Over the last six years, actress Dafne Keen has seen her career take off on a meteoric ascent. A native of Spain, the 15-year-old made her big-screen debut with Wolverine send-off Logan, before taking on the lead role in epic fantasy series, His Dark Materials.
In the adaptation of Philip Pullman’s acclaimed series of novels, Keen plays Lyra, an orphan living with Oxford scholars, who is pulled into a multi-world reality. From the actress’s perspective, Lyra is the kind of character we need to see more of on screen—a young woman defined by her intelligence and strength, who serves as an example for others, just as she hopes to do.
“[Women are] finally being listened to. So, there’s all of these amazing, young actresses right now, which are blossoming, which is crazy,” the actress says. “I guess when I’m older, I want to look back and think I’ve made at least the smallest difference in the world.”
DEADLINE: Can you recall the first books, plays, films or television series that made you excited about storytelling?
DAFNE KEEN: The first book that I really loved, which my dad read to me, was Watership Down, and that really impacted me. I was completely obsessed with that book when I was little.
Film-wise, Oklahoma! and Some Like It Hot were my favorite two films, ever, and then I had a big Singin’ in the Rain phase. But I think what really made me want to act was Some Like It Hot.
My parents, when I was about six or seven, were doing Hamlet, and I went to rehearsals. I spent my entire childhood in rehearsal rooms, because my parents are actors, but when I was six or seven, I started actually paying attention to what was happening, and I loved it. So, the experience of being there every day for a few months, just watching them rehearse, was amazing for me. I actually watched the play like nine times.
DEADLINE: As you mentioned, you’ve grown up in a family full of different kinds of artists. What has this experience been like?
KEEN: I love it because I’m a pretty creative person. When I was little, with people at school who aren’t as creative as me, I used to feel really misplaced, because they’d go out and do things that normal kids do, and I would like to just stay home. I remember I went through a massive phase of making stop-motions, and it was really amazing because my entire family understood me. One of my aunties is a poet. My parents are actors and directors and stuff, and then I’ve got another aunt who’s a writer. On my mom’s side, they weren’t artists, but they loved art. They sculpted; they drew. One of my aunts sews really, really well.
So, since I’ve been tiny, I’ve been introduced to this world, and I’ve always felt like I have something I owe it, because it’s basically made me. I think art is an amazing way of expression, and it’s crucial in our world. I’ve grown up in it, so that’s what makes it crazy to me…There are tons of kids who are like me when I was little, who don’t have parents to do that, so they just feel weird. I did have that feeling, but they sort of saved it a bit, because I felt like I wasn’t weird. I just had a different brain.
DEADLINE: You mentioned Watership Down. That’s a novel that children can appreciate, which is also based in substantial sociopolitical themes. Has there often been talk of politics in your home?
KEEN: Yeah. My parents are very, very political. My entire childhood, I’ve grown up listening to my parents reading about psychology, explaining different psychological types, and ways of people working, and since I’ve been little, they’ve always talked about politics at the table. I’ve also got laughed at about that, because since I was like five, I always used to know what was going on, when my friends would be like, “Well, we know what’s going on in football, but we don’t know what’s going on in the government.”
So, I’ve been raised [to be aware] of politics, and psychology, and social tribes and stuff. My parents have been very good about letting me be a kid, but introducing me into the adult world simultaneously, so that when you’re 18, it’s not suddenly like, “You don’t know anything about it, but vote.”
DEADLINE: Tell us about your first-ever audition.
KEEN: It was horrible. It was the worst audition I’ve ever done because I was really, really nervous. I went in there, and had to do this audition with this boy who was supposed to be my brother, and he was so arrogant.
You know, when you go in, whether you’re starting, or you’re little, or it’s an open audition, they have your name, and they say, “What have you done?” This guy was like one of these mad child actors who’ve been working since they’re three years old. Like, I would have loved to do that, but it’s absolutely crazy. I was eight, and hadn’t done anything before in my life, and this guy kept ranting on.
This guy had a 20-minute-long list of things he’d done, and then he went, “So Dafne, what have you done?” and I just went blank. I’d done circus since I was tiny, so I went, “I do silks,” and obviously the casting directors were like, “Well, that’s not good enough.”
I was really embarrassed for the entire audition. It was actually horrible, but I learned from it.
DEADLINE: You got an enormous response to your first big feature role in Logan. What did it feel like, to have such an incredible entrée into the film world?
KEEN: It was pretty crazy. Honestly, when I did the auditions, I was really insecure, because I remember I went in, and there was this really beautiful, blonde, American girl [auditioning]. I came in a scruffy, 11-year-old, tiny Latina girl, and thought, “I’m not going to get to it”—and then I got it.
Then, I went on set, and it was amazing because James Mangold is one of the greatest directors ever. He was really good about making me feel safe and good, because as a child actor, you have lots of directors who will undermine you, and who will make you feel like you have no sort of experience or say in anything, because you’re a child. James really made me feel like, even if I was 11, I was an actor, and I had a say in my character.
Everyone on set was amazing, and made it really comfortable for me. I had to move out to The States from Spain for a few months, and I was quite worried about it, because before, I’d filmed in Spain, but I’d never filmed, say, in New Orleans. I had to move to New Orleans for two months, and then I had another few months, going around The States and staying in hotels. So, I was quite nervous about that, and they just made me feel really at home.
I really fell in love with acting then, because I realized that it’s not only the acting. It’s the fact that you did it, all in a group. I love working in groups, and I love feeling that what I’m doing is bigger than just myself.
DEADLINE: What did you take away from your time working with co-star Hugh Jackman?
KEEN: Hugh’s taught me so much about acting, and just being a better person in general. Hugh is one of the most humble people, and he said to me, he tries to talk to everyone on set. He’s as mindful as possible, and I saw that from the beginning. I thought, “That’s what I want to be. I don’t to be one of these mega superstars who are divas, and go into their trailer, and don’t socialize with anyone.”
DEADLINE: Even prior to the stunt-heavy Logan, you had trained in acrobatics and gymnastics. What inspired that?
KEEN: I’ve just been a really physical person my entire life. For example, during quarantine, I saw everyone complaining about having to work out at home: I cannot go a day without moving. I’m a very kinetic person. I go for jogs; this is my 10th year in aerial silks.
I remember it was an after-school activity at my small state primary school in Madrid. I saw this girl doing these really cool things on a silk, and I thought, “That’s so cool.” I’ve always loved climbing and high places, and I asked my mom if I could join this class—and then by the time I was 11, I was in a professional school. So, I got good quite quickly.
DEADLINE: Your most recent project is HBO and BBC One’s adaptation of His Dark Materials. Apart from seeing the pedigree of talent attached to a project like this, how do you figure out if it’s one you want to be involved with?
KEEN: I read it and I think, “Is it making a positive impact in the world, [or] is it not?” I’ve been offered a few films and stuff that I’ve turned down, because I think if I do this, and a child sees this, it’s not going to influence them properly. I’ve always tried to make stories, even if they’re hard stories, that make people think, or make them at least unconsciously try to be better people—and obviously, I always try to look for interesting characters.
DEADLINE: What is your approach to tapping into a character? Has it evolved in recent years?
KEEN: It really depends on the character, because obviously, getting into [Logan’s] Laura was quite different to getting into [His Dark Materials’] Lyra. But I guess now because I’m older—and my mom pushes me to work harder and harder, the older I get—I feel like I do work harder on actually thinking about the character.
When I was little, I’d just walk on set, and the character would sort of grow [organically]. But now, I think about it more. For example, there’s this thing I have with Lyra, and that is that Lyra never says “Have to”—she always says “Need.” So, there’s little things like that. I’m not a method actress. I really admire method actors, but I do have little things in mind, just to keep the continuity of the character.
DEADLINE: What have you most enjoyed about working with your co-stars on His Dark Materials, like Ruth Wilson and Lin-Manuel Miranda? Do you have any particularly fond memories from the Season 1 shoot?
KEEN: Filming scene with Ruth is just crazy. We go mad, both of us. We have an amazing time doing it. I guess scenes with Ruth are always quite challenging, because Ruth is quite unpredictable as Mrs. Coulter. So, you don’t know what she’s going to do. Maybe in one take she’s smiling at you, and in the next one, she tries throwing a jug at you or something. So, it’s quite fun.
And I have so many memories with Lin. I’ve always watched classic musicals, and classic films, and obviously, Lin knows all the classic musicals. So, we had a great time. If you see footage from behind the scenes, it’s just me and Lin, singing in suspended baskets in the air.
I think also, I’ve grown up a lot since Season 1. They’ve helped me mature a lot, I think.
DEADLINE: What have you learned from leading this ambitious series?
KEEN: I think I’ve learned something from everyone. Just the people from the crew have taught me so much. I love going up to different departments on set. On Season 1, I’d go and ask the DoPs, “Why are you doing this? Why are you doing that?”
VFX-wise, I’ve learned a lot, because I really get on with [VFX supervisor] Russell Dodgson, and he explains everything to me. Acting-wise, I’ve got to be with legends, which is amazing, and the amazing director Jamie Childs, who has really taught me a lot.
DEADLINE: It sounds like you have the curiosity of someone who might end up directing. Is that something you’d be interested in doing, down the line?
KEEN: I’ve always thought, “When I’m older, I’ll probably also do that.” I really want to direct, and I really want to write. I write in my free time quite a lot. I also want to study photography and be a DoP at some point. I just want to do as many different things as possible.
DEADLINE: As a lover of musicals, what would be your dream musical to appear in, either on stage or on screen?
KEEN: I would love to be in West Side Story. I love Anita; Maria is quite fun. But I would love to do actually just any character in West Side Story.
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