Adapted from Philip Pullman’s trilogy of novels, HBO’s His Dark Materials is an adventure fiction television series that follows the life of a young orphan Lyra Silvertongue (or Lyra Belacqua) played by Dafne Keen, a child prophesied to end the world as we know it or bring about a new era uniting the universes—and yes, there’s more than one. The TV series delves deeper into the books than its film adaptation The Golden Compass, starring Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman.
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The show starts off almost innocently with an alternate universe filled with witches and fantastical creatures such as dæmons—which are an external manifestation of a person’s inner-being that takes the form of an animal—slowly clueing us in to the magical universe dreamed up by Pullman. Towards the end of the first season (spoiler alert!) we learn more about one other universe which is similar to the world we live in, and the existence of a substance called dust—a commodity surrounded by murder, mystery and is often referred to as heresy by a corrupted government body. In a portal opened by her father Lord Asriel (played by James McAvoy), Lyra ventures into “our” universe to find out more about dust, and especially why adults are willing to kill for it.
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The series — now in its second season — shows Lyra meeting William Parry (played by Amir Wilson), the protagonist from our world who helps her find answers. We also meet Colonel John Parry (also known as Doctor Stanislaus Grumman or Jopari) played by Andrew Scott. (Spoiler alert!), who happens to be Will’s father. Together with Lee Scoresby (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda), Parry journeys to find and aid the bearer of the subtle knife—an object born out of alchemy that’s capable of slicing the fabric of reality to unveil another universe—who also happens to be his son William.
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We spoke to Scott to find out more about his character’s role in Lyra’s and Will’s destinies and clues for the rest of the season.
Tell us about your character Colonel John Parry.
We see John Parry in a lot of different guises throughout the story so he’s many, many different things and that’s the challenge of it really, because we see him in a number of guises. But we also see him through Will, his son’s eyes. And I think because they haven’t had a lot of time with each other Will’s imagined idea of his father is almost as strong as the reality of his father. So it’s really nice to see the two characters talk about each other before they see each other.
So John has left our world and journeyed to another world. And Will has keenly felt the absence of his father…
Yes, he has and vice versa. And I felt what was really nice was to play a man who has made a decision for this family but maybe for the wrong reasons. He’s a desperately solitary character and I think that’s pretty sad for somebody who doesn’t have to be a solitary character.
I think the idea of being separated from your children when you don’t have to be and trying desperately to get back to your family without the means of being able to communicate with them in any way, is completely tortuous. So when he meets Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda), this unlikely friendship begins and that was brilliant to work with Lin. I love the interaction between those two characters and I think it will be really fun for an audience because they are very different.
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Tell us about John Parry’s daemon.
My daemon is an osprey, very beautiful in female form, and it’s voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge who is my friend and colleague. So that was a pretty nice thing to discover that it was Phoebe who they had decided to cast as my daemon’s voice.
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Were you familiar with the books before you were offered the role?
Yes, I’m familiar with the books. My instinct a lot of the time with literary adaptations is to pay attention to the story that we’re required to tell on the screen. And (screenwriter) Jack Thorne is obviously a brilliant dramatist and so my job I suppose, in a way, is to interpret Jack’s interpretation, if you know what I’m saying. So sometimes I think you can focus too much on what the literary adaptation is rather than what the screen adaptation is, so I’m not reading this as a pleasure, I’m doing it for my work and envisage it purely as a cinematic world rather than a literary one. I tend to have a familiarity with the books but that is usually what my priority is.
His Dark Materials is filled with stunning visuals that are obviously done in post-production. What’s it like on set?
It’s extraordinary. The production values are genuinely extraordinary. It’s quite difficult sometimes, honestly, when it’s green screen and I very much rely on the director. A lot of my stuff—most of it—is with Lin (Lin-Manuel Miranda) and we have to create this incredible imaginary world but really that’s no different from children being in their bedroom and pretending they are in space and being as imaginative as possible. But when you see that stuff that they do after the actors are gone, it’s absolutely mind blowing. I’ve only seen a little bit of the show but it’s extraordinary what they do. We really are spoilt.
You have scenes with Amir Wilson, who plays Will, your on-screen son. Tell us about working with Amir.
Amir is an absolutely wonderful young actor—he’s completely open, a lovely person. I met some of his family and they are just lovely. He carries the weight off this job and I was amazed at how brilliant he was. And you are very aware when you are working with young actors about what they are absorbing and what this industry is, and so I hope he had a good time. I think he did. We had some really beautiful stuff to do together and I think people will be really amazed by his work.
You were also a child actor doing theatre. What was that experience like and how did it prepare you for your acting career?
It was amazing. I was a kind of shy, sensitive kid—and I still am a little bit shy–and being an actor, doing drama classes as a kid, allowed me to build up my confidence and I found that I had a sort of kinship with it. And yes, I found myself at the Abbey and making films when I was 17, 18, 19 and I didn’t really know any different. I’m very grateful that I didn’t train formally as an actor. Although I’m sure I missed out on some things, I feel like I haven’t moved too far away from that idea of acting as playing and just using your own imagination as much as possible.
Sometimes I feel it’s taken too seriously – not that I don’t think it’s a very admirable and difficult profession that requires a lot of skill – but I do think that your number one goal is to ignite your childhood imagination, when you are in the middle of a set, when there is a lot of crew around you, you have to keep that spirit alive and when you are working with a green screen you have to remember you are just playing and that’s why you really rely on the other actors because it’s much more fun to play with other people rather than play on your own.
And that’s really true of His Dark Materials, where you are literally creating different worlds with your imagination—that’s what it’s all about isn’t it?
Yes, that’s absolutely what it’s all about. I love the fact that with filmmaking, particularly on something like His Dark Materials, it’s a genuine team effort because you can’t create something like this without all of the departments being at the top of their game and I love the enormous passion that everybody puts into it. And it starts with Philip Pullman and his quiet solitary process. I like that it starts with one man’s vision that turns into a collaboration with hundreds and hundreds of people who create something wonderful for millions and millions of people to watch. It’s really extraordinary that one nucleus of an idea can grow into something so amazing.