Anne-Marie Duff (Ma Costa)

Dafne Keen stars as the young protagonist Lyra, who lives in Jordan College, Oxford. Placed there by her uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) she lives a sheltered life amongst the scholars and college staff under the watchful protection of The Master (Clarke Peters) and Librarian Charles (Ian Gelder).

Published: 25 October 2019
Ma Costa is a real lioness, she protects her young, her cubs. She's not to be messed with.
— Anne-Marie Duff

Who is Ma Costa?

Inside the world of the novels Philip Pullman has created this tribal world, so there are these different factions. One of them obviously is Lyra inside the university with all the academics and the members of the Magisterium. There's another group, a very cool group, called Gyptians who are this mishmash of travelers, gypsies and boat people. That’s all meshed together to make these really interesting, slightly exotic people who are constantly on the move. They're a bit feral, they're a bit exciting, sexy, dangerous, hot tempered and hot blooded. The character I play is Ma Costa and she is the matriarch of this group of people. And she’s great. In the book she's described her as having iron lungs: she's really fiery and feisty. She is a real lioness, she protects her young, her cubs. She's not to be messed with.

How does Ma Costa fit in to the story?

One of the early parts of the narrative is that sadly, Billy, Ma Costa's youngest child, goes missing. This is the problem of course in the beginning of the story: lots of children are going missing, and he is one of them. We're all a bit in denial at the beginning because we are kind of raggle-taggle and a bit wild so he could've just wandered off when we weren’t looking. Then suddenly we realise it's all about every single parent's greatest fear: that your child would go missing. It's not been too difficult to play the drama of that. That's what she contends with. The stakes are fantastically high from scene one, for Ma Costa. That's what she is up against. It's interesting because you don't have many female characters in his [Pullman’s] writings; that's the point, it's this patriarchal society. But the protagonist is female, which is extraordinary. Lyra encounters loss and loneliness, and so does Ma Costa. I think that's what brings them together.

How you came to be involved and why did you want the role?

I read the books maybe 15, 16 years ago. I thought they were amazing and I literally read them back to back. Then I heard, I think early in 2018, that Tom [Hooper] was going to be directing the first block and that he wanted me to come in and meet them. He told me they wanted me to play Ma Costa. First of all, I was really, really excited that they were doing it. Then when I heard that Jack Thorne was writing the adaptation, I knew that he would have a really good take on it – he’s so brilliant and prolific. That was my gut instinct. Also, they said that there were going to be lots of episodes, just for the first novel. They were respecting the source material - because sometimes they try and cram a huge book into three hours, but with this you just can't. In order to serve it well, you have to really create the panorama. I knew that was happening. All these things made me think: "This is a bit exciting." I came and met Tom, we talked about it and I did some reading with him to find her, and that was it. I suspect everybody is going to say this, but it was a real no-brainer.

One of the great things about the books is they never speak down to children or patronise childhood…

They're fantastically sophisticated novels; that’s the point - they wanted to create this parallel universe that's full of magic and darkness without it having a dimple. This adaptation had to have an element so that the stakes are high, that it's frightening. You are inside the head of a 12-year-old because that's the point in your life when you are on the cusp of a lot of stuff in terms of emotion, psychology and philosophy. Just the notion of mortality is almost palpable… all of these things really land on you around that time, just before you become a teenager and much more insular. It's really interesting. It's like you're still so much in the world and yet you're receiving so much information. That's the quest for the kingdom, to set up this world in which you believe anything could happen to this small person, and yet inside of that there's the daemons and all of the glorious magical stuff that will make it very charismatic.

The magic, the daemons: how does this series bring that all to life?

They've been really clever. I have never done anything with CG, or green screen or anything like that before. So I had no idea what it would be like, but from day one in rehearsals, there were puppeteers all around with everybody's daemon character animal. They have been on set with us, so they've done various passes of each scene. So you rehearse always with the animals, especially Lyra's because Pan is such a key character: we all have to love the bones of Pan as well as Lyra. So we rehearse with them, then we'll do rehearsal without them, just for practicality's sake. Then we shoot a version of each shot with the puppet, then we will shoot without, so they can mess around in post-production and put the animals in. But it also forwards you lots of things: immediately we know the practicalities, we know the size of the animal, the weight of the animal and eye-line of an animal. And just a sense of how it might be in the room. Like: "Oh Jesus, the wingspan of that's huge," and that affects everything. So it saves you so much imagining and it just makes it feel real.

Does that get in the way of performance?

It depends, sometimes it's a bit of a challenge, because you're having to remember the daemons and where they are - because they're not pets. Other times you can forget about them because they can be expressing what it is you're hiding. That's kind of the point, they're a great access inside your head - it’s a bit clever.

Who is Ma Costa's daemon?

I have a goshawk. A beautiful, big bird of prey. I was like: "Yes!" Lots of the Gyptians have birds apart from Farder Coram who has a big pussy cat, like a super cat. I have this gorgeous goshawk called Jal and that’s brilliant. Jal is sort of her CCTV, because Ma Costa is on the water and the bird is up patrolling. Doing the green screen you've got to make sure you sell the weight of it. So that when they take the puppet away it looks believable. The relationship to a bird is very different in terms of your daemon, than it would be if it was a dog. It's very interesting that, there's a cooler energy, but you still have to have the energy of the bird inside you. I know it's funny, it's a funny old thing.

Have you sat down with the cast or on your own and thought about what your personal daemon would be?

It's the thing I think everyone does when they read the books, because you have this idea of yourself. But that's what I think is interesting when you read the book as well: their daemons aren’t necessarily what you’d expect. I mean if you had read the novels and had not known that Mrs Coulter had a monkey, you would have gone: "Oh, she's got a panther or a something," or a snake or something, but that's how lateral his [Pullman’s] mind is as a storyteller, and that's brilliant. I'm sure Jack had great fun with that as well when he was writing it.

So what did you decide your daemon would be?

I can't say... for some weird reason I find it really personal. It’s like someone looking in your knicker drawer!

You haven’t done high fantasy before. Does it feel different making a series involving the supernatural?

It doesn't feel like just another job. It's great fun actually, particularly seeing all of the departments really flourish and really feast on it. The production designer is amazing as is the attention to detail everywhere you go. They've got this chance to create whatever they want, without it being pantomime. That's more fun in a way. Usually when you’re playing stuff with high stakes and real emotional wallop, you're in a council flat somewhere. We're not, we're in this magical world and so that's brilliant because you bring the same level of integrity to something that's not naturalistic.

What I suppose it's taught me is that actually it doesn't matter where you are: a story is still a story and it still has to be served. Even though there are daemons, you feel like this could be where you live when you read the books or hopefully when you see our series. That's extraordinary.