Evangeline Lilly was a little-known Canadian actress with barely any credits to her name when she was cast in a lead role in J.J. Abrams' revolutionary TV series "Lost." During the run of the show she also played a small but pivotal part in the Oscar-winning war drama "The Hurt Locker."
Once the series ended, she turned her attention to feature films, starting with the robot boxing spectacle "Real Steel" opposite Hugh Jackman and some real, full-sized mechanical pugilists. Lilly plays Bailey Tallet, who inherited her father's boxing gym where Charlie Kenton (Jackman) trains his robotic combatants. With the family-friendly fight flick now available on Blu-ray and DVD, I got to speak to Ms. Lilly on the phone from her home in Hawaii. She spoke about her process for choosing projects, how acting in a scene with Jackman was like boxing, the challenge of screaming while pregnant, and the differences between working with robots and smoke monsters.
Matt McDaniel: You've had incredible luck with the projects you've been involved with: you had a series that became an instant classic and a movie that won Best Picture. So what is it that you're looking for in a project?
Evangeline Lilly: Oh man, I think I'm looking for too many things, [that is] probably the answer. I haven't done a lot of projects and maybe that's the reason. I think that some of the primary things I'm looking for, first and foremost, is a story that inspires me or intrigues me or challenges me. I have to respond to the story. I love writing and I love reading and I've been an avid reader [of screenplays] for about decade now. So when I read a script, if I think the story is lacking, it really wouldn't matter to me who is involved or how big the picture was going to be. I just couldn't find myself interested in doing it. So, that's the first thing.
And then I think, all of those other pieces: who's involved and what it's shooting and where it's shooting and what my role would be and if I connected to that role and all those other questions you ask yourself come second to the story. And this one in a particular, "Real Steel," was just a story that I loved. I was almost in tears at the end of the script when I read it and it's this silly little kids' movie that really touched me and it really connected with me. And so I thought that was pretty amazing.
I don't feel a lot of films nowadays or scripts that are coming out that are good, not cynical, not angry children's movies -- movies that aren't sarcastic or teaching kid's values that I just don't understand or don't agree with. I think this movie is like the movies that I used to watch. It's like "E.T."… and it's like the movies that we watched in the '80s that taught us, "Hey, be a better person and strive to be the best you can be." And I thought it was just an inspiring story for kids.
MM: And your character has a nicely layered backstory. Did you bring anything to that? Did you suggest any new dimensions to her?
EL: I think probably on the day I did it. I didn't have a ton of conversations with Shawn [Levy, the director] about her backstory or about the depths of the character. We both agreed, though, that we wanted her to be not your typical tough girl or boxing girl. I've played tough girl, I've done that, and I think it was important to me that it should be really normal and just really somebody that other women could reach and could understand and could relate to. And on that day, we have a lot of discussions about how things should play out, and I think that with the chemistry between Hugh Jackman and myself, things just naturally came about that we maybe didn't even plan for, and I think she became a lot more vulnerable than we ever expected her to be.
MM: Describe for me the process of working with Hugh Jackman. Does he keep things loose? Does he throw out new stuff? What's the interaction like?
EL: I mean I don't know what he's like in other films, but in this film, he kind of reminded me a little bit of a boxer in that he liked to keep me on my toes, and he liked to keep things alive and keep things moving. And he never would let a scene become staic. If we had done the scene a couple of times already and nothing magical is seeming to happen and nothing is starting to pop, then, guaranteed, he would change a line, he would trip me up somehow, he would cut me off in the middle of a line or he would jab me or poke me or just something to make it come alive again. And I just was so grateful for him because I really feel like he bettered my performances by doing that, because he didn't allow anything to be ordinary or dialed-in.
He just expected us to keep it spontaneous and keep it alive and I think it worked. I think all of the scenes between us felt really alive and they felt really human and very present.
Watch Lilly and Jackman in a scene from "Real Steel":
MM: And one feature of the movie there has been a lot of talk about was that they actually had these big robots on the set for many of the shots. So, did the technical side of it make it more difficult when you're dealing with it, you know, the giant, mechanical beast?
EL: No. I think it made it so much easier. I think it was a huge luxury that we had as actors to be able to actually look at what we're talking to or talking about or watching. I spend a lot of time running from an imaginary smoke monster, and I know what it's like to pretend that there is something massive, with a huge presence right there in front of you, but meanwhile you are staring at nothing. And it's one of the most challenging things you can ever have to accomplish as an actor. And I was so grateful that Shawn is very much an actor's director… and he always made sure that we had whatever motivation we needed in the scene to actually react and make things get real. And therefore, he had -- like you said -- real robots there when he could and he had this incredible stuntman who get up on a hydraulic stilts and just pretend to be robots for us when the robots had to be really active and it couldn't be a real robot.
MM: I did notice that the camera turns to you in a lot of the reactions especially to the fights. There's a lot of shouting. Did you ever damage your voice?
EL: I always damage my voice. I have unfortunately really weak vocal chords, and so I usually warn directors when they ask me to do anything with shouting or yelling that you'll probably going to get a good five clear takes out of me. And then from that point forward, you'd probably going to get really husky, sexy takes from me. In fact, it's not going to be the clear voice anymore. It's going to be like Demi Moore… my voice starts to sound like her after about five takes of shouting. And there was actually one instance where I have to come and do my ADR -- my additional dialogue recording — which there was very little of it in this film, because thankfully we did a lot of it in sound stages so we've got really clear sound.
But I did have to do a lot of ADR for that final fight, and a lot of my shouting and screaming had to be done in the sound stage after the fact in post. And at that point, I was nine months pregnant. And it was really disturbing to have this full-grown baby in my stomach and be screaming at the top of my lungs. And emotionally, I felt like, "Oh, this is going to be shaking up my baby," and I don't love that. But I also physically, it's amazing how much ab muscles it require to do a lot of shouting. And when you're nine months pregnant, any woman could tell you, you've got nothing left in the realm of ab muscles.
MM: I was impressed by how they were able to say a lot about your characters relationship with Hugh Jackman and not a lot of dialogue or screen time. Was there anything left on the cutting room that you missed? That you wished that had made it into the cut?
EL: There were one or two neat moments that happened that didn't end up in the film, but they weren't actually on the page. There were just things that spontaneously happened between us. But I think one of the things that ended up in the film that it wasn't in the script that pertained hugely to giving the audience a sense of our relationship in that film was the moment when I'm scolding Hugh Jackman's character, Charlie. And I'm telling him that this gym that I am based in, in the film, is my father's home and I'm trying to save it and he's not helping. And in one of the takes, I had my lines and I just accidentally say "We loved you," instead of "He loved you." And then I stayed in the character and I kept going and I just corrected myself from "We loved you," to "He loved you." And after that take, Shawn came running out all excited and said, "You have to keep that in. You have to say that every time because that just indicates so much about what's been going on between these two characters for decades."
And I think that moment became something that told very huge story was one tiny little line mistake.
MM: The movie was shot in Michigan, right?
EL: My portion of it was in Detroit. I mean, I think it was shot all over Michigan, but, my portion was just there.
MM: What would you say is the major difference between filming at Detroit and filming in Hawaii?
EL: [Laughs] Nature. Nature, there is nothing really spoken of -- in the way of natural beauty in Detroit. There the river, but when you're used to seeing ocean on all sides and whales jumping and dolphins playing and living in the jungle, the river doesn't qualify. So, I mean, I think Detroit is a city that probably has a lot of cool and very, maybe nostalgic things about it, being that it holds such a significant place in American history. But it lacks significantly by way of nature.
"Real Steel" is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.