LOS ANGELES — It wasn't so long ago that Evangeline Lilly was one of those strident J.R.R. Tolkien fans worried that Peter Jackson's movie adaptations wouldn't capture the poetic soul of the fantasy she so loved as a child growing up in Canada.
"I was a bit of a Tolkien purist before Peter Jackson made the Lord of the Rings trilogy," the actress said recently. "I was adamant that I wouldn't see those films because there was no way that anybody was going to be able to re-create what I had imagined in my mind on the screen. I ended up being dragged to it for a big family Christmas thing and couldn't believe how accurately he had portrayed everything that I'd ever imagined."
Now Lilly — best known for her work as tough but sensitive Kate Austen on the metaphysically twisty ABC series Lost — is hoping that fans will be just as pleasantly surprised by her woodland elf, Tauriel, who makes her debut as the first Middle-earth character not invented by Tolkien in Friday's release, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
The second installment in the planned three-part adaptation of the landmark 1937 children's novel, The Desolation of Smaug sees good-natured hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continue his journey toward the Lonely Mountain to assist a company of dwarfs in their quest to reclaim their lost treasure, which was stolen by the sinister dragon Smaug.
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The group encounters the creatures of the dark forest Mirkwood, where Lilly's Tauriel lives, and eventually, the great lizard himself, who speaks with a silver-dagger baritone furnished by Benedict Cumberbatch.
"I had to learn how to spin my knives and make the knife work look fancy, and obviously how to use a bow and arrow," Lilly said. "The good thing with the bow and arrow is that I never actually had to use an arrow. I used a bow and an imaginary arrow and they CGI in the arrows afterward, so I look like a badass."
The character grew out of the desire to introduce more female energy into the story — The Hobbit has no female characters to speak of — according to Philippa Boyens, who wrote The Hobbit scripts with Jackson and Fran Walsh (Guillermo del Toro, who was once set to direct the movies, also has a writing credit).
She said the writers were careful to cast Tauriel so that she would seem like a natural extension of Tolkien's world.
"We're not trying to create a warrior princess or a character that you might find for example — and in saying this, I'm not denigrating them — in a video game," Boyens said. "This wasn't about creating a character that didn't feel truthful. She's an elf of the world of Middle-earth."
Lilly said she had been toying with the idea of early retirement when she received the call from Walsh and Boyens to gauge her interest in portraying the captain of guards in the Elven kingdom of Mirkwood.
"I was laid up in bed having just given birth to my first child and I was actually still not mobile," Lilly, 34, said. "They offered me the role, and I couldn't say no."
With her fiery auburn hair and reckless spirit, Tauriel is unique among the Elves that Jackson previously has brought to the screen. She doesn't have the same royal lineage as Cate Blanchett's Galadriel or Orlando Bloom's Legolas, and she displays more vulnerability than is customary for the higher beings.
That gave Lilly a chance to put her own stamp on the species.
"She had to be a bit more gritty, a bit more passionate than what you'd seen before," Lilly said. "It was actually great to have that little bit of freedom to play with her and not have my performance from beginning to end be stoic and ethereal."