Mortal Engines Stars on Blockbuster Social Conscience

Mortal Engines Stars on Blockbuster Social Conscience

Hera Hilmar and Robert Sheehan take on giant cannibal cities and social metaphor in Peter Jackson-penned film.

Hera Hilmar and Robert Sheehan take on giant cannibal cities and social metaphor in Peter Jackson-penned film.

Text: SAMUEL ANDERSON

Since traveling halfway around the world to Peter Jackson’s New Zealand production compound to co-star in the just-released dystopian blockbuster Mortal Engines, actors Hera Hilmar and Robert Sheehan share a camaraderie one might describe as Tolkienian. Even through the phone, one senses Hilmar’s inner Icelandic glow patiently reining in the spritely Sheehan: At one point on a call from a recent junket on the Universal lot, Hilmar pauses, distracted mid-sentence. “Sorry, I was just doing some yoga,” chimes Sheehan. “It’s very spiritual.”

Discussions of Mortal Engines tend to go in such unexpected directions, given the film’s heady subject matter. The Peter Jackson-penned adaptation of Philip Reeves’s YA classic depicts a world overrun by governments-on-wheels that can “digest” one another. Hilmar plays Hester Shaw, a single-minded assassin from the Dead Continent, née North America. On a mission to kill her mother’s murderer, she encounters Sheehan’s Tom Natsworthy, a researcher in London, which has become a predatory "traction city."

While the film, shot between over 120 specially constructed sets, may singlehandedly rival the scale and fantasy of the whole Lord of the Rings franchise, it is also a literalistic allegory for our geopolitical reality, as Hilmar and Sheehan note in this conversation ranging from yoga moves to the catch-22s of capitalism.

V Where are you guys right now?

Hera Hilmar We are on the Universal Studios lot.

Robert Sheehan We’ve got a view of some shirtless golfers, next to the Universal lot.

V Really? They’re golfing without shirts?

HH I can check, because he might be making that up… There is a golf course and there’s a man. Whether he is shirtless, I can’t say.

V It sounds like you guys are fairly comfortable with each other. Does that come from this shoot, which I am sure was pretty intense?

HH Yeah! It’s as far I have ever traveled in my life. It took two days to get there, so that brought us so close together.

RS You kind of become like a traveling circus family. You are sick of the sight of each other by the end of it.

V What was the scale of the set?

HH A lot of people think we were constantly in like a green room. We had over 120 amazing sets, like whole cities.

RS Peter Jackson had the rights to the book over a decade; mocking up how the world would look for many, many years. So essentially it was the manifestation of all of that work. Every other week, when we would walk onto set, we would have another new playground.

HH It was kind of like an amusement park. We were in costumes playing around every day. It was fun.

V Tell us a bit about your characters.

HH I play Hester Shaw, who lives where America is now. When she was eight, a very close family friend murdered her mother and attempted to kill Hester as well. She was left to die in the wilderness, but this half-man, half-robot found her and raised her. When we meet her, she’s completely devoid of human interaction. The only thing she wants in life is to kill this man that killed her mother. When we meet her, she is attempting that very thing, and that’s how and why Hester meets Tom.

RS Tom has lived a more sheltered existence by comparison. He’s never left the confines of our big "Mortal Engine," London. Tom is an apprentice historian who constantly wades through mountains of crap in the digestion yard, looking for stuff of any historical importance.

HH Tom has been living on a traction city all his life and has never touched the ground, while Hester has always been on the ground. That’s something that makes them so different. Plus, Tom lives in the past always and is obsessed with history, while Hester is on a mission to do something in the future: to kill someone.

V Hera is very singleminded whereas Tom is somewhat head-in-the-clouds, perhaps. Did you identify with the respective temperaments of your characters?

RS I suppose I am pretty head-in-the-clouds. I rarely read the schedule for the day. But more  than head-in-the-clouds, I would say that I stay in the moment. What did John Lennon say? “Life is the thing that happens when you are busy making plans.”

HH I definitely have elements of Hester. If I am on a mission, I am on mission. So I kind of relate to that. Whether I would kill someone to get there

RS She killed like three assistants on the movie.

HH Yeah but we are not talking about that. [laughs]

V Did either of you do any research for your role, other than reading the book?

HH To me, it always quite clearly reminded [me] of how countries in this world have taken over others—taken over their people, used their resources and land. Hopefully we are fortunate enough to have learned that in school. I hope that most people have and that they don’t forget. But that didn’t necessarily enter into the work for us.

V The imperialist parallel is interesting. Whether or not it entered into the actual performance or the film, are you hoping that’s something people will take away from it?

RS We all digest reality through symbol and metaphor and I think Mortal Engines can definitely be used as a metaphor for our world. It’s a satire, a grim satire of a potential future. You know Tractionism could be linked to capitalism if you like. Capitalism is an ideology that necessitates a destruction of the planet in order to continue existing. [laughs] Tractionism is an ideology that can’t allow any other opposing ideologies to exist. So, you can retrospectively draw a lot of parallels, I suppose, if you like. I would like for people to get a very rich experience from the film, but that’s down to them personally.

V Do you think that they’ll make a permanent Mortal Engines ride at Universal?

HH I think they should.

RS We’d look great on a screen the size four double decker bus. They should probably make a roller coaster using our giant heads.

Robert Sheehan and Hera Hilmar in Mortal Engines (courtesy: Universal)

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