His Dark Materials' Lin-Manuel Miranda has buddy comedy with daemon Hester
Most people probably wouldn’t consider acting in a sprawling fantasy television saga as a vacation. Most people aren’t Lin-Manuel Miranda. Between development of the movie version of his In the Heights musical to writing songs for Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid, the Philip Pullman fan still jumped at the chance to be a part of His Dark Materials.
“My wife and I read the books together,” he tells EW in August of Pullman’s trilogy, on which the HBO and BBC series is based. To be more specific, he and Vanessa Nadal read the books when they first started dating, which means this saga about orphan girl Lyra Belacqua and her adventures across multiple realities holds a significant place in their hearts.
“This,” he reiterates of filming the show, “is the holiday.”
As Lee Scoresby, a Texan aeronaut from a parallel reality, Miranda essentially gets to have his own “buddy-comedy” amid the expansive mythology at play. In His Dark Materials, every human in this parallel world comes with a daemon, a physical manifestation of their soul that appears as a talking animal companion. Daemons are extensions of their human counterparts and can never stray too far away or both bodies will suffer unbearable emotional torment. Arctic hare Hester, voiced by comedian Cristela Alonzo, is Lee’s better half.
On casting Miranda, the first actor to join the series, executive producer Jane Tranter recalls seeing In the Heights in London with her daughter in fall 2016. “Obviously, I knew the musical, I knew Hamilton, but we were there, we were seeing it. It was incredible,” she says. Tranter also knew Miranda had been tweeting praise for His Dark Materials and series writer Jack Thorne’s work on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Since the actor was also already in London filming his role of lamplighter Jack in Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns, they set up a meeting.
Miranda doesn’t think he’s an obvious choice to play Lee, but Tranter saw a “humor, kindness, and fighting spirit” within him that was necessary for the character.
Below, Miranda spoke with EW from Wales — where His Dark Materials was already at work on its second season — about forming his own version of Lee, entering this fantastical world, and Lee’s relationship with Hester.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Half jokey, half serious question: How do you even have time to film a role like this with all the other projects you’re juggling?
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: I will fully acknowledge that His Dark Materials is my vacation. I do, you’re right. I have a lot of writing deadlines and my vacation is that I get to be a Texan hot air balloon aeronaut and have adventures in Wales [their filming location] for a month and a half out of the year. This is the holiday.
Are you going back into In the Heights once filming on season 2 is done, or are you officially wrapped on that?
I officially wrapped last week and they [the cast] have officially wrapped, so now post-production. My side projects while I’m here are, I’m writing songs with [Little Mermaid composer] Alan [Menken]; we’ve had a couple of intense days in the studio together and now we’re going back and forth and we’re going to find more time together in September. Then, when I get back at the end of September, I get the joy of [Broadway’s] Freestyle Love Supreme, which for me will be my semi-regular therapy session where I get to rap whatever I want on Broadway.
Do you find you like this fast pace between projects?
I just look at what’s on my sheet and I can’t think of anything I’d trade. It’s all exciting and they are all very different muscle groups. The muscle group I use to write with Alan is very different from what I need to play Lee Scorseby, it’s very different than what I’ll need on stage at the Booth Theatre [for Freestyle Love Supreme] getting suggestions [from the audience] in October. I feel like each strengthens the other and that’s how I think of it.
I know you’re a big fan of the books. Did you have to audition at all or was it just that meeting in London you spoke about during Comic-Con?
That was the meeting. It was a pretty overnight [process] from the offer of Lee Scoresby to “yes.” My wife and I read the books together and we were having a great time living in London for Marry Poppins. So, when the chance to be a part of the series of books came up, it was pretty easy for us to go, “Yeah, we’ll come back next summer,” not to London but to the U.K. So, it’s actually been wonderful.
Was there anything specific about Jane and Jack’s vision for the show that sold you, or was it more the chance to be a part of His Dark Materials?
It was both. The books themselves, which I love and have reread many times, and the people sitting across from me: an incredible producer with an incredible track record. I think we had been a few months out from seeing Jack tackle the other British literary masterpiece, the Harry Potter series, with The Cursed Child. He did a brilliant job adapting that world for the stage and both honoring the source material and finding very personal themes within it. So, it just seemed like it was in really good hands and the luxury of time to get one [His Dark Materials] season per book is what everything the fans of the books have wished for. That movie [2007’s The Golden Compass] just didn’t have time to go into all of the richly imagined worlds Philip Pullman’s created.
Speaking of that movie, do you find you’re using Sam Elliott’s performance [who played Lee] as a reference at all?
I think that would be the fastest way on the road to ruin. No one is more Sam Elliott than Sam Elliott. I have to tell you, I wouldn’t be the first person to cast me in this role. Jane and Jack so confidently saw me in it that I worked through that confidence and I found my own Scoresby, I found my own Texas accent, found my own way into it.
How would you describe Lin-Manuel Miranda’s version of the Texan accent?
I have a lot of family in Texas. They’re not the Texas that is usually represented on screen. They don’t sound anything like Yosemite Sam. They live in San Antonio and Corpus Christi and further south. I’m channeling a bit of my cousins and my uncles. My grandfather grew up in Eagle Pass with my mom and dad which is really close to the Texas border, and I was pulling from there.
You had tweeted that His Dark Materials “made you a better actor.” What was most challenging about this role?
There’s a number of technical challenges to it. You have a constant costar in the form of a puppet [for the daemon], but I’ve worked on Sesame Street so it wasn’t that crazy to me. Working with Dafne [Keen, who plays Lyra] was enormous fun. She’s incredibly grounded and a wonderful actress, especially for someone her age. She’s prodigious. I guess the biggest challenge was just really staying grounded in a very heightened world. You’re living in a world with armored bears and animal souls and flying hot air balloons, and your job is to make it feel as real as possible because the world is adjacent to the world we live in. So much of the performance becomes about staying real when you’re trying to convince an armored bear not to kill someone.
I think the daemons, too, are an interesting narrative exercise. What could’ve been an internal monologue now becomes a conversation between two characters. Was there anything that struck you about Lee’s conversation with Hester that was most revealing to you about this character?
It’s such a brilliant conceit. I think Philip Pullman, even in one of his essays from his Daemon Voices book last year, talks about coming up with the idea of daemons because he had this young narrator and he wanted her to be able to express herself. It’s such a great end run around a Shakespearian soliloquy. I think what you realize when you watch the show is that everyone’s relationship to their daemon — not just what kind of animal it is, but the way in which they interact with their daemon — tells us a lot about who they are. Mrs. Coulter’s has an almost entirely non-verbal interaction with her daemon, which is very different from mine, which is practically a buddy-comedy. Lee Scoresby spends a lot of time alone and he talks to Hester a lot and she talks back a lot. There’s a lot of gab back and forth in contrast to even Lyra and [Lyra’s daemon] Pan, where Pan is a bit of a Jiminy Cricket, a bit of a conscience, a bit of a gut check for Lyra. A lot of the time with Lee and Hester, Lee is already getting into trouble before Hester can be like, “Yeah, that’s not a great idea.” … I had an awesome Latina actress [Alonzo] who’ve I’d been a fan of for a long time doing the voice [of Hester], so I was really happy when I saw the final edit. It’s cool that a Latino actor playing a Texan aeronaut also has a Latina voice actor.
When you’re on set, what are those conversations like with the voice actor? Is it mostly blocking or are you trying to get in the same headspace?
It’s both. You’ve got a voice actor, you’ve got a puppeteer. They should show you a picture of the arctic hare puppet. It’s a skeleton of what the final thing will be, but it’s cuddly enough that I get it and I can see why I would devout my life to keeping her safe and her me. That’s enough to get me there and the puppeteers are so talented… I don’t think I saw any artwork until about two weeks before I started filming, which was exciting. I’m thrilled with where they landed. It feels not of this world, but adjacent to this world. We’re embarking on the second season [based on The Subtle Knife novel] and the second season is going to be about multiple worlds, including one that is almost exactly like our own. We clearly tell the difference from scene to scene because there’s a way they heightened the art direction and the editing of Lyra’s universe. You’re not going to see it for a few years [in a future season], but I toured the set of Cittàgazze and it’s just wild. You can see the influences from our universe, but they’ve blended it all together into something new and it’s really cool.
Since you’re a fan of the books, do you feel like the story has a different impact now in 2019 versus when you and your wife first read the books?
Yeah. There’s a part of me wishes the books were so precious and so relevant because one of the themes it tackles is authority and control over speech and control over peoples’ bodies, whether that is a religious organization or a government organization. I wish that the images of children being separated from their parents didn’t echo what is currently happening in our country.
His Dark Materials premieres in the U.S. on HBO this Nov. 4.
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