His Dark Materials

Global premiere on Sunday 3 November on BBC One and BBC iPlayer

Ruth Wilson (Mrs Coulter)

Mrs Coulter's not a very nice woman, but we delve in deep with her. I think it all comes from a place of trauma with her so, in my eyes, she's misunderstood.Ruth Wilson
Date: 25.10.2019     Last updated: 24.10.2019 at 13.01

How would you describe His Dark Materials to someone who knows nothing of it?

His Dark Materials follows Lyra Belacqua who's a 12-year-old girl on an epic journey in search of her kidnapped friend. On that journey, she discovers things about herself, she discovers things about her destiny and she discovers things about the world in which she lives. That journey will have consequences not just for this world but many other worlds. Although it's told through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl, Phillip Pullman and this series don't shy away from larger philosophical questions. It deals with things like science versus religion, the concepts of original sin and redemption. But on a human level, it also deals with betrayal, abandonment, family, deceit and loyalty. At the heart of it is this girl, this 12-year-old, brave, courageous, strong girl who goes on this journey and is willing to stand up to the world that she's living in.

Who are you playing?

I play Mrs Coulter who is one of the show’s main antagonists. She’s obsessed with Lyra and you soon find out why. She's not a very nice woman, but we delve in deep with her. I think it all comes from a place of trauma with her so, in my eyes, she's misunderstood. Either way, she does some pretty horrific things.

Mrs Coulter is a key role that’s been played on screen and stage before. Were you nervous taking it on?

Completely. The books have a vast fanbase and she has a huge following, both obsessed with her and despising her. To get that tone right and to give the fans what they want is quite a daunting challenge.

In the story every character has a dæmon or spirit animal continually by their side. What was that like to film?

It was done with a combination of puppets and CGI. I'd never done anything with animation or CGI characters or monsters or anything like that before; I've always just worked with humans. So it's been quite interesting and certainly, the first few days I didn't know what I was doing. Because you had to be aware of where this daemon was, the whole time. I mean, you act in unison: it’s effectively your soul. They know what each other is thinking. To be that close or to talk to something that's not there is very weird. I've found that a really new challenge for me. But I ended up loving my puppet and puppeteer Brian. We worked together for about a week before any filming just it working out - he was giving me some monkey moves because he walks like a monkey or animates like a monkey. He would help me work out if anything I want to bring into Mrs. Coulter in terms of body language.

Mrs Coulter’s relationship with her daemon is different to other characters…

By the end of the third book Mrs Coulter is coddling and holding her monkey. Prior to that, in book one she's hitting him. There's an abusive relationship going on. That's a journey in itself. She’s also the only character whose daemon doesn’t have a name and she can separate from him. I think there's something fascinating about Mrs Coulter because to separate from your daemon is agony. In a way, it's self-inflicted pain. If you are trying or if someone pulls your daemon away, it kills you. For her to be able to separate from a daemon, which is something no one else really can apart from witches, then that's something she's done. She's trained herself to do that, which requires immense discipline, but also, there's something dark about that, that she's inflicting pain on herself. We decided, understood that this relationship is self-abuse in some way or it's kind of self-loathing. It represents of deep self-loathing. We played with that and tried to bring that out. I went quite deep and weird with it.

How did you settle on a look for Mrs Coulter?

Certainly in the book, Philip had written a woman that is very archetypal in some way to how a glamorous woman would stand out in a male's world, how she would stand out in that world. People stop in the streets to look at her. She makes an impression wherever she goes. I think that's really important: she has to look a certain way. She likes being looked at and she likes having that power.

I think as we go on throughout the series, I would like to strip her down to something that becomes more of who she perhaps was before she became ‘Mrs Coulter.’ Someone more grounded and less concerned with outer appearance. That's certainly what she's constructed for herself. It's the way that she gets power. It's the way that she manipulates people. It's the way that she feels that she can work a whole room of men. I think all those things have come into play with how we've designed her outfit and how she stands out. Her colours are so bold in contrast to the Magisterium, which is all black and all men,

When it came to her makeup we had an interesting discussion because there was an obvious way of going which could be femme fatale, side parting, Lauren Bacall, Jessica Rabbit style. I was a bit averse. I thought I had done that before slightly but also I just thought that's obvious. I started looking at pictures of Hedy Lamarr and I love the centre parting. It was neat, but then she has a wildness to her that she can't contain. She's trying desperately to but she can't. I wanted an edge of that to come out in the hair and makeup. Also she starts as this very warm, lovely, Miss Honey character. We went light on the makeup to begin with, and then when you understand who she is, then we can go full-blown vamp. That has been a really fun journey, we'll see where that goes again in the next few seasons.

What did you make of Jack Thorne’s adaptation?

It’s remarkable. Philip has created such a unique and complicated world with huge philosophical questions at the heart of it, as well as very human characters and relationships. Which means it's definitely has to be dramatised in some way, but it's very hard to do. Essentially it’s things like, what is dust? That’s the big question that fills the first season and actually that's really hard to explain in a simple way.

Jack has done an incredible job of doing both those two things, making very vivid and bold characters but also bringing in those larger questions which Lyra and all the characters have to face. From the get-go he's got it - he's got the pace and he's created these worlds that feel very contained. It’s a marvelous job.