Saturday, 7 December 2013

Hobbit elves and courting controversy

evangeline-lilly-as-taurielWhen the second Hobbit film opens next week, you’ll meet an Evangeline Lilly you’ve never seen before, playing a character Tolkien never wrote about. During an exclusive on-set visit,Tom Cardy got to watch her in splendid elfin action.

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 - are spending a rare day on the Hobbit set. We're 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 meto 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 sits.

‘‘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.

‘‘Peter and Fran and Philippa, they read everything there is to read about Middle-earth and they know that world inside and out. So they took pieces of female elf characters and allowed all of that to sink in, so that when they created Tauriel, they were drawing on Tolkien. They weren’t just creating somebody out of a fabrication of their own mind, they were drawing on Tolkien’s world, Tolkien’s elves, Tolkien’s stories and fabricating something that’s new, but really it’s a recycling of Tolkien’s ideas.’’

Lilly says part of her fascination with the role is that wood elves are darker than the other aristocratic strands played by the likes of Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving. ‘‘I love how creepy they can be sometimes. My character has an element of that because she’s lethal, she’s utterly lethal and ruthless. She is the head of the Elven Guard, so she’s an expert killer, an assassin.’’

Besides, Tauriel is ‘‘just a baby’’ by elf standards. ‘‘Most of them are [aged] in their thousands, Legolas is 1300 years old, give or take, and I would say Galadriel [played by Blanchett] is somewhere in her 2000s. They’re ancient. I’m only 600 years old. I still have this zest and spark for life, and for life in Middle-earth.’’

That zest is also mirrored in Lilly’s personal life. While based in Wellington for two years, she still found time to write a children’s book, The Squickerwonkers, illustrated by Weta Workshop artist Johnny Fraser-Allen, and raise her first child, Kahekili, born in 2011. The boy’s father is Lilly’s Hawaiian partner Norman Kali.

Lilly says she only learned that Tauriel had been created a month after her son was born, when out of the blue Jackson, Walsh and Boyens rang.

‘‘I was literally bedridden and holding my little newborn baby, trying to figure all that out, and I got this phone call. I wasn’t planning on working, I was going to be with my baby.

‘‘I was surprised. [I said] ‘Can I just be clear on what you’re telling me? Do I need to come in and audition? Who else are you looking at?’ And they said: ‘No, we want you’. I said: ‘What?’ ’’

More than two years on, her only wish is that she had received more ongoing training. ‘‘At the beginning I got trained to the hilt and I was loving it, I was like, ‘Yes! Train me, teach me because I don’t have any of these skills.’ I didn’t come into this knowing how to wield two daggers or be an expert archer. I didn’t come in here knowing Elvish. I didn’t come in here knowing how to speak with an English accent. So I had a lot to learn and I went into very intensive dialect training and stunt training. On top of it, I was trying to wrap my mind around what it means to be an elf.’’

Her biggest relief was realising that there was more to Tauriel than being the elf equivalent of a guerilla fighter.

‘‘I think that that has always, for me, been the danger with this character. She is, for lack of a better term, a kickass chick. If she was utterly cold, ruthless and an assassin, you might be thinking of Tomb Raider or something. But she has a warmth and she has a depth.’’

Minutes after our interview, Lilly is called back to the set. We don 3-D glasses and again watch filming on a large monitor.

Serkis yells ‘‘action’’, and there’s Tauriel again battling orcs on a barren plain inMiddle-earth. This time she wields her daggers and gets to work.

From what we can see and the stunned reaction of the orcs, this elf really does kick ass.


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