‘His Dark Materials’ Star Dafne Keen and Writer Jack Thorne on the Magic Behind the Second Season of HBO’s Grand Series

HBO’s “His Dark Materials” is a unique combination of ideas and fantasy. Based on the classic novels by Philip Pullman, the show returns for a second season where few introductions are needed. Its world is now in a state of conflict and uncertainty. But for star Dafne Keen and the series’ writer Jack Thorne, more action does not mean any of the story’s deeper themes are ever diluted. For them “His Dark Materials” is entertaining but also full of a special relevancy. The season opens with Lyra (Keen) having crossed a portal opened by the evil Lord Asriel accompanied by her daemon. In the other realm she meets Will Parry (Amir Wilson), who was briefly introduced last season but now becomes fully entrenched in the saga. Now the two continue Lyra’s quest to find answers about Dust, the elementary particles which may hold a particular connection to consciousness. But pursuing Lyra is her mother, the malevolent Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) and the Magisterium. Keen and Thorne shared with Entertainment Voice about the making of this latest chapter in “His Dark Materials.”

Dafne, season two begins with the world of the show firmly established. Now there’s a greater sense of conflict, of war, in the story. How did you gear up to jump into this chapter of the saga?

I had to keep in mind that Lyra is now grieving for Roger [who was killed by Lord Asriel last season] and she’s left behind the home where she came from. So this season is more about Lyra growing up and discovering the wider world, discovering herself and discovering Will, the new character we get this season. I just tried to stay as alert as possible and really get into her skin.

Jack, you’re not spinning some new take on Philip Pullman’s vision. You are continuing the adaptation of the “His Dark Materials” novels. What were the challenges of writing the show deep into the narrative without having to focus on introductions and world building?

Well, it was very different. In season one you could sort of divide it up geographically, having one act set in one location largely, have the next act take place in another different location, for example. You had those places to explore with new relationships to explore each time. In season two we are feeling the loss of everything that’s happened in season one and instead of having multiple relationships to explore we have this one, core relationship to explore between Will and Lyra. That is a very different scenario but a real gift. It was a gift to know we couldn’t repeat what we did in season one and had to change our style up a bit in order to get inside those two characters.

One element that makes the show unique is how it isn’t just a visual spectacle. Like the books it’s also intellectually challenging. Is there ever a conflict when trying to balance the action with the deeper ideas?

Very, very much so. When writing season one, and in particular act one of that season, we really struggled in finding that balance. There were drafts that were very dry and cerebral and there were drafts that had no break in the action at all. It was finding that balance that was the toughest of jobs. In season two we sort of knew what balance we wanted to strike. Because there was less story and because Lyra was more ready to get into the action of it all, those questions weren’t quite so troubling.

Dafne, without spoiling too much, what is one aspect of the story you are particularly excited for fans to discover this season?

One hundred percent I’d say Will and Lyra. Their relationship is so beautiful because of the way they help each other grow and mature. I am also very excited for them to see how we handle Mrs. Coulter, because that relationship has a very “I love you, but I don’t want to love you” moment, which I think is beautiful. I really can’t wait for them to see it. 

Jack, your sense of casting is pitch-perfect. Ruth Wilson is particularly chilling this season.

It’s a privilege to work with actors of that quality. Obviously Ruth Wilson is ridiculously brilliant. We also have Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby. The actors all have this effortless intelligence. But Dafne and Amir were especially great to work with. The work they do together, the relationship they build between these two children is just incredible. They are actors of huge subtlety.

Dafne, how as the dynamic between you and Ruth changed since last season?

It’s much more complex because we see Lyra’s grown now quite a lot. She’s matured and found out who her mother truly is. She’s become stronger and can’t be as easily manipulated as she used to be. Lyra has grown much more complicated. It’s harder for both of them, I would say, especially because Lyra has found out who her mother truly is. But Ruth is so grounded, so kind, she’s so incredible to act next to. 

Jack, again in a nod to Pullman, the show keeps alive the theme of questioning organized religion and theocratic authorities. The Magisterium still looks like malevolent priests. We’re living in a world where these themes are very relevant in terms of cultural debates going on, even in politics. How do you see the show speaking to us in this moment we’re in?

The truth is the Magisterium may be wrong but there is logic behind what they’re doing. Azriel may be wrong but there is logic behind what he is doing. Pullman never lets any of his characters sit in stupidity. Everyone has a reason for how they’re behaving. That reason is the thing we need to understand. We live in a world where division is huge. Sometimes it’s the children who do need to lead the way, whether it’s the children in Florida who took on the gun lobby or Greta Thunberg with climate change. In “His Dark Materials,” when the Magisterium wants to eradicate sin or Azriel seeks to create a “republic in heaven,” it’s the children who are finding their way, trying to be good and trying not to get too above their station. It’s a beautiful lesson for now. Pullman has caught something wonderful there, especially in this world we have built for our kids where they are the ones trying to find a way out of it.

The Pullman books are essential reading for many young fantasy fans. Dafne, how familiar were you with “His Dark Materials” before being cast in the series?

I had watched the film based on the first book, “The Golden Compass,” but I had only heard about the books. But as soon as I got the part I read them all. I soon became obsessed with them and even read all the spin-offs. It was a great discovery. 

Having read the books and now starring in the show, what do you hope young adult audiences get out of the show in terms of meaning?

Don’t trust everything the media tells you. Don’t trust everything that everyone in charge tells you. They are also human beings and also get things wrong. Do your thing. 

Jack, what new challenges arose when making season two that were not around for season one?

In season one we were going to different places. We were going up into the Welsh hills to create a whaling port and all sorts of crazy things. In season two they built just one location and it was in the parking lot behind the studio. It was wonderful but difficult because once we had that we had to figure out how to use it properly. We had to focus on how to tell one story that stayed in one place but had all the same world building as season one.

The special effects have a rich vividness. They feel more organic than other fantasy shows. Who did you look to for influences?

It’s always hard to know because they’re all in your head. There are these semantics in your head and you’re never sure what’s grown from what. My favorite film of all time is “E.T.,” and I even have “Be Good” tattooed on my wrist. Spielberg is telling a very dense story in that movie but handles it so effortlessly. That’s the kind of style we’ve been trying to emulate all the time. Of course there’s also “Lord of the Rings.” Just many influences all mixed together.

Dafne, your character also undergoes a lot of action scenes this season. What is shooting action-heavy moments like for you?

It’s pretty crazy, actually, doing this entire show. It’s kind of mind-blowing. There’s so much going on, it’s crazy. That’s all I can say that sums up the feeling of it (laughs).

 Jack, what can we expect for season three?

Well we’re writing the scripts. I’ve written four. Two others are being written. We’re developing things. We honestly don’t know if we’ll get the chance or not, it all depends how well season two goes. But we are determined to tell this story to the end.

And finally, Dafne, what do you have coming up next?

I have a couple of projects coming up next that I’m afraid I can’t talk about. But I am very excited for people to see them. I’m actually going to make a short film that I wrote and am directing. That’s kept me very busy.

How do you like the feeling of crafting your own script and film?

I’m loving it! I’m loving every second of it including doing auditions. I love the entire creative process and pre-production. As an actor it’s doing the things you don’t really get to see.

His Dark Materials” season two premieres Nov. 16 and airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.