From director Christian Rivers and with a script written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, the fantasy adventure Mortal Engines is set hundreds of years after civilization was destroyed by a cataclysmic event that has led society to rebuild as moving cities of varying sizes, where the bigger cities hunt down and consume the smaller cities, as part of the natural evolution. When the mysterious and fierce Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) joins forces with outcast Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) to stop the giant predator city of London from destroying everything in its path, their strength and determination will be tested in ways that neither could have ever imagined.
At the film’s press day, held on the Universal Pictures backlot, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar to talk about creating the world of Mortal Engines, her audition process, why Hester Shaw was such a huge challenge, what she was most excited and most nervous about with this role, the complex character dynamics, and how she decided to decompress once filming was done. She also talked about her Apple TV series See, and the kinds of roles she likes to do.
Collider: What was it like to really dedicate so much of yourself and work so hard on this, helping to create this new world and this character, and then have it be on the verge of being out in the world? Is that scary?
HERA HILMAR: Yeah, there are scary elements about it, as it always is, if it’s anything that you care about and are putting out there. It’s not that you’re too worried about what everyone thinks, but you make something like this for people and you want it to have a place. For the fans of the books, you really want to do the story and the characters justice. So, I’m just hoping that what we’ve made will get people to the cinema, and hopefully, they’ll enjoy the movie.
Because Hester Shaw is such an amazing character, was she hard to say goodbye to, when you finished this?
HILMAR: Yeah, I think it always is, but in a way, they don’t die. They still live on in you and in the world, and of course, in the movie, which does its own thing. I’m already seeing girls dressing up as her, so she’s now brought to life in a way bigger sense than she was before.
Have you had any particularly surreal moments when you’ve seen one of the billboards or posters of yourself?
HILMAR: Yeah, we’ve been driving here in L.A., and they’re everywhere, but it’s cool because I don’t really feel like it’s me, I just feel like it’s her. I don’t know. She’s just such a bigger than life character, who’s also so rooted in life. I’m just happy to see her everywhere. She’s a character that also reminds us of people that hide themselves and don’t want to adjust how they look, and how women can be judged for how they look, and how people have been treated in the world. Even though she has her scarf on, it’s just nice to see her around, looking at us.
How did you come to this? Was it a long audition process?
HILMAR: No, it wasn’t. It was very quick. I was in Iceland, at the time, doing a play, and I got this request to do an audition tape. I’d heard about the project, but I hadn’t auditioned for it. I knew they’d been looking for this part, for a long time – a year or so – so I thought that I either had a big chance, or a really small chance. Well, you don’t really think about that when you’re doing it. You just go, “Okay, yeah, I’ll put something down. I’ll do my best, send it out, and see what happens.” So, I did that, and then things happened very quickly, after that. The filmmakers knew, in their gut, what they were looking for, and they wouldn’t stop until they found that, which was the case with me. So, we had this Skype chat, where we basically met through Skype because I was doing this play and I couldn’t really go anywhere, and they were in New Zealand, and Iceland and New Zealand are, geographically, the furthest away from each other in the world. We ended up just chatting for ages. I guess they were getting to know me. After that, I suddenly had the job and I was on my way to New Zealand.
What did you audition with? Was it something that actually ended up making it into the movie?
HILMAR: Yeah, it was a scene in the beginning of the movie, and a scene at the end of the movie. The scene at the end of the movie changed, quite a bit, from what it was in my tape. The scene in the beginning of the movie probably isn’t exactly the same, but it’s when Tom and Hester meet and have to deal with each other in the wastelands.
Sometimes they have you audition with things that don’t have anything to do with the film itself, especially when the project is top secret.
HILMAR: Yeah, this wasn’t one of those. Sometimes it’s really hard to audition for those films. I understand why they do it, but sometimes people can get so obsessed about not getting anything out there. It’s always better when you can actually work with the real thing because nothing is like the real thing. You can make very specific little choices that become huge choices, and if you don’t know the material, it’s really hard to do that. This was the real deal, straight away, from the beginning.
There are so many layers to this character, and she comes from such a place of anger. What was it like to play a character where you hide half of your face with a scarf, and then you also have a scar?
HILMAR: She was a huge challenge. I didn’t have that much time. I only had a few weeks to prep her, before we started, and to understand her fully, with how she moves and behaves. She’s been physically harmed and constantly hiding, and she’s not really used to communicating with people, since she was very young. She also had to live in the wilderness, so I had to understand that. And then, it was also about, mentally, how it is to be in that place, all the time, holding onto grief and anger that much, and having that tunnel vision of, the only thing that matters is to get revenge and, in this case, kill the man that killed her mother and attempted to kill her, too. To her, that’s the only way to get freedom. She doesn’t even care that she might die doing that. Even Shrike, who is her stepfather and a half-robot/half-man that was made to kill people, wants to free her of the pain and let her be emotionless like him. This idea of that being better than life, in the way of feeling or sensing, is a lot to take on. To do that well, and to do it justice, was my challenge.
This film is always moving, and you’re on so many cool sets, doing so many cool things in these action sequences. What were you most excited about, and what were you most nervous about doing?
HILMAR: I was most excited about going on this journey, but I was also terrified by it because it’s such a big task, to lead a movie like this and pull it off, and to play someone as complex as Hester is and pull that off. In movies like this, there are so many wheels and so many people playing different parts, versus if you’re making a kitchen drama with two actors where your control is actually less sometimes. But at the same time, this was such a collaborative job. We even helped each other write some of the scenes, and we collaborated on the costumes and the scar. We worked together on all kinds of things. But it’s a big project, and that’s a bit overwhelming.
And you’re not even sure exactly what it will look like, until you get to see the finished product.
HILMAR: Exactly, except that we had amazing sets. There were over 120 really intricate whole cities that were built, and airships and everything. You don’t see the final thing until it all comes together, and then you have to go, “Okay, that’s the choices that were made,” because you can’t control that.
As this story movies along and Hester keeps moving to all of these different places, we get to see so many different character dynamics with all of the people she comes across. Was there one of those relationships that you found the most interesting to explore?
HILMAR: All of the relationships were interesting. With Shrike, for example, you’re dealing with someone who’s like a stepfather, but who’s also like someone on the spectrum, and the reason why I say that is because he communicates differently and he understands social situations differently than maybe the norm is. That was really interesting to explore because he’s also so soulful and has such a big heart, even though he doesn’t have a heart or a soul, so that was really beautiful. And then, the contrast between her and Tom is so huge. How do you learn to understand each other and work together? And then, with Anna Fang, you have someone who’s a mentor type of figure and, in a way, represents her mother coming into her life again, and then those two women working together and collaborating.
There’s a very interesting female dynamic in this because this world is not separated into male and female, it’s more class than gender.
HILMAR: Yeah, totally. They also both exist, in all of us. We have both male and female elements in us. The idea of what is feminine is sometimes limited and just wrong, so it’s nice. Anna Fang helps Tom out and empowers him, as well, and there’s a lot of collaboration between genders and ages, which is nice. That’s not the point of the movie, but it’s something that you can take from the movie.
HILMAR: If I only had some puppies, I would have been hugging them, all the time. No, it’s hard to leave that. You have to try to, otherwise you just go absolutely insane, but it’s hard. You work for maybe 16 hours a day, or something like that, and then you come home and have to learn the lines for the day after. And not only do you learn the lines, but at least for me, I have to understand what I’m going to do. You’ve prepped, in some ways, but it’s different when you’re about to go in because you also have the knowledge of the scene you’ve just done, or whatever has just happened. You have to not just make creative choices – because some of that happens in the moment on set – but you also have to really understand, not necessarily in an intellectual way but in an emotional and physical way, what’s happening, so that you can actually be free, in the moment. That takes time. Sometimes, I would try to just have a hot bath, after also being physically beaten up that day. Sometimes you have moments where you can be on your own and meditate on the character. So, I do that, and then I just eat and sleep. Honestly, there was not a lot of a social life going on. You try to ring your family and loved ones, and then you end up not doing it, and you suddenly just become this recluse that is playing someone else, all the time.
What did you want to do to decompress, once this film was done?
HILMAR: I was going to go lay on a beach somewhere, and then I was like, “Wait, why am I doing that, when I’m here in New Zealand and I haven’t really been fully able to explore all of the country?” So, I ended up taking a few weeks, where I just went on a road trip around the country, which was just so cool. It’s such a beautiful country, and it’s so diverse, as well. I really enjoyed that. It wasn’t the same kind of rest as just lying down somewhere, which maybe I needed a little bit, but I just couldn’t let go the opportunity of exploring.
Were you tempted to try to find a comedy to do, after doing this?
HILMAR: No. I didn’t think like that. I should have maybe done that. I never think like that. If anything, I just want to try something different, but you don’t know what that’s going to be. It’s hard, for me, at least, if I get too fixated on something. It’s like when you have an idea of a jacket or boots that you want to buy, and you just never find them because it’s too specific, and then you miss out on the ones that are actually really good because you’re so blocked by that idea. So, I never know exactly what I’ll do after.
What are you doing next?
HILMAR: I’m doing a series, called See, that Apple is making, and it will be out next year.
Apple seems to be lining up a bunch of really cool stuff, but we haven’t gotten to see any of it yet, so we don’t know what it will be like. Is that weird?
HILMAR: No, I find that really exciting. It’s great to do a new thing. We don’t know what it is, so it’s completely open, and I like that.
What kind of character are you playing?
HILMAR: I don’t think that I’m allowed to say too much about it, but she’s a mother and she’s a fierce woman. She’s completely different to Hester, but she has elements of the female strength and of being someone who has to fight for things in life.
Mortal Engines opens in theaters on December 14th.