Universal is set to release a live action adaptation of Philip Reeve’s best-selling book series The Mortal Engines on December 14, 2018.
“Thousands of years after civilization was destroyed by a cataclysmic event, humankind has adapted and a new way of living has evolved. Gigantic moving cities now roam the Earth, ruthlessly preying upon smaller traction towns. Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan)—who hails from a Lower Tier of the great traction city of London—finds himself fighting for his own survival after he encounters the dangerous fugitive Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar). Two opposites, whose paths should never have crossed, forge an unlikely alliance that is destined to change the course of the future.”
Last year our own Ashley Victoria Robinson was fortunate enough to visit the set of The Mortal Engines and interview many of the creative forces behind this major motion pictures – including Stephen Lang. Lang is an actor known for playing Colonel Miles Quaritch in the Avatar franchise. Shrike in Mortal Engines.
You very famously played a human in Avatar and for Mortal Engines your character, Shrike, is motion captured. What has it been like acting from the other perspective?
STEPHEN LANG: Well, there was some CGI involved, of course … So, yeah, I did some motion capture, certainly not to the extent that Zoe [Saldana] or Sam [Worthington] did, but I did some. But, this is kind of exclusively mocap and focap forming. It’s remarkable. It’s acting kind of at its most collaborative– In a way. You know what I mean? No matter what any actor will ever tell you, it’s always there. Everybody–a lot of people have their hand in a performance. But, of course, when you’re playing a more conventional role, maybe the process starts when you go into the makeup trailer, you know?
You know, Fellini said that the most important time for an actor is in the makeup trailer. And I remember reading that many, many years ago and I thought that’s very true because that’s really when–you go in, you know, you’re kind of–you know, you got your coffee. And when you come out, you know, you’re the frigging King of England. Know what I mean? Yeah.
But, you don’t have that option when you do motion capture.
So, you have to–you know, you have to compensate or figure out the equivalent or something like that.
But, it’s all part of the–it’s a necessity … So, you might as well turn it into a, you know, a benefit.
How did you figure out that equivalent?
SL: Well, I think you–you know, you’re always working on–you know, you don’t ever–I mean, one of the things that I’d kind of come up–one of the things that I think learned over the years is that you kind of got to continually keep reinventing and reexamining your whole process, you know, in a way. So, I mean, what worked on the last picture maybe isn’t going to work on this picture. What worked yesterday might not even be working today.
So, you kind of–I just try and go in as prepared as I possibly can be and, you know, with an open heart and wait for happy accidents, as it were, you know? But, you–but, of course, I did think about that, you know, how do I do this? And it’s just–it’s a–I worked hard on the physical life of this character. And what–and I schooled myself to the extent I’ve been able on what this character is–how he really is going to look.
And so, so much of the preparation, some of it goes on inside my own self. But, an awful lot of it goes–is in relation to stuff that I’m sharing or stuff that’s being shared with me from the lead animator, from the sound department because the sound of this character is radical as well. And so, I just take as much information as you possibly can and kind of immerse yourself in it and let it sort of mulch. And then see what emerges.
When we spoke to Dan [Hennah] over in production design, he spoke very highly of the physicality that you brought to the character. Can you talk about where you might have drawn inspiration from? He described it as very “insect-like”.
SL: Well, I did look at some insects, certainly. But, I’d say the real inspiration for the character came from predatory birds. And that starts really with the name, Shrike. As it happens in this particular edition of resurrected man, that year, that model, they were all given bird names. So, doesn’t necessarily mean, but there is–it just struck me as there was a predatory bird quality to him. And also the way–which is not to say that’s exclusively what it is.
You take what you need and leave the rest. But, I’ll tell you this, a very, very happy accident I had was to–as I began looking at birds and listening to birds, I always recalled–and I was looking at all kinds of hawks and falcons and vultures and mostly kind of predatory birds. And shrikes, which are a predator bird as well. I just–once, I looked at swans because I know swans can be very, very aggressive birds.
So, I was looking at swans and what came up on YouTube was Swan Lake, right? A YouTube. And I Googled it and it was Rudolph Nureyev dancing Swan Lake. And I began to watch him. And as I began to watch him, I began to see Shrike, because what he did was the way he moved–the way a ballet dancer moves is when they–when a ballet dancer moves, he doesn’t move his arms. He doesn’t do the counterweight that we do when we walk, right foot, left arm. Left foot, right arm. He doesn’t do it. He keeps his arms back and he–because he was doing a swan.
And he looked like this folded bird and just that sort of powerful thing. And when you think about it, it’s incredibly graceful and at the same time, there’s something slightly robotic– About it as well, which is kind of what, you know, right in the wheelhouse of this character. And so, that’s the kind of thing that is useful to me. You know what I mean? Because even if I don’t end up looking like Nureyev, it inspires something in you, you know? It gives you something to kind of hold on to an idea. So, that’s it.
As far as insects go, of course, praying mantis is a beautiful look are one of the things about them. And all of the–those wonderful insects that blend into the background and wait patiently either to avoid being eaten or to wait for something to eat. And so, there’s an element a quality of patience that they have, you know? And that’s very much in keeping with this character also can remain kind of in a state of, you know, immobility for centuries at a time if he chooses.
Looking at the script, what appealed to you about Shrike? What made you interested in taking on the role?
SL: I was interested in him from the first line from the first description of him. And I–ultimately, what got me was that he fulfills all the requirements of tragedy to me because he’s both–he inspires, you know, in purely [literary] terms. He inspires both pity and terror. And that’s, like–you can’t beat that shit. You can’t do that.
So, there was that. But, I got to also say just the technical kind of challenge of doing it. It’s, like, oh, you know, I can’t do that. Great. Let’s try it, you know?
I would say. And also, I would say the contradictions in the character. Character’s just rife with contradiction because, you know, he’s–he is sort of–he is–for an empty–for a character that’s been emptied out, he’s really full. For a character who detests memory or has no use for memory, he’s completely obsessed with memory. For a character who is absolutely heartless, he’s got the biggest heart, you know, in the world.
So, how do you kind of–how do you play that? How do you justify, you know? What does all that mean? And to just sort of, you know, fuck around with that is really–it’s intriguing.
What was it like working on that set – Shrike’s home?
SL: Yeah. Stroll. That’s very insect-like also. Of course, Stroll itself looks like a very hard beetle– To me, you know? And at the same time, I don’t know if it was actually inspired by, but if you’re here and you get a chance to go up to the World War I memorial, I highly recommend it. And of course, Peter Jackson is responsible for the exhibit there. And they have there what they call–they used to call it a trench buster, which was the first tank. And when I looked at it, I went, “Oh, fuck. That’s Stroll!”
And so, it inspired it, I think. So, the–what does it mean to him? I mean, the thing itself is an efficient way to move across a landscape. It’s kind of a perfect vehicle for him. It’s not what one would say the height of comfort, but that doesn’t mean anything to him at all. It’s just a moving tool shed really, isn’t it? You know, it’s a workshop is what it is.
As far as the dolls go, he’s looking for something. He’s trying to recover something. He’s trying to find an answer to a question that he can’t even pose to himself, you know? He just-he’s got–in a mind that is frequently just covered with static, that’s what is going on is this static feel that goes on in his mind.
And then, you know, how once in a while when you’re trying to tune your radio and everything, you hit a frequency and you get two minutes of–or you get two seconds of, you know–of Paul McCartney singing or something like that. That’s what happens to him.
He gets these flashes, these extraordinary memories that he doesn’t know what to do with. But, somehow, the–he knows because of his inability to hurt a child that there’s a link there. So, he’s constantly looking. And you know, it’s–I guess it’s–I’m not really all that bursting psychology, but, you know, it’s a compulsive need to fix. He’s trying to fix something.
Elaborate on that a little bit, can you talk a little bit about the relationship between Shrike and Hester?
SL: I think it–well, it’s a relationship that matures over a number of years, of course. And I think it starts out in a–when he finds her, it’s no different than finding kind of a shiny trinket or something like that. He just–he sort of intuitively or instinctively just throws it over shoulder to bring it home.
And then I think probably as he’s able to kind of parse it out in his brain, he begins to wonder, like, why did he do that?
That’s not his brief … As a rule. And I don’t think that, you know, he comes to any kind of conclusion about it at all. And then something begins to kind of happen to him over a period of years, it becomes–she becomes part of a routine, part of a–you know, because even Shrike has a need to do things in a sort of orderly fashion. And in his own way, he becomes a caregiver and he doesn’t even know that it means anything to him. It’s not like he changes or becomes affectionate of it, you know? They just become familiar– In their way. And they’re kind of–in their coldness and their–but that becomes the norm for them and her. For her, it must be staggeringly weird because she really is fully human.
And so, I guess the question that, you know, I would ask if I were writing is to what extent does he dehumanize Hester Shaw? And to what extent does Hester Shaw humanize him? And I think it’s a really–I think it’s a great question and I don’t–I really can’t supply an answer to it other than to say when she’s gone, it’s a gaping kind of hole in his existence. And I think it reminds him of another gaping hole in his existence, even though he can’t quite recall what that might be, but it all comes back to him.
It’s like that line–you know, the character that Shrike always sort of reminds me of, strangely enough, is the tin woodman in the Wizard of Oz, you know, who didn’t have a heart. And yet, because he didn’t have a–he was conscious of the fact that he didn’t have a heart. And so, he had to behave very, very carefully. He had to be very, very careful about not doing anything heartless, you know? I mean, that’s a wonderful dichotomy, it seems to me, you know? And think there’s a bit of that in Shrike. Certainly, because of Hester.
Given his relationship and memory that you’ve talked about, how have you engaged with this back story? Have you ever thought about who he was pre-Resurrection?
SL: Well, I mean, it’s all available … And I’ve read it all and enjoyed it. And, you know, Kit Solent, actually, was–he was sort of–I wouldn’t say that he was a disappointment to me, but he certainly wasn’t what I expected. And his death was rather, I thought, kind of anti–I mean, it’s, like, what? He’s dead? He just sort of died in the gondola and it’s, like, she looked and he’s dead. He doesn’t, like, have any last words or anything like that.
He’s dead. And I talked to Philip Reeve about this. And like so many things, you know, as I keep talking, you see the tale grows in the telling. By the time you get to the end of a story, if you look back at the beginning, there are wild inconsistencies– In characters because it changed. And so, you have to make a decision. Well, do I want to go back and do that? But, that way lies madness. And so–and, you know, I always go–you know, as you get older, you start having these maxims that you live by. And one that’s always worked for me is a great that Walt Whitman once said. He said, “If I contradict myself, well, then I contradict myself,” you know, and not to get too worried about, it seems to me.
And so, Philip was no help at all, you know? And he seems as odd and baffled, you know, by it all. I don’t know. As anyone. And so, I think the thing to do is take what you need and leave the rest.
And I think that that–I think that’s something that Peter [Jackson] and Philippa [Boyens] and Fran [Walsh] have done quite liberally and really beautifully, too, because you really do have to respect the differences between literature.
And the same goes, you know, with me playing this part. To say, oh, that’s just too kind a
Could you talk a little bit about acting with the Shrike prosthetic that’s standing in for his real head, presently?
SL: Well, they’re wonderful. I mean, I–and I think, you know, old actors are always saying that about young actors. But, I’ll tell you what, our two leads in this are truly very, very gifted. You know, she’s, like–she’s kind of good, I think, you know? And he’s got all–he’s a bag of charm, that boy. He’s terrific. Energy and vitality and all of that. So, they’re colleagues. Acting with them is just great.
And you know, as far as the height thing and everything like that, you know, sometimes I’m on an Alan Ladd and you know about that, right?
… And then sometimes–well, they did build me this kind of cap. I don’t know if you’ve seen it.
It’s very un-Shrike-like. It’s kind of a Gumby type thing. Or a, you know, or sort of–when I put it on, I feel like I’m wearing, you know, the 440 second hat of Bartholomew Cubbins. You know what I mean?
And to add insult to injury, you know, it’s [cute]. So, it’s actually kind of like a bonnet. And then you stand there and I’m acting with them and you’re looking right at me and I’m going, don’t look at me. Look at my eye. Fucking look at me. No, no. Stop fucking looking at me.
And then sometimes–I don’t know if you’ve seen there’s a box. There’s a plastic box with a sign on it, says do not open this box on pain of death. Shrike’s head is in here. And in there is kind of a model of Shrike’s head. So, occasionally, I’ll be in a scene where I’m holding Shrike’s head and I’m thinking, well, they don’t really need me at all.
But, I like taking, you know, full responsibility, you know, to the extent that you can, you know, in the character. So, I’m quite happy to do it and everything. And you know, it’s amazing how quickly, you know, actors kind of adapt to the weird reality of what the situation is, you know? And the second or third time through, it’s normal to them.
Given all the political parallels of this story, was that something that drew you to this world, especially considering the political climate that we’re in now?
SL: No, I wouldn’t say so because I think that–I mean, one of the things that draws me to this story is just the sheer imagination and dark–the dark whimsy of this story. And I don’t think there’s a whole lot that’s particularly–a lot of darkness, but not a whole lot of whimsy that’s going on in politics today.
So, I can’t–I mean, I think it’s all–I think it’s–it kind of goes with the territory that journalists will and should kind of find the–draw political parallels from anything. And they certainly will with Avatar. There’s no question about that. And I think with this one, you know, absolutely.
But, it’s not what drew me to it. To me, I’m–I mean, it was the challenge of playing a very, very difficult role. It was also the–a long desire of had to work with Peter Jackson, who I have just, you know, really great, great regard for. And having worked here before, I wanted–pleased to come back to New Zealand to work with the entire team here because there’s really a–there’s a wonderfully familial and collegial and benign spirit here, you know, that makes working here very, very pleasant, I think.
Mortal Engines opens in theatres worldwide December 14, 2018.