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As budding actresses go, they don't get much greener than Evangeline Lilly. The tomboy/sexpot, who stars as the enigmatic Kate Austen on ABC's Lost, says she'd never had a "speaking" role before being asked by series co-creator J.J. Abrams to join the 48 other survivors of the doomed Oceanic Air flight 815.

Lilly -- who was born in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., and grew up in small-town British Columbia -- laughs that she was such an acting novice that she'd also never heard the word "pilot" (except, of course, the uniform-wearing kind who sit in cockpits). So when her agent suggested she do an audition tape for this new quirky show, she assumed "I didn't stand a snowball's chance in hell."

But Lilly nailed it. Abrams, who had been looking for weeks for the ideal Kate, loved her freckles, her smart mouth and her drop-dead gorgeous looks. On a leap of faith that she would learn to act -- and fast -- he hired her.

Overnight, the 26-year-old became a household name, recognized by fans everywhere as Kate, a fugitive on the lam, a girl who unwittingly caused the death of her teenage love, knocked off a bank, and likely has a whack more nefarious secrets up her sleeve.

"I was flown down to L.A. to meet J.J. and the others two weeks before shooting the pilot was set to begin," says Lilly, speaking over the phone from the Lost set on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. "They were on such an incredible time squeeze. It was a whirlwind two or three days and a total head-spinning kind of experience," she adds. Her only other trip to California was years earlier on a family holiday to Disneyland.

Lilly got the definitive phone call shortly after, back home in her Vancouver apartment. "I started jumping around the room. But a part of me was terrified. When I decided to audition, I wasn't thinking I wanted this to be my life goal. I did it on a whim. The way I came to grips with it is that I told myself it was just a pilot -- not a lifetime commitment -- and if I hated it, I could just leave."

Soon enough, it was goodbye to her days hanging out with her two sisters and close circle of friends. Lilly was a student at the time at the University of British Columbia, where she studied international relations. To pay the tuition, she waited tables at Earls, picked up the odd commercial (Lilly can still be caught on late-night TV as the face for a "fun" and "flirty" dating chat line called Livelinks), and worked as a lowly extra on Vancouver-shot TV shows such as Smallville, The L Word and films like White Chicks.

She had no inkling that the desert-island drama would turn into a ratings phenomenon. "I remember Matthew [Fox, the former Party of Five alumnus who plays Lost's Dr. Jack Shephard]said it's going to be a Lord of the Rings type of thing, meaning it'll either completely bomb or it'll be huge," she recalls. "He predicted it would either go over everyone's head, or be the next big cult following.

"I'm a pretty skeptical person and I'm a realistic person. In the early days, the buzz built around it, but I was still hesitant to wager on it. Even after the first show aired and we had 20 million viewers, I was still convinced it was just hype."

But now Lost holds firmly to its status as a powerhouse. Lilly figures the reason it resonates with viewers is this simple: "North America has been crying out for intelligent TV for so long. People were fed up with reality shows about midgets getting married and weird Jerry Springer talk shows. There had been a real dry spell of intelligent family-oriented viewing, the type of program that mom, dad and the kids can all watch together.

"With Lost, there are just so many characters for people to invest in. So everyone can find at least one person they can relate to."

The premise is unabashedly far-fetched: Four dozen survivors, all possibly connected to one another in some yet-unexplained way, roam an island full of deadly threats and secret hatches -- the origins of which are being gradually revealed. Lost fans hang on every twist.

Such plot points, Lilly says, are a closely guarded secret; and she and her fellow actors only get a preview of the scripts shortly before they shoot each new episode.

Her character is a gal who hikes and fights with the best of the guys, sweats profusely but never looks too mussed, helped deliver a baby in the middle of the jungle, and at the end of a tough day, can emerge from the ocean's froth in a teeny bikini that leaves male viewers weak-kneed. (Lilly was voted second on Maxim magazine's sexiest women in the world list.)

Born Nicole Evangeline Lilly, the five-foot-five brunette was raised Baptist and Mennonite and moved with her family to Abbotsford, B.C., where she went to high school.

After graduating, she says she worked for a "rinky dink" airline and later waitressed in Kelowna, B.C. It was in that picturesque town that a rep for the Ford modelling agency spotted her on the street and handed her a business card. Lilly pocketed it and only pulled it out three years later when she was back at university finding it difficult to make monthly ends meet. She called the rep, who linked Lilly up with commercials and extra work, like playing a dead body in Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital. "I liked doing those things because I could hang out, do my homework, and basically get paid to study," she says.

Relatively new to the whole celebrity thing, she says the only thing she misses about her old life is anonymity. "I was a very, intensely private person before this all began," she says. "I've never wanted to be famous, and I still don't. I don't really like it very much, but I know it's the price you have to pay to do the job I want to do."

The biggest perk? She laughs and says the money. She also now has the financial freedom to support missionary charities she could not have before. "I have some clout now, and I like that," says Lilly, who founded and ran a world-development and human-rights committee at UBC. She also browbeat Lost's cast and crew to start recycling. "I'm always biting people's heads off."

With celebrity, you lose privacy, adds Lilly. "But you gain the means to have freedom and fun.

"I've been able to do things with my friends and family that I'd never be able to do. Right now my sister's [in Hawaii]visiting me from Canada. My family isn't well off, and she would never have been able to come out to Hawaii on her own. To fly my sister out is a gift for myself."