What You Need To Know About The Characters Of 'Mortal Engines' [Set Visit]

A scarred woman out for revenge. A young historian who learns the awful truth about his home. A swashbuckling archeologist with a checkered past. A badass air-pirate with a sweet airship. A mummified cyborg assassin on a violent mission. The world of Mortal Engines is packed with colorful characters, perfect for a distant future where cities are mobile and devour each other for resources.

When I visited the set of this Peter Jackson-produced, Christian Rivers-directed science fiction epic last year, I was able to learn all about this cast of characters and what the actors brought to them. Here's what you need to know.

A Cast of Fresh and Familiar Faces

While the cast of Mortal Engines features familiar character actors like Hugo Weaving and Stephen Lang, the bulk of the young leads were cast with less familiar faces. This, director Christian Rivers told us, was by design. "It's very hard to to bring in faces that are too recognizable to other universes, I think, you know?" he said.

And quite frankly, populating a fantastical world with fresh faces had worked out for producer Peter Jackson before with a little film series called The Lord of the Rings:

"It was just finding those talented people who were just right, you know? And that was a process very new to me. I mean, obviously, Pete and Fran have done that very well before. And so, that was very much a process that I relied on them heavily for."

Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan)

As the lead character of the Mortal Engines ensemble, we see much of the action from Tom's perspective. As an apprentice in London's Guild of Historians, he works in the city's museum, cataloging and studying "ancient" artifacts (computers, iPods, etc.) from the civilization decimated in the "60 Minute War" 1,700 years in the past. He's protective of his city, which roams the desolate countryside, devouring smaller mobile cities for resources, because it's the only life he knows. It's the only life that makes sense.

Colin Salmon, who plays Tom's boss and mentor Chudleigh Pomeroy, explained how this young hero-to-be differs from other London historians:

"It's interesting with Tom, because I feel with Tom I'm aware that he is in my guild and works with me, but there's something more about Tom, and he essentially could have been an aviator. Some of us are just desperate to be historians or history guild. Tom has wanderlust, so this is really interesting, that he does go off on an adventure of his own."

Of course, Tom's adventure involves plummeting off the city of London alongside the woman who attempts to murder his hero, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) and learning some hard truths about the world in which he lives.

Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar)

A mysterious, masked girl with a disfiguring scar steps on board London and immediately attempts to assassinate Thaddeus Valentine, the hero of the city. What's her deal? Where did she come from? Why does she have it out for this guy? Those are questions that will be answered later. Because when we first meet Hester Shaw, she's not in a talking mood.

"I think Hester is completely feral and she does not communicate in the same way as I would or we would sort of in general," actress Hera Hilmar explained. In fact, Hilmar says she kept cutting Hester's lines out of the script to better represent her situation: "When we meet her, she's been completely on her own for, like, six months in the wilderness."

And Hilmar wouldn't have it any other way:

"So, she's become quite tough and sort of not social in any way. That's a nice thing to be able to play. I think it's a relief to be able to play a female character that is...people can be worried sometimes about the female characters looking too rough and stuff like that, which I think is a shame."

While Hester isn't necessarily softened by her experience with Tom, a relationship does blossom between the two mismatched heroes:

"I think what's kind of nice to play and to look at with Hester is a person who's been scarred like that in every way and learning to love again, I guess. And Tom happens to be the person that is there and opens that door for her, you know?"

Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving)

Screenwriter Philippa Boyens sums up Thaddeus Valentine best:

"The adventurer, the archaeologist. He's, like, a really cool guy. And then the truth about what's underneath all of it becomes really interesting. And actually, the truth of what's underneath it is, you know...he's a scavenger."

While Thaddeus Valentine, the head of London's Guild of Historians, looks like a swashbuckling Indiana Jones-type whose tales of derring-do inspire Tom and everyone else in the city, there's a darker core to him. He's a man on a mission and he won't hesitate to kill if it means protecting his past and his future. As Boyens adds:

"Once he kills for that thing, he's committed to it. He's committed to that act. He has to commit himself to that act. And the end of that act, killing for that object, is the creation of that thing. He is on that trajectory and nothing, not even his daughter, is going to stop him."

But Hugo Weaving, the veteran character actor known for his work in The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings, doesn't see Valentine as an outright villain:

"I think villains can be very boring because they can be two-dimensional. Some heroes are even more boring. Villains can be fun. But, no, I don't see him as a villain and I don't think it's useful to see him as that."

Weaving explained that Valentine's goals are, in their own way, noble. The idea of "tractionism," the moving cities at the heart of the film, is running on fumes. He sees himself as the only person who can save civilization:

"And Valentine is someone who really can see that tractionism – the era of tractionism is dead. That they are in dire trouble. That they've got starvation problems. That there is "let's pray that this world is going to come to an end." And that this whole paradigm of tractionism and anti-tractionism has to be smashed because on the other side of the world, there's a completely different view of how to live."

Katherine Valentine (Leila George)

Like most of the citizens of London, Katherine Valentine has bought what her father was selling. But the daughter of the villain of Mortal Engines learns soon enough that something's not right.

"I feel like she's just discovering that moment in your life [...] that moment in your life where you realize that your parent is a human being they're not this perfect thing that doesn't do anything wrong," actress Leila George said. "Katherine, unfortunately, has a dad who's choosing survival, and that's a really hard thing to find out."

Katherine's journey in Mortal Engines finds her journeying down from the upper crust of London and learning how the other half lives...and uncovering the dark truth about her city and her father:

"I see Katherine as so...she's so lovely and she's not naïve out of choice. And so she's just not been in those situations, and as crazy as that can sound when you grow up on London, of course you think of course you're going to pass a few homeless people or engineers and stuff [...] I guess she's aware, but she just did grow up in that way and she's not horrible to people and the instinct is to help and she always wanted to help. That's what hurt her whole thing is. She really has nothing to do with any of this, aside from her dad. That's the main thing, but she doesn't have to go and figure all of the rest of this stuff out."

Bevis Pod (Ronan Raftery)

As Katherine goes on her dark journey of discovery, she encounters and teams up with Bevis Pod, a member of the Guild of Engineers, the group tasked with keeping London operating and on the move. Naturally, Bevis proves himself necessary to unlocking the mysteries surrounding Thaddeus Valentine, proving himself to be an unlikely hero. Actor Roan Raftery explains:

"I loved how Bevis felt like an outsider desperate to be involved in some way in helping his city without a clear path, without a clear understanding of how they could do that. So not like you're kind of main hero who generally has a clear idea about that. I was kind of enjoying his confusion on what to do, and it's only until he meets Katherine and understand more about the world that he can formulate a plan, an idea and an impulse for what to do."

And if Katherine finds herself a changed person after meeting Bevis, the same can be said of the young engineer:

"It's the only way to get through, to overcome any kind of prejudice is through communication. Absolutely. Yeah. I can't talk about it because it's so intuitive to us on set, but I think it's their bond that allows them to see through each other's past and the fact that they do become close quite quickly, which makes it not a big leap for us as actors to forget about a lot of that stuff and just begin to focus on the present."

Anna Fang (Jihae)

There are a few characters in Mortal Engines who feel poised to be instant audience favorites, and Anna Fang is one of them. This dashing airship pilot is either a terrorist and a pirate or a revolutionary and a freedom fighter, depending on your perspective. What isn't up for debate is that she's a total badass. Jihae, the South Korean actress and musician who plays Anna, explained why this character was such a pleasure to play:

"Well, my initial reaction to Anna Fang was, you know, a really pleasant, happy surprise. I don't think there's ever been an Asian female superhero character ever in a blockbuster film who really takes charge and is a leader and is a warrior leader."

And like so many warrior leaders, Anna Fang had a rough childhood. She escaped slavery, built an airship out of scraps, and traveled the world, eventually finding a corner of the world untouched by war, a natural haven that is "the only place with the trees and nature."

So how does one protect the last natural haven the world has to offer? With a variety of weapons, of course. "I'm working with that one staff that the longsword, but has, like, click a button and stuff comes out," Jiahe told us. "And then there's a twin butterfly knife, but we're not sure yet how much of that is going to be used at the end. And a few guns; really big, ornate guns. Very big and heavy."

Shrike (Stephen Lang)

Where does one even begin with Shrike? This "resurrected man" was once a human...a human who died and was transformed into an immortal cyborg killing machine for a war that is just a distant memory now. A relic out of time, powered by instincts and an unreliable memory of the man he used to be, Shrike is a vicious wild card in the world of Mortal Engines.

If you want the basic description of what Shrike is, production designer Dan Hennah sums it up well:

"The logic of Shrike is that he is a machine. He has a human brain and human eyes and he has human skin that has been pretty much mummified by now. So, it was a human skin that was being fed by his internal mechanical organs, you know, oxygen and blood transfer his system pretty much the same as anybody. That element has deteriorated considerably and worn out in places. But the mechanical quality is still going and the brain is still protected."

Ew. Anyway, Shrike is brought to life by the reliably great Stephen Lang, the grizzled character actor known for his work in Avatar and Don't Breathe, via motion capture. And while the book describes Shrike's movements as insect-like, Lang took his inspiration from a variety of sources...after falling down a YouTube hole. Honestly, it's best to just let him explain it:

"Well, I did look at some insects, certainly. But, I'd say the real inspiration for the character came from predatory birds. And that starts really with the name, Shrike. As it happens in this particular edition of resurrected man, that year, that model, they were all given bird names. It just struck me as there was a predatory bird quality to him. But, I'll tell you this, a very, very happy accident I had was...as I began looking at birds and listening to birds, I always recalled...and I was looking at all kinds of hawks and falcons and vultures and mostly kind of predatory birds. And shrikes, which are a predator bird as well. I looked at swans because I know swans can be very, very aggressive birds.

So, I was looking at swans and what came up on YouTube was Swan Lake, right? A YouTube. And I googled it and it was Rudolph Nureyev dancing Swan Lake. And I began to watch him. And as I began to watch him, I began to see Shrike, because what he did was the way he moved, the way a ballet dancer moves is, when a ballet dancer moves, he doesn't move his arms. He doesn't do the counterweight that we do when we walk, right foot, left arm. Left foot, right arm. He doesn't do it. He keeps his arms back and he...because he was doing a swan. And he looked like this folded bird and just that sort of powerful thing. And when you think about it, it's incredibly graceful and at the same time, there's something slightly robotic about it as well, which is kind of what, you know, right in the wheelhouse of this character.

And so, that's the kind of thing that is useful to me. You know what I mean? Because even if I don't end up looking like Nureyev, it inspires something in you, you know? It gives you something to kind of hold on to an idea. So, that's it. As far as insects go, of course, praying mantis is a beautiful [inspiration]. And all of those wonderful insects that blend into the background and wait patiently either to avoid being eaten or to wait for something to eat. And so, there's an element a quality of patience that they have, you know? And that's very much in keeping with this character who also can remain kind of in a state of immobility for centuries at a time if he chooses."

As the character beyond his movement, Lang fell in love with his contradictions. "I was interested in him from the first line from the first description of him," he told us. "Ultimately, what got me was that he fulfills all the requirements of tragedy to me. He inspires both pity and terror. And that's, like...you can't beat that shit. You can't do that."

And about those contradictions:

"Character's just rife with contradiction because, you know, he's...for a character that's been emptied out, he's really full. For a character who detests memory or has no use for memory, he's completely obsessed with memory. For a character who is absolutely heartless, he's got the biggest heart in the world."

Chudleigh Pomeroy (Colin Salmon)

Because every movie needs that older, wiser character to explain things to our heroes (and to the audience), there's Chudleigh Pomeroy. And if you need someone to play a role like that, why not cast Colin Salmon, a magnetic British actor with one hell of a voice?

In any case, Chudleigh is perfectly positioned to help explain the weird world of Mortal Engines because he's a member of the Guild of Historians and Tom's boss. Salmon relished playing this part:

"You know, I think that thing of being a guardian of history, it's really part. I feel like I'm a guardian of art, but not producing it; protecting it. Because I just think in a world where are really a premium, so that library is really, really important. I've found the Yates' poetry in there [on the library set] and was just reading it between the scenes and you just realize, well, where there are no books, those things become so precious."

Mortal Engines arrives in theaters on December 14, 2018.