The Badass Women of “Mortal Engines”

Most of the central characters in author Philip Reeve’s critically acclaimed Mortal Engines are in their early 20s and for Universal Pictures’ big-screen adaptation, filmmakers decided early on to seek out actors for those roles that weren’t already well known to most audiences.

When you have younger characters leading the story, those every man and every woman characters are better off if they are played by lesser-known faces,” says Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies), screenwriter and producer for Mortal Engines. “So, we set the casting-net wide, searching the globe for young, fresh-faced actors who we felt could carry the complex human story that drives the film.”

Hera Hilmar (Hester Shaw)

One such fresh talent is Hera Hilmar, who plays the film’s heroine, Hester Shaw. Injured as a child during a fight that took her mother’s life, Hester has been left with a facial scar – a constant reminder of the brutal crime. It is also a catalyst for Hester’s transformation into becoming the ultimate survivor and a woman propelled by the desire for vengeance.

The search for Hester was extensive, and global, and critical. The character is the emotional and narrative center of the film. Finding an actress who could convey that singular alchemy of strength and vulnerability, mystery and danger, righteous anger and wounded spirit, proved elusive until, an audition tape arrived from Icelandic actor Hera Hilmar, who had appeared in An Ordinary Man and Anna Karenina. “She was just perfect,” director Christian Rivers says. “Relatively unknown, captivating, beautiful and fragile, and we knew we could put a scar on her.”

The audition tape was so strong, in fact, that the filmmakers, after a Skype call with Hilmar, cast her without meeting her in-person. “Hera reminds me of Ingrid Bergman,” Philippa Boyens, Jackson’s longtime collaborator and fellow screenwriter for Mortal Engines, says. “A classic beauty and an old soul with a calmness about her—absolutely perfect for the role of Hester.”

At the start of the film, Hester has been on her own in the barren wastelands for six months. And to portray that aspect of the character, Hilmar wanted to investigate and understand that sense of isolation. “I try to sit with a character as much as I can when I am prepping,” Hilmar says. “I feel like I need to color in everything around me, in a 360-degree way. For Hester, I’d go to remote areas I found in New Zealand and try to imagine how it would be to have no one to rely on, living in the fierceness of wild inhabited nature, and how you would survive, both physically and mentally.”

JiHae (Anna Fang)

One of the most colorful characters in Mortal Engines is the Anti-Tractionist aviatrix Anna Fang. An infamous resistance fighter with a price on her head, Fang built her own airship, the Jenny Haniver, and is renowned for her fearless pursuit of justice and her peerless combat skills. “As our film begins we regard Anna Fang as being absolutely the villain of the story,” Jackson says. “But then we encounter her, and slowly we begin to realize that there is a humanity there, and a ruthless determination to fulfill what she believes in.”

For the role of Fang, the leader of the Anti-Traction League, the filmmakers cast relative newcomer to acting Jihae. An accomplished rock musician, the South Korean-born talent grew up in America where she dabbled in martial arts. Undoubtedly, she was prepared for the role as heroine, whom she describes as “a badass, ruthless, fearless leader with a lot of compassion for the oppressed.”

Jihae, Jackson says, “has an elegance and a power that is exactly what Anna Fang needed to be. She’s a fantastic actor and she’s playing a character whose beliefs align with her own in some ways, so she’s able to play it with a lot of conviction and a lot of authenticity.”

Now showing in Philippine cinemas, Mortal Engines is distributed in the Philippines by United International Pictures through Columbia Pictures.

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