Dafne Keen On Continuing Lyra’s Journey In His Dark Materials

The talented young actor had to grow and adapt to play the beloved literary heroine.

Dafne Keen

by grazia |
Updated on

In Northern Lights, the beloved book that kicked off Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, a remarkable little girl named Lyra Belacqua leaves her home city of Oxford and lands in a whole heap of trouble. Fleeing a cruel captor, she journeyed to the north to free a host of trapped children, meet witches and aeronauts and put a disillusioned armoured bear back on his rightful throne. Somehow, this is just the beginning for the character, whose next steps impact the future of countless worlds. For Dafne Keen, the remarkable young actress who plays one of the most loved figures in contemporary children’s fiction, it’s just the beginning of the story.

‘I'm so excited’, Dafne, 15, tells Grazia over Zoom call. ‘I'm mostly excited for the audience to see Lyra growing up, seeing her maturing and becoming a woman, to get back into the narrative. And I'm really excited to see this whole friendship that happens between Lyra and Will.’ She is encouraged by a wildly positive reaction to the first season, which saw her nominated for a BAFTA Cymru Award.

‘I was very nervous because obviously when you're doing a project based on a book, which has already been massively popular, you're absolutely terrified’, she explains of the response to the show. ‘There are so many loyal book fans that are just ready to pounce. But the book fans loved it: that was a weight that came right off my chest.’

Will is, of course, young Will Parry, a teenage boy whose search for his lost father somehow drags him into a multidimensional tussle of philosophy, faith and magic. While he first appears in The Subtle Knife novel, a structural transformation means that viewers have already met the young hero.

BBC Dafne Keen

But this second season nevertheless retains a vital first: the moment Lyra and Will's paths cross, and their joint mission emerges. ‘For all the things that Will and Lyra don’t have in common, they have so much that they do’, Dafne explains. ‘They’re alone in the world, they’ve had to fend for themselves for their whole lives, and they have found each other. It was really fun discovering that bond, that development in their relationship.’

The success of this season in particular rests hugely on the shoulders of Dafne and her co-star, Amir Wilson. Their bond and their chemistry propels everything forward.

‘When Amir got the part I instantly thought “I need to like him”,’ says Dafne. ‘I have to film with him for, basically, years. So when I finally met him, I was really actually really nervous: what if I don’t like him? What if he doesn't like me? What if we don't like each other? And then we met and we got on pretty instantly. So it was really great.’

Nevertheless, she confesses a hiccup on day one. ‘The first scene we did together was very simple’, Dafne recalls. ‘It was a two-line scene which I absolutely messed up, and he went in and smashed it. There was only one thing I was told not to do: don’t step left of this line. And I just walked over it.’

The vital necessity of getting on with Amir – and the resulting fears - are understandable. This season does, after all, separate Dafne from most of the rest of the cast. Fans of the book will know that Lyra is grief-stricken after taking best friend Roger to his doom. She is cut off from her allies – the witches, Lee Scoresby, Iorek the bear – and has cut ties to her dastardly mother and complicated father. In short, the bonds that Dafne has forged have been temporarily cut.

‘I really missed working with Lin,’ she says of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the actor who plays Texan aeronaut Lee and, of course, wrote smash hit musical Hamilton. ‘We got really, really close. We missed each other so much that we used to run into the other person’s set in between takes and have nostalgic moments. We did see each other, but it was strange being on set without him.’

Fans are supremely lucky to be getting this second season in time for Christmas. The coronavirus pandemic has, after all, shut down many a set and seen the cancellation of several commissioned programmes. Thankfully, pre-production had largely been completed before lockdown took hold. Only one planned episode – dedicated to what James McAvoy’s Lord Asriel gets up to in between book one and three – had to be abandoned.

‘I'm so happy that we wrapped before corona’, Dafne says. ‘Firstly, because I can't imagine filming with coronavirus – the tests, the social distancing. Of course we would have done it, but it is a pain. But mainly, I’m so happy the fans don’t have to wait for it.’

Beyond this series, based on The Subtle Knife, lies the trilogy’s culmination, The Amber Spyglass, which puts Lyra at the centre of a raging war. Sweeping, epic and very, very long, it is Dafne’s favourite. And then? Who knows. Pullman is already two thirds of the way through a new trilogy – both prequel and sequel – that follows Lyra’s other journeys. Would Dafne be glad to take the call in a decade if the world wished to catch up on her story?

‘Who knows?’ she smiles. ‘Maybe by then I will have decided I want to be a gypsy. But now, fifteen-year-old Dafne thinking ahead to twenty-five-year-old Dafne, would absolutely love that. I love everyone that I have worked with, and would love to play Lyra again. No question.’

Running away to be a gypsy? Definitely sounds like the authentic Lyra experience.

His Dark Materials, Series 2 debuts on BBC One on Sunday at 8.10pm

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