By Frazier Moore
To hear Evangeline Lilly talk, her path to stardom on the hit series "Lost" was almost beyond her control. Perhaps a bit like her character, Kate, and the rest of the "Lost" castaways who — submitting to a grand plan, or was it just bum luck? — crashed at the obscure Pacific isle where the ABC thriller (9 p.m. EST Wednesday) has stranded them.
Granted, Kate was aboard doomed Oceanic Air flight 815 in handcuffs, a fugitive from justice. She was being brought back to the U.S. from Australia to stand trial when the jet tore apart in midair.
Nothing so tumultuous for Lilly.
While enrolled at Vancouver's University of British Columbia just a few years ago, the Alberta, Canada native was a budding actress pulling in good money doing TV commercials. Even at this early stage, stardom seemed foretold. Until Lilly, unhappy with acting, bailed out.
Then, in a bizarre display of self-demotion, she happily took work as a movie extra.
"Being an extra, ironically, turned out to be something I loved," she says with a laugh. "I could go in when I wanted. Do my homework. Read books. Eat their food. Rest. That was my job and I got paid for it!"
Never mind the pay was a fraction of what she made before. Her new plan fit perfectly with school (she was studying international relations). More to the point, she didn't like modeling and acting in commercials. It felt like a meat market. Demeaning.
Still, her agent kept pressing her to try for roles in TV shows or films.
As Lilly tells it, she finally saw the light when a friend observed how "you claim to believe in destiny, and yet you're ignoring what appears to be all the signs of destiny. Doors are opening for you, but you're afraid of your own success."
"That struck a nerve in me," Lilly recalls, "and I burst into tears."
In January 2004, she went on the first of a couple dozen auditions.
"By March, I was in Hawaii filming the `Lost' pilot."
There, to her surprise, she fell in love with acting. But she also learned that, on "Lost," it wouldn't just be viewers who were challenged by the mystery and myth. With a tale this complicated, murky and piecemeal, even the actors are often forced to play a guessing game.
For instance, when filming the pilot, Lilly realized what she knew about her character came down to this: Good-looking gal on a plane in handcuffs with a secret.
She remembers imploring J.J. Abrams, the series' mastermind, to relinquish a few more clues: "C'mon, give me a ballpark idea: Am I a fireworks smuggler or a murderer?"
All in good time.
"The first year was very hard," Lilly says. Besides suffering an identity crisis with her role, "I was surrounded by breathtaking actors, and I felt very insecure about performing next to them. I thought I was going to fall flat on my face."
She was part of a cast that also included Matthew Fox (as the sexy doctor, Jack), Josh Holloway (as the sexy con man, Sawyer) — both playing characters Kate has had flirtations with — and dozens more regulars, like veteran actor Terry O'Quinn who, as the mystical Locke, declared, "Each one of us was brought here for a reason."
Unconsciously echoing him, Lilly now recalls, "The first year I just kept thinking, `Well, there has to be a point, a reason I'm here. Otherwise, it wouldn't have happened the way it happened: in such a magical and spontaneous way.'
Meanwhile, she held her own within the huge ensemble, and as more than eye candy. A slender brunette with a dusting of freckles and a dazzling smile, Lilly is athletic and outdoorsy, which served Kate well. She has infused Kate with strength, fire and daring. Kate is nobody's fool.
Nor is the 26-year-old Lilly, even at her most perplexed.
"What I learned to do to survive on the show and enjoy it," she explains, "is to settle into the bliss of ignorance. I sort of wade my way through the dark waters of 'Lost,' and there's a comfort knowing it's the producers and writers who are responsible. If I'm walking blindfolded, then whoever's leading me is responsible for where I end up."
She has also learned to accept the instant celebrity the show thrust upon her, insisting she can normalize the impact of her fame. "I want to maintain equal footing with the rest of the world."
But although she likes this new life, it may not be forever.
"I don't know how long my career will last," she admits with a laugh. "As far as how long my nerves can hold out, I would say I give myself 10 years, and if I don't get out by then, they'll be shattered.
"I feel this year I've figured it out," says the woman who found herself on "Lost," summing up. "The dust has settled and I understand the new world I live in. That's really exciting and reassuring."
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