“He's got a touch of destiny about him”

We interview James McAvoy on Lord Asriel, his snow leopard, Lyra the “skinny ragamuffin” and ask if he still gets nervous before shooting

James McAvoy plays Lord Asriel in HBO’s new fantasy, His Dark Materials, now streaming on Showmax. Based on Philip Pullman’s award-winning novel trilogy of the same name, the series is only a few episodes in and has already been renewed for a second season.

Who is Lord Asriel?

Lord Asriel Belacqua was a high-flying nobleman in his youth, but he made a pretty big mistake with, shall we say, ‘another cast member’ and because of that, both she and he suffer huge consequences. I lost all my land and everything was taken away from me by the Magisterium, by the church. My life was very much changed and by the time I become the 40-year-old person that I am now, I've become quite hateful and doubtful of organised religion: their doctrines, beliefs, and their motives. I spend a good 13 years trying to get to the heart of what I believe, trying to bring them (the Magisterium) down really. I’ve been trying to determine what spiritualism really is and how it's been perverted in our world by organised religion.

I am also the closest living relative to Lyra Belacqua. I've placed her in the stewardship of the scholars of Jordan College and said to them, "Keep her safe,” because she won’t be safe with me, so I leave her with them to have a life of running about being a skinny ragamuffin. I come back and visit her periodically and bestow upon her gifts every now and again and wild stories of the frozen North and armoured bears and witches and all sorts. They seem like fantastical things, but of course, in our world they are utterly real. Those stories fuel a spirit of adventure and a desire for the new and the different in Lyra as well.

Lord Asriel is an iconic role. Were you nervous about taking it on?

No. I'm never nervous about doing anything anymore, I'm too old for that! I was more filled with the excitement of getting to play him and getting to do something that's actually quite bold and dangerous in mainstream entertainment, which is to have a very strong viewpoint on organised religion. There’s no hiding from it: Asriel’s against it and not only is he against it, he thinks it is holding us back, that it is actually a form of abuse and torture against humanity. It's a pretty clear and emphatic thing to go after. That's something that I was excited by because we don't get to do that very often.

I love the character. I love how ruthless he is, how glamorous he is, how full of life he is. He's more alive than half of the people I've ever met in my life. He's got a touch of destiny about him.

What kind of fantasy world is His Dark Materials set in? 

It's not as ‘lore-heavy’ as Lord of the Rings. Philip Pullman is such a brave and fearless storyteller that he knows, no matter how crazy things get and how wild his imagination makes the story go, he's a good enough storyteller that the audience are going to want to follow Lyra, and they're going to want to follow Roger, and they're going to want to follow Will along that journey to discover what the hell is going on and why we're all acting so terrified and afraid, when really, we should just all be happy to be alive. When she's on this journey to figure out what Dust is, figure out what the Magisterium is, discover what the authority is, and take control for herself… that through line is so strong that it drives you onwards as a reader and hopefully as a viewer.

Who is Lord Asriel’s dæmon and what does it say about him?

She’s called Stelmaria and is a snow leopard. Stelmaria is at home on the edge, hanging on to a cliffside, climbing, and aspiring, and trying to get to the summit, and trying to conquer that summit, and trying to conquer her prey, if you like. Asriel, as his dæmon suggests, is hunting for something. We don't really know what he's hunting for at the beginning, but you find out in no uncertain terms what he's hunting for in the end and his ambition is incredible.

How did you find working with the puppeteers to bring the dæmons to life?

In 20 years in the business, I've done a lot of acting with imaginary things that aren’t there at all. Here it was just really nice to be able to go, ‘All right, we've actually got physical evidence, in the form of amazing puppeteers under puppets doing the things that we've rehearsed.’ Stelmaria is over here and there’s an actor in the scene with whom I can work. It's not just me imagining something and then the editor imagining a different thing, and then the guys that create the CGI in the computers doing whatever they want to do, and finally the directors just come in and go, ‘Nah, cut the whole thing.’ I love the fact that in this we can work symbiotically as a duo.

If you could have a dæmon in real life, what would it be and what would you call her?

I think it’d be something mountainy. Maybe a nice mountain fox. Actually I don't know if you get mountain foxes; you probably do somewhere in the world. Anyway, I’d call it Athena.

Watch His Dark Materials first on Showmax, with new episodes every Tuesday, express from the US.

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