James McAvoy (Lord Asriel)

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
It's about a group of people, in different ways, trying to go about either freeing humanity, in all its forms - and it takes many forms in this story - or trying to oppress humanity.
— James McAvoy

What did you know of Philip Pullman’s books before you were cast?

I was introduced to these books by two people actually when I was about 20 or 21: Mark Bonnar, an actor, and an actress called Indira Varma. We were doing a play and I was telling them how good Harry Potter was and they went: "You've got to read His Dark Materials.”

They said it would change my life and it did. I've read it three times, I think. I've listened to the audiobook twice. I've listened to the BBC radio adaptation, a play version of it, which was abridged, twice. I’ve read The Book of Dust twice. So I'm a massive fan. When I heard that they were going to turn it into a TV series, I got very excited. I started thinking who I could play. I thought Lee Scoresby? I was like: “No, it should be American and it's just not me.” Then I was like: “Maybe I could do a voice of one of the dæmons." But I knew the casting director, Kahleen Crawford, who's an amazingly talented casting director. I was over her house one night and we were chatting away about it. I was chatting purely as a fan and we were excited; I revealed my pretty decent wealth of knowledge on the world of Lyra and Will and all the rest of them. That just stuck in her head, I guess, because about three days before they started rehearsals, I got a call from Kahleen going: "Hey, could you come in last minute?" I was like: "How last minute?"... "You start Monday." I was like: "Who will I play?"... "Lord Asriel." I was like: "I've never really seen myself as Lord Asriel," but I was like: "Yes, I'll be there."

Who is Lord Asriel?

Lord Asriel Belacqua was a high-flying nobleman in his youth, but I lost all my land and everything was taken away from me by the Magisterium, by the church. My life was very much changed and by the time I become the 40-year-old person that I am now, I've become quite hateful and doubtful of organized religion: their doctrines, and their beliefs, and their motives. I spend a good 13 years trying to get to the heart of what I believe, trying to bring them down really. I’ve been trying to determine what spiritualism really is and how it's been perverted in our world by organized religion.

I am also the closest living relative to Lyra Belacqua‎. I've placed her in the stewardship of the scholars of Jordan College and said to them: "Keep her safe,” because she won’t be safe with me, so I leave her with the scholars to have her life of running about being a skinny ragamuffin a little bit. I come back and visit her periodically and bestow upon her gifts every now and again and wild stories of the frozen North and armoured bears and witches and all sorts. They seem like fantastical things, but of course in our world they are utterly real. Those stories fuel a spirit of adventure and a desire for the new and the different in Lyra as well.

Aside from its plot, what is His Dark Materials about?

It's about freedom. It's about a group of people, in different ways, trying to go about either freeing humanity, in all its forms - and it takes many forms in this story - or trying to oppress humanity. It's also about science and religion, about how both science and spirituality are the same thing and how there's no separation there in some ways. It's about societal institutions that are used to control, nullify and castrate the human experience and make us easier and duller, and all that. It's got a very strong viewpoint on organized religion, which should shine through: my character certainly has a very strong viewpoint on organized religion, which in this world is known as the Magisterium, which is their version of the church, if you like.

Why do you think Philip Pullman’s books have been so successful?

One thing is the idea of having an animal companion, here portrayed as a ‘daemon’ which is like a manifestation of your soul. That is something that we love. People want pets. If you don't have a pet, you're always thinking about: "Should I get a pet?" This adds the question of: "If you could be any animal, what would you be?" There's a joy in finding out that in the world of Lyra and Lord Asriel, every single person's soul is actually an entirely compartmentalized entity and it has a physical form in this world. That animal in some way reflects who, how, and why you are: that's kind of beautiful. And the idea goes further, too: when you’re a child your daemon hasn’t settled yet - you don’t know quite who you are and so the animal changes according to how you’re feeling or what you need or want.

How ambitious is this series?

Just like Asriel's grand plan, this show is almost foolhardy in its ambition. It’s what TV, the BBC and HBO can do that movies can't, and it's what they should do, because this is challenging as well as entertaining. It's challenging for us as the makers of it just because of the scale of it and the complexities, the animals, the far-flung locations and so on. But challenges are just an opportunity to successfully tell a story in a surprising way.

Have you been impressed by what they have managed to achieve?

Yes. I have a lot of scenes in the frozen wastes of the north and the land of the bears. You always go: “Are we going to go somewhere really freezing?” Because that would be brilliant as well a nightmare. They go: “No, we've got a bunch of kids running about and we can't take them all to Finnish Lapland so we’ll do it in studio.” You go: “All right, it’s going to be rubbish,” and then you walk on the set and it's actually stunning. In particular the light is incredible because the first series is based around the book Northern Lights. You are led by our own Northern Lights a lot of the times, so it's like being in a brilliant psychedelic disco.