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Evangeline Lilly: Little Girl Lost

Church girl, tomboy, sexpot — she's the ultimate desert-island fantasy

'Lost' star Evangeline Lilly as Kate on August 7th, 2005. Credit: Art Streiber/ABC via Getty

On an island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, strange things are happening, things not usually seen on network television. We refer, of course, to the Hawaiian island of Oahu, overrun by a marauding pack known as the cast of TV's hottest show, Lost."

"One night, we had all gone bowling," says Evangeline Lilly, 26, who plays the show's female lead, the beautiful but mysterious criminal Kate. "Most people left, so it was myself, Matthew [Fox], Jorge [Garcia] and Dominic [Monaghan] — three goofy, out-there guys. So we're in the middle of a parking lot in Kailua, daring each other to do things. Jorge turns to me and says, 'I'll give you twenty dollars if you pee in that garbage can."' Lilly flashes her America's-sweetheart grin. "Thirty seconds later, I've got my pants down and my bum hanging into this garbage can, and he has to give me twenty dollars."

Lilly laughs loudly. "I don't have a lot of inhibition," she adds, somewhat unnecessarily. With her freckles and curly brown hair, Lilly has the wholesome/sexy good looks of Kate Beckinsale, or maybe a particularly convincing spokeswoman for a dating chat line (one of her past gigs). She also looks phenomenal in a bikini — a fact that Lost's producers haven't been shy about taking advantage of. Lilly has become the ultimate desert-island fantasy of 2005 — the tough girl with improbably well-conditioned hair who could kill you a boar but still look fabulous at the end of the day.

Lost is the strange, addictive, highly unlikely hit show that cross-pollinates Survivor, Twin Peaks and Gilligan's Island: an airplane traveling from Sydney to Los Angeles makes a crash landing on a remote island, leaving forty-eight survivors and a lot of luggage. The island has a whole lot of unexplained hazards, including a murderous tribe of "Others," a polar bear, an invisible monster and a weird goddamn hatch in the ground. Conjecturing about the show's overarching secrets — It's a government experiment! It's purgatory! — has become an obsession among fans, one that's reached a fever pitch going into the second season, which premiered on September 21st.

As if all that weren't complicated enough, every episode features one or two of the characters in flashbacks, showing what their life was like before the island. "Our characters are designed to be enigmatic," says Damon Lindelof, Lost's co-creator and executive producer. "We wanted to populate the island with people who didn't want to talk about themselves." They went on the prowl for likable, little-seen actors with a hint of mystery.

In a large cast filled out by unknowns — Party of Five veteran Matthew Fox stood as the biggest star — Lilly was the ultimate novice. She grew up in small towns in western Canada; her only previous acting experience was a handful of commercials and a few jobs as an extra in projects shooting in Vancouver, like Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital and White Chicks. Her father was a grocery-store produce manager, and her mom ran a day-care center out of the house. Raised Baptist and Mennonite, Lilly taught Sunday school for eight years, and one of her first jobs out of high school was as a flight attendant for a "really shitty airline." Not exactly typical network-TV-star material.

J.J. Abrams, executive producer and co-creator of Lost, rejected actress after actress for the role of Kate, insisting that they would find the alluring unknown they were looking for. Just two weeks before shooting was set to begin on the pilot, he saw Lilly's audition tape and proclaimed her to be both beautiful and goofy — exactly the girl he wanted. But could she handle it? Before Lilly took the part, Abrams looked her in the eye and said, "You have no idea what's about to happen. If you don't really want this, run." Lilly avoided his stare and muttered that she was ready, thinking that if she didn't like making the pilot, she'd just go back to college and finish her international-relations degree. Turns out she may never get that degree after all.

"She's amazing," Fox says. "Stepping into the lead of a show with no experience? Her poise and confidence are remarkable.

According to Lilly, Fox tells her something different. Between takes on location, she'll shinny up a vine or maybe eat a slug on a dare, at which point she will receive a steely Fox gaze: "He's constantly looking at me and saying, 'Evie, do you realize you're really weird?' And then he'll just walk away."

Abrams (currently shooting Mission: Impossible 3 in Europe) says that Lilly's inexperience kept cropping up in Season One; she'd rehearse her scenes at home and then feel off-balance when actors on the set made choices she hadn't expected. "It reminded me how wildly green she was," he says. "And she had mannerisms she had to unlearn, like crinkling up her forehead in a crazy way."

In a show with one mystery piled on top of another like a teetering Jenga tower, Kate's secrets have been central blocks, if confusing ones. In the course of the first season, viewers learned she had killed the man she loved, knocked over a bank to recover a toy airplane from a safe-deposit box and been on the lam for another, unspecified crime (hopefully one that makes more sense).

"I want to see Kate's psychotic side come out," Lilly says of Season Two. What she doesn't want: any more scenes where she sits on the beach pining for Fox's character, the good doctor Jack. "How many times have you seen Kate staring into the ocean, and suddenly Jack walks up and sits down beside her and they have a heart-to-heart?" she complains. "It became laughable. I would say, 'No, no, no way not again, I'm not doing it.' And the director would say, 'Come on, do it for me, one more time.'"

Lost is that strangest of phenomena: a cult show with blockbuster ratings. Although it had an annoying habit of alternating excellent episodes with mediocre ones, it finished its first season at Number Fourteen in the Nielsens. But previous shows built around Big Mysteries have a way of going sour: Although The X-Files limped on for nine full seasons, it became tire-some after only five; Twin Peaks collapsed in Season Two, after viewers were told who killed Laura Palmer. The big trick for the Lost producers: Keep things puzzling enough to intrigue the audience, but not enough to frustrate the shit out of them. "That's the tightrope walk," says Lindelof. "Sometimes we get frustrated ourselves and decide it's time to download a big chunk of mythology. And then the audience says, 'I find this confusing and alienating and too weird.' So then we pull back, and they say, 'You're not giving us enough.'"

And the challenge for Evange-line Lilly? After a year that took her from Vancouver to Hawaii, from Sunday school to an international object of obsession, it's figuring out just who she is while the whole world is watching. Lilly doesn't have the most polished acting chops in prime time — what people react to in Kate is her own personality, vivacious and a little inscrutable. "I really don't want to be mysterious," she insists. "Women in this business are expected to put forth a poised and perfect persona. I want people to see that I'm an ordinary-Joe girl. I blow my nose after work, I drool in my sleep and my shit stinks."

Some areas of her life, however, Lilly emphatically wants to leave obscure. When I ask her about recent British newspaper reports that she was married for one year and got divorced soon after Lost started shooting, she laughs and declines to comment, saying, "I don't talk about that kind of stuff. Wherever they got their information, it wasn't from me." She then abruptly changes the subject to the coral abrasions on her legs.

"She's a Christian, but she's a pottymouth," says cast mate Monaghan, formerly known as a Lord of the Rings hobbit. (The two are reportedly dating, although neither will confirm this.)

"Over and over again," Lilly says, "I've been called a walking oxymoron. I do things that you wouldn't associate with a good little Christian girl. People say I'm half-boy, half-girl." Before I can object that the visual evidence suggests otherwise, she continues, "I love style and dressing up, but I've also got competitive testosterone and I'm incredibly stubborn. When I'm going for a jog and I come up behind a guy on his bike, I try to beat him, even if it kills me."

Lilly is now earning far more than she ever did as a stewardess or an oil-change grease monkey (another early job), but her lifestyle hasn't changed all that much. She lives with two roommates (both of whom worked as her stand-ins on Lost). She relishes the idea of being an actress for five to ten years, then walking away and having babies.

She knows that in many ways her job is a dream, but despite Abrams' warnings she wasn't prepared for how overwhelming it would all become. She managed to put off the Big Meltdown until near the end of Season One. Worn down by her workload, she called her parents in full hysterics. They told her, "Screw Hollywood — you come home and we'll feed you some chicken-noodle soup."

Instead, Lilly went to Rwanda, where a friend was doing missionary work. "I holed up and read and wrote and prayed," she says. "I just disappeared off the face of the earth." Ironically, the consequence of playing the character of a forgotten person stranded on one of the most remote corners of the planet is that she has to travel great distances to end up someplace where nobody will recognize her.

I meet Lilly in the parking lot of an airfield on Oahu's north shore; she wants to go for a glider ride. Lilly is wearing a white shirt and white shorts. She'd be the perfect tennis-player pinup, except for the smudges on her arms: "dirt" makeup from the show that doesn't wash off easily.

"Want to go for a swim?" she says, and spontaneously strips off her clothes, revealing a green bikini and an extremely well-toned body that looks even better in person than on TV. We run toward the Pacific. The surf conceals sharp rocks, but Lilly never slows down.

Back at the airfield, our pilot reports that the glider is ready. Lilly and I squeeze into a passenger seat that seems better suited to one person; she encourages me to put my arm around her. Another plane tows us into the air, and then we spend the better part of an hour flying around in circles without an engine, riding thermal pockets like a roller coaster. Lilly loves every gut-twisting moment in the air, lamenting only that this particular glider can't loop the loop. The pilot keeps up a running monologue, but when he says, "Youth is wasted on the young," Lilly interrupts him.

"It's not wasted on me."