It’s all just a gut feeling.
There are breakthroughs in life, and then there are the star-making ones in film. Over the past several months, the world has been waking up to Hera Hilmar’s not-yet-familiar face plastered on billboards all around the world, signaling her vertiginous ascent up the Hollywood totem pole.
The 29-year-old Icelandic actress first came on our radar earlier this year with Brad Silberling’s An Ordinary Man. The story goes that Sir Ben Kingsley himself requested to have Hilmar play opposite him, having previously worked together on Joseph Ruben’s The Ottoman Lieutenant. But her true breakout came with Badvin Zophoniasson’s Life in a Fishbowl, Iceland’s biggest hit of 2014, which secured her a place as one of the European Shooting Stars, a prestigious annual roundup of up-and-comers selected by a jury of industry experts. ESS is an initiative that proves for many an important stepping stone in actors’ careers, which has been true for many of Anthem’s past interview subjects, including Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Melvil Poupoud, Thure Lindhardt, Nina Hoss, Ludivine Sagnier, Elena Anaya, Jakob Cedergren, Mélanie Laurent, Hannah Herzsprung, Max Hubacher, and Franz Rogowski. Such a list is but a distant memory for Hilmar now: a Peter Jackson-produced spectacle marks her first leading role in a major studio film.
Based on Philip Reeve’s 2001 steampunk YA novel and from first-time helmer Christian Rivers, Mortal Engines is set in a post-apocalyptic future after Earth was ravaged by a series of quantum explosions known as the “Sixty-Minute War.” The pockets of civilization that weren’t decimated became “traction cities,” colossal and lumbering monstrosities on wheels that roam around Europe eating up smaller villages and converting their resources into fuel. Hester Shaw (Hilmar), a hard-knocked fugitive with a mysteriously-scarred face, is out to avenge her mother by assassinating an enterprising industrialist, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), when a lowly history buff, Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), inadvertently thwarts her attempt. When Hester and Tom are ejected from the roving city of London, they band together with a team of unlikely revolutionaries to take down Valentine, who they soon learn is building a new quantum doomsday weapon to shoot down a barrier wall, which is currently preventing said London from gobbling up all of Asia.
Anthem met up with Hilmar for a conversation and photoshoot at Be Electric Studios in Brooklyn.
Mortal Engines opens everywhere on December 14th.
[Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted on October 7th and held for the film’s release.]
Your face is plastered all over Manhattan right now. In the subways—everywhere.
I know! It’s surreal. My uncle from Iceland who happened to be in New York sent me a photo and he was like, “Look at this.” [Laughs] It’s also interesting because there’s this slogan as well: “Keep calm and keep moving.” It’s very London-esque. It reminds you of the tubes in London, but we’re in New York so it unites those worlds. But yeah, it’s big and weird and fun!
When there’s so much fandom surrounding a project that you’re involved with—I know you guys were just at Comic-Con—does that inevitably amplify the pressure for you to succeed? You’re really carrying the film with this one.
In a way it does because there are a lot of people out there you don’t want to let down. At the same time, I feel like there’s a lot of support. There’s a lot of excitement and good energy coming from a group of people like that. At the end of the day, I think people want it to do well. They want to go and see a movie like this and I think that’s nice. It makes you feel like you’re doing it for someone that you can envision in a more easier way rather than not knowing the group of people that could be into it. And hopefully, that group will become bigger and more diverse. It’s exciting.
How did this movie enter your orbit in the first place?
I just got sent a request to audition-by-tape for it. At the time, I was doing a play in Iceland and I had my head fully in it and this all sounded very complicated. I was like, “What is this world?” but it sounded exciting at the same time. So I sent the tape out into the world and then it just…happened! Literally a few days later, all of us were Skyping and I felt like I needed to sing a song or dance for them. [Laughs] But we were just chatting and talking about the story. Suddenly, I was in New Zealand prepping for the shoot so it happened very quickly. I’m sure they did a little background check on me to know that I wasn’t some psycho or something.
So how much of the movie have you seen?
I’ve seen the whole thing. I saw it two days ago.
How did the finished film stack up to what you thought you had experienced on set?
I’m very excited about it. I really liked what I saw. It’s always funny because you work on something for six months filming it and you go into the most minor details, and then you see it and it’s nearly two hours and nothing more. But it’s great. It keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time. I got goosebumps like crazy throughout the whole film. I’m very proud of it. I’m very proud that we made it into this after all the work. There’s always something that changes a little bit or scenes that go when the movie takes on a life of its own so you just kind of go, “Okay, that’s the life it has now.” I can’t wait for people to see it and see what it means to someone else.
I’d imagine you don’t think about the aftermath so much while making it. You’re not fixating on how a film might turn out or how it will be received later.
No, no, no, you don’t really do that. It was great to be at Comic-Con yesterday and do all of that. I do find it sometimes a little bit scary when suddenly you can’t hide behind a character and you have to talk a lot about yourself. But you get over that. It’s fun to talk about the film. It’s fun to talk about Hester because she’s such a cool character. So I can in a way hide behind that. It was great to see how excited people were yesterday about it and us seeing a clip. There was just all of this good energy coming from everyone, which was really nice to feel.
You got a very cool introduction to your craft because both of your parents are in the industry. What early memories do you have about seeing them working?
I grew up with that world being the norm: my father being a film director and the more momentary work for my mother being an actress. I think I understood the struggles of living in that world—it’s not easy. Also, the amount of work, time, effort, happiness, and all these things together that go into creating a film, for example. I was always just putting on plays and doing whatever else I could at home because I enjoyed it. That became, “I want to do this always.” My parents were not the kind of people who push their kids into doing it. If anything, they really tried to stop me from doing it because it’s a tough world. You don’t want your kid going into it when maybe something else is safer, although sometimes that isn’t the case at all. But you know, you end up doing what you want. It’s all good now.
Did having your parents as examples who achieved something that’s really unattainable in a lot of ways make your own pursuit seem more tangible at the outset?
Possibly, yeah. I think it can go both ways. I think you can grow up in a completely different world thinking, “I’m gonna do that” or “I can do that.” In the same way, being a kid from people in the business, you can be crazy hard on yourself because you see the amount of let downs and the hardships so you can get overwhelmed by that, too. Even though people are successful, it’s still not an easy job. At the end of the day, it’s about your personal character and what you’ve picked up from life. For me, it at least makes you feel like, “This is a normal thing to do” in a way. Some people grow up with families where it’s just really not an option. In that way, I’m happy that I grew up in that world.
In high school, you produced and starred in a theater project and a filmmaker discovered you from that for The Quiet Storm.
Yes, that was my first lead in a film in Iceland. It was the director of that film.
Did that film feel like a steep learning curve for you?
Yeah, but I look back and I’m really proud of my 16-year-old self like, “You really put the work in.” I spent a lot of time on my character work on my own, creating memories and creating my whole world. So I liked what I did. It’s funny because later I did a short film with my friends, after I’d seen some actors who are really good at looking like they didn’t do any prep. Obviously, they did, but I decided not to prep that much for the short film and it ended up not being my finest work. It’s always a learning curve. I think I’ve been learning since then and keep learning and watch how to do things and how to not do things. Hopefully, I’m always learning. I think otherwise you die.
You studied acting at LAMDA [London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art].
This is of course a generalization, but it feels like there’s more this urge in the States for actors to get their feet wet right away. Getting trained in theater is big in the UK. Is studying the craft first very desirable in Iceland as well?
Yeah, it is. It actually used to be a work-protected title. You weren’t able to call yourself an actor unless you trained. So absolutely. There was never a question that I was not going to train. I guess also coming from that world with my parents, the respect for the training was huge. I of course do think there are things you only learn from the real world, but drama school is a great place to practice and fall and try out things over the course of three or four years. There are a lot of stuff that you just have to leave behind from school that don’t serve you in any way, too, but it gives you a lot of good stuff. I think it gave me a lot of good things.
You came on my radar this year with An Ordinary Man and then I learned you had also made another film, The Ottoman Lieutenant, with Sir Ben Kingsley. He seems very fond of you.
We met on set of The Ottoman Lieutenant. He’s obviously been around and he’s such a legendary actor that a lot of people have this fear of him and just this idea of him. I remember we literally met walking to the set and we just went, “Hi,” and then we really met for the first time in the scene. I think he’s a phenomenal actor to work opposite. I mean, how can you not enjoy working with someone who’s that good of an actor and has been working for that long? He seemed to enjoy working with me, too, so we did those weeks. There were so many long hours in Turkey and no time off that we didn’t really get to know each other that well outside of set. Then he got in touch and asked me if I wanted to read the script for An Ordinary Man because I think he just thought I would be right for the part so that’s kind of where that started. Then I got in touch with Brad Silberling, the director, and it ended up happening. We got to know each other way better on that film because it’s basically a two-hander and we worked at it together. For a young actor to work that intimately with a pro was like a masterclass for the weeks we shot in Serbia.
I would think being starstruck by another actor would be insanely distracting on a shoot.
You have to connect to the human in everyone. Of course you can get a bit starstruck and stuff, but I think the more you can cut away from that and just see the human being, you can connect more as people. I think we managed to do that. Otherwise, the work just ends up being superficial.
You were named one of the European Shooting Stars in 2015. What happened afterwards?
For me, the change was more happening before that. I did a film called Life in a Fishbowl in Iceland, which was also a very intimidate working situation between me and Baldvin [Zophoníasson], the director, and the other two actors, aÞorsteinn Bachmann and Thor Kristjansson. We did so much prep for it together, like two years of it before shooting. The work was so immersive and we were completely in it the whole time. It was also about something that meant a lot to us in Iceland. It’s about something that happened right before the financial crisis in 2008 and it looks at a lot of the elements that were going on there in terms of our people and society. I suddenly felt like I made something I was really connected to and proud of and represented me as an actress quite well. I felt really proud to go around and be like, “Look at this film!” That film did really well back home and meant a lot to a lot of people. So that’s when that whole energy started and the Shooting Stars came with that. Somebody said to me, “It’s a quality stamp.” I guess it means that you’ve done something where someone’s going, “It’s a good film.” I was proud to get that honor and it meant a lot to me. I had remembered seeing people get nominated for that before and thinking, “I’d love to make something that gets me there one day.”
What factors are you weighing when you’re considering potential projects? If you look at Mortal Engines, for example, how does that film fit into your body of work?
It’s all just a gut feeling. I think you very often know when it’s not right and that can be for so many different reasons, and the right thing can be for so many different reasons as well. People sometimes ask, “What’s your dream role?” I feel like you don’t actually know, but you can have an idea about your dream. It’s like asking, “What do you want to do in your life?” You can have an idea and go, “I’m gonna do this” and set off, but it’s also good to be open to the fact that you might not know what it is until it actually happens. Sometimes you find yourself in a role or in a project where you’re going, “Oh my god, this character is amazing and the working relationships on this set is like a dream,” and the film does really well and suddenly people are really connecting. You’re going, “This is the dream.” Or maybe sometimes you go and do something and it just doesn’t work out in the same way. So if I had thought about the idea of Mortal Engines before it happened it would be like, “This is way more commercial than all the stuff that I’ve done and it’s on a bigger scale. Do I want to do something like that?” When Mortal Engines did come I thought, “This is a great story and an amazing character—an important character, I think.” Also, to work with someone like Peter [Jackson] and Fran [Walsh] and Philippa [Boyens] and Christian [Rivers] is such a great opportunity. So yes, that’s the right thing to do.
Mortal Engines is a huge movie heading into a lot of theaters around the world. There will be a lot of fans discovering you for the first time, and in your role as Hester. Can you make peace with the fact that you won’t have a blank slate again as an actor?
To be honest, I never really wanted to be known as a character, like stuck in a role. I would always want to keep doing diverse things as an actor. But I can make peace with what you’re asking. Let’s say someone was really into Mortal Engines and loved Hester and didn’t love anything else I did—I don’t mind that. Then at least I’ve done something right for someone. I think she’s a really cool character to be into. Everything that’s happening with social media and young people and depression levels and this idea of having to be perfect and all these filters out there and everyone looking at these images alone in their rooms—I’m so glad that didn’t exist when I was a teenager. We had MySpace and that was it. That still exists, by the way.
Yes, but I don’t know how.
[Laughs] So hopefully, Hester is a good reminder that—I know I’m saying this all dressed up with make-up on my face so it kind of goes against what I’m saying—it’s okay to dress up, but beauty isn’t just that. Beauty isn’t flawless. Beauty is flawed, usually. Everything is. Some things are more obviously flawed and some things aren’t. Life goes up and down in waves and I hope we go down from the wave and into the wave of flawed beauty now.