Once our hero Lyra arrives in a parallel universe at the beginning of the second season of His Dark Materials, she meets a boy who ends up becoming the second-most-important character in the series: Will Parry. While Lyra is from a fantastical version of Oxford full of people with animal-like daemon companions and ruled by the Magisterium, Will is from the actual Oxford of our universe. His father has been missing for years, and he’s trying to protect his mother from mysterious goons. He ends up slipping through a portal into the strange Mediterranean town where he finds Lyra.
Will first appeared in the second installment of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials book series, titled The Subtle Knife, though he got a brief introduction earlier in the first season of the show, where he’s played by Amir Wilson. As Will becomes a central part of the series, the 16-year-old British actor caught up with Vulture over the phone to talk about having to keep his casting secret, getting to work with the actors on the show he admires, and what it’s like to wield the famous Subtle Knife.
Will’s a pretty crucial character in this whole story. What was it like to have to keep your casting a secret?
It was hard. My filming of that episode of season one was separate from everyone else’s. I did mine a month before we started filming season two. That was when they were all doing the press and stuff before the release of season one. Once episode five came out, it was a nice release.
What was the response like once you could actually tell people about the part?
It was cool. A lot of people in school and their parents — since they’re quite old books that came out before I was born — said that they had watched the show and liked it. I got recognized for the first time, actually. It was really weird. It was on the bus, and there was this awkward eye contact, and then she finally talked to me like, “Oh, are you Will?” She actually used to translate the books back in the day, working with the publisher.
That makes me feel so old when you say the books are old! I read those when I was a kid!
Yeah … [laughs].
Have you gotten to meet Philip Pullman himself?
Not yet. He sent me a lovely letter at the end of filming saying he really liked what I was doing and was excited for season two. That was nice to hear — the writer of the books saying he liked what I was doing. It meant a lot.
Since everyone else had already filmed together on the show for a bit, how did it feel coming on as a newcomer?
When I got the role, I was in Prague filming [the Netflix series] The Letter for the King, and they wanted me to meet Dafne Keen. They flew me out to Madrid for the weekend. Dafne’s family took me to a flamenco show, which was cool. Then we came to Cardiff and filmed my bit, and then we started filming season two.
The version of Will we see in the show is a little different than the one in the book. He boxes instead of playing the piano, for instance. Did you all talk about what the show’s overall take on him would be?
We didn’t really talk about why that was put in place, but I liked it! It was fun to get into a boxing ring. In my audition, before I went in, they were like, “Go work with this guy the corner for a sec,” and he gave me boxing gloves and made me punch the pads he was wearing. I was like, “What’s going on? What am I doing?” After, I got to go to boxing lessons. That was really fun.
Tell me about filming those first scenes with Will and Lyra in season two, when they’re first meeting each other. How did you and Dafne approach them?
We were lucky. Me and Dafne got along really well. We’d lived like five minutes away from each other in Cardiff and would go out on walks in this big park that was next to our houses. We went rock climbing with a lot of the crew members. It’s funny, there were a bunch of Wills that were auditioning in the final bit for the show, and I was the only one that didn’t get to meet Dafne because I was filming.
When you meet Lyra, you also have to interact with her daemon. What’s it like to learn how to act with one?
They had puppeteers on set that would be acting out the daemons, so we had eyelines and stuff to work with. It was cool to finally see it in the end, because on set it was so different. I was talking to some woman in a black costume with a puppet in her hand, and now it’s a creature who’s talking. It was very funny. One thing is that you’re not allowed to touch them, because that’s really hard for the visual effects with the fur and stuff. Unless, obviously, if it’s scripted.
A crucial thing driving Will is his need to protect his mom, played by Nina Sosanya in the show. What was it like playing that dynamic?
Nina and I really got along on set. We sat down in the green room and just chilled and had fun. She’s really good at playing the mental aspect of her [Elaine Parry has unspecified mental-health issues]. She really helped me at that.
Will has often been depicted in illustrations or other adaptations as white, though as far as I can tell Philip Pullman doesn’t specify his race in the books. Did you talk much about what Will’s race might mean for his depiction in the show?
It wasn’t something that was really talked about. I think I just happened to be playing Will, and I happened to be mixed race, but it wasn’t really made a thing. I think that’s even better, because I don’t think it should have been.
Will is searching for his father, played by Andrew Scott, for a lot of the season. Did you interact much with him?
The first time I met him was on set. We had a couple of days shooting and had a really good time then. They were quite intense scenes we had to do, but I felt comfortable to be able to do my thing and get in the moment around him. He has a really real and authentic presence around him.
His Dark Materials has a very stacked cast throughout its world. Was there anyone who doesn’t cross paths with Will that you wished you could’ve met or worked with?
Lin! Lin-Manuel Miranda! Lee Scorsby and Will don’t cross paths in the book, but I got to meet him off-set. I went into the costume trailer one time, and I picked up his hat. I didn’t realize it was actually Lee Scorsby’s hat, and Lin came around the corner and we got a photo of us in the hat together.
Are you a fan of musicals?
I haven’t seen Hamilton, but my mum and my sister really want to go, and it’s hard to get tickets. But I started out in theater and stuff, and I like the musical aspect of it.
Well you’ve gotta work that relationship now!
Were you a fan of the Philip Pullman books before doing the show?
I hadn’t read the books before, and then I found out a bunch of people I knew had read the books before. I read The Subtle Knife and the scripts at the same time, so it was nice to get bits of Will out of the book and the script and mix and match to form Will as a person.
From the books, we know that Will gets to wield the Subtle Knife to cut between worlds. How did you all film that on set?
The knife looked really cool. I worked with Russell Dodgson, the head of VFX, on how it was going to move. Then they got up these thin, almost invisible strings on set of wire, like guitar strings, but really tight together. You basically slot the knife between them, and twist it to the side. The idea’s that the portal sort of folds open. I’d never experienced anything like it before. It’s nice how he starts out being bad at it and frustrated, and it’s cool how he slowly gets better.
Has there been talk about starting to shoot a third season yet?
There is talk about it, and nothing is set yet. Nothing 100 percent confirmed, but it’s looking likely, and I’m excited.