Evangeline Lilly Is Going Through It
Two decades into her career, and just before the release of Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, the actress talks to Esquire about her journey on the path of self-discovery.
ve always kept myself on the outside,” Evangeline Lilly says. “I’ve never lived in LA. I’ve always worked very little on purpose to sort of have a normal life outside of Hollywood.” The actress, forty-three, says this from her bedroom inside her home in Hawaii, on a recent January day that, at least via Zoom, appears to be as covetously bright and sunny as you’d expect a midwinter day in Hawaii to be. She moved there to film the TV show Lost around 2004, and when it wrapped six years later, she stayed. Her dyed-blonde hair is cut short, with brown roots showing beneath. Her face is the same face that many a Lost fan will remember: high cheekbones, arrestingly bright eyes, a smile like a canyon. She has a friendly, disarming warmth, one that pairs deftly with the strong, often well-armed characters she has played: first in her breakout role as Kate Austen on Lost, then as the bow-and-dagger-wielding woodland elf Tauriel in The Hobbit, and, for almost a decade now, as Marvel’s the Wasp (government name: Hope Van Dyne).
When we talk, Lilly is a couple weeks away from the release of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (out now), the third entry in the franchise, in which she and Ant-Man, played by Paul Rudd, head into the infinitesimally small (even for insects) quantum realm to face off against Kang the Conqueror, played by Jonathan Majors, and kick off the next phase of Marvel movies. It has been two decades since she started her acting career, and those twenty years have taught her, among other things, about her limits, what she can and can’t give of herself physically. “Recently, I just felt this prompting to be gentler and work out less and not push my body so hard,” she says, wearing overalls over a white tank.
The Quantumania tour was supposed to be three weeks—mercifully shorter than the two months Lilly spent on the road for 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp—but now she expects it to be closer to two weeks, which is why I’ve found her at home in Hawaii. She’d just made the decision not to appear at a press event in Australia that she’d been expected to attend with Rudd, Majors, and other costars. “It was a bit of a personal choice not to go,” she says.
A few times during our conversation, Lilly mentions the ways in which she’s learning to self-advocate, to tap into the wisdom of her body, to connect “to mystery.” She recites a prayer most mornings: I’m here and I’m listening, and I’m asking for guidance, and I pray that you would guide every step and every choice that I make today and every word that I speak today. “It has a really big impact on my days,” she says. “I feel myself going to do something and then getting a proverbial tap on the shoulder and being like, I feel like I shouldn’t do that; I should go over here instead.”
I ask if her decision not to go to Australia had to do with her intuition. “Yes, it did,” she says.
When I ask for more details, she politely demurs. “I’m so torn about whether or not to tell you. I want to talk about it. And, also, I don’t want to conflate the release of this movie with some bullshit attack on my person.”
You don’t have to read too far between the lines to sense some lingering discomfort about the fallout last year after she shared a post on Instagram from a Washington, D.C., rally against vaccine mandates. Lilly briefly became the subject of some Internet wrath. That experience deepened questions she has constantly asked herself about a career that more or less took her by surprise: She was a twenty-four-year-old international-relations student with virtually no acting experience when she booked Lost. She says she’s tried to retire three times since—all unsuccessful, because an intriguing project has always come along—and has had her agents “on stand-down” for the past two years. “I have not been reading scripts or taking meetings,” she says. She’s reckoning with the occupational hazards of acting, particularly as experienced by a woman who catapulted to fame when the industry was still a boys’ club, being sexualized and, at the same time, dampening certain qualities to present as the woman those boys wanted to see. She’s now in the most Hollywood of franchises while trying to live that normal life outside Hollywood, caught between what the job demands of her and what she wants for herself. She’s found her voice but also learned the cost of using it.
“I’ve spent most of my life trying to be a good girl,” she says. “That’s a very dangerous game to play in Hollywood, because there are a lot of agendas.”
“When I got asked to do this article, my answer was ‘Fuck no, I will not do Esquire,’” Lilly admits toward the end of our conversation. Her reluctance stemmed from a 2006 piece during the second season of Lost, an ABC series about a group of plane-crash survivors that became a mega hit as soon as it entered the airspace in 2004. It made Lilly one of television’s biggest breakout stars—but not entirely for the reasons she might’ve wanted. “When I hired my first publicist, the one thing I told them was ‘I do not want to be the new, young, hot piece of ass,’” she remembers. “That was my only request. Immediately, they put me straight into Esquire, half undressed.”
That spread, in which this magazine described her as “the sexiest inhabitant of the freakiest island of all time,” was indicative of the way in which Lilly crash-landed into our cultural consciousness. “All my life, I’d been like, No way, nothing scares me,” she says. “But I suddenly realized I was legitimately afraid of fame.” It wasn’t just the amount of coverage but also how she was covered that left her feeling particularly exposed. She was perched near the top of objectifying lists like the Maxim “Hot 100” (Lilly hit #2 in 2005) and FHM’s “100 Sexiest Women” (#8 in 2006, in which she was described as “pint-sized, powerful, and unspeakably hot”). “That always felt stolen,” she says of being on those lists. “It never felt given.”
Part of Kate’s perceived sex appeal, the reason the media and Lost fans focused so intently on it, was the fact that the character engaged in so many conventionally masculine behaviors: shooting guns, climbing trees, suturing bloody wounds with a sewing needle and a nip of vodka, and delivering babies, all in the middle of the jungle. She was someone a Maxim editor might’ve referred to as a guy’s girl. “Men were hyper-impressed by a chick that could act like a dude,” Lilly says. So when she landed the role of Kate, she decided she’d play her as a “kick-ass chick.” She says she thought at the time, “I’m going to wear low-slung jeans and kick-ass boots and a white sleeveless tee, and I’m going to climb a tree and punch guys in the face.” Looking back now, she realizes that decision was informed by cultural missives she’d absorbed and embodied at a young age. “As a little girl,” she says, “I was so passive and sweet. I was very shy, and I was quintessentially, stereotypically feminine. But very quickly I learned that’s not cool. I learned that will end up making you a victim. If you want to be the victor, here’s the path; you better adopt masculinity in a hurry. I did, and it worked. That’s gross, right?”
Lilly says that it’s only been in recent years that she recognized how much she had internalized her own sexualization, and discovered how to use it as a type of agency in a world where those without penises were often denied it. “I had spent a lifetime learning how to please men in a way that was like I got to be in the room with them,” she says. “I was allowed a key to the kingdom. I got a seat at the table because I could hang, because I was tough, because I was athletic, because I could be crude, because I could take a joke, because I could flirt, but in a way that was mutual, and they didn’t have any power over me. Men liked that sort of tough-chick thing. I had built this whole persona that was all about getting a seat at the table, and it worked. It fucking worked!” Then, when the sexual-assault allegations brought against Harvey Weinstein ignited the #MeToo movement around 2017, Lilly had a jarring epiphany. “All of that me that I stuffed away to be acceptable to the boys’ club is going to be meaningless pretty soon, and I’m going to have to start from scratch. I’m thirty-five; I don’t know if I can start from scratch,” she remembers thinking at the time. “I realized I had become a misogynist to survive misogyny. I was self-aware enough to look at myself and go, you are in a panic because your currency ain’t going to count anymore.… That is essentially what happened. Being a cute, tough, young white girl is no longer what’s going to get you in the door—which is fucking great! I was celebrating that for everyone else at the same time as being like, Oh my God, I’m in trouble.”
Historically, she says she would’ve understood exactly what to do to have me, a straight male reporter, in the palm of her hand. “I would’ve played that game, because it was the only way I knew how to protect myself and take care of myself. My only power was to intoxicate him with how you look, flirt with him, and then get some power back and control the situation. That doesn’t fly anymore, and it’s useless. It also sucks. It makes you feel like shit. It makes you feel like a little bit of a whore.”
Lilly acknowledges that if she were twenty years younger, she might still have to put up with some of those dynamics. Instead, she’s finding more empowered ways of being. She’s now very intentional about bringing an innate femininity to her roles—for instance, in the way she subtly tweaked the Wasp’s fighting style. “She doesn’t have to bear down and have a massive boxing punch. She has wings. She could be balletic in the way she moves. She could be graceful, and she could make beautiful lines, and she could do it in a way that feels very effortless and light but be effective and have a sting,” Lilly says.
When I later ask Paul Rudd about this, he wholeheartedly agrees. “She can put up a tough facade, but she finds those moments to show Hope’s vulnerability. She plays her that way, and that’s what makes her human and not just a one-dimensional cartoon character.” He adds, “Evangeline has a fiercely independent streak.”
That independent spirit has been hard-earned, and Lilly proudly protects it. But it’s not always easy for her to navigate. “My authenticity is going to piss some people off,” she says, “and is not going to always make me friends or make me popular. But it’s all I’ve got left.”
During the pandemic, her authenticity did piss some people off. On March 16, 2020, as the coronavirus was spreading around the world and quarantine measures were being put in place, Lilly posted a photo to Instagram with a caption saying she’d just dropped her kids off at gymnastics—she and her partner, Norman Kali, have two boys, ages eleven and seven—with the hashtag #businessasusual. Before long, people were ripping her apart for not taking the public-health crisis seriously enough. “I didn’t expect anyone to pay attention to it, because no one ever pays attention to what I post,” she says. Ten days after her original post, she posted again, this time to apologize. “I ended up having enough people say to me, ‘Well, there’s a lot of people who are dying right now, and it might have been really insensitive to what they’re going through,’ and that resonated for me,” she tells me.
Then, in January 2022, she attended a Washington, D.C., rally against vaccine mandates. This time, she expected the backlash. “I know the beast that I’m attacking,” she recalls thinking then. “I know that I have a little pebble and there’s this fucking Goliath giant. If I shoot this pebble, it’s going to wake the giant.” Though she says she asked herself “about six hundred times” whether she should post, she ultimately decided to wake the giant. “I just wanted people out there who were struggling because they were under severe pressure to do something they didn’t want to do to know that they weren’t alone, to know that there were people who actually felt they had a right to say no,” says Lilly.
Debates about public health aside, it’s telling that the actress, who has 2.4 million followers on Instagram, considers herself to be David in that analogy. It speaks to the ways in which she still sees herself: Despite being a Marvel superhero, she feels like she’s an outsider. “I’ve never felt lonelier in Hollywood than I do now,” she says at one point. Part of that is the physical dislocation. She is literally on an island. But it’s also existential. She’s lived in Hawaii for almost two decades, but it’s only begun to feel like home in the past five years or so. She still drives the same 2001 Ford Escape that she bought when she “arrived as a broke university student,” and she’s still trying to answer some of the same questions she was asking around that time. “I had been raised Christian and I came into Loststill very devout and evangelical,” she says. “And as I went through some different questioning and struggle, as my life completely changed and got turned upside down, I started to ask really big questions. And those really big questions started to lead me to books of wisdom other than the Bible.”
She looked for answers in the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita. She began collecting the tools that now constitute her daily practice. There’s journaling, dancing, movement, praying, and an exercise called connected breathing. “We’re the only animal who takes pauses between the in breath and the out breath, and the suggestion in this practice is that when we leave the present moment, we go to the past and we go to the future,” she explains. “If you can keep your breath connected consciously, intentionally, it helps ground you here and stops you from doing that.” And she’s still searching for answers in books. When we talk, she’s reading The Red Book, by psychotherapist Carl Jung, and Falling Upward, by the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr. “Read that book when you hit midlife,” she tells me. “It’s an incredible book about the second journey that you take in life.”
I ask Lilly what big questions she’s asking about her own second journey. “What are my priorities, and how do I keep them straight?” she says. She’s torn between her “four careers”: running an NGO in Rwanda, writing children’s books, acting, and, more recently, writing and producing movies. “I can’t have it all. I’ve learned that. That was a lie I was told in the 1980s, when I was growing up as a little girl and being empowered by the feminists in the eighties saying, ‘Honey, you can have it all.’ You can’t.” As for the acting part of her career? Even though she’s not looking for work, she’s not counting it out. “I’ve learned never to say never. I mean, it would be comical at this point for me to be like, ‘I’m never going to act again,’ because I’ve said that thrice and have not followed through.”
Right now she’s focusing on her daily practice and is finally getting comfortable with her fame. “I needed to move toward that fear instead of running away from it,” she says, invoking the lessons from another favorite books of hers: The Presence Process, by Michael Brown. It’s a ten-week program that Lilly says she began while shooting the first Ant-Man and has done three times since. She credits it with changing her life. “It’s a way of being present with what is,” she says, before adding that, well, that’s what all meditative practices are.
“But there are kind of two large, broad categories [of meditation],” she goes on to explain. “One is transcendental. I am going to, for lack of a better way of putting it, escape reality and go to another place, another plane where things are peaceful and calm, and I can regain my center and regain my perspective and then come back refreshed. The type of meditation you do in the Presence Process is all about actually getting really present with what is happening right now and what you’re doing and what you’re in and what you’re feeling. Not in any way getting away from it.”
She tells me that the expression used in the book is: The only way out is through. “So get the fuck in it,” she says. “Whatever it is, get in it.”
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