It’s a rainy afternoon in Vancouver and actor Hera Hilmar has taken time out of her busy schedule to talk to Iceland Review. The young actor began making waves in Iceland only a few years ago, impressing in her starring role in the well-received Life in a Fishbowl as well as on stage. Now, she’s playing the lead role in an upcoming Peter Jackson blockbuster due for release this holiday season. It’s not your typical Hollywood blockbuster, featuring a clear environmental agenda and a strong but flawed female lead. Tackling her newfound fame effortlessly, you get the feeling Hera’s role as ruffian hero Hester Shaw has changed her, but not quite in the way you’d expect.
The post-apocalyptic Mortal Engines takes place in 3,000 years’ time when city engines roam the earth, devouring smaller cities to survive in a form of so-called municipal Darwinism. Hester is the main character, making this one of the biggest opportunities an Icelander has received in the international film industry. Based on Philip Reeve’s tetralogy bearing the same name, the world of Mortal Engines is like no other according to Hera, “It’s a large concept at first to get your head around, before you get to know it. Cities on wheels – it sounds incredibly different. The world Philip created is astounding. The characters and the story sparked something in me. There’s even more to this project than meets the eye.”
The eagerly-awaited franchise is led by Lord of the Rings legend Peter Jackson, who co-writes and produces the movie. The project has been in the works since 2009, and it’s fair to say that expectations are high. Despite the pressure, Hera’s remarkably calm about the anticipated critical response. “There’s a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of curiosity. But mostly a lot of excitement and trying to enjoy the moment. There’s a certain mystique when a project’s about to be released and no one knows what it is. It’s a bit like how people sometimes enjoy the anticipation of a summer vacation more than the vacation itself. We’ll just have to see how it goes – it’s just a movie, so it’s not a do-or-die moment for me.”
Since her breakout performance in 2015 film Life in a Fishbowl, for which she received an Icelandic Edda award, Hera’s career has grown leaps and bounds. Currently in Vancouver to film the TV series See, from the creator of Peaky Blinders, her film schedule has taken her to New Zealand, Serbia, India and everywhere in between. “I love the nomad lifestyle, but it can be difficult. I sometimes have to remind myself that it’s okay to be vulnerable, tired, or weirded out. The internal body clock is a mess and it affects you mentally. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. I love travelling and seeing the world from this vantage point.”
Flawed female lead
Hester Shaw is far from the female characters Hollywood usually churns out. She’s nowhere near perfect and sports a big scar across her face. Hera relishes the opportunity to portray a strong female character, who might have a ripple effect on society. “There are so many superheroes out there right now, who’ve been our heroes for some time. The last big female hero that comes to my mind was Wonder Woman, who, of course, is great – and believe me I was even just emotional seeing so many women in the film. Wonder Woman has always been sexy in a tight outfit with good makeup. But what I found really exciting in Hester, and wished we could see more with female heroines today, is that she isn’t sexualised at all, something you can’t take for granted. She’s written like a young woman, but has the story-arc of a male hero. And then there is the scar. She’s physically scarred, and emotionally if we go into that, and that is something we’ve also seen male heroes portraying visually way more often than their female counterparts.”
“It’s still not easy to come by in Hollywood,” Hera continues. “We’re not yet at a place where it’s easy to portray a female, a heroine, with a deformed face. Young kids today spend a tremendous amount of time on Instagram and social media. Of course, it’s not all bad, but there’s pressure on kids to be perfect and always on display. More and more kids are affected by depression, and there seems to be a connection. Whether this film can change that, I don’t know, but there’s a chance it will have an effect. There’s a clear subtext that beauty in real life isn’t flawless, but rather the opposite: flawed and unique.”
Fame and fortune
When Hera is asked about her ambitions, in light of her recent successes, she tells me that for her, it’s not about filling out her resume. “Yes, of course I have a drive to do as well as possible, so I can do what I want to do, and so that others can enjoy my creation,” Hera responds pensively. “But I don’t view each role as some sort of a stepping stone, I think it would just kill me. I think you’ve got it wrong if you’re waiting for the moment when you become famous, or the movie that makes you. I just try to be selective when it comes to projects and enjoy what I’m doing – that’s the goal – to enjoy what I’m working on and life itself.”
Hera seems to have her head screwed on right as she stands on the brink of stardom. Whatever project she takes on next, Hera Hilmar is a name to remember.
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Iceland Review is the longest running English-language magazine, presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.