The first time we meet Evangeline Lilly it takes a few moments to realise who we are looking at. This comes as a surprise because the Canadian actor was a familiar face on New Zealand television for six years playing Kate Austen in the drama Lost.
The Lilly of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has not only been transformed by a costume, makeup and subtle prosthetics into a feisty wood elf, but she's in the midst of battling a gang of orcs.
It's early winter and we - a small group of journalists, with just one from New Zealand, spending a rare day on the Hobbit set - are in Studio A at Sir Peter Jackson's base in Wellington.
Lilly is being filmed on a set comprising jutting grey boulders and tussock that is supposedly Middle-earth but could just as well be Central Otago - though with a green-screen backdrop. As the elf Tauriel, we see her fighting or evading the orcs - who, unlike the ones in The Lord of the Rings, have very basic prosthetics because most of their ferocity will be added later via computer- generated visual effects.
Then, through a 3-D monitor that captures what the camera is filming, we spot another elf in the fray - none other than Legolas, played by Orlando Bloom.
British actor Andy Serkis - who has reprised Gollum for the three Hobbit movies, including The Desolation of Smaug - is directing the scene, and after a few more, calls a brief break.
The studio is cold, and before Lilly meets us, she dons a jean jacket and has her immaculately braided hair - a good bit of it a hairpiece, we learn - covered for protection. But even with the elf-look turned down a notch, it still takes a few more moments to take in that this is indeed Lilly. For one, even at 1.68 metres, she looks smaller than on Lost. This is a common phenomenon for a lot of actors off screen, but Lilly is also so svelte she could pass for an elf without makeup.
She realises we're staring.
"It's so much fun," she says.
She points to her spartan but intricately crafted dark green elfin outfit. "Look at these. Look at this. It's crazy, all my hair and my costumes and the ears."
"The thing about working on a film for two years is, it's really easy to start complaining. No matter how cool the film is, no matter how great the director is, people just start grumbling.
"But then you get to work and you walk onto set," she says, looking back at where she was standing moments earlier, "because most of the time you walk onto set and you go, 'Oh, my God!' It's just amazing."
"You feel excited about what you're doing and you realise that actually I'm getting paid to play like little kids play, only I don't have to have an imaginary world. They spend millions of dollars making this world for me to play in, and it's a pretty fantastic job."
Speaking in elvish is another matter though. "I can speak what I have to speak and that's about it. I can say my lines," she says as she seats herself. "Anybody who speaks fluent Elvish has got way too much time on their hands."
Prior to Lost, Lilly had parts in television commercials and non-speaking roles in TV dramas and film. She was one of 75 women to audition for the part of Kate Austen on what would become the hit drama.
Post Lost, she's concentrated on film, including starring alongside Hugh Jackman in the sci-fi drama Real Steel.
But some scepticism has surrounded the casting of Lilly in The Hobbit trilogy. It wasn't a criticism of the 34-year-old, but the role. Tauriel doesn't feature in JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit, nor in any other of the author's works. The screenwriters - Jackson, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh - have been blunt on making her up for the trilogy. Tolkien's works have few female characters, and the films have to appeal to a female audience, they've said.
Lilly says for similar reasons she was also sceptical when first approached about the part. "I wasn't sure I should take the job because you don't want to be the one person who is the mistake in a legendary film. That's what I'm risking being the character that was not in the books - and I love the books. When I was a kid it [The Hobbit] was my favorite book, so I have a lot of reverence for Tolkien and a lot of reverence for the books. To fool around with them is very dangerous."
Lilly says she'd earlier been sceptical of what Jackson could achieve on The Lord of the Rings. "I thought he would destroy the books by trying to make movies out of them."
She changed her mind once she saw them. "In the end, it turns out that he elevated the books and he only brought to life what I had always seen and imagined in my mind. Somehow he seemed to do that for everybody, even though we all have different visions in our mind."
In a coincidental twist, it also meant Lilly had an early link with the Middle- earth movies. British actor Dominic Monaghan, who played the hobbit Merry in The Lord of the Rings, was later cast in Lost and was in a relationship with Lilly for five years.
But Lilly doesn't think Tauriel will win over every hardcore Tolkien fan. "There will be people who will hate me, who will hate me for playing her, and will hate the character," she says. "But I think more than that, she will be beloved. I think people will fall in love with her."
This is possible, given that Jackson has taken the risk before. Liv Tyler featured prominently in The Lord of the Rings as warrior princess Arwen. But Arwen didn't feature in Tolkien's trilogy and was referred to only briefly in his other writings. There was similar consternation among Tolkien fans when Tyler's role was announced. In hindsight, it's hard to imagine Jackson's version without her.
And even more than Arwen, Tauriel is a mover and shaker in The Desolation of Smaug, Lilly says.
"In The Hobbit, Tolkien talks about the woodland elves and he talks about them as a large group. And when you make a movie, you can't just have a large group of people that wander around and do things without introducing you to some of them. You have to meet these people. Basically I represent Tolkien's woodland elves," she says.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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