Nadia Hilker had the kind of fortuitous start in the film industry which you usually only see occur in, well, films, but it’s not hard to see why it was afforded to the effervescent actress. “The first time in my life acting was on an actual movie set for an actual movie,” she recalls. She isn’t boasting, however, as she details her surprising pathway into motion pictures; in fact, the German actress describes her experiences as if she herself is confounded, in disbelief that the stardom so many tirelessly seek found her. Her excitement is equally palpable, for good reason: her biggest film to date, The Divergent Series: Allegiant, just landed in theaters and is about to introduce the 27-year-old Hilker to a whole new audience.
Raised in the idyllic countryside of Munich, Hilker had a happy upbringing. Her father and mother, married for thirty-five years, work in IT and at Lufthansa, respectively. Their professions might seem unlikely to have produced a creative talent (“No one in my family has ever been an artist or into art, or acting, or making music, or anything like that,” Hilker says), but there were signs of her adventurous spirit early on. “Because we got those really cheap [airline] tickets, on a Friday night my brother and I would be like, ‘Let’s go to Paris tomorrow,’” she recalls. “We’d take the first flight at six AM and just go to Paris and have coffee on the Champs-Élysées and go back home.”
Between hopping around Europe and building tree houses in the woods near her home, Hilker also went to ballet school, where she was discovered by a modeling agent, providing her yet another opportunity to explore the world, but it wasn’t a lasting interest. “I was never that typical model, ever,” she says. “Because I have curves, I love eating, I’m not very tall, so I did that for a couple of years, and I loved it. I traveled the world, I did a lot of catalogs, made some really good pocket money, but that was also nothing I ever wanted to do.”
Soon enough, her agent put her in touch with an acting agent, but their initial meeting was not propitious. “I was seventeen and she just looked at me and was like, ‘You’re an actor, I want you,’ and I’m like, ‘What?’” she recalls. “I never thought about acting in my life before. I didn’t trust her. I was like, ‘She’s weird, she saw me for a second and she’s telling me I’m an actor?’ So we left.”
Hilker went on to study economics in college, but after getting out of a four-year relationship, she decided she needed a major change and quit school. With the encouragement of her father, she contacted the acting agent again and immediately landed a lead role in a German television movie. It was a promising start to a career, but soon Hilker faced a reality of the industry that most women in Hollywood understand well. “In Germany, we don’t really have a lot of parts for not a girl, not yet a woman,” she explains. “So I got older, and I’m very specific looking for Germany. You work in Germany when you have blond hair and blue eyes. I never really fit in, and even here I play a lot of badass girls; strong, powerful women. We don’t really have a lot of those parts in Germany, so I didn’t really work.”
All clothing by Christian Dior.
The idle years were challenging for Hilker, who for the first time was experiencing the unforgiving nature of the film business. “That was really hard because I was always making my own money. I also got really—not depressed, but when you’re an artist or when you’re an actor you just want to, you need to work, and I didn’t,” she recalls. “I spent a lot of time sitting in my apartment just staring at the ceiling—literally talking about years here where I’m just being by myself, and I didn’t even go out. I didn’t really have a lot of friends.”
That ordeal might sound painfully familiar to any artist, but it was also a formative time in shaping Hilker’s perspective. “I was really lonely and unhappy, but looking back, I really learned to understand who Nadia is,” she says. “I learned to understand the language Nadia is speaking, and I really got connected to myself in such a strong way that I just know myself now.”
Dress by Prabal Gurung. Ring by The Gilded Fox.
At the time, however, she was ready to abandon film and reinvest her time into traveling by applying to be an airline stewardess. Once again, her parents recognized acting was an integral part of her life and convinced her to keep at it. “They saw that I suffered by not doing it,” she recalls. She agreed to continue acting for one more year, a pivotal time which yielded her most significant role thus far, in the 2015 American film Spring.
Critically acclaimed, Spring is equal parts romance, horror, and sci-fi, starring Lou Taylor Pucci as a man who is increasingly drawn to the mystery and charm of Hilker’s unusual character, Louise. “When I read the script, I just totally fell in love with Louise,” Hilker recalls. “I was like, this is the kind of girl I want to be like, in terms of her character, the message of the movie, and love and living in the moment.”
That performance opened up doors for Hilker, who unexpectedly found herself auditioning for Allegiant not long after. “I told my managers, ‘Guys, I don’t have to do this, it’s a big part in a huge Hollywood franchise, we all know I’m not going to get that part,’” she recalls. “And I’m not that person, I never say no to a chance even though it’s one percent, but I was one hundred percent sure. You don’t get those parts, especially when you’re from Germany. You don’t get that part.”
Of course, she did get the part, as Nita, whom she describes as a “very fierce, strong, good, confident, competent young woman.” Most of her scenes are alongside Theo James’s character Four, and the two build up considerable romantic tension, to the chagrin of many fans. “Before there was anything about me online, I was reading the nastiest things about Nita,” Hilker recollects, but that proved to be a merely humorous aspect of the job. Coming into the third film of a franchise with a cast of “Next Big Things” (Ansel Elgort, Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller, Zoë Kravitz, etc.) was more stress inducing. “I got bullied a lot in school because I was weird. I was dressed up like Erykah Badu when I was ten. I was always kind of different,” Hilker admits. “That fear came back. They’ve all worked together, they have inside jokes, they know each other, they became friends, and you’re like the new kid.”
She wasn’t the only new cast member, finding a friend in Bill Skarsgård (son of Stellan and brother of Alex), but by the end of shooting, her fears were quelled. “It was intimidating and nerve-wracking, totally, but we all became friends, and it is even more beautiful to go back and hang out with them and shoot the next one.”
Hilker keeps quiet otherwise on the details of the next and final installment in the series, which begins shooting in Atlanta this summer, but she has still only barely experienced the full reaction to this one. In the meantime, she’ll also appear next month in Collide, a thriller also starring Nicholas Hoult and Felicity Jones. After a rollercoaster start in the industry, having a platform from which careers flourish and the certainty of a fanbase must be a relief, at the very least. But it hasn’t hit her yet. Soon enough, she might feel like the star she’s on her way to becoming, but for now she’s just embracing the challenges, the serendipity, the adventure. “I try to not really think about it. I just try to do my job, go to Trader Joe’s, make my almond milk every morning, hang out with my friends,” she says. “Ask me next time we see each other.”