It’s the most hotly-anticipated shows of 2020, and after a mind-blowing first season of His Dark Materials, the franchise is back.
Picking up where we left off, Lyra (Dafne Keen) will continue her investigation into Dust while searching for her father, all the while becoming acquainted with her new partner, Will Parry (Amir Wilson).
But will she find the answers she’s looking for? And will the evil Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) get in the way again?
Radio Times Magazine spoke to the His Dark Materials cast to find out more about the season two.
Amid a hectic filming and promotional schedule, Golden Globe and Olivier-winning Ruth Wilson has accidentally become something of an expert in the different European responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking from Prague, she tells me: “The restrictions here are different from those in Málaga, where I’ve been filming. Every country has its own rules, but every country is suffering. You know COVID is global, but to experience it in each country is kind of unifying.”
In Málaga, Wilson has just wrapped the movie True Things about Me, on which she is also a producer. She bought the rights to Deborah Kay Davies’s novel eight years ago, finally started work on it in March, then had to pause, a week in, due to lockdown. “Finally we got it going, and a pandemic comes along,” she says, wryly.
Fortunately for Philip Pullman fans, series two of BBC One and HBO’s His Dark Materials (adapted from The Subtle Knife, the second book in the author’s trilogy), was shot last year.
So what can fans expect from Mrs Coulter, everyone’s favourite child abductor? An even more ruthless streak, according to Wilson.
“Mrs Coulter is much more alone without the support network that she had at the Magisterium and is taking risks and burning bridges. She’s much more vulnerable, and for that reason, becomes quite a lot more dangerous.”
To Pullman, Mrs Coulter is “a cesspit of moral filth”, but Wilson paints her in shades of grey. “The evil comes out of a love of control,” she says. “Without that, she’s nothing. Look, she does horrific things. I’m not justifying her actions, but as an actor, you have to understand why.
“For me, the biggest clue was her daemon, the monkey. They’re a great team, but when the two of them are alone, how do they interact? They don’t like each other; they never speak; they’re lonely and angry. That the monkey doesn’t have a name or voice suggests that if it’s a representation of self, there’s something Mrs C is repressing or silencing. That’s her driving force.”
Fans can also expect a fleshing-out of her relationship with Lyra. “After season one, we wanted to maintain Mrs C as the antagonist to Lyra’s protagonist. In the book she kind of disappears, but Philip gave us licence to dig deeper and explore who she really is – who she may have been before, how she became so powerful in a male-dominated world, and what compromises she made. Her ambition has been at the expense of her relationship with her child. Coming into contact with her daughter is a huge reckoning.”
She is full of praise for Dafne Keen’s performance as Lyra. “Unfortunately, in this season, we don’t have many scenes together. But every time we do, they’re brilliant – the ones that you look forward to, because they’re electric.”
What makes Dafne special? “Fearlessness,” she smiles. “She’s fearless and feral. In a good way. When Dafne walked into the audition [in 2016, aged 11], I just thought, ‘Wow’. She’s got something so magical. She’s not intimidated by anyone. She just stared me dead in the eyes, and I thought, ‘My God, she’s going to give me a run for my money’. You can’t imagine anyone else as Lyra. Over two years of filming, it’s been thrilling to be there watching her become a woman.”
And Wilson at 15? “I wasn’t fearless, or feral,” she laughs. “Well, a bit feral – making dens and probably drinking a few beers, starting to rebel.”
Rebellion, of course, is one of the drama’s central themes. “It’s the idea of controlling imagination and freedom of thought that Pullman is attacking, rather than religion per se. In any authoritarian dictatorship that tries to control how people feel and think, you’re limiting people’s capacity to imagine, thereby eliminating hope and progress.”
These themes have never felt more relevant. “Everything at the moment feels scary, but with an element of hope. As a former history student [she graduated from the University of Nottingham in 2003], I’m fascinated by massive shifts in geopolitics and culture, and in how people think and act. There’ll be a lot of pain and suffering, but I hope there’ll be some positives. Democracy is so vital, but it’s rare and hard to achieve. It requires everyone to participate, and be open-minded, rather than scared.”
Did she learn anything about herself in lockdown at home in south London? “I did. At first it felt weird and static, but I really appreciated having a break. I haven’t stopped in so many years. Lots of people had very tough times, but I valued the chance not to keep running.”
When filming on True Things about Me restarted in September, Wilson was delighted to be in a position to give paid employment to the cast and crew (including her director, who was breastfeeding a new baby). “It was joyous to be back among like-minded people and creating stories – like Philip, using your imagination, with renewed energy. That’s what you need to maintain the drive in your job – the joy.”
Ruth Wilson is right when she says that Dafne Keen is “fearless”. On a video call to the Madrid home she shares with her actor parents, the half-Spanish, half-British 15-year-old is also confident, charismatic, articulate and precocious in the most charming way. It’s no surprise that the girl who bagged the part of Lyra despite auditioning with a face swollen from a jellyfish sting is writing and directing a short film while still at school. She can’t talk about that, but she can talk about Lyra.
“She’s gone from being extremely trusting to not trusting herself, Pan [her daemon] or the alethiometer [the mysterious device that gives her guidance]. She arrives in a strange new world and meets Will [Parry], another loner, who brings her out of her shell. It’s beautiful to see Lyra become much sweeter towards others because of him.”
Keen admits she was nervous about meeting Amir Wilson, who plays Will, but they hit it off instantly. “It’s so unusual to see leads who are a young girl and a black boy. We should see more of it.” Then there was the chance to work with Ruth Wilson again. “She’s so talented and hard-working. We both get really carried away, ad-libbing and getting crazier and crazier. She helps me to be much more free.”
Keen didn’t think she’d get the part. “I’m very Latin-looking, with dark eyes and hair, and the novels’ description of Lyra is blonde and fair; and I was more expensive [than a British actor] because of flights and housing. At the audition, Ruth came over and said, ‘Hi, I’m Ruth Wilson. We have the same eyebrows’,” she laughs. “I did not know how to react.”
Humour bonded them, Keen says, and has also brought them close to Amir, and to Ariyon Bakare, who plays Lord Boreal.
“The four of us are very sarcastic. Amir and I love to prank each other. Once when Amir left our Cardiff set to go home to London, we wrapped everything in his trailer in recycled clingfilm: his pillows, his bed, his food…”
Lyra isn’t exactly a prankster, so do the two share any characteristics? “We’re both very curious, very physical, spontaneous and intuitive,” she says, clearly having thought about this question before.
“It annoys me how naive Lyra can be. It gives her so many problems. I feel bad for her. She used to be very arrogant, but she’s better now.”
With loss of innocence a key theme in The Subtle Knife, I wonder how Lyra’s process of growing up mirrors Keen’s own, and what pressures are inherent in being a teenager in 2020. “Oh, God,” she sighs. “So many. With social media, it’s crazy. Anyone can look you up and see you, from a really young age. There are so many unrealistic standards that especially girls, but also boys, are compared to constantly.”
She uses Instagram, but deleted TikTok. “I thought it was really toxic. As a young girl, it makes you feel so bad about yourself and how you look.”
Keen had a “very political” upbringing and recently began working with Unicef, making a speech on World Children’s Day. “My entire life I’ve been exposed to feminism, anti-racism and the LGBTQ+ movement. And all of these incredible movements are happening right now, so I’m very lucky to be informed.”
In Spain, the arts are suffering, as they are in Britain. “People should try to come more to the theatre, and instead of going shopping, consume more art,” says Keen. “We don’t have enough funds. It’s a downward spiral, but we can get out of it with people on our side. People have always tried to censor art, and we always make our way out of the hole.” Spoken with the wisdom of a person twice her age.
Andrew Scott and Amir Wilson
Sometimes, if you want something badly enough, you can make it happen. Witches call it manifesting. Others call it nonsense.
Either way, after watching Fleabag 603 times, the fact that I’m talking to the Hot Priest surely proves the power of positive thinking. OK, so it’s on a video call, but these days that’s about as intimate as any Andrew Scott fan could manifest for.
Soon we will be joined by Amir Wilson, who plays Will Parry, the screen son of Scott’s John Parry. But for now we are alone, or as alone as we can be given that Scott is speaking from a photographic studio in north London.
A huge Pullman fan, Scott says he relished playing the mysterious Parry (whose osprey daemon is voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, in a nice nod to Fleabag fans). I mention a scene with Lee Scoresby (a wonderful Lin-Manuel Miranda), which sees Scott imbue the question “Do you like soup?” with an intonation both tender and menacing, suggesting the soup could equally be laced with arsenic or onions. “I didn’t practise that,” he laughs. “It just came out.”
As for his relationship with Will, “It’s a lovely storyline,” Scott says. “The father/son dynamic is really what it’s about. There are two parallel stories that sort of merge. It’s beautiful; it’s about forgiveness and familial love, which we all have our own relationship with.”
He did, however, find Parry tricky to inhabit. “One of John’s guises is a shaman, which is quite difficult to play – you don’t want to have to be humourless. I tried to make him have some gags, and for him not to be too weirdly hippie, which I probably failed at. But I gave it a go.”
He took a pragmatic approach to portraying this enigmatic character from such a well-loved story. “My job is to see how to make it a cinematic event rather than a literary one. It’s like a photocopy of a photocopy. The source material is extraordinary. It’s one of the best fictions ever written: not just for children.”
Scott may have hung up his (hot) priestly robes, but the church is ever present throughout Pullman’s narrative, and not exactly shown in a favourable light.
“It’s beautifully done, how it teaches children about what authority means, and how to question things in an intelligent way, and in its attitude towards organised religion,” he says. “The idea that you can be responsible and soulful yet not belong to any particular church is wonderful. It’s about choice.”
How does Scott interpret Parry’s description of “two forces who have always been at war with each other: those who want to repress and those who want us to know more”?
“It’s the idea of knowledge, and the sinister nature of social media, technology and how we’re being watched the whole time; how much information we’re being fed. We’re not even aware. Food, drug or alcohol addiction are considered valid problems, but I think we’re in the early stages of understanding that technological addiction can exist. It mirrors the show, this idea that there are people who want you to know more, and people who want to manipulate you into behaving in a certain way. Politically, technologically, socially – across the board.”
With the Magisterium, is Pullman attacking the idea of control rather than the idea of belief and faith? “That’s exactly right. That’s why our ability to be able to vote is so extraordinary. It’s a wonderful power that we have, and it’s really important that we exercise it.
“We have to be able to co-exist. We’re never going to get to a situation where everybody believes the same thing. The challenge is to be able to say, ‘I believe this, and I believe in someone else’s right not to’.
“On Twitter, you lose so much nuance. It’s the idea of prejudice not surviving proximity: that if you’re talking to somebody, you in some way have to negotiate with them. But anonymity allows us to communicate in the way that we’re not supposed to. I look forward to and value being in a room with someone.”
As if on cue, Amir Wilson appears on screen from his north London bedroom, which is adorned with posters of Joker and The Lion King, the stage show in which Wilson got his big break at 11. “Hey!” says Scott, waving at his screen son, whose locks have grown considerably since we last saw him as Will. “Look at this hair! It’s so cool!”
Scott seems more relaxed now Wilson is here, the hallmark of someone who doesn’t love interviews and is happier sharing the limelight. I ask Wilson what he was like to work with.
“Such a diva,” he jokes. “No. Andrew’s very natural and genuine. The scenes we did together were hard ones, but I felt comfortable. He has good energy around him.”
Scott interjects: “Amir is extraordinary in this. I was blown away by watching him work. I was so moved by what he was doing. What’s really good about this is that Dafne [Keen] and Amir lead the show. We’re just there to support them.”
Will and John’s relationship is pivotal to the plot, but Scott and Wilson didn’t share the screen a lot. “They’re very present in each other’s minds, but not necessarily in a geographical capacity,” Scott explains. “Most of my stuff was with Lin-Manuel, who was all that you want him to be. We spent a lot of time together in a parachute. We sang a lot of show tunes.”
Most of Wilson’s scenes were with Dafne Keen. He says he loves the dynamic between their characters. “Will’s more chilled out and careful, always kind of on edge. Lyra is quite spontaneous. But as the series progresses, you see their personalities mix and match, and Will grows in confidence.”
He reckons he doesn’t have much in common with Will, “although Will’s pretty moral, and I like to think I am, too. I care for the people around me. I wish he wasn’t such a worrier.”
Worrier, or warrior?
“Worrier. Sorry, I’ve got my retainers in,” says Wilson, flashing a smile. “It’s good that he’s careful, it’s got him by, but I wish he was more spontaneous. That’s more what I’m like.”
Fortunately, filming finished last December, and was untouched by COVID-19. Since then, actors and other creatives have not been shy in decrying the government’s post-COVID support of the arts, and this duo are no exception.
“People think the arts is a rarefied thing,” says Scott. “But it’s everything: the TV we watch, what we listen to – it’s for people of all classes and all races, and needs to be funded as such. In times of stress, everybody goes to their favourite song, show or film. The arts help us survive.”
Wilson agrees, adding: “It’s not just us being affected – it’s the crew, all the people who don’t get enough appreciation behind the scenes.”
Our time drawing to a close, I check if I’m allowed to ask whether Scott and Wilson will both be back for series three.
“I think you’re allowed to ask,” laughs Scott. “We’re just not allowed to answer.”
Read more about the His Dark Materials cast, the His Dark Materials release schedule, the His Dark Materials books and the His Dark Materials age rating, plus find out where His Dark Materials is filmed, including the scenes set in Cittàgazze.
His Dark Materials comes to BBC One on Sunday 8th November at 8pm.