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Dafne Keen talks His Dark Materials season 2, playing X-23 again, more - Exclusive interview

The season 2 finale of His Dark Materials sure does end with a cliffhanger. After a glaring absence throughout nearly the entire run of the second season, James McAvoy makes a long-awaited and pivotal return as Lord Asriel. When we last saw the rogue scholar in the heartbreaking season 1 finale, he had just sacrificed both poor little Roger and his furry daemon and escaped into a portal to Cittàgazze — and what he'd been up to since was shrouded in mystery. But during the final moments of the second season finale, we hear his familiar booming voice as he delivers a chilling monologue. 

To quickly summarize the gist of his world-weary plea to unseen forces, we see a battle-worn Asriel standing in a desolate otherworldly plain as he demands an alliance for his pending war against the Authority. After a silent pause, the invisible forces materialize as angels — the very same spectral beings that revealed their existence to Dr. Mary Malone earlier in the season. "We stand with you, Asriel Belacqua," they reply. "Good. Then let us prepare for war," says Asriel. And there we have it; the stage is set for the final showdown with the Magisterium in season 3.

Just a week before the season 2 finale aired, HBO and BBC One confirmed the fantasy-drama's third and final season, which will be based on The Amber Spyglass, the swan song of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials book trilogy. One person who is surely excited about the final season's official greenlight is none other than teenage lead star Dafne Keen, who plays Lyra Belacqua (a.k.a. Lyra Silvertongue), daughter of Lord Asriel and wielder of the alethiometer who is prophesied to play a vital role in the epic war against the Magisterium. 

His Dark Materials is just one of the noteworthy titles in Keen's blossoming career and the length of the ambitious, three-season-long project has kept her busy for a large portion of her teenage life. According to Keen, she first met with producers in the early stages of the project, when she was only 11. It was around the same time she co-starred in the critically praised Logan, where she turned heads as X-23 (a.k.a. Laura Kinney) — a ruthless young mutant bioweapon cloned from the DNA of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). The X-23 role made her an overnight sensation, especially in the eyes of Marvel fans who took notice of her vicious performance. But with her journey as Lyra Belacqua soon to coming to a close, Keen's schedule is about to open up, and all eyes are on her once again as fans wonder what she'll do next. And with the Disney-Fox merger now a thing of the past, many are hoping that Marvel will revisit the X-23 character again, paving the way for Keen to revisit the role.

Looper had a one-on-one virtual chat with the rising star and asked her some of those burning fan questions. With Keen's His Dark Materials obligations soon coming to an end, is there a chance we'll see her don those adamantium claws again and reprise the role that made her famous? During our exclusive interview with Keen, she chimed in on Marvel's Deadpool 3 announcement and explained why she remains optimistic about X-23's long overdue return. We also discussed the pending emotional farewell looming over the His Dark Materials cast and crew, how she balances her professional and personal life, her close friendship with actor Hugh Jackman, and how she hopes to empower young women.

'The Amber Spyglass' is Dafne Keen's favorite book in the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy

The first mainstream adaptation of His Dark Materials was the 2007 film The Golden Compass. Were you familiar with that movie, and is there anything in particular you liked about that adaptation?

I was familiar with it. Actually, a friend who is still my friend today, she used to love it. So we watched it quite often and obviously I loved it, because there's a young girl who's the lead. When you're a kid, if there's other kids in movies, you just get really excited. So I was absolutely obsessed by that. And there were animals, and I was obsessed with animals. So I think I just fell in love with the story.

When you first landed the part of Lyra in His Dark Materials, did you read Philip Pullman's original trilogy of novels to help prepare for the role?

I find it important for me to know the background of the character. When I was filming season 1, I was lucky enough to get La Belle Sauvage, which is about when Lyra is a baby, which basically tells me the backstory and there was also the entire trilogy and stuff. So I did personally read all of the books that were out at the time, and I've read all of the books that are out now, because I like to know exactly what's led the character to that specific base where it is because you are your circumstances. Without knowing circumstances, I feel like I can't truly portray the character as they should be.

The next book to be adapted would be the third in the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass. Are there any moments from that book you're excited to bring to life?

The third book is my personal favorite. I'm just looking forward to the entire thing. But I cannot wait to see [visual effects supervisor] Russell Dodgson outdo himself with all of the creatures and all of the craziness that goes on. And I'm very excited to see Lyra and Will again, and the whole dynamic and how they're growing up — I can't really say that much without giving spoilers, but there's so much cool stuff that goes on in the third book.

In the world of His Dark Materials, Daemons are basically what we would call spirit animals. If Daemons really existed in our world, what would your animal be and why?

It depends a bit on the day. Also, it settles when you grow up, and I'm not grown up yet. I think it would usually be like a small monkey because I'm quite mischievous and I'm cheeky and quite monkey-like. But I feel like today, I'm a bit lazy, it's a gray day, I'm really not feeling cheeky. I think it will probably be like maybe a dog or something mellow.

The last day of production on His Dark Materials will be an emotional day

In the season 1 finale of His Dark Materials, Lord Asriel sacrifices Lyra's best friend Roger. He thinks what he's doing is right and that it's for the greater good. Can Lyra ever truly accept that reasoning and forgive him?

I think Asriel truly does think he is the hero of the story and that he's the center of the situation — when in reality, he's really not. He's part of the plot, but he's not the hero. If you zoom out and you look at the greater picture, you realize he thinks he's doing all of these incredible things and he's going to go down in history and he's going to save the universe. He's not realizing how many people there are around him and how many lives he's ruining by doing that — which I think is what's quite beautiful about Lyra, [who's] just standing behind him, realizing and watching how this man is basically trying to save the world and ruining it at the same time.

I think there's this duality because Asriel has been the only family she's had, ever. And she's just now basically found out that he's her father. If you've grown up an orphan and you've been told you're an orphan and then suddenly you discover that the only blood relative you have is actually your father and he's been lying to you and he's told you he's your uncle — and then he kills the person who is basically your family — it's just a lot.

Even though he's not blood, he's always been there. Roger and Lyra, they met when they were like one or two years old, and they've been together ever since. And it's just this incredible conflict inside of Lyra where she goes, "I love [Lord Asriel]. I'm here because of him. And at the same time, he's taken my only family away and I want to be able to love him, but I can't because I feel like he's betrayed me and he's betrayed Roger, essentially." [Lyra's] got all of these really complex relationships around her where she wants to love people, but at the same time, she doesn't want to. And she does. And it's just very confusing. I think Lyra is completely capable of forgiveness. If she wants to, she would be able to forgive [Lord Asriel]. But I think that's something that's quite hard to forgive — basically killing your brother.

Looking at your resume, His Dark Materials looks to be like your lengthiest project so far. After you do the third season, that's got to be three years or more of spending time with this cast and crew. I would imagine you all feel like a family. Are you emotionally prepared for the ending?

Oh yeah, 100 percent. I've known some of these people and met some of the producers when I was doing Logan. So I was like 11 years old. And by the time I finish, I'll probably be like 17. That's my entire teenage years, basically. It's just crazy. I will get emotional. I just think it's absolutely crazy that I'm going to have to say goodbye to these people who I've spent essentially half a year with for the last three or four years of my life, which is just crazy. There's people who've gotten married to other people from the crew and then people have gotten pregnant and it's just a lot. They are genuinely like family and it will be very, very sad.

'Deadpool 3' gives Dafne Keen some hope that the X-23 will return

In a recent interview with Elle, you mentioned that Fox had once talked to you about a Logan spinoff starring X-23, but years went by and you never heard anything. Obviously, things were in limbo during the Disney-Fox merger. But with Disney recently greenlighting Deadpool 3, does that give you hope that the phone might ring one day, and they ask you to come back as X-23?

I'm 100 percent hopeful. I'm trying not to get my hopes up too high in case it just doesn't happen, but I really do hope it does because I loved playing Laura. She just holds a very special place in my heart and she's just an incredible character. And to be fair, the whole Deadpool situation really, really made me happy because, obviously when Disney bought Fox, I suspected they weren't going to do any more R-rated films, but then greenlighting Deadpool is a great sign for other R-rated movies.

You've worked with both James McAvoy and Sir Patrick Stewart — both of them known as Professor Xavier. If you did get your wish and there is an X-23 movie, who would you rather have as your Professor X? James McAvoy or Sir Patrick Stewart? I know that's a tough choice.

That's a very tough choice. I'm going to have to see what I have to say about that. That's going to be hard and you're going to get me into trouble if I say something.

[Laughs] I totally respect that. Did you keep in close contact with Hugh Jackman? Did you guys remain friends throughout these years?

Yeah. Actually, I sent him a text the other day, we were chatting for a bit. We still stay in contact. He's been a massive, very important person in my life. So I definitely want to stay in contact with him.

I think it's cool that, at such a young age, you got to play such a strong female character because there are so many young actors who get pigeonholed in Disney family fare movies, and you got to play such a young female superhero in an R-rated movie. What are your thoughts on that and how Marvel is sort of shaping the way for young people to get these strong female superhero roles?

I'm honestly so happy, because as a girl who's grown up in the world that we live in, I've spent my entire childhood watching extremely sexist films and reading extremely sexist books. When I was little, I remember my mom — we had these stories and she used to change the pictures to be men. For example, if there was someone cooking, she'd paint a beard and make it a man, because it's just absolutely atrocious, just bringing up children against themselves. It's teaching a woman to be against herself by being sexist. I'm really honored to have been able to play the characters I've played, which have been very empowered young women, which is really, really great. And I really hope it does at least something for other young girls who watch it.

Dafne Keen has a 'privileged and weird lifestyle'

Your father is actor Will Keen, who co-stars with you in His Dark Materials, and your mother's a stage director and your own personal acting coach. How crucial of a role do they play when it comes to you selecting your next role? Is it always 100 percent your choice?

I now have more power [to choose roles] than I used to because obviously I started acting when I was eight and I'm not going to pick my parts at eight. My mom has always been there for me. My mom's a writer, a director, and an actress. She honors me with her acting skills. My mom's been there since day one. She helped me get my first audition, my first job, she's always there — she's 1,000 percent. She always gives me advice on jobs, and funnily enough, every time we've turned down a job, it's just turned out that she was right. She's mentor number one.

You've already been in a big X-Men movie and now you're in this big fantasy trilogy on HBO Max, do you ever sit back and marvel at how much you've already accomplished in such a short time?

No, not really. I think it's just crazy because I have a very normal life when I'm not on set. And then it hits me when I go to an award show and I'm like, "What is going on?" And then it's crazy because it suddenly hits me. I suddenly go, "This thing that I was filming for six months is now out and millions of people watched it and I'm in it." And this isn't just something I did for myself because when you're filming, it feels really intimate. And I don't think you really realize until it's out, that it's going to be out. It just feels like something that you've had between the crew and the co-stars and the producers, and then it's out and suddenly everywhere.

Do you have a disciplined schedule when it comes to balancing your personal life, acting, and going to school?

When I'm not filming, I'm in school. I go to a state school in Madrid. I've always just stayed in school. I never thought about leaving because I just feel like I really have a privileged and weird lifestyle. I want it to stay as normal as possible, which I do. So in Spain, I don't tell anyone, except for my close friends, that I'm an actress. If they recognize me, I'm not going to deny it. I have in the past, but I'm not going to, if it's at my school, I'm not going to be like, "No." But my parents have been very good at that. When I'm on set, I have tutoring hours, mandatory teacher hours. When I come to Spain, I'm just at school. I just keep a very low profile.

Do you see yourself acting for the rest of your life? Or are there other avenues you want to explore? Maybe producing, writing or, who knows, maybe there's another completely different career idea that you have brewing in the back of your mind?

I see [acting] as my future. I don't think it's the only thing I'll do. I really want to try other stuff, like directing, writing and designing. I don't know. Definitely not producing. I absolutely admire producers, but producing a film is different from being a producer. So being a producer, I would be incapable, too much organization, too many numbers. It's too much. I could not do it. But I would definitely want to wander into writing, directing, and designing and stuff.

What's your advice to young actors who see you as inspiration? Let's say there's a young boy or girl out there who wants to be an actor or maybe they're struggling to find an audition or having a hard time getting their foot in the door. Do you have any personal advice for them?

I'd say watch good films, watch good theater — go to the theater as much as you can, because that is the source, that is where films come from. I'd say learn, be curious, be creative and try to practice as much as you can. I know practicing acting is quite hard, but when I go home, I rehearse my scenes. I'm very disciplined about how I do my work. I analyze, I do my research. I do everything. And then in my free time, I'll get into character and I'll just do an improvisation. Do empathy exercises. Try to imagine what it's like in another person's life. Just try to stay in contact with your emotions mostly, I'd say.