Dafne Keen: Her Creative Materials

Meeting Dafne Keen in the midst of a global pandemic is a cultural mixing bowl of language and movement. When we join the multi-talented actress in her family home for an afternoon Zoom session, we get a rare glimpse into her colorful off-screen life. As we enter the call, Dafne is chatting with her family in Spanish, while someone teaches a virtual French lesson in the background. The bilingual breakout star, raised by two actors, between Madrid and London, is currently on a meteoric ascent, with a promising career ahead. From landing her first acting job at only nine years old in Spanish drama, The Refugees, to joining the X-Men franchise in acclaimed Wolverine send-off, Logan, and now starring in HBO’s epic fantasy series, His Dark Materials, fifteen-year-old Keen is on track to become one of Hollywood’s brightest young stars.

Having grown up amongst creatives, spending her entire childhood in theaters, it’s no wonder Dafne discovered her talent so early in life. When asked what inspired her to pursue acting as a career, Keen launches into a story about her first moments of passion and excitement for the art.

“I always thought I would try it at some point, because my parents are actors also,” she says. “I’ve grown up on film sets and stuff, so I always loved it. And I remember, at seven or eight [years old], my mom’s friend was doing a short film, and they needed a young girl, and they said, ‘Maria, what if we get your daughter?’” And thus, a star was born.

“I had the time of my life,” Keen recalls of the experience. Soon after, the actress started attending auditions; though, unfortunately, her very first audition isn’t exactly a fond memory of hers. “It went horribly. Like really, really, really terribly,” she tells us, before detailing the encounter. “I was just eight, and terrified,” she shares, “and I’d never done a professional acting job before.“ It didn’t help that the other young actors weren’t particularly kind, according to Dafne. One boy, who Keen describes as “seriously arrogant,” bragged non-stop about the numerous gigs under his belt. “Then he turns to me, and he goes, ‘What about you?’”

Feeling the pressure, Keen (who practices aerial silks) cited “circus” as her only prior performance experience. “And he basically burst out laughing,” she says, “then I got home and basically said, ‘I’m never doing an audition again, Mom!’”

That sentiment clearly didn’t last long, as the very next morning Dafne was right back at it. “I went to my mom like, ‘So, when are my sides due?’” the actress laughs.

Even through horrifying auditions and embarrassments, Keen’s love for acting only grew, and she continued to ask her parents to take her to castings and help her practice. “I did my first job at nine,” the actress says, “and that’s when I truly fell in love with it. I thought: This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Of course, being so young meant that her acting career and social life would oftentimes be at odds with one another. “I went back to school, and it was really weird,” Dafne recalls. “Everyone used to say on set, ‘Oh, you must be so cool around all of your friends, and they must be so impressed by it.’ But they were so unimpressed.”

Keen notes that classmates regularly teased her for being an actress, often calling her by her character names. “But I really could not care less,” Dafne states. “I loved acting so much.”

Eventually, she adjusted to the industry lifestyle, learning to balance work with school and friends. She had a teacher who’d tutor her for a few hours each day, and her closest friends would sometimes visit set when she was filming.

The actress also values authenticity in her friendships. “Basically, I tried to keep everything as separate as possible. I just changed schools and I haven’t told anyone I’m an actress,” she says. Keen prefers for her school relationships to be real, and not influenced by her job in entertainment. “I want them to like me, and then once they’re my friends, [tell them] I’m an actress.”

These standards and morals were instilled in her by her true coach in the industry, her mother. “She’s my acting coach,” Dafne says. “She comes with me and does all of my auditions with me.” The actress rehearses with her mother every night, and calls her “the great woman behind the child.” When asked about how her parents’ roles as actors influenced her as a young performer, Dafne had this to say:

“Seeing them has really taught me the craft. I’ve seen my parents act and direct and write since I was born, so I’ve always known what acting was really about, because you have many people who just want to get into it for the clout and the fame. And being the daughter of theater actors, you don’t see all of the glamorous Hollywood people, you also meet these actors who are juggling acting and waiting tables at the same time. And they do it because they truly love it and not just for the money, which is incredible. And I just think theater is so pure, because you get to see the entire process. As a film actor, you just hop on set, and everyone’s already done pre-production; everything’s already ready for you and you just come in and do your scene and leave. But in theater, you come in, you rehearse for weeks—you’re there throughout the entire production of it, not just your scene… I really admire theater actors and theater people because of the dedication they put into it.”

The actress also shares her thoughts on how film and television productions vary, having now experienced both: “I feel like you have more time physically doing TV, but you have less time proportionally to what you have to film… But what I love about TV shows is that they can go on and on and on, which is great, because I get to go back every year and see these incredible people that I work with, who I really love and now are like my second family.”

Of course, the “second family” Dafne refers to are none other than her His Dark Materials castmates. And with the acclaimed series returning to HBO on Nov. 16, for its highly anticipated second season, Keen gives us the scoop on what viewers can expect from her character, Lyra, as well as how she’s changed from last season’s events.

“When we meet Lyra for the first time [in season one], she’s quite arrogant, quite egotistical, quite self-centered—not great. But by season two, I think she’s grown,” Dafne shares. The actress also reveals that there will be “much more darkness” this go-round. Lyra maintains her personality, but instead of being the “outgoing and trusting” girl from season one, she becomes increasingly leery of those around her. “This season, we find her absolutely traumatized, and alone and incapable of trusting anyone and anything,” she says. Though this may sound like a dark turn for the character, there is hope yet.

“Season two is about trust,” she continues. “It’s about people bringing other people out of their shells and caring for each other. It’s about all the different ways love exists in the world.” The actress also described this season as raw, emotional, and gripping. Moreover, viewers can expect to see “beautiful new relationships and friendships.”

Dafne’s journey to landing the lead role as Lyra was certainly not an easy one. The audition process was grueling, and she didn’t hear back from showrunners for a year before they cast her. “I did my first audition right after I did Logan, so at age eleven or twelve,” she says, “and I had an entire year where I didn’t hear back from them.”

While filming in Puerto Rico, Keen suddenly got a call requesting an additional audition for the show. “I was really surprised because I thought they’d already cast, because it’d been a year, literally,” she recalls. But before she could submit her audition tape, she was promptly stung by a Puerto Rican jellyfish. “So on my tape for His Dark Materials, I had a really red, disgusting, swollen face,” the actress laughs, “it was quite intense.”

Against the odds, however, the directors called saying they loved Dafne’s jellyfish-stung audition, and she was asked to do a chemistry test with Ruth Wilson:

“I came into London, and I did a chemistry test with Ruth, and it went incredibly well. She was amazing. She was really charming, really nice. And Jane Tranter was there and Dan McCulloch, and the casting directors. And everyone was just lovely. And I remember leaving there thinking—every time you leave an audition, you always think you’ve done a bad job. But this time, I thought I hadn’t done a terrible job. I thought, it wasn’t amazing, but it wasn’t really bad either. So I came out, not confident, but not unconfident, you know?”

And about a month later, Keen was cast.

When it comes to getting into character, the actress says there are two main factors that contribute to her process: chemistry and preparation. “I think with such an amazing crew and cast, it’s really easy to get into character,” Dafne says. “I think we all brought out very good sides of each other. We all have tons of chemistry and got on really well.” Keen highlights that her cast mates Ruth and Lin brought out the best in her, and that everyone on the His Dark Materials set made it easy to bring Lyra to life.

“As for preparation,” she continues, “at night I go home and rehearse the scene. Then I analyze the scene and what I want from the other person in it. And then I think forward to how this is going to affect my character in the future and how I want that to build up to the end of Lyra’s story.” It’s actually quite a complicated process, according to the actress; though she finds it easier now, after playing Lyra for two seasons.

“I also figured out what her handwriting was,” she proudly adds, “I wrote all of my script notes for Lyra in her handwriting, which really helped me get into her mindset.”

Dafne enjoys the complex characters most, and she hopes to play more in the future. “I want to get through every single genre possible—see which one’s my favorite,” she says. Having already conquered coveted roles in the wildly popular fantasy and comic categories, it’s safe to say the young actress is off to a pretty good start.

Keen’s big-screen debut in the gritty X-Men installment, Logan, is what catapulted her to superstardom. Her fierce portrayal of Laura—also known as X-23, the daughter of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine—captivated audiences worldwide. Dafne shared a bit about her time on the set of the film, as well as her experience working with Jackman. “Oh, he’s lovely,” she tells MOD, “I love Hugh. I used to call him Fake Dad.”

She also describes the Wolverine actor as a “ten-out-of-ten human being” and recalls having dinner at his house and visiting water parks with him and his daughter. When asked the most important thing she learned from “Fake Dad” while working together, she notes Jackman’s thoughtfulness and positivity. “He was really thoughtful about everything and everyone,” she says, “and he tried to remember everyone’s name; he learned everyone he could.”

“He used to buy these lottery tickets,” she continued. “And he’d go around to everyone on set saying, ‘Happy Friday!’ And he’d give one to each of us.”

One day, Keen asked Jackman why he did it, and he told her:

“Because as an actor, you don’t get to meet everyone in the crew. And you owe them. Everything you do is thanks to them. So I just like to get to say thanks at least once a week.”

“That really stuck with me,” Dafne says, “I still remember it to this day.”

With so much talk of work and set life, of course, we had to address the elephant in the room: COVID-19. Though some Hollywood projects have resumed filming recently, Keen has yet to return to a film set, since the start of the pandemic. She is, however, finding ways to stay occupied and express her creativity, while in quarantine. “I’m a very active person,” she says, “and as I mentioned earlier, I do aerial silks—I do circus. So I bought a silk, which I hung from my ceiling, and every time I get a bit stressed, I just climb up there and do something.”

She’s also been writing, painting, and designing with her free time. “Yeah, I wrote a short film,” Keen says casually.

“I’m constantly busy,” the actress continues, “which is actually very good. COVID gave me time; like, a few good months for me to get my stuff together.”

When it comes to staying creative during quarantine, Dafne says she sticks to this mantra: Let them catch you by surprise with a pen in your hand—which means, “don’t expect the muse to appear while you’re having lunch,” she explains. Her advice to any young artists struggling to create during the pandemic? “Just be working and hope that something will appear while you’re doing something,” she says, “and keep at it.” If you’re a painter, look at good paintings—if you’re an actor, watch good films. “Look at things that inspire you,” Keen says. “Just learn. Because learning makes you know more, and it makes you more creative.”

Despite the setbacks and hardships of the year, Keen still manages to find the silver linings of the situation. “So many people have been able to actually be with themselves and get to know themselves properly,” she says, “and being alone for three months straight, for me, came like a bucket of cold water. It was a big shock.”

Shocking as it was, the actress did appreciate the opportunity to get to know herself, by herself. “You really do get to know yourself, because you have to spend a long amount of time on your own. So that’s the biggest silver lining for me; just getting to know who I am without people around me. Because the people around you can influence you so much. At times, I’d find myself wondering who I am without [them]. And I finally got to experience that.”

DAFNE’S FAVORITES:

Food: “I really love Asian food. Like, I love it. I’m really into sushi, at the moment.”
Playlist: “I have some Lizzo—really love her. I have tons of old music, because I’m really into old music. I have Radiohead, The Clash, a lot of Amy Winehouse—big fan of Amy Winehouse. I have Eminem, Miss Lauryn Hill—absolute goddess. I’ve also been listening to a bit of classical music, surprisingly. I’m also listening to a lot of Grime, which I discovered during quarantine—like Stormzy, that vibe.
TV Show to Binge: “I love Family Guy. I love how sarcastic it is—I’m a very sarcastic person.”
Book: “I really liked Frankenstein… and I loved Watership Down because that was basically the first book I properly read when I was little. It holds a very, very dear place in my heart.”
Fashion Designer: “I love Dior.”
Brand of Clothing: “I’m obsessed with Levi’s jeans. Classic. So good.”

Season 2 of His Dark Materials premieres on Monday, November 16, at 9 pm ET/PT on HBO and HBO Max.


PHOTOGRAPHY CREDITS:

Photographer: Begõna Rivas
Hair & Makeup: Neomi Nohales Pons
Stylist: Freddy Garcia
Writer: Ashley Dawson


Check out Dafne Keen’s full cover feature in The Eternal Issue of MOD Magazine.

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