ADAPTING English novelist Sir Philip Pullman’s award-winning trilogy of the same name, which is considered a modern masterpiece of imaginative fiction, the upcoming HBO Original Series His Dark Materials follows Lyra (played by Dafne Keen), a seemingly ordinary but brave young woman from another world.
Her search for a kidnapped friend uncovers a sinister plot involving stolen children and becomes a quest to understand a mysterious phenomenon called Dust.
The drama series explores a world in which sentient, talking animals are found in two ways: Daemons and armoured bears. Each human in the series is accompanied by his daemon which is the physical manifestation of a person’s soul and a reflection of his inner self and lifelong companion through the world.
Daemon takes on the appearance of an animal, but with the voice and the intelligence of a human. In childhood, a daemon can change its animal form at will, but at a certain stage of adolescence a daemon “settles” into its final form — forever reflecting the character of its person.
Keen plays Lyra Belacqua, an adventure-seeking 13-year-old from a world that is both like, and unlike, our own.
In the first episode, we meet Lyra as an orphan, having been raised in the sanctuary of Oxford’s illustrious Jordan College. She is desperate to explore with her brilliant Uncle Asriel (James McAvoy), until fate intervenes and she ends up on a thrilling and perilous journey of her own.
A natural and adept liar, Lyra learns the value of honesty and lies when she becomes the owner of an extraordinary instrument that can tell the truth.
The 14-year-old actress Keen does not look very much like the character she plays, at least not as Pullman describes in his trilogy.
In Northern Lights, the first book of the trilogy, she is “like a half-wild cat”, with dirty fingernails, green eyes and grubby blond-ish hair.
Keen, who is of British-Spanish parentage and lives in Madrid, is darker and is already the master of an intense glare, as anyone who saw her alongside Hugh Jackman in Logan (2017) will know.
Barely out of her teens, Keen has the self-possessed coolness of a total professional and seasoned actress. However, there are plenty of Lyra-esque flourishes that make it obvious why she got to play the part. She was almost 12 when she finished filming Logan and had heard about the adaptation of His Dark Materials.
Still in its early stages then, she sent in an audition tape, but she didn’t get a response for some time. “I thought, never mind, I’ll just carry on with my life,” she says.
The production team finally replied, asking her to make another tape.
“That was when I got stung by a jellyfish.” She was holidaying in Puerto Rico then. “I thought, right, I’m going to have a chilled-out swim and then I’m going to get ready. I suddenly felt this thing on my face and then it started stinging and then it expanded all over my face.
“I ran to my mum and I went, ‘Mum! Is it really red?’ My mum went, ‘No it’s fine.’ And then she went, ‘Oh no, it’s not fine.’”
Her face was red and swollen but she had to do the tape. “So my audition is with a jelly-face,” she recounts, smiling.
The next step was for her to meet the award-winning English actress Ruth Wilson, who plays Mrs Coulter, one of the best evil characters in children’s literature.
“I was sitting in the waiting room with 20 other girls,” shares Keen. “I was thinking, oh God, they’re all blonde. I don’t physically look like this character, and these girls all do. I went in, shook hands with Ruth, and five minutes later, she looked at me and said, ‘You know, you have the same eyebrows as me.’”
Fans of the books will know that this is a big thumbs-up.
Days later, she began rehearsals, with Wilson and puppets.
Because the daemons on screen are CGI, the actors shot their scenes with puppets to make their interactions as authentic as possible. Naturally, Keen is practised at describing what her own daemon would be, were this world to have daemons in it.
“Mine is quite easy to figure out, because it’s what everyone called me on set. Everyone calls me Monkey.”
As daemons change form until their human reaches adulthood, when they settle as one fixed animal, Keen particularly liked hers as a pine marten.
Keen only got to watch the first episode of the series during the press screening in London recently.
“Everybody had seen it apart from me! I’m really busy filming season two, so I had no time to watch it. At the screening I had Pullman right next to me, and I was like, oh God! But I think he liked it.”
“His wife came up to me and was really lovely and was saying I was the perfect Lyra. I was really happy to hear that,” she says.
MESSAGE TO THE WORLD
Keen had not read the trilogy before she auditioned. “Now I’m a massive, massive fan. As soon as I read the books, I knew this was a good message to the world, and it’s important that we have stories about young girls, because there aren’t many.”
At the screening, Jack Thorne, who wrote the screenplay, likened Lyra to Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist. Though she does not know it, the future of the world rests on Lyra’s shoulders, and she has to fight tooth and nail to defeat the forces that wish to suppress free will and independent thought.
Keen approves of the Thunberg comparison: “I am genuinely in awe of that girl.”
There have been various adaptations of His Dark Materials over the years: BBC’s Radio 4 series; a play at London’s Royal National Theatre; and the 2007 Hollywood attempt, The Golden Compass, with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.
The television series seems more comfortable with its source material, and its Magisterium, the governing body of the Church, is portrayed as a fascist regime. In 2007, the Catholic League called for a boycott of The Golden Compass, despite the religious references being excised, and the Vatican also denounced the film and Pullman’s writing.
Keen had seen it and we wondered if she had been aware that this new version might be controversial, given the backlash the movie attracted? “I thought that was sad, but I understand why they had to do it,” she reasons, diplomatically, of the decision to soften the book’s themes.
“But I think people are reading too much into it. When Philip writes about the Magisterium, he’s not bringing down the church, he’s bringing down the system.”
TIME WITH THE ‘HUMAN JUKEBOX’
Keen was born and raised in Spain and is bilingual. Her mother Maria is Spanish, and besides being her acting coach, she is also an actor, as is Keen’s father Will.
Her father also has a part in the series, playing the character Father MacPhail, part of the Magisterium faithful.
“He is terrifying,” says Keen. “He always plays bad people. I don’t know why because he’s so nice. I genuinely think it’s because he’s bald and has green eyes.”
She practically grew up in a theatre rehearsal room, because of her parents, but she thought she would be a biologist, like Sir David Attenborough. “Then I found out you have to study Biology, and to do that you have to study Maths, and I went, mmm no, I’m not doing that. I hate maths so much, you can’t even imagine.”
A friend of her mother’s was making a short film, and needed a child for it, so Keen gave acting a go. She loved it. She did a series in Spain, The Refugees, alongside her father. (“He was playing my evil father, yes. Always got to give it the psychopathic twist.”)
She picked up an agent, who put her forward for Logan, and she got down to an audition with Jackman. “In the waiting room, once again, there was this perfect LA beautiful blonde girl. I was just, like, a small, scrappy Latin girl. I always think it’s not going to work out for me, and then it went really great.”
She auditioned with Jackman, then asked if she could try again, only this time she said she’d like to improvise the scene. She was only 11 then.
“My heart was beating big time,” she says. “I thought, I’m just going to dive in and ask them, and they loved it, so I was lucky.
“Hugh is the nicest human being,” she adds. “I used to call him the Human Jukebox because he was always singing. Lin does the same thing.” Lin is of course, her fellow cast in the series, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who plays Lee Scoresby. He got Keen tickets to see his smash-hit musical, Hamilton.
“Two VIP Lin-Manuel Miranda guest tickets. I felt like such a diva.” On set, she would find herself singing the songs from it, but was too shy to sing when he was there.
Right now, Keen is preparing to go back to Wales to film season two, which loosely adapts The Subtle Knife, the second book in the trilogy.
The third season, which will take on the astonishingly ambitious The Amber Spyglass, may take a little longer to pull together. Still, she is happy to live as Lyra for a while yet. She has taken plenty of her away from the experience already.
“She taught me to speak up. Be bold, be brave, be yourself. Don’t follow rules, because rules can be useful, but they can be very stupid and pointless,” she says, sounding very much like her Lyra character.
Other series regulars include: Clarke Peters (HBO’s The Wire and Treme) as The Master of Jordan College, James Cosmo as Farder Coram and Anne-Marie Duff as
Ma Costa, with Ariyon Bakare as Lord Boreal.
FROM PULLMAN FAN TO PLAYING LORD ASRIEL
The drama series also has a pretty starry cast, with the adaptation of author Sir Philip Pullman boasting lead roles such as James McAvoy, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ruth Wilson.
Here’s what the 40-year-old Scottish actor McAvoy has to share about his role as Lord Asriel, and the production.
Question: WHAT DID YOU KNOW OF SIR PHILIP PULLMAN’S BOOKS BEFORE YOU WERE CAST?
James McAvoy: 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 audiobook 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 daemons.’
I knew the casting director, Kahleen Crawford, who’s an amazingly- talented casting director. I was over at 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?’... You start Monday”.
I was like: “Who will I play?’...”
I was like: “I’ve never really seen myself as Lord Asriel,” but I said: “Yes, I’ll be there.”
Question: WHO IS LORD ASRIEL?
McAvoy: 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 doctines, and their beliefs, and their motives.
I spent a good 13 years trying to get to the heart of what I believe... I’ve been trying to determine what spiritualism really is and how it’s been perverted in our world by organised religion.
I’m 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.
Question: ASIDE FROM ITS PLOT, WHAT IS HIS DARK MATERIALS ABOUT?
McAvoy: It’s about freedom. It’s about a group of people, in different ways, trying to go about either freeing humanity, in all 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.
Question: WHY DO YOU THINK PULLMAN’S BOOKS HAVE BEEN SO SUCCESSFUL?
McAvoy: 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 to the question of: “If you could be any animal, what would you be?”
There’s a joy in finding out in that 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 ways reflects who, how and why you are, which is 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. 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.
Question: HAVE YOU BEEN IMPRESSED BY WHAT THEY HAVE MANAGED TO ACHIEVE?
McAvoy: 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?”
That would be brilliant as well as 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 in the 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’re led by our own Northern Lights a lot of the times, so it’s like being in a brilliant psychedelic disco.
His Dark Materials premieres on Nov 5, Tuesday, at 10am on HBO GO and HBO (Astro channels 411/431HD), with the same day encore at 10pm. New episodes air Tuesdays at the same time.