Hera Hilmar is on the rise. The 29-year-old Icelandic actress first entered the American TV scene when she starred in Starz's "Da Vinci's Demons," a historical fantasy drama series about the early life of Leonardo da Vinci. This December, Hilmar leads the first installment of Peter Jackson's film adaptation of Peter Reeve's young adult book series "Mortal Engines." For now, Hilmar plays Tanja, a Serbian agent disguised as a housemaid alongside Ben Kingsley in Brad Silberling's film, "An Ordinary Man."
Set in Belgrade, the film follows a war criminal (Kingsley) who finds himself in close quarters with a young maid (Hilmar) as he hides from those who wish to hold him accountable for the infamous atrocities he carried out as a general in the Serbian military. Hera Hilmar spoke with CBS News about playing complex characters, the gray areas between right and wrong and her experience working in Serbia.
Q: What drew you to working on this film?
A: I've worked with Ben Kingsley before, and when he sent me the script I really enjoyed it. It focuses on telling the story of two different generations – young and old – and how they interact with each other. There's intimacy in the relationship, while a great deal is still unknown about each other. The relationship between our characters asks the question, "How do you protect a person you must respect when you don't agree with so much of what he did?" It also examines the connections people form in extreme scenarios. How do you deal with another human in such a small environment, sharing the same space? These were all ideas that interested me and I wanted to explore them.
Q: What was it like working with Ben Kingsley when your characters have this strangely intimate, sometimes volatile relationship?
A: I really enjoy working with Ben. Our relationship in the film is intimate and intense. We isolated ourselves once we were there. We didn't go out. I spent nights watching documentaries about Serbia and Yugoslavia and the war and learned more about the region and its history. Ben is a very present actor. The respect for him on set was great, and everyone was always prepared and ready to go when we arrived so it was very in the moment. We would celebrate each week of filming with a long chat. It was a masterclass from someone who has been doing this for so long and doing it so well.
Q: What was it like filming in Serbia?
A: You can still feel the history and the tragedy. You can feel the effects of any place that has been through turmoil. But the people have this sense of life. It's like they say, "I'm going to live!" You move on from the past and live your life. The old woman who our characters meet in the countryside – she wasn't an actress. On the day we filmed with her, we were driving down this road to get to set and it was quite bumpy, and she was laughing. She didn't speak English, so I had to ask others why she was so happy and when they asked her she said, "Because this road could be so much worse." That's what the feeling was – it could be so much worse. It was really beautiful. This woman has lost a lot – and she continues to live to the fullest. We will never be able to fully understand what went on there. You try to understand human behavior. You may never fully understand.
Q: How did you interpret the film's ideas about war, duty, and the moral dilemmas that arise in service to one's country?
A: My character feels a strong desire to protect and serve her country although she doesn't necessarily agree with what it's done in the past. What do you do? It's so hard to get out. Movies often tell you what is right or wrong, but this film leaves more room for the audience to decide for themselves. In society we make everything good or evil. This film is an observation of a particular form of human behavior. Tanja swallows a lot of s**t. She just has to take it because women often have to just take it.
In my first scene, he asks her to undress in front of him to see if she has any special forces tattoos. That's a very dangerous situation for women, especially when she knows what a violent, ruthless man he is. But she does it and she comes out of the bathroom naked and looks him in the eye to show him it's not yours. I'll stand here on my own – you're not making me. We want to hear women voice their feelings and communicate, "That's not okay." So often women can't say those things out of fear – a fear of losing their life.
Q: What can you tell me about "Mortal Engines"?
A: I can't say too much, but the books are great. And the film will take them even further. I'm very interested to see it come alive in this spectacular way. It's a breath of fresh air. I'm thrilled to play such a cool female character. Both of these characters I play – Tanja and Hester – are women trying to find strength in difficult situations – but they find it in very different ways. Tanja is deep-seated person – like I said she takes and she takes and says nothing until she finally bursts. Hester is a bit of a crazier character. They're both women who have been through experiences that they have tried to rise above, and each of them do so in different manners.
"An Ordinary Man" is in theaters and available on VOD and Digital HD Friday.