British-Spanish actress Dafne Keen has been on the rise on the big and small screen in her short 17 years. Making her debut alongside her actor father in The Refugees while being simultaneously coached by her mother, Keen gained true prominence acting alongside heavy hitters Hugh Jackman in Marvel’s Logan, an experience which set her up wonderfully for her starring role of Lyra Belacqua on BBC/HBO’s His Dark Materials. The series recently wrapped its third and final season, but Keen is already preparing to level up – next year’s release of Star Wars: The Acolyte on Disney+ will mark her most high-profile role yet; a human/alien hybrid called Jecki.
Keen sat down with The Untitled Magazine to talk His Dark Materials, Logan, and how a little rebellion has helped her navigate her flourishing career as a young actress. Read the full interview from “The REBEL Issue” below.
Both your parents are actors – did they encourage your acting career from a young age? What was it like at home as a child?
Yes, my parents are actors. In the beginning of my career, I was heavily bullied in school. I had a very rough time and I didn’t feel like I belonged, I didn’t feel like I had anything that was me. My mum’s friend was doing a short film, and my mum got me into that short film and I had an amazing time. I realized that it was something where I felt like I belonged, where I enjoyed being on set even though it was only like a day and a half. And it just kind of went on from there.
In the beginning it was all play and it was just for fun, and it helped me escape that reality of being bullied at school. When it became more professionalized, my dad was more scared than my mom was. I think there’s always this concept of becoming a Hollywood broken toy, the stigma around being a child actor. My mom was always very supportive of my career, and my dad soon realized that obviously what you have to do when you have a child actor is to be careful not with the acting portion of it, but with the public persona of becoming an actor at such a young age. So they were very adamant about keeping me in school and very grounded, and making me aware that acting is an incredible privilege and not everyone gets to have such incredible luck. It’s about hard work and it’s about luck, and not everyone gets that opportunity. They just reminded me to stay very grateful for everything that came my way.
Does your Hispanic heritage inform your work and acting choices?
I think the Hispanic part of me definitely affects the way I view the world. I think the British part of me also affects how I view the world. Anyone who comes from a multicultural household knows that feeling of being able to be a hybrid of both and be able to navigate in both societies.
As an artist, you take from your surroundings and your life and how you view the world and how you feel the world. I think it definitely has informed my way of acting and my way of writing and my way of photographing and my way of living in general.
Who would you consider to be some of your biggest inspirations, career-wise? What are your favorite films of all time?
I’d say Gena Rowlands, I love her. But there’s so many. I think Timothée Chalamet has an incredible career, he’s doing great work right now. And my favorite movies, God that’s a really tough one. There’s lots of movies that I really enjoy. Singing in the Rain holds a really dear place in my heart, as does Some Like it Hot. In the Mood for Love is a beautiful film and A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night are incredible. There’s just so many incredible films out there, and I don’t think I could pick one or even a few films. It’s impossible for me, I love films. That’s why I do what I do – because I love films.
Did you find it easier to go into your first on-screen role in The Refugees because you were acting alongside your father, or did that make it more difficult?
I think I found it easier because both my parents were on set. It was like a family endeavor; the three of us on set and we were hanging out. My dad was playing my dad, which is very easy cause he was already my dad, and my mom was coaching me. It felt like it was just the three of us, and we were having a lovely summer in this really lovely area of Spain. It was just really nice for me. I remember I finished filming that and I went to my mom and I said, “This has been the best summer of my life.” That’s when I fell in love with acting, and I knew that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Can you tell us about the experience of your breakout role in 2017’s Logan. Was it intimidating for your debut film role to be such a high-profile superhero movie?
Logan was absolutely terrifying in the beginning. But there was such an amazing team on it that took really good care of me and made me feel really at home. Hugh [Jackman] was incredible with me. He was so loving and nurturing and caring and careful. And so was Patrick [Stewart]; Patrick was so lovely to me all the time. Steven Merchant also gave me great advice about growing up, which I’ve always kept in my heart because it’s very good advice.
James Mangold, who directed it, was incredible. He’s one of my favorite directors ever to have worked with; he’s so talented. He was brilliant with me and so careful. I think as a child actor, or when you’re just young, people don’t expect things from you. He did expect from me, which is really nice because you feel like when they expect from you, it means that they think you’re good. I felt like he thought I was good and that he expected from me the same that he expected from any other adult actor. That was a really fulfilling feeling that I’ll always carry with me.
What was the best advice or learning experience you got on the set of Logan?
Logan in general was a huge learning experience for me. I learned about hard work, I learned about just generally how to work. I remember this one thing that Hugh said to me. Every Friday, he’d buy these lottery tickets and he’d go one by one passing them to everyone on set and say hi to them and wish them a lucky Friday, and he’d learn their names. One day I asked him, “Hugh, why do you do this?” And he said, “Because as an actor, you’re always in front of the camera, and sometimes you need to take time to meet and to be grateful for and to thank all the people behind the camera, cause they’re making your job possible and this project possible, and it’s so important to appreciate them.”
That’s something that really always stuck with me. I’m very mindful of the fact that as an actor, it’s so easy to get stuck in your little bubble of privilege in the film industry food chain, and it’s so important to take a minute out of your day – not even a minute, take much longer than a minute – to just appreciate everyone around you. Also appreciating those around you, on set, in general, in life, makes everything better. It lifts the mood, everyone works as one and becomes symbiotic and flows much better. It’s so important to appreciate the crew, because when you go to awards or premieres or you do publicity, no one ever mentions them. 90% of the work is done by them, so it’s so easy to go up to them and thank them and treat them how they deserve.
What were your biggest fears and challenges as an acting newcomer? Do you still face them today?
Probably the fear of just staying as a newcomer and never doing more jobs. I think that’s terrifying as an actor in general: not knowing if the job you’re doing at the moment is the last job you’re ever going to do. Any actor will probably relate to that. But apart from that, I think mainly as a child you’re very typecast. I’ve always played the feral child, and it’s so easy to get stuck in that role. So my biggest fear is to stay stuck in one type of role, cause I wanna be as versatile as possible.
What initially stood out to you about your lead role of Lyra on His Dark Materials? Can you tell us about your role and how much of yourself you see in her?
Lyra is intricate, she’s complicated, she’s fun to play, she’s playful, and she’s fascinating. I definitely do see bits of me in her and bits of her in me. That’s the beauty of art; you always get to investigate parts of yourself through characters. I don’t know if that sounds sick, but I did get to investigate a lot of me through her. And I felt very empowered playing her, cause it’s not every day that you get to play complicated female roles. We’re so used to deeming complicated females in films or books or TV or any sort of narration as unlikable; as soon as they’re complicated, they’re unlikable. So it’s so fun to navigate that as an actress and try to make a complicated character likable without having to sugarcoat the way they are.
How did your approach to playing Lyra change since the first season of the show?
My approach to playing Lyra through the seasons has been very in-tune with the way I was growing up. In season one, I just turned 13 and it was very much the way I viewed the world from that child’s innocent, fresh point of view. Then at 14, I was kind of in that tween era. That obviously affected my acting. I think approaching season three, she’s still a teenager, but more mature, from the point of view of a woman who’s finally opening up to her sexuality and her feelings towards people around her. She’s understanding the complications and the relationship of her parents. She’s understanding the way she feels, the difference between friends and lovers and parent figures and allies. She’s investigating the broadness of human interaction, which is fascinating.
How was the final day on set?
It was really fun, but the end of it was gut-wrenching. The beginning of the day was really sweet, with little scenes and us reminiscing about the last few years we’d all spent together basically like a family. It didn’t feel sad until they said, “That’s a wrap on Dafne Keen.” That’s when it became real. I didn’t cry until I got back home. I got home, and I’d been gifted this book by the costume girls, Hannah and Abby, and everyone from the crew had signed it and written something about me and thanked me. It was just such a beautiful gift. I remember I opened it and I just started bawling my eyes out in my room on my own.
What is the biggest takeaway you took from your time on the show?
I’ve learned so much. I’ve gone through my entire teenage years on this show. I started on it when I was 12, and by the time this is out I’ll be 18. I’ll be an adult. It’s crazy, and I’ve learned so much because of the people on set; because of the cast and crew and having to go through those experiences. I’ve learned about friendship. I’ve learned about everything, I guess.
Do you prefer the world of the big or small screen? What is the biggest difference between acting for each?
I like the big screen and small screen. I hold a special place in my heart for films because they’re self-contained, which I really love. You’re telling one story and it’s not stretched out. I can also really appreciate TV shows, but I guess I love the beauty of film. That’s probably just me being a snob. I think the difference between acting in a film is that you get much more time to really go through the process of the character and the arc. Whereas on a show you don’t really have that time. You have your prep, but it’s more rushed and day-to-day.
What kinds of roles are you hoping to get into next?
I’m very excited to start playing women as opposed to children, which is what I’ve done my entire life. I can’t wait to see how that’s different.
Do you think of any of your characters as rebels?
I think all of my characters have been rebels. There’s not been a single character that I’ve played that’s not been a rebel. None of the characters I’ve played follow rules. There’s that concept of girls being taught to be pristine and clean and well-behaved, and I’ve gotten to completely break that and just be wild, which has been so fun.
What defines a rebel today?
Not listening to other people’s opinions, just listening to what your heart asks you to do. I think we live in a society with social media and with all this pressure to be a certain way. It’s the bossest move to just be yourself and not live by their standards.
Do you have any mantras or words of wisdom that keep you inspired?
I do have something that I like to tell myself whenever I’m in any situation, which is: think of how you would react if you were the other person. So if you are going to make a decision that regards another person, think about how the other person’s going to feel and how you would feel if you were them. Put yourself in other people’s shoes at all times.
What is the future for Dafne Keen? Can you tell us about any other projects you have coming up?
The future of Dafne Keen is to be seen, honestly. I’ve got a few projects that are very hush hush, so nothing I can really talk about, but very exciting all in all. I’m very excited for the future, and I think we should all be. It’s looking up now.
To read our print feature on Dafne Keen, pick up your copy of “The REBEL Issue” here.