James McAvoy reveals he wasn’t the first choice to play Lord Asriel in His Dark Materials

“I think they'd possibly been let down by a couple of people last minute,” the Scottish actor said

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New BBC drama His Dark Materials has a pretty starry cast, with the Philip Pullman adaptation boasting lead roles for James McAvoy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ruth Wilson and (in later series) Andrew Scott – but if original plans had gone ahead, apparently one key role would have taken a different direction.

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At least that’s according to X-Men star McAvoy, who revealed exclusively to Radio Times that he was a last-minute addition to the cast to play explorer Lord Asriel after another actor pulled out of the role shortly before production began.

“It was actually very last minute – I happened to be chatting to the casting director, who’s a friend of mine, waxing lyrical about how much I love the books, and then they got let down by whoever else was doing it originally,” McAvoy told Radio Times magazine, available in stores from Tuesday 29th October.

“So she called me up and said ‘Do you think you can start on Monday?’ That was on the Friday!

“I think they’d possibly been let down by a couple of people last minute,” he added.

Exactly who else might have been in the frame for Asriel is unclear, but McAvoy definitively makes the role his own – and as it turns out, his intense love of Pullman’s novels were a big help in bringing Asriel to life.

“I know that character inside out, I know the books inside out, so I just hit the ground running,” he said.

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James McAvoy as Lord Asriel with his dæmon Stelmaria (BBC)

“I was prepared for it without having to prepare for it. I have a vision of that character, and I have a belief or certain goals and beliefs for what that character should achieve, and what should come across.

“But I’m not just a fan – I actually deeply care about the books – so I would hate to watch this and go ‘Oh, that’s not the Lord Asriel I’ve always wanted to see!’ And I’m playing it!”

For our part, we’d say he pulled it off in the nick of time – but viewers will have to make up their own minds when the drama premieres in early November.

To read Radio Times’ full interviews with McAvoy, Ruth Wilson, Dafne Keen and Lin-Manuel Miranda and read Philip Pullman’s exclusive introduction to the series, pick up one of our four change covers now – or collect the set!

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His Dark Materials begins at 8.00pm on Sunday 3rd November on BBC One