something, and there’s an adaptation being made of it… I was always nervous of Peter Jackson doing Lord Of The Rings in the first place, because I wasn’t sure whether he could do justice to the books that were very important to me. I wasn’t sure they could mirror my memories of those books – but they did.

In the end, there were enough reasons for me to stop worrying about it, and just say yes. What it ultimately came down to was, this is Peter Jackson at the helm, he made Lord Of The Rings, and I’m in love with that trilogy. I don’t think anyone could have better presented Tolkien on the screen, and so I trusted him. And it paid off – both as an actress and a fan. 

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How was it to work with him? What was the difference between Jackson and Kathryn Bigelow, another great, interesting female director.

My gosh, they couldn’t be more different. And what’s shocking is that she’s the woman and she’s more intimidating. Way more intimidating. First of all, she’s twice as tall as he is [laughs] and she is a strong woman. My God, she’s a strong woman. It’s no wonder she’s able to do these male dominated films and be at the helm without anyone questioning her authority.

Peter’s just a mush ball. He’s the happiest Hobbit in the world. He’s such a nice, funny, relaxed, silly, easy-going guy to work with. So really opposite experiences.

Was he bare foot while directing all the time?

He was bare foot! He had his mug of tea. [Conspiratorially] He brought his mug of tea with him from New Zealand. [Laughs] He’s got it here right now. And he brought his chair. He’s got this amazing, big… you know what a Lazy Boy is? Like, a big, cushy chair? He’s got one of those, in the tent, in front of the monitors.

When you go on location, he brings his big chair with him.  He’ll be in the middle of the forest, in the middle of nowhere with his chair and his mug of tea and his bare feet. Every time I went on set, he’d make me laugh. He’d put me in a better mood, and I’d act better because I’d be laughing.

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Talking about Tauriel and the new storylines, how do you think audiences would have reacted if you were to play, say, Bard?

[Laughs] Someone asked me, how much are you in the third film, and I said, about as much as I’m in the second. Because you can’t make Tauriel a pivotal character who takes screentime away from Bilbo or Thorin or Bard, who are actually in the book. So there is a limit. And Peter Jackson couldn’t have decided to make Bard female. I think that’s why he’s wise in choosing to invent a character, because he couldn’t mess with what was actually on the page, but he could embellish it.

Because on the page, Tolkien talks about Silven Elves, and we know that Silven Elves are both genders. But he doesn’t name one. Then he talks about the Elvenking, but he doesn’t name him. But nobody has a problem with Thranduil, which is interesting. He only named Thranduil in his later works, where he does create powerful female Elves. So it’s just an embellishment of those single-line moments.

In Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Radagast is mentioned once. He’s just mentioned in passing, and Peter’s embellished that into a full character. So I think he was wise to embellish and not change. I think when you see the film, you feel as though those characters are in place – they don’t take you out of the world – they only help bring you deeper into the world, because you get a better feeling for Middle-earth through those characters. 

Would you have played Bard or another male character?

It’s a difficult question to answer, because I can’t imagine Peter ever asking that of me. It would be too outside of the integrity that he has in keeping to Tolkien’s work. I think I’d want to say no, but I don’t think he’d even go there.

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But he didn’t have a problem changing things elsewhere.

I think we could go through other things – like the way the Elves are introduced. I was waiting for the flickering lights that would pull the Dwarves off their course, because that was my favourite part of The Hobbit book. Or the goblin tunnels, you know? Those things he took liberties with. But when you make an adaptation of a book, it’s not a verbatim retelling of what’s on the page. You see that in every single film that goes to the screen from the written word.

As a filmmaker, you have to understand the essence of the book and tell the story you want to see on the screen, and hopefully please yourself – because you can’t possibly please everyone.

And let boys be boys and girls be girls?

Hopefully! Although Legolas is a bit, uh, you know… [Laughs]

Evangeline Lilly, thank you very much. 

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The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is out now in the UK. Our review is here.

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