HBO's His Dark Materials has descended on San Diego for Comic-Con International. In anticipation of the series, which adapts Philip Pullman's trilogy of the same name, stars Dafne Keen, James McAvoy, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ruth Wilson joined executive producers Jane Tranter and Jack Thorne on stage to offer a little insight on the upcoming show.
"I thought it was time for the books to be liberated in a space which could do them justice," Tranter said. "Being able to stretch those books out... I just felt it was time and I was very persistent and very naggy... and eventually they got sick of it and said, 'Fine, just do it.'"
"I think it was a massive help, having it there... the daemon is the more sensible part of you," Keen explained. "So it just helps that contradiction that she has in her head: this is dangerous, but I'm still going to do it... It's talking to yourself, but not, because it's outside of you, so that really shows Lyra's love towards herself."
"These guys, very early on, decided to use puppeteers early on," Wilson recalled. "I have a guy called Ryan who plays my monkey. He's real! He's lovely and he's brilliant. Together, I knew this was a key to who Mrs. Coulter is... I'm pretty cruel to my daemon and, in turn, my daemon is cruel to everyone else... It really gave so many more layers to who this character is... Ryan was crawling around on the floor next to me... He's back for the second season."
"They said His Dark Materials and I said, 'Yes!'" Miranda recalled. "When my wife and I started dating, we read these books... There's a love story in there as well. They're in a very special place in my heart... I love my daemon. I've been lucky enough to work at Sesame Street... and when you bring kids to the set, they aren't looking at the puppeteers. They see Elmo... That's how we are with our daemons." He mentioned Hester, the puppeteer who plays his daemon.
"It's a very different kind of relationship with yourself... because you've got a reflection of yourself right in front of you... and everybody else can see your soul as well," McAvoy shared.
"We fried each other's brains, I think, and those of everyone around us. I think Philip Pullman was our guide, really. In my experience, children love dark, complicated themes and big questions about who we were... I don't think Pullman underestimates children... Pullman says what he wrote was adult books that children should read," Tranter said. "It's a rollercoaster ride of a narrative... We just followed that pace."
"They are characters," Thorne said of the daemons. "My favorite scenes in this show are just scenes between two characters... It's just little moments that you've just got the lights coming in... This is a show made by people very passionate about it. I would have massive arguments with our production designer."
"The books came out before I was born," Keen pointed out. "I didn't really know about them and I remember I had the audition... so I went into my audition and I was halfway through the book... I did it, then I was called in and told 'you got it.' And I was like, 'Okay, I have to read three books'... They're so good. They're so entertaining... It's also, if you look, it can be a children's story, but if you look deeper, you can really see all these criticisms for all these things... I was a fan after I read the books."
"That actually convinces me that you're a better actor than I thought you were, because I thought you read the books," Tranter pitched in.
"I didn't know the books either. I'd heard of them," Wilson said. When she learned Mrs. Coulter was describes as "the cesspit of moral filth," though, she couldn't turn down the role. "To really dig into why she has a monkey, why can she separate from her daemon when no one else can... She's fascinating to watch and endlessly frightening, because you don't know which way she's going to turn."
"She's beautiful and glamorous and she's got great outfits," she added. "She's very powerful... She's the master manipulator, so she's incredible but she's deeply vulnerable... Her vulnerability is Lyra, and when she comes across Lyra, you get to see that pull apart."
"My first two days of filming were a very long, complicated sequence where I'm pulling all the pulleys and ballasts on a hot air balloon and the next day was a three-day bar fight. It was very different from Mary Poppins Returns," Miranda said with a laugh. "Me being a cowboy who flies a balloon and fights in bars was a holiday!"
"She's trying to understand herself through them," McAvoy said of Lyra. "We're so, so difficult to get a hold of and this girl just needs to get a hold of something... It's just heartbreaking. My daemon's a snow leopard... he's got a very important mission... The story won't work unless she comes of age... and the whole thing is about freedom and Lord Azrael is about gaining that freedom for everyone." He added that Lyra would always be second to Azrael's mission.
McAvoy revealed he didn't mean Wilson until late in the game. "We met on the last four days of the shoot. I got the job very last minute," he revealed.
"For me, it's more about institutions that are set up that authoritarian," Wilson said of the books. "Yeah, I grew up Catholic and I no longer go to Church... I think there's something different between faith and religion."
"When we were pitching it, the thing that I kept on saying, 'This is an anti-superhero story.' If this was a superhero story, you'd be following Lord Azrael's story," Thorne explained. "The thing I love about Lyra is she is constantly following the path of good... It's the young woman who's going 'I want to be good'... I really believe that we should be following our goodness right now."
"It was a long process. It took us a couple od years to really put the pieces together that people other than myself and Jack and Dan and a small group of people could see," Tranter recalled. BBC was right on board: "The books are huge in the UK." However, as the show grew bigger and more expensive, they turned to HBO.
"He's attacking a particular form of control, where there is a very deliberate attempt to withhold information, keep people in the dark," she added. "In His Dark Materials, it's the Magesterium, but it doesn't equate to any faith or form of religion in our world, so we should be clear on that."
As to her own similarities to Lyra, Keen said, "I think we're quite close. Lyra has taught me a lot, because I've been playing her for over a year now. What I love about Lyra is how much she changes. She learns from other people, like she sees Mrs. Coulter's errors and Lord Azrael's errors... it makes her a better person... she just thinks, 'Is this better? Is this going to help people?' She's not very ambitious... At the beginning, she's much more innocent... and then bam, life smacks you in the face... All of this pain of the smack just makes her grow so much... I have some really nice scenes with Ruth where I'm lying."
"I'm totally not as ruthless as [Lord Azrael]. I'm a total softie," McAvoy said. For his character, though, "Love isn't going to stop me. No sort of romantic love, not familiar love, no respect for any institution will stop me from making this world a paradise and liberating us from all systems of oppression... He doesn't call her a liar. He calls her Silvertongue."
"It was all really fun. It was a checklist of things I've always wanted to do," Miranda shared. "I literally come into this thing singing a duet with my daemon on a big ass hot air balloon, which was a pretty fun way to enter the world, but every day was a different kind of challenge... Every scene is like 3D chess... it was really joyous. I just learned a lot... I had the best time working on this, and I can't believe we get to go back to summer camp this summer."
"I brought a bit of monkey into Mrs. C," Wilson teased. "She becomes a bit monkeyish when she's at her worst. I get to do something quite nasty to a child, but it was fun though... I think at the beginning, I said I'm going to be quite nasty to [Keen]... I really enjoyed the action part of it... You see her at her worst, and I quite enjoy those bits."
McAvoy revealed Harry Potter and Skyfall alum Helen McCrory will voice Lord Azrael's snow leopard daemon.
His Dark Materials is directed by Tom Hooper and stars Dafne Keen as Lyra, Ruth Wilson as Marisa Coulter, James McAvoy as Lord Asriel and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby. It doesn't currently have a release date, but rumors suggest it will premiere sometime in 2019.