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Asriel and Coulter deserve each other! Ruth Wilson and James McAvoy on ‘His Dark Materials’ Season 3

The search for agency and a need for control will collide, and both Coulter and Asriel will have to let go.

Ruth Wilson in His Dark Materials Season 3

The great battle that is His Dark Materials Season 3 has begun, and Lord Asriel and Marisa Coulter are due for a reunion. The two power mongering lovers last saw each other at the end of Season 1, but their respective journeys are coming together again. Much of it has to do with the story of their daughter Lyra, someone that neither character can control.

Ruth Wilson (Coulter) and James McAvoy (Asriel) have excelled in these roles from the very start, but their fireworks in Season 3 are bigger and brighter than ever. Coulter’s ongoing need to control Lyra (Dafne Keen) finds her forcibly drugging her, and we guess that’s one way to do it. Asriel, on the other hand, is trying to control godly powers in what he believes is a noble pursuit. He is waging war on the heavens, and calling out “the authority.”

He may have great power, but does he still have power over Coulter? Do either of them have power over Lyra? What has it been like to put these two characters together again? SYFY WIRE spoke with Wilson and McAvoy in advance of Season 3’s premiere to ask about all of this and more. 

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James Mcavoy in His Dark Materials Season 3

Is Asriel's mission truly for the greater good, or is it just a massive ego trip?

McAvoy: No, I think it is truly righteous. However, I think it is such a radical, lofty ambition that you kind of need somebody with an ego the size of his to even contemplate it. Unfortunately, I don't think he is as righteous a man as his goal. And even if he succeeded, I think he'd be a tyrant within five or six years. But I do think what he's trying to do is the right thing. He just doesn't understand that he's not the leader, his daughter is. He’s not Spartacus, his daughter is.

Mrs. Coulter also believes that her actions are justified. Is she constantly reinforcing that, or is it just deeply embedded?

Wilson: I’ve come to believe that Mrs. C doesn't really have much ideology. She's a survivalist, so she doesn't really believe, or solidly believe, anything. She just goes where power is, and she'll change her mind or pretend to believe something just to align with the powers at be, and so have agency that way. I honestly think, I mean throughout the course of the three seasons, the only thing she starts to believe in is Lyra, and believes in what she has to offer. But she's still trying to be close to her and be close to that power. And whether it's love or whether it's actually just her usual kind of desire to be close to something that is going to rule the world, that's up to people to interpret. But I think that she thinks she's someone that doesn't really have strong beliefs in anything.

There are these moments in Season 1, there's a scene where she's staring into a bathtub, there's another where she’s very casually walking on a ledge. Are those little glimpses showing us that she's just a void sometimes? Maybe she's not all there?

Wilson: Yeah. I was already interested in who this woman is on her own. Because often in the books, you just see her in amongst other people, or the Magisterium, or Lyra… you see her in context of others. In front of others, she's a brilliant performer. She goes out, she looks great, she makes impressions, and she manipulates. And she can hold and run a scene and manipulate men, left, right, and center. So I think at home, when she's at home on her own, it was really interesting that we sort of explored who that woman was alone. I always got the sense that she hated being in the presence of her monkey, of herself. She couldn't actually bear to be with herself. And part of me felt like actually when she was separated from her monkey, she was kind of depressed and without energy, she was completely opposite of what she is in the public.

I also sort of got a sense that she takes risks, but she also doesn't really value the self-loathing in her. So the idea of taking a risk on a balcony, maybe falling off it, whatever, there's a sort of risk to her too, of does she really have any self-value or self-worth? So it was really wonderful to be able to put little nuggets like that in which [I] just do what Philip [Pullman] did in the book, which is kind of create a mystery around this woman without explaining anything. Just create mystery and ideas and clues as to why she does what she does.

Dafne Keen and Ruth Wilson in His Dark Materials Season 3

Both of your characters are now thrust back together again after likely being on each other’s minds for a whole season. How was it to revisit that dynamic?

McAvoy: She's everything in his life that he can't control. He can do anything. He can make time stop, he can make time work differently. He can build a big metal castle. He can create an army. He can make the heavens come to him and fight him. But he can't control this woman that he loves. She and Lyra represent the only things in his life that he can't dominate and control and bend to his will. And so they're the source of frustration and longing and love and desire and failure, and they make him ... I think they reduce him to being a man. Whereas he's almost like a f**king demigod at the moment, in his own mind. And they reduce him not intentionally, just by the fact that they don't want him.

Wilson: Again, he represents power for her. To be close to anything powerful is exciting for her and gives her agency. So I think there's a huge powerful sexual tension between them. She's gone through so much in the course of Season 2, and comes into Season 3, sees Asriel again, perhaps expecting to have that influence on her, but it doesn't. And that's surprising to her as anyone else. That actually, "Oh, his power doesn't attract me anymore," or it's not as attractive as it once was. And so perhaps she's changed in what she actually is looking for in life. It's like that's not as important, or Lyra is what we should be concentrating on. So I think it's quite interesting the two coming back, that it's disappointment, and then it's his sort of seeing, "This woman, I can't dominate."

It's the two of us having quite different things to what we expected of seeing each other again, or the ideas of what that person is. They're now changed. And I think it was really juicy to play, because there's lots of sadness in that too, and loss as well as frustration, upset and disappointment. It was really lovely.

McAvoy: You’ve been saying something a lot… about how your relationship with Lyra, it's more about trying to hold on, you're keeping her asleep, you're drugging her so you can just f**king hold on. But your arc is about realizing that you need to let her go. Actually, Asriel's trying to hold onto you, trying to make you love him, trying to f**king show up, say, "Look, I'm going to f**king murder an angel in front of you," and all of that, but actually… he’s like, "I can't control this person and why should I? Because she's amazing."

Wilson: Yeah.

McAvoy: Let her go. Let her just go and do her.

Wilson: They both have to let go of control in this season.

They really deserve each other.

Wilson: Yeah, they do.

His Dark Materials begins Season 3 on HBO Max on Dec. 5, 2022. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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