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Why The Cast Of His Dark Materials Looks So Familiar

In the decades since the first book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy hit shelves in 1995, fans have patiently waited for a successful adaptation of this risky, controversial series. In 2007, a film adaptation of The Golden Compass was released, but the result was disappointing, both critically and commercially, thanks to too much oversight from the studio, some ill-advised plot changes, and bad experiences on set. The film went largely forgotten, and it seemed as if Pullman's seminal trilogy might never be successfully translated to either the big or small screen.

As one of the more controversial series in literary history — the entire trilogy contains some seriously anti-religious overtones, and for that reason, all of the novels typically end up on lists of banned books — it seemed impossible that any showrunner or filmmaker would be able to pull off this tall order. Thankfully, after 20-plus years since the first novel, HBO and BBC have teamed up to bring us a definitive adaptation of Pullman's work. However, the new show is full of recognizable faces we've seen in blockbusters, Broadway, and British TV shows. So call over your daemon, and let's find out why the cast of His Dark Materials looks so familiar.

Dafne Keen is the hero of His Dark Materials

As the main protagonist of His Dark Materials, the entire series rests on the shoulders of young Lyra Belacqua. When the story begins, Lyra is inadvertently swept up in a huge conspiracy when her uncle and mentor, Lord Asriel, disappears, and she gets involved with a mysterious, seemingly benevolent woman named Mrs. Coulter. However, when it turns out that Mrs. Coulter is actually evil, Lyra escapes with her daemon, Pantalaimon (daemons, in this world, are a manifestation of one's soul that take the form of an animal), and her alethiometer, a compass that can detect the truth. And when Lyra learns that Mrs. Coulter is in charge of a truly horrible plot, she must do anything in her power to stop this barbaric villain.

Lyra is an extremely complex role for a young actor, but luckily, the powers that be at HBO and BBC found the perfect person for the role: Dafne Keen, who made her mark playing another complex teenage girl in an acclaimed 2017 superhero film. Though Keen's first notable role was in the BBC series The Refugees, her international breakout role was the character of Laura, the mutant daughter of Wolverine, in Logan. While the film marked Hugh Jackman's final X-Men appearance, it thrust Keen into the spotlight, earning the young actress rave reviews.

James McAvoy is a familiar face in a dramatic role

The seemingly cold, calculating, and brilliant aristocrat known as Lord Asriel is an enigma to readers during his first introduction in His Dark Materials, where he's seen immediately outsmarting high ranking members at Jordan College (where he and Lyra live). Alongside Stelmaria, his elegant snow leopard daemon, Lord Asriel appears untouchable, but halfway through the first installment of the trilogy, he finds himself in serious trouble, and Lyra is one of the only people who can possibly help him.

The part of Lord Asriel, played by Daniel Craig in the film adaptation, is certainly intimidating, but as far as intense actors go, James McAvoy is certainly a worthy pick to fill Craig's shoes. Known for his role as Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men films, his role in the Oscar-nominated The Last King of Scotland, and his turns in M. Night Shyamalan's Split and Glass, McAvoy is definitely known for dramatic, powerful performances. He also appeared in It: Chapter Two, the highly-anticipated sequel to the 2017 Stephen King adaptation. Lord Asriel might seem inscrutable to audiences, but McAvoy always excels at playing difficult, severe characters.

Ruth Wilson is the big bad guy of His Dark Materials

When audiences and readers first meet the glamorous and benevolent Mrs. Coulter, she seems perfect — a wealthy, generous woman with a golden monkey daemon. She immediately takes a liking to Lyra, and Marisa Coulter is so sweet and kind that she seems almost too good to be true. 

As it turns out, she is. 

While Lyra works as her assistant, she discovers that Mrs. Coulter is part of "the Gobblers," an organization that kidnaps children for nefarious purposes. Though Mrs. Coulter is clearly only ever working towards her own evil interests, she's always protective of Lyra, leading audiences to believe she still has a few secrets up her sleeve.

Following in the footsteps of Nicole Kidman, who portrayed Mrs. Coulter in the 2007 film, Ruth Wilson has trafficked in dramatic roles for most of her career. Wilson is best known for her part in the long-running series The Affair as Alison Lockhart, for which she's won a Golden Globe Award, as well as her supporting role in Luther alongside Idris Elba. She played in the atmospheric horror film I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, and she also starred in and produced a series called Mrs. Wilson, in which the actress played her own real-life grandmother, a woman who uncovered a web of secrets and lies after her husband passed away.

Lin-Manuel Miranda went from Broadway to hot air balloons

One of Lyra's most invaluable allies during her adventures is Lee Scoresby, an intrepid aeronaut with a hare daemon. A friend of Iorek Byrnison, the famous armored polar bear who's been exiled from his community, Scoresby also helps Lyra and a group of people referred to as "the Gyptians" go against the Gobblers and save as many children as they possibly can.

The part of a kindly yet smart and rugged explorer requires a pretty versatile actor, and eventually, the role went to Lin-Manuel Miranda, an actor and playwright who's become one of the most celebrated names in Broadway history in an incredibly short period of time. Even though his Broadway debut as a headlining star and writer, In the Heights, won the Tony for Best Musical, Miranda became a household name thanks to Hamilton, which became one of the biggest pop culture sensations to come out of the theater community in recent memory (and, naturally, also won plenty of Tonys). 

Offstage, Miranda has written music for films like Moana, and he made his film debut alongside Emily Blunt and Ben Whishaw in 2018's Mary Poppins Returns. He's also appeared in television projects that range from Curb Your Enthusiasm to Brooklyn Nine-Nine to his very own Hamilton-themed episode of Drunk History. He's come a long way in a short time, and we're really glad that HBO and BBC didn't throw away their shot when it came to casting Miranda.

Andrew Scott has popped up in many beloved series

Due to the fact that His Dark Materials is set in such an expansive and far-reaching fantasy world, it stands to reason that the cast would be full of supporting players. Beyond main characters like Lyra, Lord Asriel, and Mrs. Coulter, there are plenty of other mysterious characters in Philip Pullman's world, one of whom is played by Andrew Scott. Thanks to his long and harrowing journey, Scott's character goes by several names, including Dr. Stanislaus Grumman, John Parry, and Jopari. However, his most important role is John Parry, an explorer who slipped into another dimension and is searching for his son, Will Parry (Amir Wilson), a boy who can help Lyra explore other realms.

Scott, an established Irish actor, has been working steadily for years, appearing in films that range from Saving Private Ryan to Alice Through the Looking Glass and television shows like Black Mirror and Band of Brothers. He eventually broke onto the international scene with some splashier performances, and his most high-profile roles thus far have been as Moriarty in Sherlock (alongside Benedict Cumberbatch) and as the "Hot Priest" in Phoebe Waller-Bridge's critically beloved Amazon Prime series Fleabag

Anne-Marie Duff brings some warmth to His Dark Materials

Even though Lyra spends her childhood at the upscale and privileged Jordan College, which serves as a home for some of the world's finest scholars and academics, she maintains a close relationship with the community of Gyptians, a group of people who maintain ships and residences by the docks. One of their leaders is the gruff, no-nonsense Ma Costa, who, despite her tough demeanor, always seems to show a little extra kindness to Lyra. And as it turns out, the two have a deeper bond than Lyra ever expected. 

So obviously, the role of Ma Costa calls for a particularly maternal actress, and that's where Anne-Marie Duff comes in. A veteran of the screen and stage in her native country of England, Duff has starred in period pieces like The Virgin Queen, where she played Elizabeth I, and Notes on a Scandal, but her most notable role to date had an incredibly strong influence on American television. Duff originated the role of Fiona Gallagher in the original British version of Shameless (a role that would be played by Emmy Rossum in the American adaptation), and that's where she met her husband and His Dark Materials co-star, James McAvoy. However, the two split in 2016.

Clarke Peters is familiar from some respected HBO shows

His Dark Materials places an enormous emphasis on academia. In the books, we first meet Lyra at Jordan College, and right from the beginning, she seems to trust every piece of information provided to her by the learned scholars that teach within the college's hallowed halls. Because of her close relationship with Jordan College's scholars, many faculty members grow to care for her, including Dr. Carne, the master of Jordan College, who's always accompanied by his raven daemon. Most importantly, he gifts Lyra with the alethiometer, an invaluable tool that guides her journey from that point forward.

This gentle, learned character is played by Clarke Peters in the HBO adaptation, who's returning to the network after high-profile roles in The Wire and Treme as Detective Lester Freamon and "Big Chief," respectively. Throughout his career, Peters has played an enormous range of roles, including a regular part on CBS' Person of Interest, a small role in the first John Wick film, and a turn as the beleaguered police chief in Martin McDonagh's Academy Award-nominated film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, just to name a few. 

Ariyon Bakare is a veteran of British dramas

Introduced during the first book in Pullman's trilogy, Lord Boreal is presented as an aristocrat equal to Lord Asriel, circulating a cocktail party hosted by Mrs. Coulter, with whom he's said to have been involved romantically at various points. A mysterious yet sinister figure, Lord Boreal is certainly hiding plenty of secrets when audiences first meet him, with his true nature revealed as the trilogy continues.

In this adaptation, Ariyon Bakare has taken up Lord Boreal's mantle, as well as the inherent challenge of playing a character who has something to hide. Outside of the world of His Dark Materials, Bakare has mostly performed on British dramas, including the daytime series Doctors, the miniseries A Respectable Trade, and in a 2015 episode of Doctor Who that also featured Game of Thrones' Maisie Williams. He can also be seen on Amazon's Carnival Row, pulling fantasy double duty across two different networks.

Ruta Gedmintas bring something witchy to His Dark Materials

In a world that contains armored fighting bears with their own monarchy and compasses that can predict the truth, it stands to reason that witches would be a part of this story, as well. In His Dark Materials, these witches are led by Serafina Pekkala, whose daemon is a snow goose that can travel without her (normally, daemons must stay within a certain physical distance of their human, or both parties suffer unimaginable pain). Not much is known about the witch, but during the first novel in the series, Serafina tells Lyra that she's at least 300 years old and that she once had a son with a human, Farder Coram. But after their child died, she left her love behind in the human realm. She's frequently on hand to assist Lyra, remaining calm and powerful even in the face of danger.

This steadying, comforting, and magical character will be played by British actress Ruta Gedmintas, who's made her mark throughout several different television series during her career. Beyond roles on British shows, she earned international attention as Elizabeth Blount, a former lover of King Henry VIII, on The Tudors, and you might have seen her on NBC's short-lived drama Do No Harm (alongside Lin-Manuel Miranda) or FX's The Strain, where she played Dutch from 2014 to 2017.

Lucian Msamati brings gravitas to every project

The Gyptians are one of the most important groups in Lyra's life, helping her escape Mrs. Coulter's evil clutches and banding together to help her stop the villain's plot. As the leader and king of the Gyptians, John Faa is the deciding voice in whether or not the Gyptians stand with Lyra, which he does despite some dissent from his people.

In this particular adaptation of His Dark Materials, the brave, powerful, and fair man is played by Lucian Msamati, a British-born actor who was brought up in Zimbabwe for the majority of his childhood. Msamati is an accomplished stage actor. In 2015, he became the first black actor to play Iago in Othello at the Royal Shakespeare Company, but he's also appeared on television shows like Doctor Who, Luther, HBO's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (his breakout television role), and of course, Game of Thrones, where he played Salladhor Saan, a pirate loyal to Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane).

James Cosmo is no stranger to the fantasy genre

Every fantasy series needs a wise, kindly, older mentor who can guide a young protagonist through their journeys and struggles, and in His Dark Materials, that job falls to Farder Coram, an elder within the Gyptian community who's an invaluable resource to Lyra as she navigates her new adventures. An adviser to John Faa, the king and leader of the Gyptians, Farder Coram has lived a full life, even pursuing a relationship with a high-ranking witch, Serafina Pekkala, before the couple lost their child to an illness. For Lyra, Farder Coram provides one of the most important services of all, as he teaches her how to read the alethiometer, which she's then able to use to find people, unearth secrets, and learn about other realms.

It seems fitting that James Cosmo, an accomplished Scottish actor, is playing one of the wisest characters in His Dark Materials, considering that he also has a long and storied career behind him. Over the years, you might have seen Cosmo in any number of projects, from Braveheart to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to Highlander, but fantasy fans likely know him best as Jeor Mormont, the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch from Game of Thrones.