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Lost’s Zuleikha Robinson on Ilana’s Origins

Tonight's Richard Alpert–centric episode of Lost, "Ab Aeterno," has been long anticipated by Lost fans and cosmetologists alike, as it promises to reveal the secrets of both his immortality and never-aging features. Also a big part of tonight's show, though, is Zuleikha Robinson, who plays Ilana, the island's mysterious Jacob-serving protector of stranded candidates. We spoke with Robinson about Ilana's last name and why she didn't kill Ben.

You've been on Rome and The X-Files, now you're on Lost. Is it in your contract that you'll only appear in cult hits?
No, I guess I just got lucky with those. It's been awhile, though, since The X-Files, so I think Lost was due.

When you made your debut in season five, did you know you were going to be promoted to a full-time cast member for season six?
When I booked the role there was a deal that the second year I'd be a regular. I mean, I wasn't 100 percent sure until they officially gave me the pickup date. But I had an idea.

How well did you know the show before joining the cast?
Not that well. And just because I tend not to watch television — and especially not a show that has such a huge following, because you spend so much time watching the show and not doing much else. But all my friends were such huge fans and would have Lost parties every week. I think I purposely avoided it. But when I booked the role I watched the third season and immediately, yeah, it's so compelling. I completely understand why it's so huge.

In a clip for tonight's Richard Alpert–themed episode, "Ab Aeterno," we finally learn the favor that Jacob asks of Ilana in the hospital: to protect the candidates. Of all the candidates, why Sayid? He seems the most tricky.
Yeah, I don't really know. All I can say is there's a group of people my character's protecting ... and we're still waiting to find out what that is.

At some point will we find out why she was in a Russian hospital?
Yeah, it is explained, actually, why I was in the hospital. The audience will definitely get an answer for that.

In the second clip, Ilana, Jack, Hurley, Frank, and Sun are sitting around a campfire talking about being candidates. Jack asks you what they are supposed to do now. Ilana responds with a not-very-reassuring, "I don't know."
Yeah. [Laughs.] "The shit's about to hit the fan and we're all screwed." She was educated as to what to do up to a point and once she experienced everything and took them along the journey she was supposed to take them on, she's kind of spent and she doesn't know what else to do.

Ilana does seem to know her way around the island.
When I first got the role, I definitely wondered if I'd been there before. But, so far, it seems I've been educated because of my job — as far as protecting the candidates goes — like what lies around the island and where things are, stuff like that.

Ilana has an interesting way of "protecting" people.
Why? Because I take [Sayid] down and pull him on a plane? Yeah, well, definitely. I'm supposed to bring him to the island for something or other. Whether or not we find out what that is, I have yet to find out. Oh, this show ...

In comparison to the other characters, where would you rate Ilana on the "mysterious" scale?
If mysterious is a ten, I'd say a ten. We've only gotten little bits here, and they're about what her deal is. Maybe I'm exaggerating a little bit, maybe more like an eight. Being the new character on the show, people know the least about me.

That's true. We don't even know her last name. Does she have one? Is she like Madonna?
I think she's kind of like Madonna. The scene where I took Sayid to the airport and I flashed a badge, my name on it was ... It wasn't even Ilana, it was something else. I think it was Mary or something. But I don't know what that is, it was obviously a made-up name because I don't go by that in the show. But, yeah, no last name. Oh ... That's not true! That's not true! That's so not true, I just remembered ... There is a last name and that comes in one of the other episodes.

Glad you remembered. Now it will be disappointing if it's Smith or Jones.
No, it's not. It's Radzinsky, or something like that.

Really? Did you just make that up?
No, no. I think that's what it was.

When Ilana was threatening to kill Benjamin Linus in the episode two weeks ago, how many viewers across the country do you think were screaming at their televisions, "Do it!"?
I think that the fans are really attached to all the cast members, so for a new cast member to come in and kill an old one might be a really bad thing. I'm glad I had that little moment with him where I was able to have an understanding with him and let him go.

Maybe. There are plenty of people who hate Ben ...
That he's not redeemable at all? I think he is.

Ilana's sensitive side did come out at the end with Ben.
Right, but everybody has some sort of weakness or venerability. Whether you're the sort of individual who goes through life trying to hide it, or maybe you're more in touch with it. She's been given a job to do and she has to be sensitive to the people around her. I think it's a good quality in a leader.

Ilana threatens to kill Ben as soon as he finishes digging his own grave with a makeshift shovel made out of bamboo. In real life, wouldn't he have had at least a month to live before he finished?
Oh my God. It could have taken the better part of a year. Movie magic!

We asked our readers if they had any questions for you. One asked: In season five, Sayid asks Ilana what she does, and she says she works for some unnamed "economist." Will we find out who that is?
At PaleyFest this came up with Carlton or Damon, and they said they're not going to go into that. They won't go into explaining that, specifically.

Another reader asks, how would you describe Ilana's relationship with Jacob?
I would think Ilana grew up without a father figure and Jacob became that for her for whatever reason. So when she has the exchange with Ben, it's very personal for her, but at the end of the day she understands she has a job to do and that's more important than the way she feels personally.

Photo: Bob D'Amico/ABC