Dafne Keen is currently starring in the epic HBO production of His Dark Materials. Taking on a lead role of Lyra, Keen stars alongside James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson, and Lin-Manuel Miranda — incredibly talented actors who she says are teaching her things every day on set. But even though they’re telling this massively dark fantasy, it doesn’t mean they don’t have fun on set, especially Miranda and Keen! Ahead of the second season of the show, which premieres later this year, we caught up with the young actress who is already making waves in Hollywood. She opened up about her time filming His Dark Materials, what it was like to work with Hugh Jackman on Logan, and how she de-stresses from long days at work.
You play such a badass character in His Dark Materials. What was it like stepping into that role? It was really fun! It’s a dream job. We had a couple of weeks of rehearsal with the CFX team, Tom Hooper, and some of the cast. We did A LOT of prep at home, analysis, rehearsals, improv… fun fact all of my script side notes I do in the characters handwriting to sort of getting in the right mindset, I think about Lyra’s way of talking, communicating, and moving … we did a lot of work with Russell Dodgson, Rob Duncan, and the puppeteers on daemons and Lyra’s relationship with Pan and the other daemons that surround her.
How familiar were you with the story when you went into this project? I had heard of the books but had never actually read them… I’d watched the movie because one of my friends was obsessed with it because Lyra was a young girl and she carried the story, she was the heroine! So when I was offered it I read all of the books that were out back to back in a few weeks and I’m now a huge fan of the books and in awe of the brilliant Phillip Pullman.
You’re also working with huge stars (Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy, and Lin-Manuel Miranda). What are you learning from them? Or what are they learning from you? I don’t know about them learning from me I’m only 15, so I’m the one who is learning! I’ve learned and grown so much with them. Ruth has taught me that acting is like a tennis game, you hit emotional balls at each other and listen and try to hit it back harder. She’s amazing and hardworking and I’ve genuinely learned so much from her. With Lin we enjoy ourselves so much it’s just incredible watching his mind at work, he’s so talented, witty, and intelligent, acting with him is a pleasure and an honor. With James it’s just trying to react to these huge things happening, every time we’re in a scene together it’s like Lyra and Asriel are the pieces of two different puzzles trying to fit together, and it’s always fun to see what crazy thing he’s going to do and how he’s about to do it, he keeps me on my toes which is what acting is all about keeping things true and spontaneous.
Lin seems like the type of guy who sings often, like between scenes. Did that ever happen? Were there ever moments when you were just, like, singing and enjoying yourselves killing time? Constantly singing! Literally no joke, all the time, I remember hearing constantly, “Lin and Dafne stop singing, and moving around the hot air balloon is swinging and it’s hard to frame it!”
Also, have you seen Hamilton or In the Heights? I’ve seen Hamilton and know the entire thing by heart. Lewin Lloyd who plays Roger got me really into it. And during season 2 I went to Lin’s house with his family and he showed me rushes for the In the Heights the movie, it’s so brilliant! I just loved it, it feels so familiar as a Latin girl, all the music just takes you home.
Okay, back on track: Is there anything you can share with us about the second season of the show or about Lyra? I can say I like it better, it’s darker, more epic and there’s a new character played by Jade Anouka who is literally the coolest character ever, she’s so kick ass. And of course Andrew Scott… And Simone Kirby is so funny, working with her was amazing, she’s so talented I feel like when I’m with her I’m learning so much and just trying to take it all in, she’s so great. It was so fun to film, we were like a big family and all the new cast and crew were amazing to work with, they’re all so incredibly talented.
Your first big movie role was so huge in Logan. What was it like working with Hugh Jackman on such a popular film? It was the best first film set experience I could have asked for, Hugh was so great with me; he’ll always hold a very special place in my heart. Everyone made me feel so safe and at home and I always had a good time on set. And when it came out it was such a mad experience…
These two roles, in particular, are based in fantasy of sorts — is that a genre you’re attracted to? I’m a big fan of any genre I’ve just happened to be in these! But there are not that many roles for young girls…I just want to get to try as many genres as I can as I grow up…
Have you thought much about what stories you’d like to tell at some point in your career? Any roles you’d love to take on? I really want to do theatre and I really want specifically to do Shakespeare, his work has always been very present in my house and he’s just the most brilliant writer who created such brilliant characters. But for now, there are a few projects in the making that I’m not allowed to talk about but I’m very excited for you lot to hear about them…
You’re very discerning in choosing your roles. Have there been any that you’ve turned down that you second-guessed later? Not really, I have turned down roles but I haven’t had any big regrets. There’s one I got offered that I think about every so often but they gave it to another young actress who did it absolutely brilliantly.
I saw that you recently spoke about being raised in an environment where your parents made sure you were well-educated about politics. I think that’s incredible that they’ve made sure you’re aware of the world around you. Was that ever hard, though? Did you have any friends who were on that level? Or were those more political and adult conversations saved for home? They were mostly saved for home, but whenever I see something that’s morally bad or someone saying something incorrect, barbaric, or in any way insulting or bringing someone else down I speak up because as humans we need to support each other. I had one friend, Alvaro, who I talked to about politics and stuff because our parents raised us in a similar way and he’s still a very big part of my life.
Speaking of your parents — they’re both creatives as well, right? Given their history in acting, did you feel like it made your career inevitable? Not inevitable, but I always wanted to try it and I always tried to convince them to give me cameos in their plays and stuff… what I actually wanted when I was little was to make nature documentaries like David Attenborough! But I spent my life in rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms, and theatres, and I always loved artists, they made me feel at home. I loved the thing about making something together. I felt more at home with a group of 40-year-old actors than kids my age (except for my friends of course). But now I know this is where I want to be. The more I get to do it the more I fall in love with it. I’m very grateful.
So you did circus work when you were younger, I think I read? Do you still do acrobatics and silks? Tell me about that; it sounds so fascinating. I still do silks, it’s my 10th year and I love it it’s my way to de-stress, I’m very energetic and sporty so I love doing workouts and running and stuff, I’m also like a music freak, I’m incapable of living without listening to music. So silks were perfect, it involved climbing, speed, heights, and music.
I remember when you shared that picture of yourself with Henry Winkler on Instagram last year and you seemed just a tad excited — what other celebrities would you love to meet? Have you been starstruck by anyone else? Oh my days, so many people, I got seriously star-struck by tons of people at Comic-Con, so many people I admired were there, also MTV Awards2017 and most recently Ncuti Gatwa from Sex Education, I met him at a Vogue photoshoot and honestly, he’s so lovely and funny, it was great. I’d love to meet Greta Thunberg, Gena Rowlands, Juliette Binoche, and Stormzy. And David Attenborough of course!