His Dark Materials star Dafne Keen: ‘I thought coronavirus was a meme’

Helen Brown
·10 min read
Dafne Keen photographed in Madrid earlier this month - Portrait by Begõna Rivas; Hair & Make Up: Neomi Nohales Pons;  Stylist: Freddy Garcia
Dafne Keen photographed in Madrid earlier this month - Portrait by Begõna Rivas; Hair & Make Up: Neomi Nohales Pons; Stylist: Freddy Garcia

“I’m a bit scared about growing up in the public eye,” says Dafne Keen. “You hear about those incredible child actors of the past who ended up as Hollywood’s broken toys and it’s so sad.” The 15-year-old star of His Dark Materials, however, believes that the series, in which she returns to BBC One next month as Lyra Belacqua, “gives me the perfect way to make that transition from child to woman. I hope people get to see us grow up gradually together and that takes the pressure off.”

This time last year, the lavish Philip Pullman adaptation began with Lyra believing herself an orphan, raised by scholars in an alternative steampunk Oxford lit by naphtha lamps and overshadowed by airships. In the subsequent episodes, she grew from wild child scrambling over college rooftops into bold hero confronting the darkness and deceit of a corrupt adult world, ruled by an oppressive religious organisation known as the Magisterium. 

“Lyra discovered that she wasn’t an orphan at all,” says Keen. “At 13 she didn’t just find out that her parents were alive. She found out they were both child-killing psychopaths.” Keen sees both Lord Asriel (played by James McAvoy) and Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) as “these magnificent parent-villains who have both neglected Lyra and lied to her. She starts season two questioning everything.” Speaking via video from her family home in Madrid, Keen is astonishingly articulate for her age, but still wriggles and giggles in her chair with the mischievous energy that led her castmates to nickname her “monkey”. “I’m always jumping up and down,” she tells me. “Or singing with Lin,” she adds, referring to Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Hamilton creator who plays Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby.

Born in Spain in 2005, to the English actor Will Keen and the Galician writer, actress and theatre director María Fernández Ache, Keen grew up seeing theatres and film sets as her personal playgrounds. She recalls entire school holidays spent in rehearsal rooms, memorising dialogue from Hamlet, prompting the grown-ups on their lines (“I’m sure that was annoying!”) or mucking about with the colour filters in the stage lights. “You know how some people bring their dog to work, and everybody loves the dog and it warms the room,” she asks. “I was like that dog. Everybody on my mum’s sets would come and make a fuss of me and be distracted by me. And I loved it all. The storytelling and the people and the cameras. It was where I wanted to be.” 

She made her screen debut, aged nine, opposite her father in the 2015 television drama The Refugees. But she truly hit the big time two years later as Laura, the metal-clawed mutant child of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in the X-Men movie Logan. On YouTube, you can still find Keen’s explosive screen test for that role, which her co-star Patrick Stewart describes as “one of the most extraordinary audition tapes I’ve ever seen”. 

While Jackman screams and swears at her, she doesn’t so much as flinch. “There’s a scene where she punches me,” says Jackman, “and when I went home I had bruises all over my arm. No offence to all those guys I’ve fought, but I’ve never gone home with bruises until that day.” At just 12 years old, the controlled ferocity of Keen’s portrayal earned her the 17th spot in The Hollywood Reporter’s list of the 50 Greatest Superhero Movie Performances of All Time.

Big Break: Keen's appearance alongside Hugh Jackman in Logan (2017) was judged one of the '50 greatest superhero movie performances of all time' - Alamy
Big Break: Keen's appearance alongside Hugh Jackman in Logan (2017) was judged one of the '50 greatest superhero movie performances of all time' - Alamy

Today Keen tells me how grateful she feels that she was allowed to express herself as she was in the Logan auditions. Other directors have tended to ignore her suggestions, “because of both my age and gender. I believe that the writer and the actor usually know the characters best. I often feel I know what my character would do in almost every single circumstance and I’m lucky to have worked with lots of directors who trust me on that. But I have worked with some who won’t listen and assume they know best. They nod and smile and humour me. They say I can try things my way on the next take. But, of course, that next take never comes and I know they weren’t really taking me seriously. It frustrates me. You think I can’t do it like that? Well, watch me!”

After Logan, Keen landed the title role in the feature film Ana, which came out in January. Set in Puerto Rico during the economic downturn triggered by Hurricane Maria, the film tells the story of a savvy 11-year-old (left unsupervised after her single mother is arrested) who helps used car dealer Rafa (Andy Garcia) out of debt. While Rafa attempts to offer Ana moral guidance, she scams money from gullible churchgoers by pretending to recover from a spinal injury.

Keen says her mixed parentage has often left her feeling “like an immigrant in both Spain and England, especially in the UK, where I feel that being an immigrant has more stigma attached to it. Being a Latin girl – and looking quite Latin – I get constant comments on my hair, my skin colour, my eyes.” But filming Ana in Puerto Rico, she felt “completely at ease, because apart from the English writer and director, everybody was Latin! Filming there felt like a holiday.”

Keen was still on set when the makers of His Dark Materials asked her to record a final audition. “Then I was stung by a jellyfish, the day before I had to make the tape,” she says. “I was snorkelling with my godfather and I felt something brush my cheek. I asked him if I had anything on my face. He said ‘No.’ Then he said: ‘Oh my God, yes!’ My heart was racing. I ran back to my mum on the beach. Here we were on this very undeveloped island. There wasn’t a hospital. Everybody was grabbing aloe vera and vinegar and worrying about anaphylactic shock. Somebody did suggest ­peeing on me but I said: ‘This is my face! I’m 12. I don’t need to see anything that could be peeing on me, thanks.’”

'Lyra could be a boy, a girl or a cat': Keen with Amir Wilson (Will) in the new series of His Dark Materials - SImon Ridgway/BBC
'Lyra could be a boy, a girl or a cat': Keen with Amir Wilson (Will) in the new series of His Dark Materials - SImon Ridgway/BBC

Despite auditioning with conspicuously swollen cheeks, Keen easily landed the part of Lyra and headed from Puerto Rico to Cardiff to begin filming His Dark Materials in 2018. Although she is reluctant to discuss her own religious views with me “because it’s personal”, Keen notes that both Ana and Pullman’s story “examine the dangers of religious institutions which use fear or sensationalism or just plain lies, with hidden agendas, to wield power over people, to the benefit of their leaders. Perhaps you could say that some political parties could be like that too, though.” 

She jokes that politics would be much less complicated if politicians all had personal “daemons”: the revealing spirit animals which accompany the characters in His Dark Materials. “It would be so much easier to know who to vote for, wouldn’t it?” she says. “I mean, you wouldn’t want the guy with a leech daemon in charge would you? Somebody like Donald Trump would have a tick, a spray-tanned tick. Mine would be a monkey, although today I’m feeling more like a cat… no, a panther!”

The big casting surprise of the second series came in daemon form when it emerged that while Colonel John Parry would be played by Andrew Scott, the actor now best known as Hot Priest from the BBC comedy Fleabag, his daemon would be voiced by Fleabag herself, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. “I’m such a big fan of Fleabag,” says Keen. “I’ve watched it four times. I hope I get to meet Phoebe. She changed the game for women on TV, I think.”

Keen sees Lyra as striking another blow for small-screen feminism. “The way Philip Pullman wrote her,” she once said, “makes gender irrelevant. Lyra could be a boy, a girl or a cat.” Today she tells me that: “As a woman I feel I’ve been systematically told that I can’t make it, that there are many things I can’t achieve. I’ve been told to be on the sidelines: be a great wife or mother. What’s that about? Excuse me?!”

She notes that Lyra’s nemesis in the series, Mrs Coulter, “is very different to the classic female villain who is often portrayed as quite superficial. She’s academic, astute and really complicated. When I watch her on screen I want to hate her, but I love her. She’s so intriguing, so charismatic.” Screenwriter Jack Thorne, who adapted the Pullman novels, has compared Lyra to Greta Thunberg, another fearless girl taking on the adults she sees behaving selfishly. “It’s weird and amazing to be mentioned in the same sentence as somebody like Greta Thunberg,” says Keen. “I dreamed we were best friends last night. She’s such a hero.”

'Think I can't do it? Well, watch me!': Dafne Keen, photographed in Madrid earlier this month - Portrait by Begõna Rivas; Hair & Make Up: Neomi Nohales Pons; Stylist: Freddy Garcia
'Think I can't do it? Well, watch me!': Dafne Keen, photographed in Madrid earlier this month - Portrait by Begõna Rivas; Hair & Make Up: Neomi Nohales Pons; Stylist: Freddy Garcia

But Keen worries that many of her peers lack Thunberg’s earnest drive to change the world. “Things like Twitter and TikTok have made my generation quite sarcastic, a bit flippant,” she says. “The way my parents’ generation engages with politics is very different to how my generation reacts. We make memes and jokes and laugh at our misfortune. Do you know, I actually thought that the coronavirus pandemic was a joke for a long time? Seriously, I thought it was a meme. I was shocked when it was real and in Spain and we were locked down.”

Keen does use social media, despite feeling its potentially “toxic” effect. “You can see that we’re a much more depressed generation because we’re constantly pretending how amazing we are and looking at how amazing other people are. Body shapes have become trends, which really worries me. We Photoshop our faces and compare them to our friends’ Photoshopped faces. But we know we’re being fooled and we’re trying to fool other people. I know I’m much more self-conscious because of it. Having a [social media] account turns you into a target.”

One of the joys of His Dark Materials is that it’s so densely and thrillingly plotted that viewers will not be tempted to pick up their phones while it’s on. “Even I can get confused when I’ve got the script in front of me,” laughs Keen. “You have to pay attention!” It feels like a lesson we have all learnt in lockdown, and the return of His Dark Materials is the perfect excuse to indulge it. “While we all spend time alone with our laptops,” Keen says. “Art and stories are meant to be shared.”

His Dark Materials starts on Sunday November 8 on BBC One