Maggie Grace: ‘Being killed off in Lost is still the worst heartbreak of my career’

‘I had a very proud moment where I convinced Christopher Nolan that I was British’  (Getty)
‘I had a very proud moment where I convinced Christopher Nolan that I was British’ (Getty)

If you were a fictional blonde woman in the Noughties who was chased, abducted, shot at or maimed, you were probably played by Maggie Grace. Between the blockbuster puzzle box series Lost, where she played rich-girl-with-regrets Shannon Rutherford, and Taken, in which she was Liam Neeson’s eternally kidnapped daughter, Grace cornered the market in damsels in new-millennium distress. For a bookworm and self-described Jane Austen nerd who grew up on tales of multifaceted women deft at shaking loose the shackles of the patriarchy, this was... tricky.

“I don’t know if I had an essence of fragility to me,” the 40-year-old says today, slowly, softly and, dare I say it, with a slight fragility to her. “But that was just what was available [back then], and how we saw young women. I mostly played rape victims for a living for at least the first half of my career.” She winces a bit. “So it’s really heartening to see a lot of younger female parts now having more agency, and moving the story forward.”

Grace, in the last decade or so, has evolved past the women-in-peril characters, annihilating zombies in Fear the Walking Dead and battling tornados in the action movie Hurricane Heist. Her transformations become even more impressive once you speak to her – she admits to being an introvert, both before fame and very much during it, and over Zoom she has positioned her camera a bit higher than one normally might for an interview like this. It means she sits at the lower right-hand corner of the frame, her face sometimes disappearing from it entirely.

That shrinking quality is used to great effect in Grace’s new movie, a British psychological thriller called Blackwater Lane. She is not, at first, much of a factor in it, as the inexplicably American best friend of the inexplicably American countryside estate owner (Friday Night Lights’ Minka Kelly), whose inexplicably American husband (Dermot Mulroney) is convinced she’s losing her mind following the disappearance of a local woman. But as the film continues, Grace’s character surprises you, becoming someone almost as multifaceted as the heroes Grace idolised as a child... if a little better with the kicks and punches than your average Bennet sister.

The film is quasi-Harlan Coben silliness (those accents are, tenuously, explained) with twists you can spot from a mile off. But there’s something charming about it. Grace thought so, too. “I liked the alienation of it and the idea of shooting in this grand house in England that certainly felt haunted,” she recalls. “It was a fun group.”

Grace is a proud anglophile – Austen and Brontë are to blame – who first visited the UK at the age of 13. It was part of a Grace family tradition: come of age, get your passport, and visit a country of your choosing. Upon return to her native Ohio, she had adopted a full-blown, tea-and-crumpets English accent. “It was incredibly embarrassing, but I was also 13,” she reiterates. “I just leaned really far in.”

I’m not surprised to hear the ‘Lost’ writers’ room was chaotic given the mandate, and the fact that they were, you know, building the airplane in the air while they were flying it

She’s never actually played a Brit on screen, but has auditioned for British parts before. “I had a very proud moment where I convinced Christopher Nolan that I was British,” she laughs. “I remember just living in the accent beforehand – I’d walk around being British, answer the phone British.”

Grace was just 20 years old when she found fame on Lost in 2004 – after a few years of TV movies and guest star roles on the likes of CSI: Miami and Law & Order – but found herself insulated from the massiveness of the series. Lost was one of the biggest shows of its era, an enormously influential sci-fi series slash soap opera about the survivors of a downed plane, who find themselves stranded on a mysterious island rigged with traps, time travel, polar bears and oddballs.

“I feel for the cast of, like, Twilight or anything else where [its cast] are suddenly thrust into the spotlight when you feel very ill-prepared,” she says. “It’s a lot at that age, but I think the fact that I was the baby of the cast [helped].” They also shot the series in Hawaii, meaning “we were so removed in this tiny village – it felt like this little theatre troupe. It was just before social media, which was an enormous blessing for everyone’s mental health. And the concept of the show being popular was just this vague, fuzzy, sort of ‘Oh, that’s nice.’” She laughs.

Concerned BFF: Grace consoles Minka Kelly in her new film ‘Blackwater Lane’ (Lionsgate)
Concerned BFF: Grace consoles Minka Kelly in her new film ‘Blackwater Lane’ (Lionsgate)

Grace’s time on the show was also relatively short-lived. I even stopped watching when, six episodes into season two, Shannon was mercilessly killed off, just as her relationship with Iraqi officer and tousle-haired dreamboat Sayid (Naveen Andrews) was heating up. How could they?! Since then, I have been repeatedly mocked for my insistence that Shannon was the secret heart of early Lost, but I do sort of stand by it: she was vapid at first, but Grace imbued her with enough grit and determination that it was easy to root for her, and to imagine what she could have become if the show had let her. Alas.

“I thought they were gonna take her a little further,” Grace sighs. Did she want to leave? “No!” she exclaims. “It’s still the worst heartbreak of my career. I was devastated!” Did she understand why it had happened? “Well, I mean, I do – [she] was sort of a caricature of white privilege before that was a phrase, you know? And maybe I was just too good at my assigned job of being incredibly annoying.

“I thought maybe she would do something surprising, or have another colour [to her personality]. Maybe she’d, at the last moment, redeem herself and be incredibly self-sacrificial in some way. I guess there were flashes of it, but not in the way I hoped in terms of an arc.” She doesn’t want to seem too critical, though. “That’s a selfish actor’s point of view. They definitely had bigger fish to fry.”

Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day: Grace’s Shannon survives a plane crash in ‘Lost’ (Shutterstock)
Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day: Grace’s Shannon survives a plane crash in ‘Lost’ (Shutterstock)

While Lost remains a big deal – its imminent arrival on US Netflix will only boost its reputation – its behind-the-scenes culture has been grappled with of late. Last year, critic and reporter Maureen Ryan published a book on abuses in Hollywood, with one chapter devoted to the Lost writers’ room, which was said to have been a toxic, racist work environment, described by one former writer as a “predatory ecosystem with its own carnivorous megafauna”. Damon Lindelof, one of Lost’s creators, said he was “shocked and appalled” by the allegations, adding that while he has “no recollection of those specific things – that’s not me saying that they didn’t happen”.

It was news to Grace, who rarely interacted with the writers – they were based in LA, while the show’s cast and crew were in Hawaii. “I’m not surprised to hear it was chaotic given the mandate, and the fact that they were, you know, building the airplane in the air while they were flying it. But we were so insulated – there was one emissary who came to set to sort of bless the proceedings. And we didn’t even get scripts [most of the time] – it was very, ‘Here’s your monologue for tomorrow.’” Was that frustrating? “If that’s their process, that’s their process. But I think you’d be hard pressed to find an actor who doesn’t want to put a great deal of work into something and really [go] deep. You just do your best.”

After Lost came Taken with Neeson, who – for all his regretful statements over the years – she remembers as a “goof” with a “completely off the wall and very dark” sense of humour. She followed that up with its two sequels, a sci-fi action movie with Guy Pearce called Lockout (which she affectionately calls “Space Jail”), Fear the Walking Dead, and a number of indies.

Eternally kidnapped: Grace in ‘Taken’ (Shutterstock)
Eternally kidnapped: Grace in ‘Taken’ (Shutterstock)

If she’s working a bit less than she used to, it’s because she’s a mum now. Blackwater Lane was perfect because it felt like a holiday: she filmed it in the countryside near Norwich, and brought over her parents, her husband and her young son. There was an attempt to recreate some of the wonderment she had first experienced at 13, but she admits taking a two-year-old for high tea was “ill-advised”. “I don’t know if you’ve had any interaction with young children,” she asks me, “but I don’t think I’ve slept in four years.”

It’s not ideal. Probably beats being kidnapped again, though.

‘Blackwater Lane’ is in select cinemas and available on demand in the US, and is awaiting UK release