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How Ruth Wilson Influenced Mrs. Coulter In His Dark Materials

Ruth Wilson certainly knows her way around playing a nuanced antagonist. She may have gotten her start in television playing Charlotte Brontë's titular character Jane Eyre, but the 2010s saw her play Alice Morgan, the exquisitely malicious foil to Idris Elba on Luther. As portrayed on the series, Alice Morgan is a psychopath killer, but between Luther's writing, Wilson's performance, and the chemistry she shares with Elba, it's easy to be enticed into believing that she could be something more. Following up on that, Wilson has found perhaps an even more complex antagonistic in HBO's adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. Here, Wilson joins the cast as the often-heartless Mrs. Coulter who, it seems, will do anything, including murder children, to understand the nature of power, and wield it above all.

Pullman's His Dark Materials is a kind of atheistic counterpoint to C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe — both feature children in a central role, both involve traversing fantastical dimensions — and if His Dark Materials has a counterpoint to the White Witch, it is most certainly Mrs. Coulter.

Wilson herself would be the first to admit that Pullman's original incarnation of Coulter in the novels isn't quite as developed as other characters in the series. In a roundtable interview with Geek Culture, she said, "Mrs. Coulter, I find endlessly fascinating, because Philip never gave any reasons or answers as to why she acts like she does and why she has such a lust for power, or why she is so obsessed with her daughter — you don't get many psychological understandings of that."

It turns out, that lack of information was a perfect opportunity for Wilson to insert her own ideas into who Mrs. Coulter really is.

The character Coulter is closest to ... isn't who you'd expect

Mrs. Coulter has a daughter named Lyra (Dafne Keen) who is our protagonist in the first season His Dark Materials. Interestingly, though, Lyra is not the character with whom Coulter has her strongest connection.

Everyone in Lyra's world has an external soul or, as they are more commonly referred to, daemons. Daemons are kind of like a witch's familiar, except that the connection between daemon and human is so strong that they need each other to survive (at least, so far as we know in the beginning). It's not even safe for human and daemon to be too far apart physically from one another. Children's daemons can shape shift into different animals, as they wish, but once a person matures into an adult, their daemon takes a consistent form.

Mrs. Coulter's daemon is a golden monkey. While Coulter is, in the strictest sense, close with her daemon, that doesn't mean she is kind to them. On the contrary, we see that Coulter has gone to great lengths to separate from her monkey, and even when they are in close proximity, she is frequently stern — even abusive.

That's a big part of what Wilson latched onto, in understanding Coulter. "What you do have is the relationship with the monkey," she says. "And I thought, for me, that was key because that's who she is, [the monkey is] her soul as well. So you can kind of indicate her own personality and her own psychology through her relationship with the monkey. So that for me was like, wow, this is a really, really fun and unique way of exploring character."

Coulter has a relationship with something else which also helped Wilson dig into who she really is.

How Coulter's clothes express who she really is

Clothing and fashion help people define who they're going to be, on any given day. Depending on if you're going to a party, a job interview, or out on a date, you're almost certainly going to dress to accentuate different features, both inside and out, of your personality. In the same way, costumes help an actor understand not only who their character is, in the moment, but also who they aspire to be, and what they wish to conceal. And surely enough, Mrs. Coulter has some absolutely stunning costumes in His Dark Material's first season.

Wilson had a hand in figuring out Coulter should dress, saying that many costumes were inspired by "1940s Katharine Hepburn out in Africa." Her costumes changed as the season wore on.

"We give her an iconic look and in Cittagazze," says Wilson. "I don't want her to always be wearing heels. It makes no sense. So she wears sort of riding boots. She still looks good. She looks great everywhere she goes. But I think you see her slightly softening slightly becoming more, I don't know, honest, as it goes on."

According to Wilson, Coulter's costumes will continue to evolve in season 2. "I think she becomes quite intense and sort of loses a bit of control to be honest," Wilson revealed about Coulter's upcoming storyline. "I wanted her to look even more in control and in makeup so she becomes a bit harsher looking. She's got her hair stricter, her makeup is more defined. She's got sharper looks on."

His Dark Materials begins airing its second season on HBO November 16, 2020.