Interview: Hera Hilmar on ‘An Ordinary Man’, Auditioning and Working with Sir Ben Kingsley

Hilmar chats about working with Kingsley, the research she did for the film, getting her start in Iceland and her time at the London Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Actress Hera Hilmar
Hera Hilmar is having a very busy year. She’s currently starring opposite Sir Ben Kingsley in An Ordinary Man and later this year she’s in Peter Jackson‘s next blockbuster, Mortal Engines.

An Ordinary Man, directed by Brad Silberling, is about a war criminal (Kingsley) who’s been in hiding. He’s just been set up in a new apartment and has been assigned a maid, Tanja (Hilmar), to tend to him while he’s there. The two form a relationship but little does he know that she’s got some secrets of her own. Hilmar is terrific and, as you can imagine, Kingsley is no slouch.

In this interview, Hilmar chats about working with Kingsley, the research she did for the film, getting her start in Iceland and her time at the London Academy of Dramatic Arts.

You and Ben Kingsley are in almost in every scene together. Did you have to audition for this?

Hera Hilmar: No, well, yes but not really. Basically what happened is we were doing a film together, The Ottoman Lieutenant, and he rang me up one day, which was funny because we hadn’t exchanged numbers and he was like, “Oh, I was just about to ask you if I could send you a script.” And I was like, “Oh, okay.” It was a very pleasant surprise, and I was like, “Okay, cool.” And when I read the script, I was like “Oh my god, this is a serious two-hander.” I just really liked the story and the characters and everything. I’ve known about Brad and I was like, “Wow, I’d love to work with him, too.”

So, me and Brad Skype and we just kind of talked about everything in the script and I think he watched a little bit of my stuff. That’s basically how it happened. So in a way, I auditioned through my job with Ben at the time and through Skype. I didn’t do a conventional audition, to be fair. That’s how it happened.

I’m an actor too, so when I really want a part and I finally get it, I’m like, “Oh, crap. How am I gonna do this?”

Hera Hilmar: Yeah, exactly.  It’s always the most exciting, like, just before. I think I’ve always been like that. I’m trying to think back. The moment that stands out most is the moment where he rang me first to begin with. I think that was the moment I was like, “Oh my god. Ben Kingsley just rang me to ask if I could read something.”  When I met Brad on Skype, he’s such a lovely man. We really kind of connected in terms of how we saw things in the script. The moment where it kind of happened, I don’t actually remember that moment as well. It was more of these moments that kind of stuck out to me. Every time you feel like, shit, now you have to prove yourself. You feel like that every day.  You’re always trying to do better. You know what I mean?

This is basically you two, a two-hander, like you said. How did you even start to prepare for this?

Hera Hilmar: Even though the story is like a fairytale about a character who has been considered evil and has done things but is horrible and someone who comes and questions that. In many ways, I don’t think it had to be set where it was set and you could slowly, well not slowly, but because it was the background we were using and the history we were using, it is just what it has to be. Somewhere I just dived into that, just watching documentaries on the Yugoslavian war all the time and trying to understand the culture and what happened there. I grew up with it just being on TV all the time, and it was such a part of my childhood from an outside point of view. I just wanted to try to understand that better.

We sort of decided on the way to Serbia on the flight to kind of … I don’t know. We really didn’t talk about it too much, but it was a mutual understanding on how we were going to do this. We kind of sort of isolated ourselves a little bit, like where we were staying. We weren’t like partying in the night and doing the film in the day. It was very like … We sort of just lived this life and when we got there, I just tried to get as much information and history and sort of feeling out of just the city and the people wherever we went. And then all our crew was Serbian as well, so we tried to kind of get as much simplicity and understanding from the people there. How it is to live there and how it was to live there 20 years ago or 10 years ago. How does it try to get information about what it means to do the job that Tanja does?

I went and met Special Forces guys in Serbia. I can’t remember now exactly what they’re called because I don’t want to say the wrong thing, but basically I just did as much research as I could. When it came to it, we didn’t really rehearse. We went through the script once with Brad, and we spoke about everything. That’s when we knew we were all in the same film

Me and Ben did some dance lessons together which was very interesting. Then we just kind of met in the space and did the scenes. We didn’t really like do a whole lot of rehearsing or a whole lot of takes. A lot of the stuff was kind of just a few takes.

I was going to actually ask you in you guys rehearsed.

Hera Hilmar: We didn’t rehearse. We knew where we would be and how we were going to do it. Then we would just go for it. We just wanted to keep our momentum as sort of fresh as possible.

Working with Ben, do you learn anything from him? I’m sure you did, but does he offer any sort of nuggets of wisdom or anything that that you take with you?

Hera Hilmar: Yeah, he did. He wasn’t always throwing nuggets at me. If I asked him, he was very generous in terms of just talking, being just normal about stuff. We would be there on set together and then we would wait off set. In the beginning, we would try to keep that sort of odd energy between us.

I remember once getting confused in a scene because I thought I would feel one way about it but I felt differently. It was getting in my way. Between the next set up, we went to our trailer and we were talking. I’d be like, “How do I deal with this?” He would help me out with it. We would just talk about, like how people do, “Fuck, this is how I’m feeling.” It’s great because you’re with someone who has been doing this for a long time. He would give me advice, like always just go back to your gut and trust yourself. He’s just great. Giving little bits of advice when you’re lost. And then you just learn a lot from just watching him, of course.

Sure. Just watching the movie last night. He was folding like a towel or something and he’s just so watchable folding a towel.

Hera Hilmar: Yeah, I know. He’s very specific with what he does. Definitely. Exactly.

I want to ask you a little bit about your background. Your mom is an actress, and your father’s a director. Did growing up with them in the industry, affect you wanting to be an actress as well?

Hera Hilmar: Yeah, of course. I think I just grew up with that being like the norm in my household. I just loved it. I was very inspired by it. When you have two that are making ends meet, you’re always kind of like going around with a normal life. I just always was really into it. I would use any opportunity to put on a play or a show or whatever it would be.  I guess because it was so normal, it was always just, “Yeah, I can do that.” They would never push me in that direction. They would try to, in many ways, push me away from it because it’s a hardcore business and it’s harsh. It’s a lot of walls to walk into and people will tell you this and that about you and “no’s” and all these things.

I think they just wanted to shelter me as much as they could from that. But, I just wanted to do it. I think when I was like 16 or so, I did a play at my high school, which was seen by a lot of people. We were really proud of it. It was like a play we did ourselves. That’s how I got my first big film role in Iceland in a film called, “The Quiet Storm.” I guess my parents at that point were like, “Okay, yeah. She’s very serious about this and we’re going to support it.”

We can’t stop her now.

Hera Hilmar: Yeah. And they’ve always been very supportive since then.

You went to London Academy of Dramatic Arts. How was your experience there?

Hera Hilmar: It was really good.  I always wanted to train. That’s a big thing in Iceland. You always train. I don’t know if it’s changed now, but you weren’t even allowed to call yourself an actor if you didn’t go through training. I personally when I trained, I felt like it was something I needed to do. I went to London because I had lived there as a kid, and I had just wanted to go there again. I felt like Iceland suddenly was small and too much like my parents and too much of what I knew. I just wanted to go somewhere where I wasn’t me or my parent’s kid and be a completely unknown entity.

So I went to London. I checked out the schools. I just really liked LAMDA because it was very grounded to me and sort of messy in a good way. I think they’ve done up the school a bit now, but the housing situation was all a bit all over the place. That kind of thing is great when you’re practicing something like drama. You have to really like engross yourself the environment..

I really enjoyed it. There are all these elements everywhere. You have three years and you have so many teachers. There’s going to be good teachers and there’s going to be less good teachers and people you connect with and other people you really don’t connect with. Confidence you gain and insecurities you gain. It was a lot of all those things. I think it’s the part of going through training. In many ways, it toughens you up I think. Maybe not everyone, but I think it did that for me.

What has been your worst audition ever?

Hera Hilmar: Oh God, worst audition. This was quite a few years ago, it was one of my first auditions. It was an old school English director, and I think he was just so baffled by the fact that an Icelandic girl was auditioning for an English part that he kind of like really killed my accent. In a way, it was completely unnecessary. Because sometimes you just do something and you’re not very good at it, but I wasn’t too bad at it and it was completely unnecessary.

I guess I’m saying that one because that represents a lot that I think is changing. It’s a very old mindset, like how would you play something else than what you are? And how do you think you belong in a world that is ours? It’s a very foreign attitude. I always think about that as, “Oh, I’ll show you.”

I wasn’t right for the part obviously. It’s the attitude and the way you were treated maybe in a situation like that, which hasn’t really happened since. That’s the only time I sort of experienced that.

You can always have moments that are just kind of shitty. Like you don’t hit something or just like you go up for something and you realize in the moment, “I’m not ready. This won’t go well. I’ll give you something.” In that situation, it’s not what they were looking for. “Well, I’ll give you this. If you don’t like it, it’s okay. I’m going to keep my respect and walk out.”

An Ordinary Man is currently available on Amazon and other streaming platforms.

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