Evangeline Lilly: “There's something very scary to Hollywood executives about a woman who is free and authentic”

Evangeline Lilly
(Image credit: Ant Man and the Wasp)

As Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania hits the big screen, we caught up with Evangeline to talk female superheroes, directing and her advice for actresses following in her footsteps...

Evangeline Lilly is a Hollywood trailblazer, using her platform to push boundaries, inspire change and pave the way for new generations of women.

It is unsurprising therefore that the action star broke records as Marvel's Hope van Dyne (the Wasp), becoming the first female protagonist to have her name in the film's title.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania sees Evangeline return as the titular female lead, but she's not stopping there, calling for more depth, complexities and vulnerabilities in female roles.

"We want doors open for women," Evangeline told Marie Claire UK. "We want for women to be able to explore all the facets of being a human being."

As Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania hits cinemas, Features Editor Jenny Proudfoot sat down with Evangeline to talk complex female superheroes, the joys of working with Paul Rudd and her greatest life advice.

The wasp is a record-breaking leading woman in Marvel. Are we seeing a shift for female superheroes?

I mean when Marvel first started with Iron Man, we had Supergirl and Wonder Woman, and that was basically it. We had Cat Woman but it was different - she was a villain, not a superhero. And now there are so many female leads and female superheroes in the MCU - especially in the next generation. It’s really fun to see these younger girls coming up, doing the fumbling and bumbling and not being so competent. Because that for me was always the struggle I had with the first generation female superheroes in Marvel, including myself. The women were always so put together - they were serious, they were capable, they were kick-ass, they knew what to do and they always did the right thing. There never seemed to be any of that mess that you got with the male characters, and I think it's in the mess that you really connect. So I love seeing that in the younger generation. I loved watching Kathryn Newton play Cassie Lang in this film - seeing her be so loose and so light. Because I am used to the expectation from my generation that we had to be very serious, have our hands on our hips and wag our fingers, like “Come on Scott, you’re out of line.” You have to play the school mom, and Cassie Lang didn’t have any of that. It was so great.

Is it important to you to play multi-dimensional and real women, rather than as simplistic as they been in the past?

It’s really important to me. I feel like I'm always just pressing against whatever's the current norm or trend. So when I was on Lost, it was fairly typical for women to not be tough, to not be aggressive, to essentially not be tomboyish - which I was as a woman. And I wanted to push that envelope. I wanted to say, why shouldn't Kate be faster at running through the jungle than Sawyer? Why shouldn't she be able to wield a gun better than anyone on the island? Why shouldn't she be the one to want to go on every adventure and get her hands dirty, and climb every tree in the forest? And then there was a shift that happened a few years back where suddenly it felt like in every new movie that came out with a female lead, she was tough and kick-ass and I was like OK great. We want doors open for women - we want for women to be able to explore all the facets of being a human being. So, good, we’ve got there, we’ve opened that door. But what about the one that says there's power and strength in being softer, more delicate or more uncertain. So now, I'm going to push on the feminine envelope. And then there’s also the envelope that I'll probably never push myself because it's not really my wheelhouse, but I love watching other women push it. Which is, let’s see really funny women - a lot of my friends are hilarious and I want to see that. So yeah, with this role I’ve always said, OK we know that Hope is tough, competent and capable, but what about her vulnerabilities, and what about her femininity? Let’s see some of that as well.

Ant Man and the Wasp

(Image credit: Ant Man and the Wasp)

Hope is largely unexplored in the MCU - is there potential for a standalone film about the Wasp?

I do feel that she is very unexplored, and I think that's part of the reason why I find it so hard to come back to her. There's not a lot for me to dig my teeth into to understand who she is - she just doesn't have a lot of story development even though she has had all of this evolution. So it would be fun to do a deep dive. She also never really had an "inception story" which is essential to your investment in any superhero. I think until you've seen them fall on their face and struggle and not know how to handle or deal with the powers that they've been given, then when you watch them wield those powers it's sort of hollow. So I want to see that - I want to see the struggle, I want to see the shadow side of Hope and I just want to know her better - I want more information.

Is there any sort of criteria that a character needs to meet for you to be interested, like a sort of Evangeline Lilly Bechdel test?

In a way I just have to relate to the character - if I can't see myself in her at all, I generally don't even approach the role. I think some actors - and I admire the hell out of them, look for that person that is so outside of them that they'll have to stretch and reach, and I don't think that's what I tend to do. It's not something that's calculated - I just notice if I look back that I've always chosen women who I think there's a piece of me in them.

Ant Man and the Wasp

(Image credit: Ant Man and the Wasp)

What was it like returning to the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

It’s always daunting when you get that call from Marvel because you're committed for a long time. It’s a very big undertaking and it's not just making the movie, it's then coming out and promoting the movie, all of the fan engagement, and everything that goes along with the very privileged place of being an avenger in the MCU. But the question for me when I come back to a new film is always, where is Hope at now, and who is she at this point? Because she's been a really rapidly evolving character. She’s changed so much since the first film - from being a cold and detached corporate businesswoman to now being a step mum and being in love, reuniting with her mother, and healing her relationship with her father. She is just in this beautiful place where love is just flowing out of her into the world which is a really nice touchpoint from the first film to the third.

And it was a super star cast - Michelle Pfeiffer, Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas to name but a few...

I continue to pinch myself - it's a little bit out-of-body. I don’t know how I got to be here working with these consummate pros. They are such talented, gifted, incredible performers - and they’re all beautiful, lovely, kind and really cool people. And the world loves them - you never hear a bad word about any of those three people. So it is a bit surreal working with them. I had my 42nd birthday on a day on set when I was doing a scene with Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Douglas and Bill Murray, and I felt like I was in the twilight zone. I just couldn't quite believe it was real.

I was told that the scene wasn't CGI too, and that you were all experiencing it in real time...

It was amazing. We were surrounded by thousands of LED screens that were projecting what was actually being seen. So not only did we have the real-life set, with the restaurant and all of the Quantum creatures, but we also had projected around us the Quantum landscape. So I'm sitting at a dinner table looking out at a Quantum waterfall and watching Krylar's Quantum ship coming down from the heavens, and it all was happening in real time. That was a very poignant time where I felt this is the fantasy. When you watch Marvel films, you think making them would be like this and it's not. Normally it's arduous and very difficult because you're staring at nothing - it's a green screen and you're just doing your best not to have egg on your face. But in this situation, my job was nothing more than being physically and emotionally present - to just feel what she's feeling, get into Hope's skin and be the Wasp. Whereas normally you have to be the Wasp and remember that the X over there on that tennis ball is coming at you, and it's coming at your left side, and that this X on this tennis ball is coming at your head, and that all around you there is fire. There are so many things that you're thinking about throughout one of those scenes normally that you don't have the luxury to just focus on your performance.

Ant Man and the Wasp

(Image credit: Ant Man and the Wasp)

It looks physically demanding - did you have to train ahead of filming?

Historically I haven't because I just like to stay in shape - that's just my lifestyle. But in this film, I was particularly lazy because I had learned my lesson from Ant-Man and the Wasp that they won't let me do any of my stunts anyway. Because when the Wasp fights, she's tiny and so that's all CGI. I’ve done my own stunts throughout my whole career and it was so infuriating for me for the first film because I was rearing and ready to go. But with this film I had the right mindset. Instead of being frustrated I was like, I'm just going to enjoy this - I'm 43, I don't need this stress in my life, I don't need to be fighting warlords or anything like that. I can just sit back, sip a latte, enjoy it and let the CGI guys take care of it.

You are known for your action roles, but is there a role or genre that you don't feel like you've explored yet?

Yes, I feel like I've exhausted that action woman thing in myself - I've just done so much of it, it's not exciting to me anymore. I did two little indie films recently - one was a small political commentary film called Crisis. It was about the opioid crisis and it was really high drama - something that I felt I needed to get out of my system. I really had to dig into the depths of myself for the emotion and the character, and have it just be about the character. And then I also did this really fun stylised gory indie called South of Heaven with Jason Sudeikis. That also got something out of my system - it was an opportunity for me to finally get to be fully soft on camera, to be fully feminine and to smile a lot, rather than having to be mad and tough all the time. That was the genre that I love to watch and rarely get to be in - very stylised films like Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers and Darren Aronofsky - I really love those.

Is directing something you would ever consider?

Yes, I'm actually in the process of considering it. I've written a script that I’m trying to get made and I've been speaking with a producer who's told me that I have to direct it. But I have two little kids at home - I have a 7-year-old and an 11-year-old, and directing really swallows you. You can't just step in and step out to the same degree that you can as an actor, and even as an actor I'm very absent from my kids when it comes to my work. So I have a hesitation over the time commitment and the mental time - because even when I'm at home, if I was directing a film, I know I would be playing the film in my head every day all night. So it's something I might try later, but because I wrote this one, it’s hard to give it away to somebody else. I know how I want it to play out - I see the movie in my head, and I'm worried that if I hand it over to somebody and they make something completely different, then I'll be disappointed.

Ant Man and the Wasp

(Image credit: Ant Man and the Wasp)

What is the best piece of advice you've ever received?

What you have to do with a question that is that intense is eliminate the 'best ever' and just go to the first best advice that comes to mind which is what I will give you. So, Bill Murray who was actually in Quantumania was on another film with a friend of mine who is a producer. And it was a film where everything was just chaos and mayhem and nothing was organised. It was a very dysfunctional set and it's very hard to perform in a stressful environment like that. And one of the days where everything was going totally haywire and everyone was freaking out on set, he was just standing calmly on the side-lines. So my friend saddled up beside him and said, “how are you so calm in the midst of all this madness?” And he just kept looking at the chaos and said, “You have to know which ones to bleed for”. And when she told me that I was like, that's the key, that's it - I've been missing that my whole career. I bleed for everything I do - everything, but not everything is a bleeder. Some of them aren't worth your blood, and you have to know when that blood is warranted and when you should protect yourself. Film sets are environments when you really have to be your own advocate because no one else is going to be that for you. So that was a fantastic piece of advice that I indirectly got from Bill Murray.

What advice would you give to actresses coming up in your footsteps?

Oh so much. I feel like I want to write a whole book. I always tell them to hold onto themselves and be themselves because there's so much pressure - and I speak from experience, there's so much pressure to put on a show and pretend to be something you're not. There's something very scary to Hollywood executives about a woman who is free and authentic. I don't know why because it's the sexiest, most attractive thing in the world, but they do seem to be very afraid of that. So just be yourself, whatever that is, no matter what anyone says. Don't put it aside for anything - it's not worth it and it will not get you ahead in the business. Because the audience knows - even if the people in your business are telling you otherwise, the audience knows the difference between someone who's being real and someone who's being fake. I actually think that the more you hold onto yourself, the more you'll succeed.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is in cinemas now.

Jenny Proudfoot
Features Editor

Jenny Proudfoot is an award-winning journalist, specialising in lifestyle, culture, entertainment, international development and politics. She has worked at Marie Claire UK for seven years, rising from intern to Features Editor and is now the most published Marie Claire writer of all time. She was made a 30 under 30 award-winner last year and named a rising star in journalism by the Professional Publishers Association.