Dafne Keen has got a knack for playing the “feral child.” She stole screen time from Hugh Jackman as one in James Mangold’s Logan, and she hooked His Dark Materials fans in Season 1 with her portrayal of Lyra Belacqua, a scrappy orphan with a mysterious destiny. The show, based on the best-selling fantasy series from Philip Pullman, is gearing up for another installment, and Keen is shedding her patented wild child for a more grown-up look.
Lyra’s endured loss, pain, and betrayal. There’s a prophecy about her that has both witches and religious fanatics clamoring to find her. And she’s forced to trust a stranger in an even stranger world to survive in Season 2. It’s a weighty responsibility for an actress so young but holding her own with established talent on screen — the show also stars Ruth Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and James McAvoy — isn’t really anything new for Keen. We chatted with the star about being on her own in Season 2, how the show mirrors real life right now, and botched auditions with Hugh Jackman.
What’s your character’s mindset heading into this season?
I think it’s quite sad, actually. I mean, she’s grieving and it’s just, it’s much darker. I feel like she’s much less trusting. She really jumped into relationships and friendships and crazy stuff in Season 1. And she’s just much more vulnerable now as a character, I’d say.
Fans are introduced to probably the most important relationship of the series this season, the friendship between Lyra and Will. How did you and Amir Wilson go about forging that connection on and off-screen?
Amir and I got on pretty instantly. We became friends really quickly. We went out on walks. We went to the cinema. We went rock climbing. We basically were just very determined to get on. We had that chemistry, which was great, and when we were working as Lyra and Will, we just played a bit, we played in our characters and stuff. And by the end, we were so comfortable being Lyra and Will that it just flowed.
I heard pranks were involved, too.
[Laughs] We had a few pranks. There was this incredible woman, absolutely one of my favorite people out there, Claire, and she organized this entire thing where Amir’s mom sent us really embarrassing child photos of Amir dressed like a nurse. We printed them on t-shirts for Halloween and had everyone on set wear them. No one told him. Then we all started taking off our jackets, and everyone was wearing these really embarrassing pictures of his on a t-shirt. We also cling filmed his entire trailer. Like, everything, even the cutlery with recycled cling film, obviously. What else? It was so many pranks.
Did he ever get you back?
Well, not yet.
[Now] I’m wondering why he didn’t …
It is a change for you, going from acting against Ruth Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, James McAvoy, to really shouldering the screen-time this season with just Amir. Anything you miss about season one?
I miss acting with Lin so much. I just miss Lin so much. We have so much in common. We’re both Latin, which meant we spoke in Spanish. We both love musicals, which meant we were singing constantly. He’s so talented. He’s so lovely. I get on with this family so well. He’s just, he’s such an incredible person, honestly.
You filmed Seasons 1 and 2 back-to-back though, so were you all in the same space?
It was the same studio but me and Amir were filming in this massive backlot. They built an entire town in the parking lot. I got lost there a few times, I’m not going to lie to you. And Lin was just in like a tiny hot air balloon, so it was quite different. He was on a different stage. I used to sneak off to see him. He used to sneak off to see me. We’d spend lunch together sometimes. So yeah, it wasn’t like we didn’t see each other.
So you get an entire city and Lin gets a hot air balloon.
But he got to be there with Andrew Scott, which is pretty cool.
Right, no room for complaining then. Season 2 is about these two teens trying to better the world despite the terrible adults around them. Does that mirror what’s going on in our own world right now?
Oh, 100%. I feel like that’s the best thing about His Dark Materials, is that it subtly throws shade at the world we’re living in right now. The whole Magisterium situation. The whole children are more mature than adults. At this point, it just feels so real.
There’s a theme of Season 2 about trust and questioning authority. Is that something that comes naturally to you as an actor, to be curious and ask questions?
I think I do. I think you can’t trust everything everyone tells you, especially when they’re human beings. Like we’re all humans, we all make mistakes. So, just question stuff before you’re told to do it. I’m not saying don’t listen. I’m just saying question it.
One of Lyra’s biggest internal struggles in Season 1 was her dysfunctional family dynamic. Does that get resolved this season or no?
She’s a child from a broken home. It’s honestly quite complicated to think about because you wonder, is it better for her to have parents that are psychopaths? Or, is it better for her to think she’s an orphan, but at least believe she has good parents, you know? I don’t know.
Your first major film role was in Logan, another fantasy/sci-fi set adventure with a committed fandom. Did that prepare you for this show in any way?
I think Logan was such a learning curve for me. It was such a big moment in my life. It was the reaction people had to it, also. It already had a massive fan base so it was quite similar to His Dark Materials. By the time His Dark Materials came around, I had Hugh [Jackman] who had taught me so much about [how to handle] fans and even acting. I feel like I went in much more prepared than if I hadn’t done Logan.
Word is that the audition process was a bit unconventional too.
[Laughs] Okay. So, this is actually quite embarrassing. So I did it and the first time was absolutely chaotic. I had a watch on, and it’s sounding my alarm during the audition. I didn’t know who the director was. I thought the director was like a technician and then he was like, “I’m the director,” and I was just really awkward after that. I was really awkward around Hugh. It just went all horribly. I got to my hotel and I went, “I can’t leave like that.” I just thought, “This is horrendous.” I went back and I was like, “I am so sorry. Can I do it again?” And they were like, “Sure.” So, I did it again and I said, “Can I please do an improvised scene?” And I did my improvised scene and I think they liked the improvised scene because I got the part.
So making Hugh Jackman put in some overtime was worth it then.
Did your audition for this show fare any better?
Oh gosh. My auditions are just so chaotic.
Is that a running theme? Like, if they go bad, you know you get the part?
Oh, yeah. No, I’ve definitely come to that conclusion by now. Every time something really bad goes down, I’m like, “I’m going to get the job.”
I was on my holiday, right? I’d been filming all summer. I was on my three-day holiday and they were like, “We need you to audition right now.” And I said, “I’m going to take one quick dip in the ocean.” As you do in the Caribbean. I was just swimming tranquilly, and then this jellyfish, which I don’t see, you can’t see it, you just feel it… So I felt this sting on my face, and I screamed. We were on this tiny island, which had no hospital and it was 40 minutes away from the main island. So, either [the swelling] went down, or I was going to die, basically. Everyone in the hotel was like pitching aloe vera, vinegar, someone offered to piss on my face. I was like, “Please don’t pee on my face. I’m 12-years-old and I do not want somebody to be peeing on my face, at the moment.” Eventually, it didn’t get worse, so we just suspected it was going to get better. So, I did my audition and my face is so swollen and red and like disgusting. I did it in a tiny hotel room with terrible lighting at 2:00 AM. So, you know, very, very bad audition. But, I got it, so…
HBO’s ‘His Dark Materials’ returns on Monday, November 16.