Exclusive Interview: Dafne Keen

Dafne Keen: Star of the BBC’s His Dark Materials tells us how the role has shaped her career and what it has taught her about life.

Photography by Joseph Sinclair | Styling by Emily Tighe, Hair and make up by Kate Rawsthorne

Since the publication of Northern Lights, the first of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy in 1995, millions have read the books and they have garnered countless awards and accolades. The third book, The Amber Spyglass, was the first ever children’s book to be awarded the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, confirming that, though these were written for a young audience, with rich, deep themes that encompass religion, gender, the existence of the soul, love, duty and the inevitability of death, this was work that warranted an audience of all ages. A fact that was further cemented when the BBC’s adaptation of the first of the books appeared on screens back in 2019.

The lavish series, which was produced in collaboration with HBO and adapted for screen by writer Jack Thorne, who is known for his work on This is England and National Treasure, was a hit with audiences, and attracted glowing reviews from critics. It was quickly renewed for a second series and now the long-awaited third and final series is about to be screened. Leading the stellar cast is 17-year-old Dafne Keen, who appears as Lyra, the main protagonist of the books – it is a role she has played since the age of just 12. “She has been with me for all of my teenage years – it is insane,” Dafne tells me, when we sit down to talk. “It was devastating to say goodbye. I remember the moment when we wrapped. Everyone was clapping, and I said goodbye to everyone, and we were all hugging, everyone was congratulating each other, and I got home, and I’m not going to lie to you, I had a little cry! That crew has been with me since the age of 12 or 13. They have been crucial in my life; they have been my family and they have been my home for the last four years. So, leaving them was devastating.”

Dafne Keen His Dark Materials

Dafne wears: top (hilduryeoman.com)

Recalling how the role came about, Dafne tells me: “I first auditioned when I was about 11, during the filming of Logan. And then I got a call back, but after that I didn’t hear from them for a year. So, I thought they had cast somebody else,” she shrugs. “And then, it was the day I wrapped a movie I did called Ana, and I got an email from them saying, ‘We need a tape in by the end of the weekend, we’d love to see you’. So, I got myself together – I was in this hotel in the middle of nowhere on a tiny island off the coast of Puerto Rico, it had no Wi-Fi, we didn’t have the right lighting to do the audition… I had been stung by a jellyfish an hour before, so I did it with a huge rash on my face,” she laughs. “I sent it in, and because of the whole Wi-Fi thing, it didn’t arrive in time. But somehow, they saw it, and I got a call from them saying that they would love to meet me in person. So, I went over to London, and I had my chemistry read with Ruth (Wilson, who plays Mrs Coulter), and then a month later I was told that I had got the part. It was very surreal. I was so, so happy. And I couldn’t wait to get on set.” When it came to it, that first day was both exciting and terrifying. “I found it so intimidating. But I always feel terrified when I walk on set. You are under so much pressure – you’re thinking that this is a character who everybody loves. You have to be fair to the book and portray a character who is adored by everybody.”

Though the books had a cult following, Dafne admits that she hadn’t read them herself before getting the part. “I religiously read them, back-to-back, in two weeks whilst on set,” she reveals. “I became absolutely hooked onto them, and now I love them, and I think that they are brilliant.” She is particularly fond of her alter ego Lyra. “I think it is really rare to see interesting, strong, unsexualised females in film and TV. I think that is super special,” she explains. “I feel like Lyra is one of those characters who is an unlikeable female, according to the standards of the patriarchy. And it is so fun to play someone who, actually, if she was a man, nobody would be saying that she is unlikeable. But this show is a space where real females, who aren’t perfect and quiet and submissive, are accepted, and are loved by fans, and it is so brilliant to see the reaction that everybody has to her.”

Dafne Keen Fabric November

Dafne wears:  jacket and shorts (a-jane.com); earrings (thomassabo.com) and ring (mimanera.com)

Indeed, playing such a role throughout the best part of her formative years has been character building, Dafne believes. “She has taught me so much, because she has been with me for all of my teenage years,” she tells me. “I think it is so easy when there is pressure on you, to feel like you are not comfortable to take decisions, and Lyra is an example of just taking the decisions, and just going with the decisions she has taken. And I think it is so important, especially as women or as people of minorities, to trust your gut. Because sometimes we are told not to trust it, because we are wrong, and we don’t have the right judgement. So, I think that is definitely something she has taught me.”

What can Dafne tell us about what’s in store for Lyra and the rest of the cast in this final series? “I can say that it is personally my favourite season so far, first of all. I can say that it is darker. I can say it is more adult, and I can say that it has a bit of everything. I can’t really say much more than that though,” she smiles.

Dafne made her debut playing Ana on the television series The Refugees from 2014 to 2015, before her breakthrough starring as Laura in the 2017 superhero film Logan, in which she received widespread critical acclaim for her acting. Born in Madrid, she is the daughter of British actor Will Keen (who appears alongside her in both The Refugees and His Dark Materials) and Spanish actress, theatre director and writer María Fernández Ache, so it was perhaps inevitable that she would follow this path.

“Both my parents would bring friends over, and they would talk about theatre. And what my parents would do at home would be either run their lines or write scripts. Or, from when I was very young, they would read me what they had written, or talk about things they had written, and ask me what I thought,” she recalls. “I was always very included in their artistic process. I think I was always taught to think much more with the creative part of my brain than the academic, in a way. I was always either making short films, or writing short stories, or having extremely ambitious projects like – oh, I’m going to write a novel! I always had a wild project on my hands. I think it was inevitable I would fall into some sort of artistic category.”

She recognises, of course, how invaluable their input and encouragement have been. “I always had the advice of veterans, I guess,” she explains. “My mother has been my acting coach from day one. She has just now stopped coming on set with me and coaching me.” Perhaps most important though, Dafne believes, was their insistence that she stay in school no matter what came her way workwise. “I have a tutor on set, and when I am not on set, I go to school and follow my normal education. My parents were always very determined for me to not leave school, because they thought it was very important for me to realise that normal life was school, and it was my friends, and it was me having to negotiate my social status, without acting or my career being involved,” she explains. “I am so, so grateful that they did that, because it is so easy to lose yourself in this industry. There are so many people when you are working who will tell you how amazing you are, even if they don’t think it, so it is easy, if you do not have people to ground you, to believe that. And I am so grateful that my parents made me stay in school where I had to negotiate my position, where I had to prove my worth every day. I had to make my friends without having the distinction of being the lead actress. And I have maintained those friends; my best friends I have known for years and years, since before acting. I think it is so important to know who is there for you, and who is there for other reasons.”

Dafne is so grounded, in fact, that it is easy to forget that she is so young. She comes across as thoughtful, confident, self-assured and wise beyond her years. She is modest, too, though it would be understandable if she were not: at just 13, she was named a Screen International Star of Tomorrow in 2018, and the same year she won ‘Best Female Newcomer’ at The Empire Awards. “It is wild, and it is such an honour.” She exclaims when I bring these accolades up. “I feel, extremely, extremely, extremely lucky. Extremely blessed and extremely grateful. I feel grateful to the people who watched Logan, and who liked Logan. I feel grateful to James Mangold for giving me a chance in Logan. I feel grateful to Bambú Producciones for casting me in The Refugee, which was my first job. I feel grateful for all of those people who have helped me to get to where I am – for my mum, for coaching me. I just feel very, very thankful for the people who have believed in me and who made those things possible.” And she is convinced that these awards have played their part in the subsequent development of her career. “I think, sadly, the film industry is very hierarchical, in a way, so if you have some sort of award, or proof that you can do your job well, I think it is easier for studio execs to consider you. Because you are a safe option,” she says. As for future jobs, I wonder if there is anything particular she would like to do next. “It is so hard when you are a child actor, because you always get the same kind of jobs,” she reveals, “so I am really glad that I am at a stage where I can get out of that sort of feral tween who is slightly wild and does crazy stuff. I’m happy that I get to not do that anymore, because that served a purpose in my life, but I am kind of over that now. So, I am very happy that I will get to play more mature, different, varied roles.”

Dafne Keen Fabric November

Dafne wears:  blazer (esauyori.com); top (raquette.co); earring (mimanera.com); rings, vintage 

Indeed, she is currently busy filming in London, though when we talk she is unable to reveal anything about the project. All she will say is how happy she is to be here. “I love London, I think that it is one of the best cities in the world,” she exclaims. “But working here, I am a bit sick of how useless the tube is. I am from Madrid where the tube is really efficient, where you have phone signal. It’s quick, it’s not too warm, you don’t have wind blowing through the windows, it doesn’t get stuck in tunnels…” she laughs. “Other than the tube it is a brilliant city. It has amazing theatre, it has great cultural life, it has an amazing social life, it is beautiful. I love London, I think, genuinely, it is one of my favourite places on earth.”

The eight-episode third and final season of His Dark Materials will debut this December on BBC One and be available to stream on BBC iPlayer.