Evangeline Lilly on filming the thriller movie South of Heaven

Evangeline Lilly interview: South of Heaven

Evangeline Lilly is nothing if not a versatile actor. She has played a superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, been around battling robots, and even been an Elf in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit fantasy movies. However, her recent role in the thriller movie South of Heaven sees the star take on one of her most powerful and delicate performances yet.

Written and directed by Aharon Keshales (Big Bad Wolves), South of Heaven follows the story of an ex-convict, Jimmy Ray (Jason Sudeikis), who receives early parole and promises his terminally ill girlfriend Annie (Lilly) the best last year of her life. Unfortunately, fate has other plans for the couple as Jimmy seems unable to escape the life of crime and ends up in a deadly standoff.

To celebrate South of Heaven’s UK release, which is now available in theatres and on select streaming services, we got a chance to talk to Lilly about her emotionally charged role. We also talked about Ant-Man 3, aka Ant-Man and the Wasp Qunatumania, broke the news of the upcoming Real Steel TV series to the star, and finally learnt what she hopes UK audiences will take away after watching South of Heaven.

The Digital Fix: Hi, how are you?

Evangeline Lilly: Yeah. I’m great. How are you?

I’m good. Congratulations on South of Heaven. I really enjoyed it. And my first question is, do Blondes have more fun?

Yeah, that’s why I’m still blonde [laughs].

Like we say, blondes have more fun. But I guess Annie, your character in South of Heaven, probably doesn’t. I mean, she has a pretty hard life. She’s dealing with cancer. She’s going through a crossroads in her relationship. How did you prepare for this role?

Well, I followed a blogger online who was a woman who was battling lung cancer. And she was the closest I could find to somebody who really reminded me of Annie. She had the most incredible, vibrant, joyful, shining spirit. And there was also this shadow side of anger and fear and darkness that she wasn’t afraid to acknowledge. She wasn’t afraid to share. She was incredibly inspiring for me. And she really reminded me of the line in the film when Annie sang the song, The Beach Boys song, to Jimmy Ray. Then she says, ‘They don’t tell you this, but cancer can make you extremely bipolar.’

I thought it was such a brilliant line. Because if there’s one thing that I’ve noticed in the cancer patients that I know, and also this beautiful blogger, was their incredibly macabre self-deprecating sense of humour. Obviously, not everyone, but I’ve seen that. I wanted to show that with Annie, and I thought that it was such a beautiful way of being real and honest, in her shadow side, while still totally occupying the light and being the sunshine in this very kind of gory, crazy film.

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Yeah, I think one of the big central qualities for your character is that she kind of acts as an anchor for Jimmy. And you and Jason have such good on-screen chemistry. What was it like working together as actors?

We love working together. We also like playing together. We first met to talk about maybe doing this film together, and we just met for dinner, and we just hung out, and we got to know each other. And I think it was very obvious very quickly for both of us that like, ‘Oh, this is gonna be great. This is gonna be no problem.’ We got on like a house on fire. So what’s bizarre is to, you know, you can get along with somebody, but then the cameras can roll, and you just don’t have chemistry.

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You know, no matter what you do, no matter what you try, it’s just not there. So we were all so pleased when we actually got to work, and we started shooting. Aharon immediately was like, ‘this feels so fucking real.’ Like he said, ‘I believe you. I believe that you guys have known each other since you were babies. That’s the level of intimacy that you have with one another.’ And that’s kind of just one of those fluke things that you hope for. Sometimes you get it, and sometimes you don’t know.

I remember when I watched this film, I was taken aback by just how authentic your relationship feels. You won Best Actress for Annie at the AFIN International Film Festival.

Yeah!

How did that make you feel? Being acknowledged for such an intense role like this?

Oh, it made me so happy. It made me happy on so many levels, one because the film was recognised in eight categories at that festival, and I felt like they really understood what Aharon did. And that’s what you hope for, you know, whenever you’re doing an indie movie like that because there’s so much sweat, toil, tears and passion that goes into getting one of those things made. It’s so hard to get the money for an independent film.

Nowadays, it’s so hard to get marketing and distribution; it’s so hard to get people even to know you’ve made the movie. Aharon, you know, the director and the writer and the creator of this magical film is the one who put in years of his life to making this happen. It’s a love letter to his beautiful wife whom he just married.

Recently, later in life, they fell in love, and so everything in me was just rejoicing that he was being acknowledged as well that the film was being acknowledged. Then that a character like Annie, who was not violent, who was not kick ass, who was not a tough badass woman, you know? Who was a gracious, passionate, forgiving, strong, interesting, intelligent woman was being recognised in that way too. Like there was just so many levels of it that made me so happy.

Evangeline Lilly interview: Annie and Jimmy sitting outside together

Yeah, speaking about your past as an actor as well. What do you feel about the announcement of the Real Steel TV series that’s coming out?

Well, it is news to me! [laughs] Wait, no. So I did an Entertainment Weekly…what do they call that? Like when you look back and remember Real Steel, when I was shooting Quantumania in London in the fall. I did that with Hugh and with Anthony Mackie and with Shawn Levy, and Dakota; we all did this.

I think they said at the time; there’s new excitement and interest because during the lockdowns, that film, just like, took off on Netflix. Then there were… I had heard rumblings about a series, but I did not know that was officially happening. So yeah, you are the one to let me know.

Oh, I’m so glad. Yes, it is happening; it is in development.

That is Bittersweet. That is bittersweet because I made a pitch. Like what year would it of have been? It was a couple of years; I don’t know, maybe like four or five years after we made Real Steel. I think about five years later. I made a pitch to Shawn, saying, ‘listen, we need to make a sequel to this movie.

The movie was so well received; people loved that movie, kids love that movie, we should make a sequel, here’s my pitch. If you’re just not sure what to do with it, here’s what I would do with it. This is what we should do.’ And we had this whole big talk, where he was like, ‘it’s just not going to happen. The studio’s not going to go for it; they’re not going to make another.’

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I would love to make another one, me and Hugh and Shawn, we all want it to be there. But the studio wasn’t going for it. So it’s kind of bittersweet, because I’m like, well, that’s kind of a kick and pants. Because if there was going to be a sequel of any kind, I want to do [it] with Hugh.

After hearing that, I think you need to get your royalty checks somewhere. Let’s go back to South of Heaven. So obviously, it’s a very intense, intense film. But there’s also some really lovely moments with your character. I think about the bowling scene. I think about Annie in her home happily baking a cake. I mean, before it gets ruined.

[laughs]

What scene was the most fun to film when you were working on this movie?

So OK, so I was most excited to film the God Only Knows scene, the scene on the bench with Jimmy Ray where Annie sings God only knows by the Beach Boys. I think that scene is the best-written scene I’ve ever read. I read that scene. And I think that sold me on the movie, I was like, I want to do that scene. I want to honour this incredible writing and be a part of it. But when we got there to do it, it was wonderful to do, but it was a dusk scene.

So if anybody knows about filmmaking, that means you have two takes, three takes maybe, in every setup before you got to move on. And like everyone is on high alert, and everything is like ‘go go go.’ We’ve got to get the scene before we lose the lighting.’ So there was nothing kind of like restful and romantic and at ease about filming that scene, even though we did manage to do that when they called action, between it was like ‘come on. We gotta go. We gotta go.’

Evangeline Lilly interview: South of Heaven at dusk

So I would say the bowling scene probably takes the cake over that. But it’s so hard to choose because, honestly, it was just such fun making this movie because all the scenes that I got to do were so sweet. And there was so relaxed and like just the opposite of everything. I always do. You know, I got to just breathe, be seen, smile, and put my head back and just live it. There was no kind of amping myself up for the scene like, ‘Ok, here we go.’Like doing push-ups, trying to get my sweat on, and trying to get ready for the intensity.

I love the scene where Annie and Jimmy first show up at the Mexican cabin. She like comes under his arm after she wakes up from sleeping in the car, and she’s all sleepy. I just…when I watched that scene, I felt like I’m watching a real-life couple like yeah, and I like that one too.

OK. Talking about action movies, you know, I have to ask you about Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Bill Murray recently said that he’s playing a villain in the movie. Have you filmed any scenes with him? Can you tell me?

[Laughs] I am unaware of these rumours. I’m not allowed to talk about any casting in my movie.

[Laughs] Can you give us any updates on filming? Like how it’s going?

So yeah, we finished filming at the end of November, and I think, hands down, it was the hardest one we’ve made. It was the most difficult. It was the only one we’ve made during the Covid lockdowns. That just adds such an incredible complication to making a movie. It adds a lot of stress.

It makes things very impersonal because you can’t see faces. Film sets are already impersonal enough, there is so much that goes on and so much that has to get done in a short amount of time, and the intensity level is really, really high. So it was a very trying experience doing the film with Covid measures. But I actually think…what we did, the stuff we shot, the material we managed to get, I think it might be the best one yet.

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I mean, like so many of these films are made in post. It’s like half the film gets made after I’m finished. So I can’t say for sure. But that was my sense of it. While we were making it, I just felt like the work that we were doing felt like it was on the next level from the things we’ve done in the past.

So South of Heaven obviously is coming out to the UK. What are your hopes that people over here will feel when they see this movie for the first time?

Well, first of all, I hope they feel surprised. Because nowadays, I feel like in 2022, with the amount of content that is out there, it’s probably the hardest thing in the world to surprise anybody because it feels like everything’s been done. I find myself even when I watch new films or new TV shows nowadays. I’ve seen so much we’re all so saturated. And we’ve all sort of learned the sort of patterns and rhythms that you see in storytelling, that I feel like I can predict everything I ever watched. I’m like, ‘this is what’s gonna happen.’ It feels like it’s laid out in front of me like a roadmap. So I hope that people are surprised. I think that nobody can predict what’s gonna happen in this movie. I’ve not heard of one person yet who wasn’t like, ‘holy shit. I didn’t see that coming, or that or that or that.’

Evangeline Lilly interview: Annie running in South of Heaven

Yeah. And I also hope that people come away, feeling seen and connected to in a time where so many of us feel like we’ve lost a huge chunk of our life. And that’s the situation that Annie and Jimmy are both in. They both lost a huge chunk of their life, and how they deal with that moving forward is a great lesson for all of us right now. Then right when they think, Oh, we have our freedom back, and everything’s gonna be great now. They hit a roadblock after roadblock after roadblock and just continue to have their asses handed to them.

It’s so discouraging. And it’s so disheartening, and it really crushes Jimmy’s spirit. But Annie manages to hold on to her joy; she manages to hold on to her light. She manages to remember to embrace and suck the life out of every little freedom that she still has before they’re taken away from her. And I hope that people will remember not to give away their freedoms before they’re gone. To live them fully, to love them fully, to celebrate, to be in community, to love one another to like, live as fully as we can.

Because Annie could have easily lived in the death that was coming for her. And that would have been tragic. But instead, she lives so fully in the life that she has given that she has left, and just allows death to be something that is like, ‘it might come, but I’m not going to think about that. That’s not what I’m going to fixate on.’ You almost feel like she’s not going to die.

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You can’t help it, and she’s just full of life. I hope that people will watch it, and they will feel like we all want to be seen and connected to in where we’re at, and they’re gonna relate it to their circumstances. And then hopefully learn from Annie about how to handle those circumstances and how to walk through them with freedom and joy in life.

I can’t wait for everyone to see and feel the things that you did. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.

Really nice to talk to you.

South of Heaven is out now in UK theatres.

Emma-Jane Betts

Staff Writer

Updated: Jan 24, 2022


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