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 Hera Hilmar. Hilmar is an actor known for playing Vanessa in Da Vinci’s Demons. She plays Hester Shaw in Mortal Engines.
What is that moment like for you when you’re auditioning for Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Christian Rivers?
HERA HILMAR: Yeah, it’s kind of–it’s a bit weird because you sort of–I don’t know. It isn’t like you would imagine, oh, that moment in my life when I will Skype Ben or something. Suddenly, you’re just, like, oh, it’s this guy calling you to talk. What are we talking about? I hadn’t read the script by then. So, they were basically just kind of telling me about the story and the script and everything.
And yeah. And then, actually, Peter wasn’t there when we started the conversation. He came a bit later. And then we just started talking about, like, sheep …
HH: Oh, because we were kind of comparing Iceland to New Zealand. And he was, like, well, we’ve got lots of sheep. And I was, like, cool. We, too. And then we went from there. No, it was cool. It’s nice, though. It’s nice when you just sort of–you know, it’s not all just work. It’s also about where you’re from and sort of life and sheep. And not just, like–yeah, the obvious stuff. It was cool.
We were curious about Hester’s scar because it’s an interesting decision to make a main character – who is female – have a facial scar. What did you think when you saw it? How much time do you have to spend in the makeup chair?
HH: Okay. So, it’s not too long, actually. It’s two pieces. It’s, like, one piece that goes over my face here and then one that goes here. And I mean, have you–in the book, she’s, like–you know, it goes over her eye and the nose and everything and that was an idea at one point.
But, it ended up being that we found this kind of middle way so I could, I guess, express myself in the same way, like, eyes and nose and stuff like that. And the mouth and stuff. So, we–it’s now a scar that kind of comes over the face and here and ends up here.
And it took awhile to find the right thing. And because there needed to be a balance of–you know, it needs to be enough for you to go–okay, understand why this is a big deal. You know, both why it’s there, which is the, I think, the most important thing. But, also, you know, that people see it. It’s not just something that you kind of, oh, you sort of see.
… I mean, we even tried, like, what they used to use, kind of the old prosthetics stuff for one day when we were doing something and that takes much longer. This stuff, if it’s done right and has the right kind of chemicals in it, it just kind of goes on and then you have to sort of melt it on your face. And then you sort of melt it off again. It’s not too bad at all.
But, yeah. But, like, today, for example, I’m wearing the scarf. So, we try to give my skin a little bit of rest in between because after, like, weeks and weeks and weeks, it starts to be a bit, like, you know, you have plastic over your face every day and you’re sweating underneath the stuff. It’s not a great photo.
Not the most comfortable thing?
HH: No. I mean, it’s not too bad, though.
You know, but it’s not the–yeah, your skin doesn’t really breathe. And so, yeah. It’s–but, I think we’ve done really well. I think we’ve kept me sort of quite spot free, as you can–as much as hope–we could hope for with something like that. You know what I mean?
Can you talk about working with Stephen Lang and kind of the relationship that Hester has with him?
HH: Oh, yeah, it’s been really good. I love their relationship and, you know, has their own strikes relationship and I think it’s a really–it’s just really interesting, you know, how you kind of–I don’t know. It’s just the concept of a robot who still has some feelings left from a human being. I think it’s such a thing that I think is so in us in this world that we live and, like, trying to understand how much like a computer can become, like, a human being.
You know? And it’s kind of scary. And you sort of hope that at least if they then would become so clever that they would be like us, that then they would also have conscience. Anyway, so that–to me, that goes into that direction. But, Stephen’s been great. We just had a really good time. And then–yeah. He’s just really–I mean, because he, of course, doesn’t even have the whole costume. He has this gray suit– It’s great when I can look into his eyes.
Is that a legitimate challenge, not being able to look in your costar’s eyes?
HH: Yeah. I guess so. I mean, like–it is, yeah. Because you want to take something from them.
It’s windows to the soul.
HH: Yeah, exactly … That’s a challenge.
But, it’s been–mostly, it’s been–you know, I’ve been able to work with him more than his suit.
What’s the connection between Hester and Tom [Natsworthy] and how does it build over the movie?
HH: No. It’s–to me, they’re kind of–I don’t know where to start with that one. It’s complicated, you know? It’s not like a relationship that is, like, oh my God, there’s a cute guy and I’m going to, you know–like, Hester, like, to me, hasn’t–you know, she was seriously hurt as a child and abandoned and left. And then has been raised since she was eight with this robot human kind of man.
HH: Yeah. A Resurrected Man. And so, you know, the idea of falling in love with someone is not on her list. It doesn’t exist, really, I think, to her. And to him, also this is just some kind of weird fucked up girl that is–you know, he’s suddenly, like, stuck with.
I mean, I think what’s kind of nice to play and to look at with Hester is a person who’s been scarred like that in every way and learning to love again, I guess. And Tom happens to be the person that is there and opens that door for her, you know? It’s, like, that’s kind of how I see it.
I don’t necessarily see it–and I think it’s quite quoted in the book even and in the film that they’re not a typical, like–it’s not a fairytale, you know? And it’s quite realistic in that way that he happens to be the person that is that person to her and she to him.
And yeah. So, we’re–you know, we haven’t shot the last scene. That’s kind of where we see where it sort of ends up and we’re still talking about it a lot. So, right now, I’m really, like, kind of–we really tried to figure out, like, what is it–how’s it going to end, you know?
But, yeah, it definitely starts with two people that aren’t really–don’t really like each other and somehow help each other out.
What’s been your most challenging day of filming so far?
HH: That was last Thursday. It didn’t involve Tom, though. That involved me and Valentine.
I mean, I managed to not be ill on this job, but I’ve had a few days since then and I ended up getting a bit. It was–yeah. It was our second fight in the film when we meet again. There’s a lot of stunts involved and a lot of, like, emotional stunts. Sort of emotional fighting. Not just, like, fighting, but, like, kind of out of control sort of fairway and kind of– bashing it out in way. Rather than kind of, you know, guns or whatever.
And so, there was a lot of stunts involved and I had to do nearly all of it. I think the only shot I didn’t do was the big wide one. Yeah. But, anyways–and then when you’re sort of emotionally invested in something, you don’t always realize, like, how far you’re going physically.
So, like, for example, at one point–there’s some move I especially asked for–well, we always sort of talk about and ask for things, but I added this in. So, I just want to look at him. We kind of fall in and he’s sort of standing up and I sort of drag him from behind and I just start beating him. And kind of, like–and I grab him and then we sort of keep going.
And then, he’s on his back and, you know, you pad yourself up and stuff because you have to. Otherwise, if you do it for, like–we worked 16 hours that day. And if you do that, you know, you’re fucked after it. But, I didn’t think, you know, that this was going to be a, you know, a thing. Like, I just thought I’ll hit him with a stunt guy and we’re all padded. But, you know, we didn’t really think this was–and my hand, like, just went, like, [sound effect]. And, you know, I’ve never hit anyone in real life before. Oh, my God.
How many of the stunts do you actually have to do yourself? How many do you have to defer?
HH: A lot of them. Nearly all of them. Like, the stuff that I haven’t done has just been, like–mainly because of time where we’ve had to get them to do the really wide stuff, you know, where–because we’ve just been having to keep on filming something else. But, in terms of, you know, going for it and doing it, I–nearly all of us have been doing that.
So, you know, it’s just if they think something is, like, too risky for, like, financial stuff or whatever and insurance stuff. But otherwise, it’s–we’ve been doing a lot. A lot of jumping, a lot of hanging, a lot of dragging, and, you know–yeah. So, it’s been physically demanding, but great fun. A lot of running. A lot of jumping. But, it’s better than just sort of sitting around. It’s great. Gets you in there.
We heard some of the sets, too, have sort of rigs on them to kind of simulate the motion of the city. Have you had to do any sort of, like, motion choreography yourself just in a Traction City?
HH: Yeah. Yeah. We did some–yeah. There’s been a bit of that. We’ve done some big jump between wheels on cities, which was quite sort of challenging because you just have, like, this huge, like, that kind of part of a wheel and nothing else. And then, it moves kind of like that. And so, we had to sort of do some work with that, kind of understanding how the city works and stuff like that.
And then at one point, we’re inside a wheel but doesn’t move. So the whole scene, we have to act it like that, you know?
And then the scene with Valentine, that one I was talking about, we’re on an airship. So, we had to do kind of a bit of sort of, like–which is not the same as being in a boat or something, but you had to do a little bit of sometimes, like, moving–movement. So, I have to admit, a lot of the time we forgot to do because it’s really–it’s tricky. If you don’t practice it, like, with time, and we hadn’t, and it’s an emotional scene, you know, and you kind of want to focus on the scene, not just, like, the–you know, now we’re moving together.
You know, so the first takes, it was a little bit like that. It was just a bit shit. But, yeah. No, it’s been, you know–and it’s such a crazy world. So, you sort of imagine that.
But, then again, also, the sets have been amazing. Like, you know–and they’ve been physical. It’s not all just green screens. So, that’s cool. Really cool props and really cool kind of little worlds and stuff.
So, like, the front would go, like–kind of like this. So, when the pilot was sort of–you know, they would do that. And then the middle kind of went like that or something. And then, the back of it went like that. I just had to explain this, but it’s, like this big animal.
But, I actually–you know, the set that got the most people, I think, sick was this one bar that we have in Airhaven, which just always was, like, a bar. And then one day it’s been dropped from one side in the movie. So, the bar has gone, like, that like that. Kind of, like, that much.
So, the whole set is, like, on a rig, like, on an angle like that. It’s not a big difference. But, there’s one thing being on a moving thing. You can understand it from being a cars or planes or whatever. But, being in a room or, like, a house that is just all like that is just really weird.
Like, straightaway, I was, like, oh, my God. And it’s, like, nothing’s happening … So, yeah, that was kind of funny. So, yeah. Some people did get ill … But, you know, we got over it. Yeah.
How much did you pull from the original source material for your performance as Hester?
HH: A lot. I mean, quite true to the world of it. And there’s so much detail in the book. And then, yeah. I mean, at the end of the day, of course, you have to go, okay, this is the script that was filming because you can sometimes go, wait, wasn’t this–oh, no, it’s in the book and stuff like that.
But, no, I think it’s amazing. In this case, like, you know, you can go and you can get all these, like, just extra stuff and back stories and these things. Yeah. No. I loved it. It’s really–it’s great.
Did you get to collaborate with Christian Rivers and the producers on shaping who Hester is?
HH: All of it has been from day one. Like, even with the scars, I was able to do my own suggestions and drawings. And, like, for example, the idea was first to have it, like, only here and then–and that wasn’t just my idea, but it’s one of those things that I felt strongly about that it would also cut through the chin and that happened.
And then, just anything. Anything that I felt was, you know, needed changing in scenes, I would mention then if that was bad or worked or whatever, we changed it. And even now, like we’re writing the last–I mean, these people work quite a lot, like, as we go. So, there’s a lot of, like, stuff happening kind of now. So, like, the last scene is still being written where–but, that’s a collaboration. It’s not like this is what you guys are going to be doing.
So, you know, what it’s going to be it’s going to be very much what all of us think it should be. I mean, which is sometimes tricky because you have a lot of brains wanting to, you know, decide.
But, like, right now, for example, I feel very strongly about how–who I’m playing and, you know, Rob [Sheehan] does as well, who Tom is and everything. So, like, it’s great. They’re very collaborative in that way.
And then, you know, the whole job is very much like that. It’s not like a one person’s thing, you know? It’s a group mission. And so, everything, no matter the writing on the day, the makeup, hair, whatever. And, you know, and if someone doesn’t agree with you, they’ll say why and what and, you know, and usually that’s very valid. And, you know–and you just–so, we’ve all been in quite of good synch, I’d say.
What is Hester’s behavior like since she has two such horrible inadequate father figures?
HH: I mean, I think Hester is completely feral and not–she does not communicate in the same way as I would or we would sort of in general, you know? She doesn’t–there are different things that matter to her than–that do later in the film.
And she doesn’t–you know, I kept cutting out lines because I didn’t want her to speak a lot, you know? So, like, I think that comes from living with someone like that. And she’s been on her own for a long time. And then when we meet her, she’s been completely on her own for, like, six months in the wilderness.
So, she’s become quite tough and sort of not social in any way. Not–she doesn’t–she needs to survive. So–and that’s a nice thing to be able to play. Like, you know, I mean, I think it’s a relief to be able to play a female character that is–you know, because I think, like, people can be worried sometimes about the female characters looking too rough and stuff like that, which I think is a shame.
And therefore, I think it’s great that, you know, I can look as rough as I can in–within the parameters of what we’re doing. But–and, you know–and that–and you’re allowed to play those parts in a woman in this world. You know, not just always, like, the supportive motherly something. You know what I mean?
Not that that’s always the case, but I think we’re seeing more of that now and it’s more allowed, I guess. And Hester is not nice a lot of the time and she’s not, you know–she can be brutal. And she can also be, you know–she kind of learns–like I was saying earlier, she learns to open up and she learns to trust maybe again. And yeah.
We talked about working on practical sets. How’s it been working in a computer animated environment? Is that something that was in your wheelhouse?
HH: Yeah, it’s been cool. I mean, it’s a different challenge than being in an actual set. But, you know, I’ve done it before. But, I found it, like–I thought this was going to be, like, so much just green screen and stuff. And I was a bit, like, oh, that’s going–how is that going to be? But, I’ve found it okay. You know, I think if you know–the more prep you’re able to do in terms of the world and we have, like, the books. And the world is so vivid and they’ve done amazing, like, art … Concept art. So, you can, like, see it all. And if you need to see something, you can have it–just look at it before. And so, in many ways, it’s been quite, like, fun for your imagination. You know, like, more maybe than I thought it would be because you can go, like, wow. This is all happening. And it isn’t just this, you know? It’s, like, this big world, which is cool.
So, it’s a different challenge, but, like, practical challenge. You know, it’s more, like, looking there and this and that. And you have to kind of go through it and draw it all in. But, yeah. It’s worked. Yeah.
Mortal Engines opens in theatres worldwide December 14, 2018.