James McAvoy & Ruth Wilson on Their Destiny
Dec 30, 2022
[Editor’s note: The following contains some spoilers for Season 3 of His Dark Materials.]
The eight-episode third and final season of the HBO series His Dark Materials, based on author Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, follows Lyra (Dafne Keen) and Will (Amir Wilson) on their journey to The Land of the Dead, a dark place from which no one has ever returned. At the same time, Lyra’s parents, Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) and Lord Asriel Belacqua (James McAvoy) begrudgingly come to understand that working together may be the only way to succeed in their ultimate goals.
During this interview with Collider, co-stars Wilson and McAvoy talked about what they enjoyed about actually getting to spend time together in Season 3, playing the present moment while also embracing the history of the characters, learning to let destiny happen, why Wilson loves Mrs. Coulter, whether they feel their characters get a hero moment this season, and what it was like to collaborate with their daemon puppet and its puppeteer.
COLLIDER VIDEO OF THE DAY
Collider: One of the interesting things about watching your characters, especially this season, is that while they believe they are each right in their own ways, even if they are not necessarily right in their approach, they finally realize that maybe they’re actually better off working together. What was it like to really get to fully explore the dynamic that your characters have? What did you enjoy about actually getting to spend that time together this season?
RUTH WILSON: It was great. Mrs. Coulter has certainly talked about Asriel a lot. We only had one scene, at the end of the first season, so he was this absent presence that we’ve been building up to seeing again. There was a lot of expectation, for the audience and characters. There was the expectation of seeing each other again and, “Will it be the same as before?”
What was great this time was that it’s not as good as it was before. It’s disappointing and frustrating, and there’s a sense of loss of what it used to be and what it isn’t anymore. They’ve changed. They’re both different people. So, that was really juicy to get underneath and to see how we then go from that to their final moment, which is coming together for a greater good. Inside Season 3, there’s a huge journey for these two to play, and that was really fun to do. It was great fun to play.
Image via HBO
James, what was it like to really explore a relationship where you’re also laying out all the history to show how that history affects who they are in these present moments?
JAMES McAVOY: It was tough because you’re trying to play the present moment, but at the same time, you’re trying to hold all the history as well. When you’ve got decent material, and you’ve got an amazing actor, and you’re pretty good as well, hopefully, that’s just more juice. It’s not more complicated, it’s not more convoluted, it’s not more pressure, it’s just more juice. It’s more fuel. That felt quite true of most of our scenes together, actually. They felt really strongly energized and fueled. Even if there was a lot of stuff that wasn’t being articulated, that the audience didn’t even know, we were carrying it, and it was fueling how we treated each other. This guy’s trying to blow the heavens apart. He’s trying to perpetrate a revolution upon the kingdom of heaven. At the same time, the validation he needs is from this woman, and he can’t get it, no matter what he does. Whether he’s nice, whether he’s bad, whether he’s forceful, whether he’s placating, whatever it is, he can’t get it. It could be his undoing, frankly, because she’s the one thing that he truly, truly, truly needs.
That’s why the moment when he essentially says, “Why can’t you be who I want you to be?,” is so interesting. It really says so much about them because they want something from each other, that the other person may never be, or may never be able to give them.
McAVOY: Absolutely. He’s in the process of reshaping the world, as he would like it to be, and it’s working, so why can’t this person just be who he wants them to be?
WILSON: That’s an examination of a lot of relationships. There’s a mirror in that with Mrs. Coulter and Lyra where [it’s] like, “Why can’t you be the kid that’s easy to deal with? Why can’t you just do what I tell you to do?” She doesn’t. There’s a mirror in those relationships, of trying to control or own or have territory over something that isn’t yours. They’re autonomous. They’re their own thing. The whole season is about Mrs. Coulter and Asriel learning to let go of the thing they’re trying to control, and actually just stand back and let destiny happen. For me, that was Lyra, and for him, it’s letting go of me to do my own shit. That’s part of the lesson this season, for both of them.
Image via HBO
Ruth, there’s that moment when Father President calls Mrs. Coulter an “incoherent emotional woman.” That moment sounds like a very familiar thing that arrogant men in positions of power say. Do you feel like part of the reason why so many people see your character as a villain is because she just doesn’t seem to want to do what anyone tells her to do?
WILSON: Yeah, I suppose that’s how they see her in the show. I love her because she’s so willful in her own way. She’s separate from everyone. It’s weird because she is someone that doesn’t really have strong beliefs in anything. She doesn’t really believe what the Magisterium believes in. She doesn’t really believe in what Asriel believes in. She doesn’t really believe in anything. But she wants to be close to power because that gives her agency.
In some way, even though she’s incredibly willful and stands alone, she hates herself, as well. There’s a deep sense of self-loathing. Throughout the course of the three seasons, she learns that she can be that willful, and she can be that powerful, but she doesn’t need to hate herself so much. She learns to accept who she is and her lack [of] her limitations, and she comes to understand that. I’m not sure it’s about her not agreeing to do things. It’s more about how she’s incredibly willful and will do anything to get close to power. She doesn’t really believe in anything.
With everything that your characters go through in this season, do you see them as having found redemption, in their own way? With where they end up, do you feel like they got to have a little bit of their hero moment in Season 3?
WILSON: I personally think so.
McAVOY: They’re never gonna be what’s considered to be good parents. But I think that they ultimately make a decision and a parental sacrifice that is far beyond what most parents have ever had to do. So, they go from the worst parents in the world to almost the most incredible parents in the world. Lyra will never know it, but that’s not what it’s about. You don’t become a parent so your kid will look at you and be like, “Ah, I love you.” You become a parent because you want to bring somebody up to be a fucking decent member of society and live without you. In some way, as much as it’s fantastical, and there are angels and those self-sacrificing moments on a grand scale, that’s what everybody’s version of parenting is. You’re not in it to get the adulation or the love of your child. You’re in it to give to them without getting anything back, necessarily.
WILSON: You know that film, The Octopus Teacher?
WILSON: The octopus dies when it gives birth. Their life force is literally passed on. They exist to pass on a life force. Both of these characters are resisting that truth. They’re like, “No, no, get that kid away. I am the life force. I am the important one.”
Image via HBO
Ruth, you also got to work with a monkey puppet and a puppeteer alongside of you. What’s it like to no longer have that anymore? Was it stranger to adjust to having it always be there, or is it stranger to adjust with never seeing it there anymore?
WILSON: I have to say that I’m missing it. I’m doing a job now, and I’m starting [to miss] a co-acting partner who couldn’t tell me what to do. He couldn’t help me while I had the scene and was struggling a bit on my own. No, I loved Brian [Fisher].
It was one of the best things about the job, to be honest, and I didn’t expect to be. I was most frightened of that part of the job. I thought it was going to be a tennis ball, or nothing, or a little mark on a camera. I was dreading it, but it proved to be the most joyous thing because we had a puppeteer and Brian was so good, and all the puppeteers were brilliant, breathing life into those creatures. But also with Brian, we came up with ways to visualize what the dynamic was, and we’d work it out. I loved it, every day. We would figure out, “What are you doing? Where are you going to be? What does this mean? What’s this representing?” For me, it added so much to my character and to my enjoyment of the process. So, yeah, I do miss him and I want him everywhere.
Image via HBO
James, what was that collaborative relationship like for you, especially having one of the bigger daemons follow you around?
McAVOY: It was good. I had a really good relationship with [Amber-Rose Perry], who was Stelmaria’s puppeteer. As Ruth said, it was helpful to come in and be like, “All right, what are we doing?” You already felt like part of a team, before you even spoke to a director, and that was great.
There was a slightly unfulfilled, unsatisfied part of me, to do with Stelmaria, in that there were far more important daemon/human relationships to mine and explore than ours. We were pretty in unison, Stelmaria and I. The relationships where there was conflict or more co-working to figure things out, like with Pan and Lyra, it was more important to spend time with them doing that. Therefore, it meant that the very expensive process of being with your daemon, catching your daemon, or being close to your daemon, wasn’t something that producers wanted a lot for us. Unfortunately, Stelmaria and I didn’t get to have some of those moments. We actually filmed a lot of moments between Stelmaria and I, which never even got turned [into] a CGI because it was just too expensive, and they had to spend it elsewhere, which I completely understand. For me, personally, there were some cool moments between Stelmaria and I that never even got animated.
WILSON: It was such a brilliant move by the producers, for the kids as well, because they got to work with real puppets. It was brilliant idea.
His Dark Materials airs on Monday nights on HBO and is available to stream at HBO Max.
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