Complex Characters, Unseen Faces
The Global Search for a Singular Cast
Most of the central characters in Mortal Engines are in their early 20s and
the 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 everyman and everywoman characters are better off if they are
played by lesser-known faces," Jackson says. "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."
In this future world, accents offer a crucial source of information about the
characters. Nearly all of the 50 speaking roles required the actors to either
modify or completely change their native accents. To oversee this process the
filmmakers brought in England based dialect coach JAN HAYDN ROWLES (Game of
Thrones). For the most part, the characters that live on London have British
accents, although variations were used to indicate the tier in London that they
were from. Essentially, the lower the tier the more common the accent. Rowles
collaborated with each actor, helping fine-tune the accent to suit each
Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar)
The heroine, Hester Shaw, is "one of the most amazing modern characters ever
written," Rivers says." 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. "What I
love about Hester is that she's the answer to the mystery of the whole story in
this film," Boyens says. "She just doesn't know it yet. Ultimately, she finds
that she's actually part of an even greater mystery and a much more dangerous
threat, not just to herself but to the entire world."
After her mother's murder, Hester was found and raised by Shrike, a
"resurrected man," who is half human and half machine. He kept her safe but he
wasn't an ideal model for her emotional and social development. "Being raised by
Shrike has led to a few personality issues for Hester," Jackson says. "She's
compelling because she's a character who has a driving desire to assassinate
somebody. Normally, those characters are the baddies in a film - they're the
people you don't empathize with. The film takes you on a journey where you start
to understand, right or wrong, why she wants to do it."
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," 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," Boyens says. "A classic beauty and an old soul with a calmness
about her-absolutely perfect for the role of Hester."
The actress was thrilled for the chance to play such a complicated and
fearless role. "Hester is such a cool, compelling character in every way,"
Hilmar says. "I love her fierceness and how unapologetic she is, but she is
still looking for something, and missing something. Hester is an angry woman
with a purpose, willing to lose everything to right the wrongs done to her loved
At the start of the film, Hester has been on her own in the barren wastelands
for six months. 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
Her accent in the film reflects the seclusion of her upbringing. Hester's
mother in the film has an American accent, but Hester has been raised by Shrike,
who is part machine. Dialect coach Rowles worked with Hilmar on an American
accent but purposely didn't iron out all of the actress' native Icelandic
influences. In the end, Rowles says, they landed on "something quite unique and
perfect for Hester, who is an outsider to London."
Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan)
The character of Tom Natsworthy is, in many ways, Hester's opposite. Raised
inside the traction city of London, he has no real sense of the world outside of
it. "Tom is very sheltered," Jackson says. "He has never actually touched mud or
grass; he has never set foot on stable ground. His whole life has been on the
move on the decks of the city of London. He has been raised to believe that
anything that is not a part of the traction world is to be feared and regarded
as a threat to traction cities."
Orphaned as a boy when his parents were killed in an accident, Tom was taken
in by the Historian's Guild and is treading a typical path for a young man in
London. "Tom represents a lot of people," Rivers says. "He has an okay life. He
is well meaning, basically a cheeky lay-about. He believes in the system that is
But Tom's world is soon turned upside down and his fundamental beliefs about
London-and who within it can be trusted-are tested, when he meets Hester Shaw
and finds himself on the run with her outside the protective fortress of the
city. "His journey is falling out of London and having to survive with Hester on
this stable unmoving world," Jackson says. "She is totally foreign to him and
not somebody he warms to. They are an unlikely couple of people that have to
survive in this unforgiving world."
The filmmakers needed to find an actor who would bring "lightness and humor,
and a whole lot of personality to the role," Rivers says. Tom needs to be
accessible and relatable because he also serves as the audience's entree into
this strange new world. "Tom is one of us, and we filter the story through Tom's
eyes," Jackson says.
They found all those qualities, and more, in Irish actor Robert Sheehan
(Fortitude, Misfits). "Robbie is irrepressible and curious about everything.
Perfect attributes for Tom," Boyens says. And the actor injected that same
enthusiasm and positive energy into his preparation for the role. "He invested
so much into the character that is not on the script page, and that is a dream
for filmmakers," Jackson says. "You want an actor to come along and absolutely
own that character and turn it into somebody who is captivating and funny and
charming-much more than we could actually write."
Hester and Tom
Love in the Time of Traction Cities
"At its heart this is a love story," Jackson says. "But it doesn't start out
that way. It starts out as an assassin trying to kill somebody and a naive young
man trying to stop the assassin. They don't trust each other for a long time."
For Sheehan, the interplay between Tom and Hester, and the eventual deepening
of their connection, was as important as the development of his individual
character. "Tom and Hester are two people who endure great adversity and are
chalk and cheese, but they are forced together and an inadvertent love story
develops," Sheehan says. "Hera's and my job has been mapping that love story.
People have to attach to the human beings as much as the excitement. This story
has to be anchored in humanity."
Striking the right balance for that love story was crucial. "Tom and Hester
become two people who can trust each other and end up being soul mates," Rivers
says. "Tom's love for Hester is a pleasant surprise and is not labored."
Sheehan's admiration of his co-star was just as easy. "Hera plays Hester with
such vulnerability," Sheehan says. "Hera has this great power, on- or
off-camera. When she is talking to you, she has you in her 'Hera beam.' She is
an incredibly engaging and charismatic person, and she brought a real savagery
to Hester-like a feral warrior with a blade in her hand."
Hilmar found working with Sheehan to be invigorating and always entertaining.
"He's got a lot of energy he gives to people around him. We've been on a whole
journey together, Robbie and I," Hilmar says, laughing. "From our first scenes
together, where our characters were like, 'get out of my face," until getting to
know the intimate details of each other's characters, we developed the
relationship between them, whilst at the same time developing our own
relationship as actors and getting to know each other better as people. Robbie
has this drive and curiosity to life that lent well to Tom. No day is the same
with Robbie on set!"
Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving)
For the role of the dashing Thaddeus Valentine, the team turned to an actor
they knew exceedingly well: Hugo Weaving. Having played Elrond in The Lord of
the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, the Australian actor was more than happy to
jump the ditch to New Zealand again. "I genuinely love coming to Wellington,"
Weaving says. "The people here are incredibly creative, resilient, easy-going
and friendly. All of those things play really well into the making of this
incredible creative beast that is film."
Thaddeus Valentine is the city's lead archaeologist and is admired by his
fellow Londoners for his daring expeditions and important discoveries. Valentine
has risen from modest origins but he now lives in rarefied air, Rivers says,
having been given "special privileges and special station by the Lord Mayor, due
his popularity and his promise to create a better future for London."
The character's profession also provides illuminating context in the future
world of the film. Valentine is digging into the past, but his past is our
present. "This is the Dark Ages of the future," Weaving says. "Technology and
science have been lost; knowledge has been lost. Archaeologists are digging up
old tech that became repurposed and refashioned and re-understood. They are
rebuilding science and technology. Valentine has acquired quite a lot of fame
for bringing a lot of these things back to light."
But Valentine's research into the past has shaped his thinking about the
future, and not always in altruistic ways. "Valentine is willing to do something
immoral if it is for the greater good," Rivers says. "He sees Tractionism as a
flawed system, and we almost buy into the way he sees things."
He's also not quite who he presents himself to be and Weaving was intrigued
by the duality of the role. "He's a romantic, heroic man that everyone knows,
but he is also an outsider to London and feels like a loner," Weaving says. "He
is an adventurer, very independent, highly intelligent and quick-witted. But he
also has many complexities. Those, as well as his backstory, play out as the
film progresses. We then get to see a much darker side of him."
No one was better equipped to play both sides of the Valentine coin. "Hugo
has a wonderful confidence about him, and he is someone that you absolutely
trust," Jackson says. "Valentine has morals that are not straight and level, and
Hugo brings this confident calmness to the character. Then he digs deep into the
dark side in surprising ways." It also doesn't hurt, Sheehan adds, that Weaving
"is a great, big cloud of charisma."
Katherine Valentine (Leila George)
The daughter of Thaddeus Valentine, Katherine Valentine is a privileged young
woman from the top tier of London. She's warm and kind, but her life of high
status has insulated her from some of life's harsher realities. To bring her to
life, the filmmakers cast Australian actress Leila George, who was fresh out of
the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute and is making her feature film
debut with the role.
"Katherine is full of life," George says. "She is excited about new things
and likes to be liked. All she ever wants to do is help. She has had a sheltered
life and is now going through the stage when she realizes her parent is actually
a human being as well." Katherine's growing awareness is not just restricted to
her father, either. "She starts to uncover that there are dirty truths to her
world," Rivers says. "She senses there is something wrong and takes risks to go
and uncover it. She believes it is unjust and seeks to change that."
Katherine's awakening, though, threatens to unsettle her close relationship
with her father. "When we first meet Valentine and Katherine, their relationship
is one that many people would envy," Weaving says. "They have a good, strong
reliance on each other. She is essentially brought up as a mirror image of
himself." That bond begins to fray, however, when she begins to have doubts
about his true motives, and his actions. "The truth is much more complex,"
Weaving says, "and she discovers entirely unpalatable things that he has done."
That, says Boyens, proves central to of one of the film's primary themes.
"Part of the heart of this story is about digging up the past, uncovering the
truth, and that part of the story is carried by two of the main female
characters, which I love," Boyens says. "With Katherine it's about an almost
brutal realization that everything she thought was true was not. Very quickly,
she has to make a decision about what she's going to do about it. She has been
protected, and now she has to be brave."
Bevis Pod (Ronan Raftery)
Around the time that Hester Shaw arrives in London, Katherine Valentine meets
a low-ranking engineer named Bevis Pod. He does not trust her, at first. Bevis
is curious, and earnest, and his observations have exposed him to the sinister
side of Thaddeus Valentine. And his station in life means his voice is unlikely
to be heard. "Bevis has been taught not to step out of line," Rivers says.
"However, he is given a chance to assist Katherine and make a difference. He
chooses to take risks in order to help change society for the better. Katherine
and Bevis team together and give each other strength."
Irish actor Ronan Raftery, known for his work in Fantastic Beasts and Where
to Find Them and The Siege of Jadotville, was thrilled for the opportunity to
portray Bevis. "Bevis is disillusioned with how the city works and suspicious of
anyone from the upper tiers-the folk who run the city," Raftery says. "He has
seen first-hand the dangerous lies that are being sold to Londoners and
So he's not exactly welcoming when Katherine shows up on his lower tier.
"Katherine is from Tier One, so Bevis is very wary, almost hostile toward her
when they meet," Raftery says. "She embodies the social inequality that Bevis
hates, but he figures out quickly that she is more than some upper-tier snob. He
loves that she is an incredibly strong woman. She is a girl who is completely in
charge of her destiny and unafraid to take anyone on-no matter the
She feels that connection too. "Katherine likes Bevis because he's the bad
boy who is there for her," George says. "This is really the first time she has
been excited about a boy, and it comes at a time when she is questioning her
faith in her dad."
It helped that Raftery and George bonded during three weeks of pre-production
in New Zealand. "Working with Leila was a breeze," Raftery says. "She's so cool.
She was always incredibly well prepared and totally fearless. You really have to
up your game when you're in a scene with her."
Shrike (Stephen Lang)
One of the most compelling characters in the Mortal Engines universe is the
part-human, part-automata, Shrike. Hundreds of years old, Shrike is the last
known "Stalker" roaming the Earth -- a dead man resurrected by technology. "They
were built to kill," Jackson says. "Human bodies were taken off battlefields and
turned into the most ruthless, powerful soldiers possible. So they've had a lot
of their humanity removed. They've got human brains inside their metal skulls,
but the compassion and consciousness has been taken out of their minds. You give
them a task and they do it. Now, there are no more wars to fight and so our
character of Shrike has become a bounty hunter."
Standing approximately nine feet tall, he is robotic in appearance, but he is
much more than that. "Shrike is interesting because he is a programmed robotic
character on some level, but also as time has gone on, he is connecting with
more and more bits of the human he was before he died," Hilmar says. "He is
finding his humanity, which makes him a fascinating character."
We see that humanity at first, ironically, in how Shrike relates to machines.
"His hobby is restoring these old automata that he finds in various states of
ruin," Jackson says. "He painstakingly restores them to get them working again
and brings them back to life. That's an aspect of Shrike's personality that I
found rather sad and touching, actually."
Although Shrike would appear as a digital character on screen, the filmmakers
knew that finding the perfect person to perform the role via performance-capture
was crucial. "We wanted to make sure we got an actor that was going to invest in
the role and emotion of the character," Rivers says. They found that actor in
Stephen Lang, who had rocketed to global acclaim in Avatar, and dazzled the
filmmakers with his terrifying but empathetic performance in the thriller, Don't
Lang was immediately captivated by the character from the moment he read the
screenplay. "When I hit Shrike in the script my hair stood on end," Lang says.
"I felt in my soul that this was a heartbreakingly beautiful character and a
role that I was born to play. He elicits terror but there is also something
terribly pitiable about him." Lang was intrigued by the contradictions within
Shrike. "For a character who has been emptied out, he is really full. For a
character who detests memory or has no use for it, he is completely obsessed.
For a character who is absolutely heartless, he has got the biggest heart."
Lang approached the role with full gusto. "Rule number one is to serve the
performance," he says. "I have to make the leap of faith that I can embody the
character. I'm the first line of defense for Shrike. If I'm not definitive about
this role, then who will be?"
To inform his performance, Lang took inspiration from birds of prey. "I
looked at the patience that these birds have and also how they perch," he says
"I wanted to adopt a physical position at rest for Shrike, which is not like the
one for a human being. When he works, he is always perched. It's one of those
ways to create a difference, a signature."
Lang also studied the praying mantis and swans, but it was a YouTube clip of
dancer Rudolf Nureyev in Swan Lake that helped lock in Shrike's physicality.
"When Nureyev moves, his arms don't move, and that's not human," Lang says.
"When we walk, we counterweight. Nureyev keeps his arms back, and he looks like
a folded bird. It's incredibly graceful and there is also something slightly
robotic, which is right in the wheelhouse of this character."
Finding Shrike's voice presented its own set of challenges. "Every time
Shrike speaks in the book it is in capital letters," Lang says. "His voice is
described as being like fingers on a blackboard, which is fine in a book but not
in a film."
To assist Lang with producing and projecting the voice of Shrike on set, the
sound department built what became affectionately known as the "Stalker Talker."
This invention was essentially a microphone that amplified and distorted a vocal
input and included an earpiece so that Lang could easily hear himself. But Lang
didn't just let this device do the talking. He tasked himself with producing the
most "Shrike-like" voice possible. "We had to transmogrify it into something you
could listen to," Lang says. "It is pneumatic, electrical and has a machine-like
Hester and Shrike
The Humanity of Inhumanity
When young Hester's mother is killed, she is rescued and taken in by Shrike.
It's a complex and unconventional relationship. For Shrike, Lang says, finding
Hester is "no different to finding a shiny trinket. Shrike doesn't know why he
has her, but she becomes part of a routine because even he has a need to do
things in an orderly fashion. They become familiar in their coldness. The
question is, to what extent does he dehumanize her and she humanize him?"
Hilmar has a number of scenes with Lang and admits it took a while to get
used to his performance-capture outfit. "He was basically wearing tight grey
pajamas with markers and his name clearly written on the front: SHRIKE/SLANG,"
she says. "I think it's hard not seeing the comic side to that, but then you
quickly forget about it when you get into the scenes. Stephen brought Shrike so
beautifully to life and Shrike was all there, soulful without a soul, gray pajas
or not. He perfectly became his essence, and the details of his shell didn't
matter really. He's all there."
Through Hester, she developed her perspective on their relationship. "I tried
to understand Shrike by thinking of him as someone with severe difficulty
relating to other people, someone who has a very different way of approaching
things socially," she says.
Lang has nothing but praise for his on-screen counterpart. "Hera has great
strength and fortitude, and there is nothing conventional about her in any way,"
he says. "She also has sweetness and vulnerability and a sense of humor. She's
got chops and was a pleasure to work with."
Anna Fang (Jihae)
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."
Anna Fang is the leader of the Anti-Traction League, an organization who are
"almost like terrorists, or at least that is the propaganda that is promoted
through London," Jackson says. "They believe humanity shouldn't be racing around
the countryside eating one another's cities, but that people should settle down
and plant crops, living much like we do today. Their beliefs are not
particularly bad, but they are tough and led by Anna Fang, who is someone not to
be trifled with."
For the role of Fang 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."
The Anti-Traction League
The Anti-Traction League has attracted a mix of passionate and courageous
individuals from all over the planet. To fill these roles, the filmmakers cast a
diverse group of performers. The six actors bonded as a team, spending time
together. They developed their own character backstories and even devised a
call-and- response "war cry."
"We used it to get our blood and energy up," says British-Zimbabwean actor
REGE-JEAN PAGE (Roots, For the People), who portrays Captain Khora, one of the
leading figures in the revolution against the traction cities. "We'd throw it at
each other in the morning as a greeting, or before a scene when we are all
there. It was like howling with a pack of wolves."
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