Cinema, Exclusive, Interviews, Mortal Engines

Mortal Engines star Robert Sheehan on being subconsciously obsessed with mortals

It’s the festive season, so naturally it’s time for a new epic fantasy film from The Lord Of The Rings‘ Peter Jackson. That film is arriving in the form of Mortal Engines, based on the novel by Philip Reeve, which is what some people are calling a steampunk LOTR. However, Jackson isn’t directing this time — that task has gone to Christian Rivers. The film stars Hera Hilmar, Hugo Weaving, Robert Sheehan and Jihea as citizens and visitors of the travelling town of London as they all get caught up in a plot of murder and oppression.

Robert Sheehan, who genre fans will know as Nathan from E4’s Misfits, has a surprising story regarding the Mortal Engines casting process: “Leila George, who plays Katherine, and I went to San Francisco, to Peter Jackson’s hotel room, and we just sat around, started chatting shit and taped over four hours because Peter’s camera battery kept dying. So, we’d do a take and then he’d go off and he’d sit it in charge for 15 to 20 minutes and we’d have another natter and show each other YouTube videos.

“I’m just remembering that day in San Francisco,” he continues, laughing. “Peter asked me, ‘Have you seen this guy on YouTube with Tourette syndrome?’ We were talking about the film I’d done, The Road Within, where I played someone with Tourette syndrome. And there’s a guy with a YouTube channel from Belfast with Tourette syndrome and he basically tries to bring awareness to Tourette syndrome and to show that there is a funny side to it; that it’s kind of part and parcel of it. It’s that tricky thing of not laughing at it, laughing with it and so on. And this young man from Belfast reads out nursery rhymes, that’s his thing. So, Peter showed me this guy, I can’t remember his name, reading out Little Miss Muffet on YouTube and Peter was nearly falling off the chair laughing because he loved these videos and this dude and the way he was reading it. And I just found it really funny that Peter Jackson, the great filmmaker who made The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Lovely Bones, was just getting so much joy and value out of these little YouTube videos of this dude in Belfast, made in his bedroom.”

Intended as a comedic curveball question, we point out to Robert Sheehan that Mortal Engines is his second fantasy film adaptation of a book with ‘mortal’ in its title, after The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones in 2013, and ask what’s behind his fascination with mortals. With nary a pause for bemusement, though, the actor immediately delves into serious pondering about the newer film’s title.

“I didn’t really realise I had this fascination with mortals,” he says, “but clearly, I do. It’s interesting because ‘mortal engines’ is from the mouth of a lesser known English writer called Mr. William Shakespeare. I don’t know where ‘mortal instruments’ comes from, but ‘mortal engines’, in the context of him speaking about it, is him speaking about us. We are the mortal engines, human beings are. And it raises the question that if we are not feeding our engines, if we’re not consuming things all the time, are we even alive? If we’re not consuming… it might be culture, it might be food, love, it might be whatever. I think he was making a comment on the fact that human beings have become very consumptive creatures, which is right. And so, it works on that level as a title, I think, especially the fact that everybody’s survival is so intimately dependent on the engines beneath them. Everybody has to keep those furnaces running, so those engines have a mortal component. They have an alive component.”

Mortal Engines is in cinemas on 8 December. Get all the latest fantasy news with every issue of SciFiNow. 

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