Tag Archives: Ruth Wilson

Materials world

Based on Philip Pullman’s acclaimed novels, HBO and BBC drama His Dark Materials aims to set a new benchmark for fantasy series. The cast and writer Jack Thorne reveal their approach to writing and filming the adaptation.

Fantasy novels have always proved popular source material for films and TV series, but the unprecedented success of HBO’s Game of Thrones has sent the genre into overdrive in recent years, with commissioners around the world looking to land their own fantasy epic that can match the majesty of the George RR Martin adaptation.

Recent book-to-screen fantasy titles have included MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles, based on Terry Brooks’ novel series, and Starz drama American Gods, adapted from the book by Neil Gaiman.

Jack Thorne

The streamers have also been getting in on the act. Amazon, which spent big on adapting Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens earlier this year, is taking its spending to the next level with its series version of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Netflix, meanwhile, is taking a major swing in the genre with The Witcher. Starring Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) and based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s series of books, the show will be released later this year.

Now, after Game of Thrones concluded with its eighth season earlier this year and with prequel House of the Dragon on its way, HBO is aiming to set a new benchmark in the genre with an ambitious series adaptation of Philip Pullman novel trilogy His Dark Materials, coproduced with UK pubcaster BBC1.

Debuting in the UK this Sunday and stateside the day after, the first season of the series – a second run of which is already in production – is based on the first book in the series, Northern Lights (published in the US as The Golden Compass).

Unfolding across eight one-hour episodes, made by New Line Cinema and Bad Wolf (A Discovery of Witches), His Dark Materials is set in an alternative reality that features multiple parallel universes, with some worlds more like our own than others. The story centres on a young girl called Lyra, who lives in a world where all humans have talking animal companions known as dæmons, which are the physical manifestation of the human soul.

The first season follows Lyra, who lives with other orphans alongside scholars at Oxford’s fictional Jordan College, as she discovers a secret involving her uncle, Lord Asriel, and the villainous Mrs Coulter. After Lyra’s friend goes missing, she leaves Jordan College and embarks on a dangerous journey, uncovering links between a spate of child kidnappings and a mysterious substance known as Dust.

His Dark Materials stars Dafne Keen, who recently appeared in X-Men film Logan, as Lyra

As adaptations go, there is little fantasy IP more revered than Pullman’s young-adult trilogy. And after the enormous disappointment surrounding the most recent screen outing based on the books – 2007 movie flop The Golden Compass – fans of the novels will be hoping for much better from the BBC and HBO.

The daunting task of penning the adaptation has been taken on by prolific British screenwriter and playwright Jack Thorne, whose most recent TV credits include Channel 4 drama miniseries Kiri and The Accident. The latter premiered on the UK broadcaster last week.

Thorne admits that when he was initially approached about the project, his first thought was to “run for the hills.” As well as being wary of the huge pressure of living up to the source material, he was just months away from the opening of his West End version of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter & The Cursed Child and also had a pregnant wife to think about.

However, clearly a fan of Pullman’s work, Thorne soon changed his mind. “They’re just so perfect, these books, and the idea of anyone else doing them… I would’ve been insanely jealous,” he says.

The hard work then began, with Thorne returning to the trilogy he had previously read twice and consuming all three books over the course of four days. He then met with exec producer Jane Tranter, co-founder of Wales-based Bad Wolf, and agreed to board the project.

From left: Exec producers Dan McCulloch and Jane Tranter, producer Laurie Borg and Philip Pullman

After that, Thorne and Tranter discussed their plans for the series with Pullman, keen to be as faithful to his work as possible. “The important thing we said from the very moment we met Philip was, ‘We want to tell this story,’” Thorne says. “I wanted to disappear; I didn’t want to be visible as a writer. I wanted to represent the soul of the books as well as I possibly could.

“Where we’ve added stuff or changed stuff, it’s been because we either thought that there was something we could do a bit differently to fit the screen a bit more, or because we were aware that we were going on a longer journey with this and maybe there were elements from later in the books that we could bring forward and help make our story sing.”

In one of many revelations offering an idea of the level of perfectionism applied to the project, Thorne says the first episode went through a whopping 46 drafts. “We went down a lot of wrong corridors, and sat in those corridors and wept,” he jokes.

“These books are monstrously good. When you’re given an adaptation, there are two forms. There are ones where you go, ‘There’s a seed of something brilliant here that I can play with and make work.’ And there are other ones where you go, ‘My job is just to get this as close to [the original] as possible on the screen.’

“I do think these books are perfect. And when you’re given perfection, that’s scary as shit.”

Hollywood actor James McAvoy plays Lord Asriel

The cast of His Dark Materials provides further evidence of the scale of this series, with the production able to attract internationally recognisable actors including James McAvoy (Split), Ruth Wilson (The Affair), Clarke Peters (The Wire) and Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of hit Broadway musical Hamilton.

Many viewers will recognise British-Spanish actor Dafne Keen, who stars as Lyra, from her remarkable turn as young mutant Laura in 2017 X-Men movie Logan.

The 14-year-old reveals that she didn’t expect to land the part following her first audition, which took place when her face was swollen from a jellyfish sting. But a subsequent audition alongside Wilson, who plays Mrs Coulter, gave her a better feel for the character. And despite Keen being quite physically different from Pullman’s description of a blonde, curly-haired Lyra, the young actor believes they share many personality traits.

“We’re very nutty, both of us, very curious, quite loud and quite cheeky,” says Keen, who admits to feeling the pressure of portraying such a beloved character. “You tell yourself that you don’t think about that, but you genuinely do think about it. In your brain, you’re going, ‘Oh my God, someone save me!’

“When I was doing it, I was thinking there would probably be people who would be like, ‘This girl’s terrible, I hate her, she’s not doing it justice,’” Keen continues, before adding – like a true millennial – “sorry, not sorry.”

Ruth Wilson gets a chance to play ‘evil’ as Mrs Coulter

Sat alongside Keen is Wilson, who assures her young co-star that her concerns are unfounded. Recalling that she “knew instantly that [Keen] was the one” for the role upon that first shared audition, Wilson says: “She brought such an amazing energy that I thought, ‘I’ve got to put some of that into my performance.’ She’s totally at one with herself and there’s an animal side to her, which has got to be what Mrs Coulter was like when she was young… I’m taking notes from her.”

Keen and Wilson share plenty of screen time, with Mrs Coulter initially presenting herself to Lyra as a kindly benefactor before her true nature starts to be revealed. For those familiar with the books, it’s hard to imagine a more spot-on casting choice for Mrs Coulter than Wilson, who previously excelled as a character with a very dark side in the shape of Alice in Luther, the BBC detective series starring Idris Elba.

Far from being concerned about her “evil” Mrs Coulter frightening young viewers, Wilson identifies a surprising benefit: “My nieces and nephews won’t want me to babysit again, and I’m OK with that,” she jokes.

Revealing that she was instantly attracted to the character, Wilson notes: “She’s so mysterious, unknowable and constantly unpredictable, and that’s why it’s such a joy to play. She’s a master manipulator and she knows what she’s doing. She’s incredibly intelligent and driven and she knows what she wants.”

Despite the well-documented failings of 2007’s The Golden Compass, one area in which it did succeed was in its recreation of Pullman’s dæmons, winning the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

The dæmons were operated by puppeteers during filming and then realised via CGI

Describing the creatures as “fundamental to every scene,” Wilson is confident this production has brought them to life equally well, while Peters, who plays The Master of Jordan College, is full of praise for the artists behind the dæmons. “What was awesome about it was the puppeteers and the way they served us as actors,” he says.

One scene from episode one sees The Master interacting with a dæmon in the form of a leopard. “It could have just been a puppet, but the puppeteer made it breathe and moved it around so it would get comfortable,” says the actor, best known for playing detective Lester Freamon in seminal HBO drama The Wire. “The face of the puppet looks so awesome that you didn’t know whether you were really looking at a leopard or not. So the experience of acting with something that, in the past, would have just been in your imagination was supported by wonderful technicians.”

One of the main criticisms of The Golden Compass movie was the extent to which it shied away from the religious themes in the source material, with Pullman’s trilogy offering a barely veiled criticism of Catholicism.

Executive producer Tranter insists that no punches have been pulled in this adaptation. “We planned to adapt the books as the books were written, so we will go to the heights of the discourse that the books go to,” she says.

“One of the beauties of working for the BBC and HBO is that no-one is fearful. In fact, everyone is embracing of the journey the books go on. You don’t work for the BBC and HBO and do a vanilla adaptation that cuts through the middle and doesn’t tackle, right from the get-go, every note that the trilogy has got to sound.”

The Wire star Clarke Peters as The Master

Thorne, meanwhile, believes the themes of His Dark Materials are now more relevant than ever. Speaking on the day Extinction Rebellion protestors were controversially removed from central London streets, he says: “We live in scary times. There’s so much in Philip’s book that’s about where we’re at now, even more than when he first wrote it.

“The thing that I most admire about his telling is that there’s an obvious story to be told – Asriel’s story – and he doesn’t tell it; he tells Lyra’s. That choice between following the person who’s intent on greatness, Asriel, and abandoning that in order to follow the person intent on goodness, in Lyra, is such a bold and brilliant choice.”

He also compares Lyra to young climate change activist Greta Thunberg, noting: “There are quite a lot of similarities there.”

Sounding wise beyond her years, Keen agrees that her character is a strong role model. “What’s really relevant is that Lyra is growing up in a world of men, in a college, which is basically what is happening to any girl in 2019,” she notes.

“The most amazing thing about Lyra, and what every single girl should take from her, is don’t be scared – go out there and be yourself. Because if you are a force of nature, which is what Lyra is, you will make yourself seen and heard.”

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Wilson on Wilson

BBC miniseries Mrs Wilson sees actor Ruth Wilson (The Affair, Luther) lead the cast in a story based on the life of her own grandmother.

Set between the 1940s and the 1960s in London, the series follows Alison Wilson (Wilson), who thinks she is happily married until her husband dies and a woman turns up on her doorstep claiming that she is the real Mrs Wilson. Alison is determined to prove the validity of her own marriage – and Alec (Iain Glen)’s love for her – but is instead led into a world of disturbing secrets.

Alexander Wilson was a writer, spy and secret service officer who served in the First World War before moving to India to teach as a professor of English Literature, where he began writing spy novels. In the 1930s he enjoyed great success with his novels being reviewed in The Telegraph, Observer and the Times Literary Supplement, among others. He passed away in 1963.

In this DQTV interview, Wilson and fellow executive producer Ruth Kenley-Letts discuss bringing this extraordinary true story to the screen and how screenwriter Anna Symon used Alison’s own memoir as the basis for the script.

Wilson also talks about balancing acting and exec producing the drama, which is both a mystery and a thriller as Alison comes to terms with her husband’s secrets.

Coproduced with Masterpiece for PBS, Mrs Wilson also stars Keeley Hawes, Anupam Kher and Fiona Shaw. It is directed by Richard Laxton (Mum) and produced by Jackie Larkin (Strike). Also among the exec producers are Neil Blair (Strike) and Lucy Richer for the BBC and Rebecca Eaton for Masterpiece at WGBH Boston.

Mrs Wilson is a production by Snowed-In Productions for the BBC and Masterpiece. All3Media International is handling the international rights.

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Mrs Wilson’s war

The Affair star Ruth Wilson opens up about starring in three-part drama Mrs Wilson, which is based on the true story of her own grandmother who discovered her late husband lived a life full of secrets.

Every time she spotted the clapperboard on her latest drama, Ruth Wilson admits she got a little shiver. Part excitement, part terror. The award-winning star of The Affair and Luther has never appeared in a drama quite like this.

The board said ‘Mrs Wilson.’ The story is that of Wilson’s own family; in particular her grandmother Alison and her enigmatic and fascinating grandfather Alexander Wilson, who married four times without ever divorcing and led several lives all at once. A successful novelist, an MI6 spy and Indian colonel, he was also in prison several times, permanently broke and clearly something of a womaniser. Even today MI6 won’t release some of his files because they are too sensitive.

Wilson plays Alison who, while she was suspicious about her husband’s activities, could never have imagined quite how many secrets he was hiding from her. Many of them only emerged after her death. The actor also coproduced the three-part drama, made by Snowed-In Productions for the BBC and Masterpiece for PBS. All3Media International is distributing.

Wilson admits that when she first took the project on, she underestimated just how hard it would be to work so closely on a drama about her own family.

“It has been the toughest thing I have done and I am very glad it is almost over,” the actor admits when she talks to DQ on a set at Blythe House in South Kensington, London, for a scene where a suspicious Alison follows Alexander. “It is personally very close so there is this pressure. Also, it is a very demanding part. She is being snapped this way and that, constantly overloaded with more bad information. I’ve found it exhausting and deeply emotional. Sometimes I wish someone else was playing it to give me some distance. But, at the same time, I had to play it.”

Mrs Wilson stars Ruth Wilson as her own grandmother in a remarkable true story

Wilson’s connection to the story starts when she was 15 and her grandmother, who she remembers as an emotionally closed-off but kind woman, revealed to her two sons and grandchildren a memoir she had written. In it, she explained that her husband Alexander, who died before Ruth was born, had another wife and three other children. She described how she had only learned the awful truth about his bigamy after he died and how it meant there were even two funerals – one for her and one for his other wife.

It was the first time either of her sons had heard anything about their father’s past and their mother’s torment. But when she died seven years later, more, much more, was to emerge. Unknown to Wilson’s father Nigel and his big brother Gordon, there were two more wives and two more sons. Both these other children had been interested in finding out more about their father – Michael, the son of his second wife Dorothy, had been told he’d died in the Battle of El Alamein – and were shocked to find out about his other wives and children.

Alison was actually Alexander’s third wife. He married Gladys in 1916, had three children and they ran a theatre troupe together. Then in 1925, in what appears to have been his first job for the secret service, he was appointed a professor of English literature at the University of Punjab. It was while in India that he married second wife Dorothy, an actress (played by Keeley Hawes in the drama), and they had a son, Michael.

He returned to England with Dorothy in 1933 and for a short time lived with Gladys. Eighteen months later he returned to Dorothy and they lived together from 1935 to 1940.

By then he was in love with Alison, a secretary at MI6. Dorothy told her son his father was dead, but Alexander continued to see his first family, who presumed he lived in London for work. Alison knew he had been married before but he showed her fake divorce papers.

Alexander is played by Iain Glen, aka Game of Thrones’ Jorah

In 1955 he married for the last time after meeting nurse Elizabeth, who was just 26. Alexander was 62 but told her he was 10 years younger. They had a son, Douglas, but she obviously felt something wasn’t right. He was still living in Alison’s family home, and Elizabeth moved to Scotland when their son was just two.

In 2007 all of the family met for the first time – a now regular occurrence that is highlighted in the drama. “It has actually become an amazing unification,” says Wilson. “They all had different experiences of him. A lot of them felt they didn’t really have a family so in a way they are connecting the dots. For me it has been incredible meeting them. Michael was an actor and two of the family have set up acting troupes. My creative streak comes from that side of the family; Alexander was the biggest actor out of all of us.”

Wilson would often tell people the strange tale of her mysterious grandfather who was, according to his children, a fantastic father. A practising Catholic, he instilled in them all faith in the church and a fierce patriotism – but he was also a serial bigamist and a liar.

“My family all told me I should turn it into a drama but it was only when I met Neil Blair [JK Rowling’s agent and founder of The Blair Partnership] that it happened,” she recalls. “Seeing the clapperboard saying ‘Mrs Wilson’ is a bit scary. I get a little shiver and I think ‘Oh God, we are actually making it.’ It is such an extraordinary story. It is better than fiction because it is real life.”

Scriptwriter Anna Symon spoke to all of Alexander’s remaining children to get their memories of both him and their mothers, with the series set in 1963, the year of Alexander’s death. All the family were shown the scripts and offered comments on everything from what medals Alexander, played by Iain Glen (Game of Thrones) before his death and then in flashbacks, would wear to what scenes should be put in.

Making the drama was a highly emotional experience for The Affair star Wilson

From the start, the idea was to tell the story from Alison’s point of view, even though they had to use dramatic licence to ensure the stories of all four wives were told. In real life Alison probably only ever found out about one other wife.

“My grandmother burned all of his papers,” adds Wilson. “This was her side of the narrative and the one she wanted to leave behind. I think in some way she probably did want this story to be told. She probably could never have imagined it being dramatised but I felt her with me as I was making it.”

When DQ catches up with Wilson five months later, after an emotional screening of the first episode of the drama that left both her father and uncle close to tears, the actor admits she is still struggling with the whole idea of it.

“It really was quite an odd experience and one I am still in,” she says of making the drama, which begins on BBC1 tomorrow. “It has made me understand my grandmother in a much deeper and emotional way because that is the thing about drama – it digs much deeper than a documentary or a memoir would because you are acting out scenes that happened. She had the rug pulled away from her and felt she had to construct this fake reality.

“There was some weirdness, like giving birth to my father, but my connection was more than that. The whole time I was playing her, I felt this string of anxiety pulling me – almost as if she was passing through me. Sometimes I felt overcome by powerful feelings. The crew and cast were so amazing, and everyone dealt with it so sympathetically that I felt someone, somewhere was really looking after it. Maybe it was her. I’d like to think she would be proud of what I’ve done.”

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