Clarke Peters (The Master)

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
If you have a son or daughter you know that when they are gone, something is missing. In this case, I know she's got to go off onto her own journey - and it is like losing a toe.
— Clarke Peters

Who is The Master?

The Master of Jordan College, which is one of the many colleges at Oxford. For those who don’t know anything about the book, or if you know nothing about me, I’m going to start from the beginning. This is a book about a young lady who’s coming of age at a time and a dimension that’s not dissimilar to here, although there’s some technology that does afford her an interesting passage to the future.

That little instrument that she uses to tell the future is something that she received from myself. We deal with science, theosophy, theology and philosophy at Jordan College, I would imagine, although it’s not quite stated as such. It’s a conversation between church versus state, spirituality versus politics, adolescence versus maturity. My character is pretty much the guardian of young Lyra and has to pass these notions down to her alongside her uncle Lord Asriel.

Earlier on in the book we see him give Lyra the alethiometer, but also he appears to be trying to poison Asriel. Is he a good guy or a bad guy?

That was my question as well. You don’t know whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy. You don’t know whether he’s doing things for the protection of his charge, of the young girl, or whether he’s doing it for the protection of the universe: in order to save the world, you might have to sacrifice one person. In the book and in our show, it’s a difficult decision. It would be a difficult decision for anyone to make. That’s an interesting element in the storytelling because you don’t know, you have no idea. I don’t think it would be accurate for me to put a spin on that right now because it could spoil it for someone else. This is an ongoing saga so the story moves on without him: we don’t know whether he will show up again in the future or not.

What’s The Master’s relationship with Lyra?

Lyra is not a child. A child is a child because of the environment that they're brought up in. So in relation to everyone in her environment, yes, she's a child. In relationship to the world, she's a very knowledgeable human being. She has all the skills and the knowledge that goes along with being able to survive, reason and analyse a world and to negotiate her way through it. This is a child who was brought up on a university campus. So from a very young age, she had lots of parents. She also did have an agenda that she should have stuck to but she didn't, so even just by osmosis, by association her ability for critical thinking would surpass anybody right just from being in that environment. As far as the Master's relationship with her, she was thrust upon him and that was the last thing that he wanted probably - this is no place for a child, yet I feel that our author gave me a moment to really express a paternal love and loss when it's time to let the child leave. It's something that women go through all the time with empty nesting, all of that kind of stuff, but men go through this as well whether we want to admit it or not. If you have a son or daughter you know that when they are gone, something is missing. In this case, I know she's got to go off onto her own journey - and it is like losing a toe.

To what extent is this world fantasy or reality?

It’s like our world… but we don’t have daemons. Our demons are inside of us. In this world, your daemons manifest in some animal outside of you. In this world, there are machines that do amazing things and not necessarily with fossil fuel. In this world of fantasia, a lot can happen but Philip [Pullman] is also so rooted in the truth so that it’s not too crazy. There isn’t anyone disappearing before your very eyes… unless they have a magic knife. They can’t see certain things unless they have amber glasses. I like the world. Visually, what our designers have done, and particularly for our Oxford, is they have made a very comfortable academic environment that looks like it could be lived in for decades as these people do, as academics do.

As an actor, what do you do to help you picture having a daemon following you around?

Well, fortunately Tom Hooper [director] made sure that we had puppets nearby from the beginning so that we could relate to them - mostly from a spatial point of view rather than personality point of view. That’s been a godsend. My daemon is a bird, a raven who sits either on my shoulder or on my wrist. I've got to sometimes imagine what it would be like to have something land on your wrist, or what it feels like when something takes off. We're all grappling with that, with whatever our daemons are, to pretend that they're there. The production has given us a chance to really feel what's it like, so that we're not just all acting out our own crazy imaginations. A raven is a big bird, it's not a robin, so when I was just looking down at my wrist, I've got to lift my eye up about 18 inches to get the reality of it, and then the weight of it and the distance of it.

What do you think daemons represent?

I think that the demons are our sixth sense. The only way we function in the world or imagine our world and move through this plane is using our five senses. Vibrations that move really fast that we call light can only be perceived by your eyes. Your ears can't catch that vibration, but when it slows down, your ears catch that vibration. When it gets really slow, your body catches that vibration. If I would look at the daemons and see how they function in the story, I think they're our sixth sense. Where it can get a bird's-eye view of the landscape. It can feel someone else's daemon and what their intentions are, as humans do. Every human being has this sense, and Phillip has very cleverly turned it into an animal.

How did you come to be part of this production?

I was aware of the book and I had seen it at the National Theatre years ago, so it wasn't totally unfamiliar to me. Actually, I kind of got this because when I met Phillip [Pullman], he said: "I want you to do this." It was at the Hay Festival this summer. By that time I had read the book and I was kind of blown away when he said that.

Then the next challenge was how do I speak? Because my American accent is sometimes thick. I think they trusted me with the challenge of doing this, and I’m very grateful, really to Tom and to Dan too, to allow that to happen.

What was it like handling the actual alethiometer?

Excellent. Whoever designed that, it's different. It's not like a compass. It's like three compasses; it's like a compass and a watch. It's got dials, it's got gears, it moves. Think of an orrery, that thing that calculates astronomy, so there's like three or four rings with the planets on the outside, the sun in the middle and they all move round the sun. Now if you can imagine that as all put on to a disk. That's the alethiometer.

What would Clarke Peters' daemon be?

At first I thought it'd be a horse, but now I think it would be a tern. I was thinking of terns because I was sitting over by the castle here in Cardiff and we were talking about everyone's daemon. The thing about a tern is that it can fly, swim and run. It's just versatile.