When Dafne Keen was shooting the second season of His Dark Materials, she developed a shorthand with director Jamie Childs. If he wanted the 15-year-old to perform something in a specific way, he would say the last name of an actor in the HBO fantasy drama series. Immediately, Keen would know which gesture or look Childs needed for the next take. Sometimes, the director would utter the name “Keen,” but the young actress knew better than to think of herself. Instead, she focused on her father, British actor Will Keen, and the intense gaze he delivers as antagonist Father MacPhail. It was all rather entertaining.
Acting is the family business. Keen’s father has film and TV credits stretching back to the ‘90s, including Wolf Hall and The Crown, while her mother, María Fernández Ache, is a Galician theatre director, writer, and acting coach for her daughter. “It’s the three of us constantly,” Keen says of the family affair on the His Dark Materials set. “Mum helps me rehearse at night and she’s on set every day next to the director, watching the monitor.”
Keen’s thin but weighty resume hasn’t quite captured the happy family life she knows. Her first-ever acting job was playing her dad’s daughter in the sci-fi series The Refugees, but she didn’t get a fairytale ending: “He had to kill me, which is great, you know, nine-year-old Daphne getting killed by her own father!” she laughs. Then there’s her current and much sought-after role as Lyra Silvertongue, the heroine of Philip Pullman’s bestselling novels and now, the show on which they’re based. Season 1 saw Lyra embark on a dangerous journey to find her best friend, kidnapped with other children in the name of diabolical scientific research. That’s how Lyra discovers she’s the child of her thought-to-be-uncle Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) and the ruthless child snatcher Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson).
“It’s kind of horrible to say, but when she was an orphan, at least she got to imagine her mother as this great woman,” Keen says. “Then she finds out her dad killed her best friend and her mother probably killed thousands of children. But what Lyra and Laura have in common is the way they deal with that—instead of just crying in corners and making a whole scene, they get on with it.”
Laura, of course, refers to Keen’s breakthrough role in the 2017 Marvel film Logan; she played the female clone (also known as X23) of Hugh Jackman’s legendary X-Men hero Wolverine. The R-rated action film, nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, delivers a complicated father-daughter dynamic that tugs at the heartstrings, even when the duo is ripping bad guys to shreds with their adamantium appendages.
Keen is a poster child for a new brand of young heroine who is tough, inquisitive, and intelligent—without falling into the sexist trappings of characters past. Lyra and Laura are definitely not the damsels in distress Keen watched in her early childhood, and she’s thankful her generation gets to take on more nuanced roles.
“Disney movies, if you watch them back, were extremely bad for a girl to see, even the ones which aren’t so old.” Keen says. “They’re dangerous because you can’t place your finger on what’s really wrong. I think we’ve got a long way to go.” Her favorite hero is Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique—“I hold her dear in my heart”—but Keen admits there’s a slew of female action heroes who “still feed into the sexist world we live in” by using their sexuality to get things done. She’s thankful His Dark Materials avoids this trope, even as Lyra grows older and her story develops alongside more adult themes.
“They did a really good job with everything about her,” Keen says. “In season 1 she jumps into really intense relationships with people, but that’s not going well for her, so [in season 2], she’s much more mistrusting. She’s having a rough time, I’d say.”
The second season brings together Lyra and Will Parry (Amir Wilson), who’ve both stepped through a magical portal in each of their worlds to arrive in a connecting dimension. Lyra is from an alternate reality where a theocratic authority called the Magesterium governs with an iron fist and humans have companions called daemons, the mystical manifestation of their souls in animal form. Will is from, well, the real world. Together, the two try to learn the secrets of their families as a scientific and spiritual battle threatens the very fabric of their societies.
It’s quite removed from everyday life, where Keen’s just trying to fit in with her peers. “I haven’t told many people I’m an actress except for my close friends,” she says. “I get people saying, ‘Oh my god she looks like the girl from Logan’ or ‘you’re identical to this actress,’ and I just say, ‘My name is Stephanie, I do not know who you’re talking about.’” While filming His Dark Materials in the U.K., a Logan fan approached Keen and her stunt double to ask if she was X23, but directed the question at Keen’s lookalike. When the double cheekily said, “yes,” the man excitedly asked for a snap. “I took the photo of my double with him and now it’s probably up on Twitter saying, ‘Just met Dafne Keen,’” she laughs. “I’m really enjoying my anonymity.”
She should make the most of it given the trajectory of her career—the actress is hungry to try as many “different characters and genres as possible, and venture into writing and directing.” But Keen still holds a candle for X23. Given the critical acclaim of Logan, it seems only natural that the franchise continues with Laura. Unfortunately, the future of Fox’s Marvel films remains uncertain after Disney acquired the studio last year. “I got told by some people at Fox that there might be another one, but this was ages ago when we were filming, and they haven’t contacted me ever again,” Keen reveals. Still, she’s hopeful.
“I feel like we’re just at the beginning, there’s more to be told, and it’s a relay race,” she says. “I come into play when they’ve already written and done pre-production and decided on doing the film, so as soon as they say, ‘go,’ I’ll happily go whenever.” In the meantime, she’ll stay busy with Lyra, since there’s likely more seasons of His Dark Materials to come. It’s the hero’s way, after all.
Watch His Dark Materials on HBO
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io