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Lilly boxes robot wars

For Evangeline Lilly, the one key message she wants people to understand about her latest movie, Real Steel, is that it's not a full-metal boy's-own adventure, but a good old-fashioned family film. That is going to make you cry.

Having first come to our attention as Kate in the long-running TV series Lost, Lilly has been careful about the projects she signs on for ever since she found fame on that desert island. So much so, that Real Steel is actually her first project outside of Lost since 2008's The Locker Room. Three years -- that's pretty careful.



SPARK

"Well, part of it was enjoying Lost, and dedicating myself to that," says Lilly, "but there was also that side of me that knew, hey, the decisions I make now in terms of my career could pretty much determine the rest of my career. So, on the one hand, you want to reach an audience, but, on the other, you want to make something that's a little bit different. That has some spark of originality to it."

There are plenty of sparks flying in Real Steel, which sees Hugh Jackman's former contender trying to keep one step ahead of his debtors when he and his estranged 11-year-old son (newcomer Dakota Goyo) unearth a rusty old sparring robot who might just win them the robo-boxing world title. Rounding out the surrogate happy family is Lilly as gym owner, Bailey, always there with a smile and a squirt of oil. There's already talk of a sequel.

"Well, they don't put a movie together like this without considering its long-term prospects," says Lilly, "and I know Shawn is very, very proud of what he's done here. It's something very different for him. Most big-budget filmmakers are scared of getting sentimental, in case the cool teens laugh their film off the screen, but all the truly great blockbusters they all have those moments that make you burst out crying."

Perhaps it's Lilly's idyllic childhood that has something to do with her unabashed sentimentality. Born on August 3, 1979, the middle of three sisters, in the small prairie town of Fort Saskatchewan in Alberta, Canada, Lilly grew up with God on her side, and an inexplicable habit of job-hopping. Lilly served as a missionary in the Philippines, living in a grass hut. Then she was a flight attendant. When she wasn't completing oil changes on big rigs. Or waitressing. Or modeling. Or studying international relations at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.



"Man, I did everything under the sun," smiles Lilly. "It was really just getting myself through college, and then figuring out exactly what it was that I was going to do. I didn't want to do the modelling, but that helped pay for my college fees."

Lilly's aversion to the modelling life stems, not only from her strong religious upbringing (which included teaching Sunday school for eight years), but also her early years as a tomboy.

At 16, Lilly's physicality changed though, and she transformed into a babe. "I spent many nights crying myself to sleep wishing I was ugly," she later said, "because of the way men leered and disrespected me, because they assumed things about my mental capacity or my physical willingness based on the way I look."

When a woman from the Ford Modelling Agency suggested the young Evangeline join their ranks, she turned it down. Eight months later, Lilly got in touch with Ford, looking for work in commercials. She got one -- for the chatline Livelinks.

When Lilly first saw the commercial, she cried. You can catch it on YouTube.

"David Letterman played it when I was on his show," nods Lilly. "And all I can really do is laugh . . . I've always had a problem about how women are portrayed, and here I am, doing a chatline commercial, lying on a bed, half-naked."

It was Lilly's aversion to how women are portrayed by Hollywood that saw her initially settling into a content life as an extra. So, getting the role of Kate Austen on Lost must have been quite a shock to the system.

"It still is," laughs Lilly. "It was pretty surreal It gave me financial security for the first time, but the fame side of it was something that I had to struggle with. Fame is the price you pay for fortune."



sparent

And now Lilly seems to have found something else to keep herself occupied, having become a parent, along with her boyfriend, Lost production assistant Norman Kali.

Lilly had been married for one year to Canadian ice hockey player Murray Hone when she arrived on the Lost set, famously dating her co-star, Dominic Monaghan, for five years during the series' run.

"Actually, the real message of Real Steel," finishes Lilly, "is simply that family is the most important thing there is.

"Everything else is just smoke and mirrors."

Real Steel hits Irish screens Friday