EXCLUSIVE: Musician-Actress Jihae Flies High as Antihero in ‘Mortal Engines’

(l-r) Robert Sheehan as Tom Natsworthy, Jihae as Anna Fang and Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw in MORTAL ENGINES. ©Universal Pictures/MRC. CR: Mark Pokorny.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—International recording artist Jihae makes her feature film debut in the wondrous dystopian fantasy adventure “Mortal Engines,” playing an outlaw antihero aviatrix who joins forces with two young protagonists in their quest to stop a giant predator city on wheels and a maniacal power-hungry warmonger from destroying what remains of humanity hundreds of years after a cataclysmic event rocked the planet.

Jihae (born Jihae Kim in South Korea) is best known as a popular international singer and musician who has worked with the likes of Leonard Cohen, Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart and Lenny Kravitz on music collaborations and short films.

One of the stars of FX/National Geographic’s sci-fi docudrama “Mars,” she was invited to audition for the Peter-Jackson-produced action film, which is based on popular fantasy book series by Philip Reeve. Jihae submitted a self-taped audition and it wasn’t long before Jackson, along with fellow “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” producers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, along with award-winning special effects artist-turned-director Christian Rivers (“King Kong”), cast her in the pivotal role.

As Anna Fang, Jihae plays a spirited, self-reliant resistance fighter and pilot of a remarkable red-sails airship that she built herself called the Jenny Haniver. She and her gang of outlaws are regarded as terrorists by the behemoth rolling London city, which has literally eaten up smaller cities moving about the abandoned land on wheels in order to absorb their resources, human and mechanical. She and her group see themselves as freedom fighters who want to put an end to the gluttonous and predatory ways of the large moving city in order for humans to return to the land.

Her nemesis is Thaddeus Valentine (frequent Jackson star Hugo Weaving), an ambitious politician who secretly is assembling a device that could change the balance of power forever inside St. Paul’s Cathedral. He is pursued by a teenager named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who is seeking to avenge the death of her mother. She is joined by Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a young historian living on London. The youngsters initially are kidnapped by Anna Fang but eventually they begin cooperating together as they discover Valentine’s nefarious plans.

Decked out in a black leather jacket and pants over a white t-shirt emblazoned with David Bowie’s face in an office on the Universal Studios Hollywood backlot, Jihae talks about being part of the big Hollywood fantasy movie.

Q: How did the role come to you?

Jihae: I stumbled into acting, in a sense.  I was finished with my fourth album two years ago. I was elated and after a big project you get kind of low, so it was one of those moments where I was so tired and feeling like Sisyphus. What’s going to be the next one? I’m going to have to do the next (album) and how much energy that’s going to take.  At that moment, I thought, maybe I could use a little change in my life so I don’t fall out of love with my passion, which is music. It’s amazing how you can put a thought out in the world and get an email within a few weeks. I got an email from a friend who said to me, “I’m thinking of this Ron Howard project and was thinking of you. Would you be interested in auditioning?” I said, “OK.”

Honestly, I didn’t understand the scale and scope of what it was. It was a twin role, a leading role, and I had no experience. I thought, “They’re never going to go for it.” What I learned later was that they were casting for four months; they were one month away. They were kind of desperate. At the same time, the director didn’t tell anyone I wasn’t an actor and they liked the tape. So, they went for it; and that’s how I stumbled into it. After I was done, I thought, “Wow, that was so intense, I’m going to go back to music.” I didn’t think I’d pursue acting because it was so intense. But a few months later, I had the (“Mortal Engines”) audition and I self-taped. The next thing I knew, they wanted to meet. I went to meet (the producers) in November and that was it.

Q: Were they aware you had martial arts skills?

Jihae: Surprisingly, that was the least of their worries. They were looking more into the presence of this character.

Q: What was it about the Anna Fang character that you particularly liked?

Jihae: I thought she was quite an eccentric and courageous human being a resilient human being. I’d asked them for a backstory on her and they had an unpublished graphic novel based on Anna’s life. A few months ago, (Philip Reeve) released a book of short stories called “Night Flights” on Anna Fang. It came out during the summer, which told the story of her childhood. She was the daughter of well-to-do aviator parents. While they’re in transit in a small town, the town gets eaten by a giant predatory city, the ice city of Arkangel. So, her parents are murdered and she becomes a slave captive in this ice city.

It took her a number of years, but she overcame the grief, trauma and oppression, and she used her courage as a child. It’s just amazing as she found parts in a scrapyard and built her own airship, which became the Jenny Haniver. She escaped and picks up Tom and Hester.

Q: As a viewer, it’s hard to tell where the CGI ends and practical sets begin. What was the breakdown on set of what sets were real and what were added later? The Jenny Haniver was an actual set, although it didn’t actually fly, right?

Jihae: It didn’t quite fly but it moved around and trembled. A lot of people expect this type of movie to be mostly CGI but I was blown away because there were more than 120 sets. The attention to detail in each set, each world, was so unique and eccentric, beyond imagination and beyond anything you’ve ever seen. Like the craftsmanship of the person who designed my gun, who put a Korean word on it with the Korean national bird to the Jenny Hanover itself, which had a feline-like design, because they’d heard that my Anna Fang spirit animal was a Jaguar-Eagle. They did all these things and involved (my character) in it. It was really a privilege.

Q: I noticed a number tattoo inscribed on your character’s arm. What does that signify?

Jihae: The idea behind that was that Anna Fang didn’t have a name as a child after she became a slave, but was a number.

Q: Did you have some input into your physical look—hair, makeup, wardrobe? Your combed-up pink-style hairdo, for example.

Jihae: That gave me a bit of height because I’m barely 5’6”, and I have to fight Hugo (Weaving), who’s 6’1”.

Q: And the rest of your look?

Jihae: Absolutely. They put 30 sunglasses in front of me and asked me, “Which do you think Anna Fang would wear?” I tried on a bunch, but then there was one that was a vintage piece that I put on upside down, and I said, “How about this?” And they were like, “That’s it!”

It’s such an unexpected privilege to be on a set like this where the writers and producers—Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson—were so collaborative in spirit. Fran believes that nobody cares more about the characters than the actors. They gave us respect, as artists, to have our input every step of the way, from the look of the character to the background to the scenes. It was such an unexpected privilege.

It was cool enough for me to just exchange ideas with these brainiacs, these masters, much less collaborate with them.

Q: You threw out there names here—Fran, Peter and Philippa….

Jihae: And Christian, of course.

Q: What was it like to meet Peter Jackson?

Jihae: We met after my first self-tape submission in L.A. It was all four of them. We were going over the scenes and they were taping, and I did the scenes (I’d self-taped) again. They each gave me direction. They were so down-to-earth. I was new to acting so I hadn’t met too many filmmakers before. I didn’t expect the hugs I got at the end (of the audition). They’re funny and really authentic and sincere people who are hilarious. We ended up sharing a lot of laughs. It was really fun.

Q: You have some great co-stars in this. What was it like working with Hugo Weaving and Hera?

Jihae: I don’t know that many actors, in general. I met a few on the “Mars” production. They were a lot different. Hera is more of an artist than a regular actress because her approach (to acting) is so different. The reason why we got along so well and bonded so much is that we share that similar aesthetic in our approach. We had a lot of fun together and a lot of giggling fits.

Q: What caused those giggling fits?

Jihae: There are moments when I’m not that subtle and I’d cock my gun and I kept falling or going limp. I was trying to be (tough-looking) and the gun would just (droop). One time, the wind was blowing and it blew the map into Tom’s face. I’m dying to see that blooper.

We had a great time together and it was a great bonding moment for us. The story takes us on this journey where we, as the female protagonists, get to really strut our stuff and show our power and courage, so we really encouraged each other. I learned so much from her.

Q: You’re wearing a t-shirt with David Bowie’s face on it. Your character has a Bowie-like androgyny. Is he an influence in your work, creatively?

Jihae: Absolutely. Bowie had gone through all these types of characters as a songwriter. He wrote an album of children’s songs and then he became who he became. Once he figured out his identity in that way, and kept changing it as well. There are a select few artists that really inspire me and he is one of them. So is Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. So, I’m a big fan of Bowie, and was really sad to lose him and Leonard Cohen so fast—my two big heroes in music. As a musician, I really looked up to them. I did a tribute to Bowie a few weeks ago when I did a cover of “Life on Mars.” I’d wear this regardless.

Q: Where are you now, artistically? Do you want to continue acting or do you prefer being a musician?

Jihae: I like to go with the flow. I definitely have not stopped creating music. I’ve got another single coming out this month. It’s something I’ve been working on for a long time for a human rights project. I’m giving 100 percent of the proceeds of this song to (the non-profit humanitarian organization) International Medical Corps for children and women that in effect in (mostly war-torn) countries around the world. It’s something I’ve been working on for a couple of years. And I’ve already started recording my next record. So, on a musical level, it never stops because I’m my own boss and run my own label I can pick and choose the timeframe.

As far as acting goes, after the TV project, I thought I’d just go back to music but then I auditioned for Julie Taymor for (the Broadway revival of) M. Butterfly. Within that process of reading the play that David Henry Hwang wrote and working with Julie as a friend who wanted to coach me through it, that was when I fell in love with the craft of acting (although the role went to another actor). From that point on, I really studied the craft and really got into it. (Acting is) Something I’m excited about and open to really well-written and amazing projects with good writing, good filmmaking and a good vision behind it.

Q: Where do you call home these days?

Jihae: Home is New York.

Q: Do you ever make it back home to South Korea?

Jihae: I hope to. My immediate family is not there so I haven’t gone there in a long time but I hope to.