Keep things Asriel: James McAvoy gets into character for the series, His Dark Materials
Actor James McAvoy discusses his role as Lord Asriel in His Dark Materials.
One of the reviews of the fantasy TV series, His Dark Materials, calls it “a fine piece of drama, capturing the strangeness and childlike wonder of the books, but also their rigour and bite. This is intelligent populism writ large”.
The review summarises the series well, just as it would serve as a worthy dust-jacket review on any of the books from Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy of the same name. The eight-episode TV series is based on Pullman’s novel series of the same name, and is now set to premiere in India.
The saga is set in an alternative world where all humans have animal companions called daemons, which are described as nothing more than manifestations of the human soul. The narrative follows the life of a young girl named Lyra (Dafne Keen) who is an orphan living with the scholars at Jordan College, Oxford.
As in Pullman‘s novel, Lyra discovers a dangerous secret that involves Lord Asriel (McAvoy) and Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson). In her search for her missing friend, Lyra also uncovers a series of kidnappings and its link to the mysterious substance called Dust, describes a note on the show.
To talk about all things related to His Dark Materials, we got to chat with actor James McAvoy and also with author Philip Pullman, who plays Executive Producer for the series. Excerpts from the interview:
Who is Lord Asriel?
James McAvoy: Lord Asriel Belacqua was a high-flying nobleman in his youth, but he made a pretty big mistake with shall we say ‘another cast member’ and because of that, both she and he suffer huge consequences.
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 have become quite hateful and doubtful of organised religion: their doctrines, beliefs, and their motives.
I spent a good 13 years trying to get to the heart of what I believe, trying to bring them (the Magisterium) down really. I’ve been trying to determine what spiritualism really is and how it has been perverted in our world, by organised 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 them to have a life of running about, being a skinny ragamuffin.
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.
Lord Asriel is an iconic role. Were you nervous about taking it on?
James: No. I’m never nervous about doing anything anymore, I’m too old for that! I was more filled with the excitement of getting to play him, and getting to do something that’s actually quite bold and dangerous in mainstream entertainment, which has a very strong viewpoint on organised religion.
There’s no hiding from it: Asriel’s against it and not only is he against it, he thinks it is holding us back, that it is actually a form of abuse and torture against humanity. It’s a pretty clear and emphatic thing to go after, and that’s something that I was excited by because we don’t get to do that very often.
I love the character. I love how ruthless he is, how glamorous he is, how full of life he is. He’s more alive than half of the people I’ve ever met in my life. He has a touch of destiny about him.
Playing that kind of person in a world that does truly embrace the magical, as well as the science and the theological, that’s pretty cool. I’m not nervous about it as I love him so much. I feel so lucky to be a part of it.
What kind of fantasy world is His Dark Materials set in?
James: It’s not as ‘lore-heavy’ as Lord of the Rings. Don’t get me wrong, I love Lord of the Rings and I love the lore, but this is not as dependent on that. I think it’s more spiritual. It’s more of a clear argument of what’s going on. Again, don’t get me wrong — Harry Potter’s world was very clear, but our world is less whimsical than that.
Philip Pullman is such a brave and fearless storyteller that he knows, no matter how crazy things get, and how wild his imagination makes the story go, he’s a good enough storyteller that the audience is going to follow Lyra, and they’re going to follow Roger, and they’re going to follow Will along that journey, to discover what the hell is going on, and why we’re all acting so terrified and afraid, when really, we should all just be happy to be alive.
When she’s on this journey to figure out what Dust is, and figure out what the Magisterium is, discovering what the authority is, and taking control for herself… that through-line is so strong that it drives you onwards as a reader, and hopefully as a viewer.
Can you tell us, who is Lord Asriel’s 'dæmon', and what does it say about him?
James: She’s called Stelmaria and is a snow leopard. Stelmaria is at home on the edge, hanging on to a cliffside, climbing, and aspiring, and trying to get to the summit, and trying to conquer that summit, and trying to conquer her prey, if you like. Asriel, as his 'dæmon' suggests, is hunting for something.
We don’t really know what he’s hunting for at the beginning, but you find out in no uncertain terms what he’s hunting for in the end, and his ambition is incredible. The audacity of what he’s planning to do in Seasons 2 and 3, it’s unthinkable, really. But again, his ego is his solitude, and his ego, I think, is also encapsulated in Stelmaria.
How was it to be working with the puppeteers, to bring the ‘dæmons’ to life?
James: In 20 years in the business, I’ve done a lot of acting with imaginary things that aren’t there at all. Here, it was just really nice to be able to go, “All right, we’ve actually got physical evidence, in the form of amazing puppeteers under puppets, doing the things that we’ve rehearsed.”
Stelmaria is here, and there’s an actor in the scene with whom I can work with. It’s not me imagining something, and then the editor imagining a different thing, and then the guys that create the CGI in the computers doing whatever they want to do, and finally the directors just come in and go, “Nah, cut the whole thing.” I love the fact that in this, we can work symbiotically as a duo.
And, how did Lord Asriel’s costume help you find the character?
James: He’s just from that era where you never show up without a tie. Even if you’re not wearing a suit, you’ve got to show up with a tie. Even if you are walking up a mountain, you’ve got to show up in a tie. There’s something military about him, even though he’s been a theologian and he’s a scientist.
He’s also an adventurer and an explorer, and there’s a marriage between the theological, scientific and the military in him that is referred to in his look.
What do you think Jack Thorne has managed to achieve, in compressing such a vast novel into these eight scripts?
James: The scripts are really, really good. I think Philip is quite a mysterious writer in a lot of ways, which is one of his great strengths, for me. He’s a master storyteller, but he doesn’t dole out information in a linear or didactic fashion, so you’re never quite sure where you are with him.
That’s exciting as a reader, but it makes it difficult in a much more passive form of entertainment like TV or film, where you only get to see what we show you. You don’t have time to let your imagination ruminate or sentences really roll around in your mouth, and in your mind. You’re onto the next thing.
If you don’t keep up, you’ve lost it. It does present, I think, difficulties just in narrative, but Jack is a superb writer, and I think you’ll see that he’s up to the challenge.
If you could have a ‘dæmon’ in real life, what would it be, and what would you call her?
James: It would be something ‘mountainy’. Maybe a nice mountain fox. Actually I don‘t know if you get mountain foxes; you probably do somewhere in the world. Anyway, I’d call it Athena.
His Dark Materials will premiere on Star World on Sunday, November 24 at 9 pm. The series will air every Sunday at the same time.