Lin-Manuel Miranda gets serious in His Dark Materials
“My first day of filming, I did a musical number on a hot air balloon with a rabbit.” Lin-Manuel Miranda on HBO’s new hit fantasy series.
Everything Lin-Manuel Miranda touches these days seems to turn to gold. He shot to prominence as the creator of the Broadway smash musical Hamilton, and has won a Pulitzer, three Tonys, an Emmy, two Olivier Awards and been nominated for an Oscar and two Golden Globes. We caught up with him to find out more about his role as Lee Scoresby.
“He’s got this incredibly decent heart, even though he drinks and he gambles and he fights and he’s got a gun… but he also uses all those powers for good.”Lin-Manuel Miranda on Lee Scoresby
His Dark Materials, the brand-new fantasy series from HBO (Game of Thrones), is now streaming first on Showmax. Based on Philip Pullman’s award-winning novel trilogy of the same name, the series has an 83% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes. It has also already been renewed for a second season.
The epic series follows Lyra, whose search for a kidnapped friend uncovers a sinister plot involving stolen children, and sets her off on a quest to understand a mysterious phenomenon called Dust. The fantasy’s cast includes child stars Dafne Keen and Amir Wilson as Lyra and Will, supported by Golden Globe winner Ruth Wilson (The Affair, Luther), Golden Globe nominee James McAvoy (X-Men) and BAFTA winner Helen McCrory (Harry Potter, The Queen). Oscar winner Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) is one of the directors.
Who is Lee Scoresby?
Lee Scoresby is a Texan aeronaut, which means he flies in a hot air balloon in Lyra’s world. When we first meet Lee, he’s a bit of a non-sequitur. We are suddenly in an air balloon flying above these mountains but we soon learn that he is a close friend of Iorek Byrnison, the armoured bear who is without his armour. He joins Lyra in her quest up north to find the missing children and to see Dust.
Is he a good guy or a bad guy?
I would say he’s a good guy and a rascal at the same time. He’s not above picking a pocket; he’s not above doing bad things to achieve good ends; he’s a cowboy. But a cowboy very much in the Gary Cooper High Noon mould. He’s got this incredibly decent heart, even though he drinks and he gambles and he fights and he’s got a gun… but he also uses all those powers for good.
Why did you want to be a part of this adaptation of His Dark Materials?
I was working on Mary Poppins Returns in London when Jane Tranter and Jack Thorne invited me to dinner. I am a huge fan of each of their work, independent of each other, from Doctor Who to the Harry Potter play, which I thought was an incredible piece of work. So I said yes to that dinner. Then, I was gobsmacked when they told me what they were doing and the scale of the ambition behind adapting this project. It’s what – as any Philip Pullman fan will tell you – this material deserves. The worlds are so rich.
Then, when they told me they had me in mind for Lee Scoresby, I said, “Yes,” at dinner. There was no thinking about it. I first read those books when my wife and I started dating. It was within that courtship period where you start reading things together, and there are certain shared things that stay with you. This is a very beloved series that my wife and I have re-read many times. I got home from dinner barely able to believe what we had just talked about. “I’m going to be him,” I thought. It was a real thrill.
What is it about the novels that speaks to both young and old alike?
You read those books and you get the same feeling you do when you are looking up at the night sky and there’s no light around you. You see how giant the universe is. It affords you a view of not only the size of the universe but many universes stacked on top of each other. The starting premise of the books is also dazzling. Not even the plot of the books, but the premise that there’s a world in which we have souls that are outward manifestations that are animals, that are opposite in gender, that are our better halves, that are our consciousness. It makes us feel less alone in this universe where we don’t have dæmons. There’s something beautiful about the metaphor of that. It’s like when you see an amazing movie or an amazing show, and then you kind of blink bleary-eyed back in to the regular world. That’s how I felt after reading these books.
What impressed you about the plans for this adaptation?
One, a season per book, which is what this deserves because the worlds are so rich. Two, Jack [Thorne] writing all of them. The authorial intent of it, not being broken in the writers’ room by lots of different writers, but by one writer. The same way Philip Pullman created this universe, Jack Thorne is adapting it. There’s something really exciting about that even though you want to bring Jack Thorne cookies and tea and give him hugs like all the time. Every time I see him, he looks knackered! Those are the two things that were so exciting to me about it. It was like, “They’re really trying to do right by these stories.”
Of all the characters Lee Scoresby must be the most fun to play…
Let me put it this way: my first day of filming, I did a musical number on a hot air balloon with a rabbit. My second day of filming, I got into a bar fight and had a stool broken over my back while I picked pockets and got thrown out of the bar like the classic western bar-room brawl. My third day, I talked to an armoured bear. Those were the first three days of work. It’s like every day has been an actor’s dream – from the way in which we interact with our dæmons and the incredible puppet work and CGI work that is going to be happening with this production to the incredible dream team cast of actors we have, from Dafne [Keen], who is so preternaturally grounded as a young actor, to James McAvoy to Ruth Wilson, all the way down the line.
What has it been like acting with a dæmon or with a giant bear?
We had these incredible puppeteers on-set. They’re basically a stand-in. I have a lovely young actress named Ruby who’s been voicing Hester [Lee’s dæmon] and does the dialogue with me, so I’ve got two people playing Hester. Basically, in every take we’ll do a couple of puppet passes so we understand where the dæmon is within the space and how we do or don’t interact with them. You do a puppet pass and then you’ll do a version where it’s the same deal but you know where your eyeline is and you know who you’re talking to and so you get the muscle memory of where they’d be before you do a take without them in it. It’s important to get it right: Lee Scoresby spends so much time alone in his hot air balloon. He talks to his dæmon like crazy lonely people who are by themselves talk to themselves. It’s totally Han Solo and Chewy. He just keeps his own counsel.
Is that a challenge?
I don’t know an actor alive who didn’t spend most of their childhoods talking to themselves. It’s really just playing pretend in the true sense. The reason we got into this is it’s calling on your imagination to do the rest of the work.
What would your dæmon be if you had one in real life?
It’s funny. I always used to joke that my dæmon was my own pet dog, Toby, who I love very much. But now I actually think that’s not true. I think that’s just me loving my dog. I think my dæmon is probably an introvert. I think my dæmon is very quiet and shy because I’m not very quiet and I’m not very shy. I think my dæmon is something like a bookworm, wearing a sweater and reading in bed saying to me, ‘What are you doing on that stage? Get off.’
His Dark Materials is streaming First on Showmax, with new episodes every Tuesday, express from the US.