HBO’s new adaption of His Dark Materials begins on BBC One on Sunday 3rd November 2019, based on the fantasy novels by Philip Pullman.
Dafne Keen stars as the young protagonist Lyra, who lives in Jordan College, Oxford. Placed there by her uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) she lives a sheltered life amongst the scholars and college staff under the watchful protection of The Master (Clarke Peters) and Librarian Charles (Ian Gelder).
When the glamorous Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) enters Lyra’s life she embarks upon a dangerous journey of discovery as she travels from Oxford to London. Here she meets Father MacPhail (Will Keen), Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) and journalist Adele Starminster (Georgina Campbell) at a society party where she learns of the sinister ‘General Oblation Board’.
Lyra is subsequently thrown into the nomadic world of the boat dwelling Gyptians – Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff), Farder Coram (James Cosmo), John Faa (Lucian Msamati), Raymond Van Geritt (Mat Fraser), Jack Verhoeven (Geoff Bell) and Benjamin de Ruyter (Simon Manyonda) who take her North in her quest. Once in the North she meets aeronaut and adventurer Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) who joins them on their journey, becoming one of Lyra’s closest allies.
Dafne Keen interview (playing Lyra).
How would you describe Lyra?
Lyra is a very curious, cunning, and adventurous girl. She’s very intelligent, street smart, and she’s brilliant. I love her. She’s a tomboy, definitely. When we first meet her she is racing with her best friend, Roger and she’s all energy. Then, that changes. She’s still energetic, but she’s more dark by the end of the show. The thing that most describes Lyra for me is a line that Ma Costa says in the books. When Lyra says something about her wanting to be a Gyptian she says: “You’re not a Gyptian Lyra. Gyptians are water people and you’re marsh fire.” That’s the thing that described Lyra for me the most.
How does His Dark Materials differ from other fantasy shows in your opinion?
For me, the stand-out thing is that the main character is a young girl. It’s also I think darker and it goes very deep. If a nine-year-old watches it, he’s only going to see the adventure part, but then if an adult sees it, they’re going to see all the layers and everything that it has.
What was the greatest challenge in playing Lyra?
Probably the heat! The heat from when we were in Oxford and I was having to be in like a woollen dress and then a fur coat. Acting-wise, although the daemons were pretty easy to imagine, it was a bit overwhelming to get your head around it at the beginning.
What were the sets like for the series?
They are so detailed. You go somewhere and you think: “Wow.” It’s like they have every single switch in Asriel’s lab, every last detail that you wouldn’t even see on camera. It actually really helps, acting-wise, to have all of those things around you. My favourite set is Lyra’s bedroom. I love it, it’s brilliant. I also love the barges and Trollesund was amazing. They built the whole town from scratch and you would be walking around going: “Wow, there’s a motel. Oh, look, there’s a weird lake with blood in it.” It was brilliant.
What is the alethiometer like in real life?
It’s really heavy. There’s a shoulder bag from Mrs. Coulter’s episode and it kept on breaking because of the weight of it, but the alethiometer itself is amazing. It has literally all of the drawings on it and you can move the needles. I am the sort of person who breaks everything, but I did not break the alethiometer because props was like: “If you break the alethiometer, that is very expensive.” I was like: “Okay, I won’t.”
Can you read it in real life?
There was this one scene where I’m asking it something, looking at it and going: “The serpent’s for cunning, the crucible is for knowledge…” and then it gives me an answer. I can sometimes work out what it will be but not always. I’ve tried.
Can you explain what a daemon is?
A daemon is your soul. It’s the expression of your soul and when you’re a child, it changes because you still change and then it fixes when you’re an adult in to what most looks like your personality. Lyra is a kid so her dæmon still changes, but it’s mostly an ermine and his name is Pantalaimon.
Is Pan in any way different to Lyra or just an extension of her?
He’s a bit different to her because obviously your soul is more responsible and wiser than you. Lyra’s like: “Woo, let’s jump off a roof.” Pan’s like: “No, don’t. You’re going to die.” He’s more responsible than her, but they are pretty similar.
How did you film so that a daemon was always present?
The first stage was rehearsals. We did rehearsals, we used puppets and oh god, I remember the first time them; I remember how excited me and Daniel Frogson were about those puppets. The puppeteers are really nice, too. They do a ‘puppet pass,’ when they’re like puppeteers pretending to be animals and you have to imagine it. Then there’s reference, which is when they put in a weird silver ball to know where the animals are. Then, they go into post- production where they make it all perfect. It is very complicated!
What would your daemon be?
It might be a pine marten or a monkey but I haven’t ‘settled’ yet, so I can’t really say. Definitely not a golden monkey like Mrs Coulter’s, those are freaky. And it would probably be called Apollo from the myth of Apollo and Daphne.
James McAvoy (playing Lord Asriel).
What did you know of Philip Pullman’s books before you were cast?
I was introduced to these books by two people actually when I was about 20 or 21: Mark Bonnar, an actor, and an actress called Indira Varma. We were doing a play and I was telling them how good Harry Potter was and they went: “You’ve got to read His Dark Materials.”
They said it would change my life and it did. I’ve read it three times, I think. I’ve listened to the audio-book twice. I’ve listened to the BBC radio adaptation, a play version of it, which was abridged, twice. I’ve read The Book of Dust twice. So I’m a massive fan. When I heard that they were going to turn it into a TV series, I got very excited. I started thinking who I could play. I thought Lee Scoresby? I was like: “No, it should be American and it’s just not me.” Then I was like: “Maybe I could do a voice of one of the dæmons.” But I knew the casting director, Kahleen Crawford, who’s an amazingly talented casting director.
I was over her house one night and we were chatting away about it. I was chatting purely as a fan and we were excited; I revealed my pretty decent wealth of knowledge on the world of Lyra and Will and all the rest of them. That just stuck in her head, I guess, because about three days before they started rehearsals, I got a call from Kahleen going: “Hey, could you come in last minute?” I was like: “How last minute?”… “You start Monday.” I was like: “Who will I play?”… “Lord Asriel.” I was like: “I’ve never really seen myself as Lord Asriel,” but I was like: “Yes, I’ll be there.”
Who is Lord Asriel?
Lord Asriel Belacqua was a high-flying nobleman in his youth, but I lost all my land and everything was taken away from me by the Magisterium, by the church. My life was very much changed and by the time I become the 40-year-old person that I am now, I’ve become quite hateful and doubtful of organised religion: their doctrines, and their beliefs, and their motives. I spend a good 13 years trying to get to the heart of what I believe, trying to bring them down really. I’ve been trying to determine what spiritualism really is and how it’s been perverted in our world by organised religion.
I am also the closest living relative to Lyra Belacqua. I’ve placed her in the stewardship of the scholars of Jordan College and said to them: “Keep her safe,” because she won’t be safe with me, so I leave her with the scholars to have her life of running about being a skinny ragamuffin a little bit. I come back and visit her periodically and bestow upon her gifts every now and again and wild stories of the frozen North and armoured bears and witches and all sorts. They seem like fantastical things, but of course in our world they are utterly real. Those stories fuel a spirit of adventure and a desire for the new and the different in Lyra as well.
Aside from its plot, what is His Dark Materials about?
It’s about freedom. It’s about a group of people, in different ways, trying to go about either freeing humanity, in all its forms – and it takes many forms in this story – or trying to oppress humanity. It’s also about science and religion, about how both science and spirituality are the same thing and how there’s no separation there in some ways.
It’s about societal institutions that are used to control, nullify and castrate the human experience and make us easier and duller, and all that. It’s got a very strong viewpoint on organised religion, which should shine through: my character certainly has a very strong viewpoint on organised religion, which in this world is known as the Magisterium, which is their version of the church, if you like.
Why do you think Philip Pullman’s books have been so successful?
One thing is the idea of having an animal companion, here portrayed as a ‘daemon’ which is like a manifestation of your soul. That is something that we love. People want pets. If you don’t have a pet, you’re always thinking about: “Should I get a pet?” This adds the question of: “If you could be any animal, what would you be?”
There’s a joy in finding out that in the world of Lyra and Lord Asriel, every single person’s soul is actually an entirely compartmentalised entity and it has a physical form in this world. That animal in some way reflects who, how, and why you are: that’s kind of beautiful. And the idea goes further, too: when you’re a child your daemon hasn’t settled yet – you don’t know quite who you are and so the animal changes according to how you’re feeling or what you need or want.
How ambitious is this series?
Just like Asriel’s grand plan, this show is almost foolhardy in its ambition. It’s what TV, the BBC and HBO can do that movies can’t, and it’s what they should do, because this is challenging as well as entertaining. It’s challenging for us as the makers of it just because of the scale of it and the complexities, the animals, the far-flung locations and so on. But challenges are just an opportunity to successfully tell a story in a surprising way.
Have you been impressed by what they have managed to achieve?
Yes. I have a lot of scenes in the frozen wastes of the north and the land of the bears. You always go: “Are we going to go somewhere really freezing?” Because that would be brilliant as well a nightmare. They go: “No, we’ve got a bunch of kids running about and we can’t take them all to Finnish Lapland so we’ll do it in studio.” You go: “All right, it’s going to be rubbish,” and then you walk on the set and it’s actually stunning. In particular the light is incredible because the first series is based around the book Northern Lights. You are led by our own Northern Lights a lot of the times, so it’s like being in a brilliant psychedelic disco.
Ruth Wilson (playing Mrs Coulter).
How would you describe His Dark Materials to someone who knows nothing of it?
His Dark Materials follows Lyra Belacqua who’s a 12-year-old girl on an epic journey in search of her kidnapped friend. On that journey, she discovers things about herself, she discovers things about her destiny and she discovers things about the world in which she lives. That journey will have consequences not just for this world but many other worlds.
Although it’s told through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl, Phillip Pullman and this series don’t shy away from larger philosophical questions. It deals with things like science versus religion, the concepts of original sin and redemption. But on a human level, it also deals with betrayal, abandonment, family, deceit and loyalty. At the heart of it is this girl, this 12-year-old, brave, courageous, strong girl who goes on this journey and is willing to stand up to the world that she’s living in.
Who are you playing?
I play Mrs Coulter who is one of the show’s main antagonists. She’s obsessed with Lyra and you soon find out why. She’s not a very nice woman, but we delve in deep with her. I think it all comes from a place of trauma with her so, in my eyes, she’s misunderstood. Either way, she does some pretty horrific things.
Mrs Coulter is a key role that’s been played on screen and stage before. Were you nervous taking it on?
Completely. The books have a vast fanbase and she has a huge following, both obsessed with her and despising her. To get that tone right and to give the fans what they want is quite a daunting challenge.
In the story every character has a dæmon or spirit animal continually by their side. What was that like to film?
It was done with a combination of puppets and CGI. I’d never done anything with animation or CGI characters or monsters or anything like that before; I’ve always just worked with humans. So it’s been quite interesting and certainly, the first few days I didn’t know what I was doing. Because you had to be aware of where this daemon was, the whole time.
I mean, you act in unison: it’s effectively your soul. They know what each other is thinking. To be that close or to talk to something that’s not there is very weird. I’ve found that a really new challenge for me. But I ended up loving my puppet and puppeteer Brian. We worked together for about a week before any filming just it working out – he was giving me some monkey moves because he walks like a monkey or animates like a monkey. He would help me work out if anything I want to bring into Mrs. Coulter in terms of body language.
Mrs Coulter’s relationship with her daemon is different to other characters…
By the end of the third book Mrs Coulter is coddling and holding her monkey. Prior to that, in book one she’s hitting him. There’s an abusive relationship going on. That’s a journey in itself. She’s also the only character whose daemon doesn’t have a name and she can separate from him. I think there’s something fascinating about Mrs Coulter because to separate from your daemon is agony. In a way, it’s self-inflicted pain. If you are trying or if someone pulls your daemon away, it kills you.
For her to be able to separate from a daemon, which is something no one else really can apart from witches, then that’s something she’s done. She’s trained herself to do that, which requires immense discipline, but also, there’s something dark about that, that she’s inflicting pain on herself. We decided, understood that this relationship is self-abuse in some way or it’s kind of self-loathing. It represents of deep self-loathing. We played with that and tried to bring that out. I went quite deep and weird with it.
How did you settle on a look for Mrs Coulter?
Certainly in the book, Philip had written a woman that is very archetypal in some way to how a glamorous woman would stand out in a male’s world, how she would stand out in that world. People stop in the streets to look at her. She makes an impression wherever she goes. I think that’s really important: she has to look a certain way. She likes being looked at and she likes having that power.
I think as we go on throughout the series, I would like to strip her down to something that becomes more of who she perhaps was before she became ‘Mrs Coulter.’ Someone more grounded and less concerned with outer appearance. That’s certainly what she’s constructed for herself. It’s the way that she gets power. It’s the way that she manipulates people. It’s the way that she feels that she can work a whole room of men. I think all those things have come into play with how we’ve designed her outfit and how she stands out. Her colours are so bold in contrast to the Magisterium, which is all black and all men,
When it came to her makeup we had an interesting discussion because there was an obvious way of going which could be femme fatale, side parting, Lauren Bacall, Jessica Rabbit style. I was a bit averse. I thought I had done that before slightly but also I just thought that’s obvious. I started looking at pictures of Hedy Lamarr and I love the centre parting. It was neat, but then she has a wildness to her that she can’t contain. She’s trying desperately to but she can’t. I wanted an edge of that to come out in the hair and makeup. Also she starts as this very warm, lovely, Miss Honey character. We went light on the makeup to begin with, and then when you understand who she is, then we can go full-blown vamp. That has been a really fun journey, we’ll see where that goes again in the next few seasons.
What did you make of Jack Thorne’s adaptation?
It’s remarkable. Philip has created such a unique and complicated world with huge philosophical questions at the heart of it, as well as very human characters and relationships. Which means it’s definitely has to be dramatised in some way, but it’s very hard to do. Essentially it’s things like, what is dust? That’s the big question that fills the first season and actually that’s really hard to explain in a simple way.
Jack has done an incredible job of doing both those two things, making very vivid and bold characters but also bringing in those larger questions which Lyra and all the characters have to face. From the get-go he’s got it – he’s got the pace and he’s created these worlds that feel very contained. It’s a marvellous job.
Lin-Manuel Miranda (playing Lee Scoresby).
Who is Lee Scoresby?
Lee Scoresby is a Texan aeronaut, which means he flies in a hot air balloon in Lyra’s world. It’s interesting. When we first meet Lee he’s a bit of a non-sequitur. We are suddenly in an air balloon flying above these mountains but we soon learn that he is a close friend of Iorek Byrnison, the armoured bear who is without his armour. He joins Lyra in her quest up north to find the missing children and to see Dust.
Is he a good guy or a bad guy?
I would say he’s a good guy and a rascal at the same time. He’s not above picking a pocket, he’s not above doing bad things to achieve good ends: he’s a cowboy. But a cowboy very much in the Gary Cooper High Noon mould. He’s got this incredibly decent heart even though he drinks and he gambles and he fights and he’s got a gun… but he also uses all those powers for good.
Why did you want to do be part of this adaptation of His Dark Materials?
I was working on Mary Poppins Returns in London when Jane Tranter and Jack Thorne invited me to dinner. I am huge fans of each of their work, independent of each other, from Doctor Who to the Harry Potter play, which I thought was an incredible piece of work. So I said yes to that dinner. Then, I was gob-smacked when they told me, one, what they were doing and the scale of the ambition behind adapting this project. It’s what – as any Philip Pullman fan will tell you – this material deserves. The worlds are so rich. Then, when they told me they had me in mind for Lee Scoresby I said: “Yes,” at dinner.
There was no thinking about it. I first read those books when my wife and I started dating. It was within that courtship period where you start reading things together, and there are certain shared things that stay with you. This is a very beloved series that my wife and I have re-read many times. I got home from dinner barely able to believe what we had just talked about. “I’m going to be him,” I thought. It was a real thrill.
What is it about the novels that speaks to both young and old alike?
You read those books and you get the same feeling you do when you are looking up at a night sky and there’s no light around you. You see how giant the universe is. It affords you a view of not only the size of the universe but many universes stacked on top of each other. The starting premise of the books is also dazzling.
Not even the plot of the books, but the premise that there’s a world in which we have souls that are outward manifestations that are animals, that are opposite in gender, that are our better halves, that are our consciousness. It makes us feel less alone in this universe where we don’t have daemons. There’s something just beautiful about the metaphor of that. It’s like when you see an amazing movie or an amazing show, and then you kind of blink bleary-eyed back in to the regular world. That’s how I felt after reading these books.
What impressed you about the plans for this adaptation?
I was impressed by several things. One, a season per book. Which is what this deserves. Because the worlds are so rich. Two, Jack [Thorne] writing all of them. The authorial intent of it, not being broken in the writers’ room by lots of different writers, but by one writer. The same way Philip Pullman created this universe, Jack Thorne is adapting it. There’s something really exciting about that even though you want to bring Jack Thorne cookies and tea and give him hugs like all the time. Every time I see him, he looks knackered! Those are the two things that were so exciting to me about it. It was like: “They’re really trying to do right by these stories.”
Of all the characters Lee Scoresby must be the most fun to play…
Let me put it this way, my first day of filming, I did a musical number on a hot air balloon with a rabbit. My second day of filming, I got into a bar fight and had a stool broken over my back while I picked pockets and got thrown out of the bar like the classic western bar-room brawl. My third day, I talked to an armoured bear.
Those were the first three days of work. It’s like every day has been an actor’s dream – from the way in which we interact with our dæmons and the incredible puppet work and CGI work that is going to be happening with this production to the incredible dream team cast of actors we have. From Dafne [Keen], who is so preternaturally grounded as a young actor to James McAvoy to Ruth Wilson, all the way down the line.
What has it been like acting with a daemon or with a giant bear?
We had these incredible puppeteers on-set. They’re basically a stand-in. I have a lovely young actress named Ruby who’s been voicing Hester [Lee’s daemon] and does the dialogue with me, so I’ve got two people playing Hester. Basically, in every take we’ll do a couple of puppet passes so we understand where the daemon is within the space and how we do or don’t interact with them.
You do a puppet pass and then you’ll do a version where it’s the same deal but you know where your eyeline is and you know who you’re talking to and so you get the muscle memory of where they’d be before you do a take without them in it. It’s important to get it right: Lee Scoresby spends so much time alone in his hot air balloon. He talks to his daemon like crazy lonely people who are by themselves talk to themselves. It’s totally Han Solo and Chewy. He just keeps his own council.
Is that a challenge?
I don’t know an actor alive who didn’t spend most of their childhoods talking to themselves. It’s really just playing pretend in the true sense. The reason we got into this is it’s calling on your imagination to do the rest of the work.
What would your daemon be if you had one in real life?
It’s funny. I always used to joke that my daemon was my own pet dog, Toby, who I love very much. But now I actually think that’s not true. I think that’s just me loving my dog. I think my daemon is probably an introvert. I think my demon is very quiet and shy because I’m not very quiet and I’m not very shy. I think my daemon is something like a bookworm, wearing a sweater and reading in bed saying to me: “What are you doing on that stage? Get off.”
Clarke Peters (playing The Master – but not the one from Doctor Who).
Who is The Master?
The Master of Jordan College, which is one of the many colleges at Oxford. For those who don’t know anything about the book, or if you know nothing about me, I’m going to start from the beginning. This is a book about a young lady who’s coming of age at a time and a dimension that’s not dissimilar to here, although there’s some technology that does afford her an interesting passage to the future.
That little instrument that she uses to tell the future is something that she received from myself. We deal with science, theosophy, theology and philosophy at Jordan College, I would imagine, although it’s not quite stated as such. It’s a conversation between church versus state, spirituality versus politics, adolescence versus maturity. My character is pretty much the guardian of young Lyra and has to pass these notions down to her alongside her uncle Lord Asriel.
Earlier on in the book we see him give Lyra the alethiometer, but also he appears to be trying to poison Asriel. Is he a good guy or a bad guy?
That was my question as well. You don’t know whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy. You don’t know whether he’s doing things for the protection of his charge, of the young girl, or whether he’s doing it for the protection of the universe: in order to save the world, you might have to sacrifice one person. In the book and in our show, it’s a difficult decision.
It would be a difficult decision for anyone to make. That’s an interesting element in the storytelling because you don’t know, you have no idea. I don’t think it would be accurate for me to put a spin on that right now because it could spoil it for someone else. This is an ongoing saga so the story moves on without him: we don’t know whether he will show up again in the future or not.
What’s The Master’s relationship with Lyra?
Lyra is not a child. A child is a child because of the environment that they’re brought up in. So in relation to everyone in her environment, yes, she’s a child. In relationship to the world, she’s a very knowledgeable human being. She has all the skills and the knowledge that goes along with being able to survive, reason and analyse a world and to negotiate her way through it. This is a child who was brought up on a university campus. So from a very young age, she had lots of parents.
She also did have an agenda that she should have stuck to but she didn’t, so even just by osmosis, by association her ability for critical thinking would surpass anybody right just from being in that environment. As far as the Master’s relationship with her, she was thrust upon him and that was the last thing that he wanted probably – this is no place for a child, yet I feel that our author gave me a moment to really express a paternal love and loss when it’s time to let the child leave.
It’s something that women go through all the time with empty nesting, all of that kind of stuff, but men go through this as well whether we want to admit it or not. If you have a son or daughter you know that when they are gone, something is missing. In this case, I know she’s got to go off onto her own journey – and it is like losing a toe.
To what extent is this world fantasy or reality?
It’s like our world… but we don’t have daemons. Our demons are inside of us. In this world, your daemons manifest in some animal outside of you. In this world, there are machines that do amazing things and not necessarily with fossil fuel. In this world of fantasia, a lot can happen but Philip [Pullman] is also so rooted in the truth so that it’s not too crazy. There isn’t anyone disappearing before your very eyes… unless they have a magic knife. They can’t see certain things unless they have amber glasses. I like the world. Visually, what our designers have done, and particularly for our Oxford, is they have made a very comfortable academic environment that looks like it could be lived in for decades as these people do, as academics do.
As an actor, what do you do to help you picture having a daemon following you around?
Well, fortunately Tom Hooper [director] made sure that we had puppets nearby from the beginning so that we could relate to them – mostly from a spatial point of view rather than personality point of view. That’s been a godsend. My daemon is a bird, a raven who sits either on my shoulder or on my wrist. I’ve got to sometimes imagine what it would be like to have something land on your wrist, or what it feels like when something takes off.
We’re all grappling with that, with whatever our daemons are, to pretend that they’re there. The production has given us a chance to really feel what’s it like, so that we’re not just all acting out our own crazy imaginations. A raven is a big bird, it’s not a robin, so when I was just looking down at my wrist, I’ve got to lift my eye up about 18 inches to get the reality of it, and then the weight of it and the distance of it.
What do you think daemons represent?
I think that the demons are our sixth sense. The only way we function in the world or imagine our world and move through this plane is using our five senses. Vibrations that move really fast that we call light can only be perceived by your eyes. Your ears can’t catch that vibration, but when it slows down, your ears catch that vibration.
When it gets really slow, your body catches that vibration. If I would look at the daemons and see how they function in the story, I think they’re our sixth sense. Where it can get a bird’s-eye view of the landscape. It can feel someone else’s daemon and what their intentions are, as humans do. Every human being has this sense, and Phillip has very cleverly turned it into an animal.
How did you come to be part of this production?
I was aware of the book and I had seen it at the National Theatre years ago, so it wasn’t totally unfamiliar to me. Actually, I kind of got this because when I met Phillip [Pullman], he said: “I want you to do this.” It was at the Hay Festival this summer. By that time I had read the book and I was kind of blown away when he said that.
Then the next challenge was how do I speak? Because my American accent is sometimes thick. I think they trusted me with the challenge of doing this, and I’m very grateful, really to Tom and to Dan too, to allow that to happen.
What was it like handling the actual alethiometer?
Excellent. Whoever designed that, it’s different. It’s not like a compass. It’s like three compasses; it’s like a compass and a watch. It’s got dials, it’s got gears, it moves. Think of an orrery, that thing that calculates astronomy, so there’s like three or four rings with the planets on the outside, the sun in the middle and they all move round the sun. Now if you can imagine that as all put on to a disk. That’s the alethiometer.
What would Clarke Peters’ daemon be?
At first I thought it’d be a horse, but now I think it would be a tern. I was thinking of terns because I was sitting over by the castle here in Cardiff and we were talking about everyone’s daemon. The thing about a tern is that it can fly, swim and run. It’s just versatile.