His Dark Materials star Ruth Wilson unpacks the beguiling Mrs. Coulter
It’s not that Ruth Wilson gets bored with a lot of TV roles these days. As the former star of The Affair better explains it, “I put so much into creating a character and thinking about it and bringing it to life in the first [season] that coming back to it can be fun and interesting, but sometimes you feel you’ve done it all in a weird way.” That’s why she prefers doing miniseries, like Luther, which allowed her to “dip” into the character of Alice Morgan “every few years.”
But, with His Dark Materials, HBO and BBC’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy, Wilson just can’t stop talking about the equally enthralling and wicked Mrs. Coulter. On the way to join her fellow cast members at San Diego Comic-Con, Wilson spent five of the 11 hours in transit mapping out her arc as this mysterious figure from a parallel world with series writer Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child).
“We can have endless chats about Mrs. Coulter and about what her motives are,” she says. “Why was she able to separate from her daemon? How does she do that? What does she really believe in? What does she really want? They are all massive questions open to interpretation.”
Questions like these still confound readers of Pullman’s work, but Wilson promises answers are forthcoming in the HBO series, which premieres in the U.S. on Monday, Nov. 4 and in the U.K. via the BBC on Sunday, Nov. 3.
Thorne and executive producer Jane Tranter hope to chronicle the multiverse saga of His Dark Materials in three seasons.
The first will tackle the events of The Golden Compass (titled Northern Lights in the U.K.) by introducing Lyra Belacqua (Logan star Dafne Keen). In a parallel reality to our own, one where human souls exist outside the body as talking animal companions, this young orphan girl lives at Jordan College in Oxford. With the Magisterium, an authoritarian religious institution, looming in the backdrop, Lyra learns of a mysterious and potentially blasphemous particle called Dust around the same time her friend Roger becomes the latest victim in a string of child kidnappings.
Amid these events comes Mrs. Coulter, who claims to be an explorer taking an interest in Lyra. She needs an assistant and this proves to be Lyra’s opportunity to leave Jordan in search of Roger and learn more about Dust. Season 2, which is already being filmed, will tackle the events told in Pullman’s The Subtle Knife, and Tranter hopes to reserve a season 3 for the finale novel, The Amber Spyglass. It’s not a whole lot different than Wilson’s Luther schedule.
“I have really enjoyed this job because there’s so much mystery to her,” the actress says of Coulter. “She’s quite enigmatic. In the books, you never get to know her at all. She comes in and she’s a bit like the White Witch in the Chronicles of Narnia. She comes in and does something ghastly and leaves again. You’re always confused by what her motives are and who she really is.”
The series will fill in some of these gaps. In the first book, you don’t see a whole lot of Coulter following certain spoiler-y events. In the series, that’s not the case. “Philip Pullman has given us more license to do that, which is really great. He’s allowed us to dig more into her and to examine why she is who she is and why she makes those decisions and why she does the awful things she does,” Wilson says. “It’s a huge journey for her to go on throughout the seasons.”
His Dark Materials marks Wilson’s first foray into the fantasy genre. Even her role in The Lone Ranger didn’t have the level of special effects required of the mythology at play here, which includes armored polar bears, soaring witches, and the aforementioned daemons.
Coulter’s daemon, a slinky golden-haired monkey, came with a unique challenge. Tranter’s production crew crafted puppets to stand in on set for these creatures that are, in essence, extensions of their human counterparts. Conversations between a person and their daemon were more like monologues, filmed with a “puppet pass” (a take with the puppet on set with the actor) and a second without (so the VFX team could insert the animated daemon later on in postproduction).
“Everyone’s got a daemon and they are hearing and they are a part of that person,” Wilson explains. “So, every scene, there’s at least two characters. That was something to wrap your head around.”
Unlike other daemons, Coulter’s monkey doesn’t have a name and it doesn’t speak. That’s why there’s no voice actor named in the cast. Wilson took her daemon’s silence as Coulter “silencing herself in some way.”
“She doesn’t really connect with other people,” Wilson adds of Coulter. “Her daemon is her main reflection of herself. So, that’s such a unique relationship. Why is it like that and what does it say about her and how does it change as it goes on?”
There are more layers still that make Coulter “endlessly interesting” for Wilson. She mentions season 2 discussions were already happening after Comic-Con in July to potentially explore Coulter’s connection with Lord Asriel, Lyra’s explorer uncle (played by It Chapter Two‘s James McAvoy, a fan of Pullman himself and a borderline expert on His Dark Materials). While Coulter operates closer to the Magisterium, Asriel’s discoveries around Dust make him a target of the organization’s fundamentalist views.
Without getting into too many specifics, to keep non-readers guessing, Wilson says she hopes to show how Asriel “came from somewhere similar [to her], but they have these opposing global views or world views or universal views.”
“One worked within the confinement of the Magisterium and looked for power that way and the other one wants to destroy the Magisterium,” she continues. “Where did that division happen? Where did that viewpoint occur at the split? Was it her confinement because she’s a woman and she’s trapped in a male world? She couldn’t possibly do the things that he could do, so she had to work within certain limitations?”
His Dark Materials