In the world of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, a person’s soul is externalized in an animal form known as a “dæmon.” The unusual fantasy conceit created a few peculiar acting challenges for actors Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and James McAvoy, who now embody some of the classic characters. They, along with executive producer Jane Tranter and writer Jack Throne, appeared at Comic-Con International: San Diego on Thursday to preview the upcoming HBO adaptation of Pullman’s novel trilogy.
“I think it was a massive help having it there,” Keen, who plays main character Lyra, said of dæmon concept. “The demon is the more sensible part of you.” In Lyra’s case, Keen felt is what important to see her contradictions personified in the conversations she has with her dæmon, Pantalaimon. “It’s a beautiful relationship with Lyra and Pan. It’s just her and pan talking. As an actor, you see the interior life of the character.” As Lyra is still a child, her dæmon can change forms, but once she reached puberty, her soul will settle on a permanent form.
“It’s a very different relationship with yourself,” added McAvoy. “You have this reflection in front of you and it can’t lie to you. And other people can see it. It’s really different.”
For Wilson, the technical nature of bringing her dæmon — a golden monkey with no name — informed the way she approached scenes. “Very early on, they decided to use puppets to help us and the camera crew. I have a guy named Brian who plays my monkey. He’s lovely,” she explained. “The key to Ms. Coulter is this relationship with her monkey. He doesn’t speak and she’s quite cruel to him and he’s cruel to everyone else.” In a more practical sense, puppeteer Brian’s work meant the two had to block scenes to accommodate his presence.
Miranda added that after a few weeks, he would talk to the puppet of his character’s dæmon — an Arctic hare called Hester — while discussing scenes with the puppeteer.
Lord Asriel’s (McAvoy) demon is a snow-leopard named Stelmaria. McAvoy felt it was an apt reflection of his character. “Nothing is going to stop me from making this world a paradise and emancipating everyone from the forces of oppression,” he said of Asriel. “I’m hardly cuddly.”
That statement might suggest Asriel is the key character of the series, but as Thorne explained, Pullman’s books create something of an “anti-superhero” narrative. “If it was a superhero story, it would follow Lord Asriel” he explained. “Instead, we’re following Lyra, who always follows the path of goodness. Asriel and Coulter have these big missions that don’t really matter in the end. I think [the books] have lessons for all of us.”
Tranter noted the big ideas in the books meant it was difficult to find a series a home, but she thanked the BBC and HBO for being patient as they brought the program into focus. “There is nothing else like it on television and they felt that was very much for them.”
His Dark Materials premieres this Fall on HBO