When the first few Harry Potter books came out in the aughts, they topped the list of banned books. The church was especially miffed — the whole thing reeked of sin. Around the same time, British author Philip Pullman basically said hold my drink, and wrote His Dark Materials, a retelling of Paradise Lost as a YA fantasy trilogy. The story follows Lyra, a young girl who lives in a parallel universe where people’s souls live outside of their bodies as animals called daemons. Her hero’s journey disguises what is, among other things, a criticism of organized religion and a metaphor for the fall of man: Children take on the roles of Adam and Eve, there are gay angels, and its most malevolent character is Lyra’s mother, a woman named Mrs. Coulter.
She’s treacherous, takes pleasure in murder and torture, and will do almost anything for power (in one book, another character describes her as “a cess-pit of moral filth”). Her one weakness is Lyra, the daughter she gave away, but they’re on opposite sides of the war: Mrs. Coulter serves the Church, and the Church wants to kill Lyra, setting up a deeply complicated, sad, and antagonistic mother-daughter dynamic. “I remember thinking she’s sort of everything,” says Ruth Wilson (Jane Eyre, Luther), who plays Mrs. Coulter in HBO’s adaptation, which premiered its second season this week. “She’s a fairy godmother and a wicked witch. She’s this beautiful, pure mother figure, but also a nasty stepmother. She’s so many characters wrapped into one.”
The Cut spoke with Wilson about creating Mrs. Coulter, the nuance of evil women, and the hard job of finding humanity in someone who seems rotten to the core.
You’ve played a lot of complex female characters, but I don’t know if any of them have been as morally repellent as Mrs. Coulter. Did you have any hesitations about playing someone who is so inherently bad?
No [laughs]. I love all facets of humans, and I think some of the best characters created onscreen have been villains. They don’t have a moral code, so they’re not hampered by a consciousness. She’s so despicable in many ways, but what the challenge then is to find humanity, and a little flash of hope for her. She might not be like this forever — there’s a chance this person can grow and learn and change. That does happen throughout the books, but it has to get worse before it gets better.
Did you look to any other villains in film or literature when you were preparing for this?
I looked at the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang — [there is a part of His Dark Materials] where she’s a child catcher. But she’s yin and yang — she’s both things. She’s Miss Honey from Matilda, but she’s also Mrs. Trunchbull. Hedy Lamarr was another inspiration: She was this beautiful Hollywood actress, but she was also a very clever woman and wanted to be valued for that. I also love Alan Rickman in Prince of Thieves.
There’s a lot of emphasis on Mrs. Coulter’s beauty in the books, but in the show there’s an unsettling edge to her aesthetic which didn’t come across when Nicole Kidman played her in the 2007 film adaptation of the first book. How did you create that image, and how does it change over the course of the show?
Mrs. Coulter is everything that kids want: She’s beautiful. She looks like a princess. Her clothes are very elegant, but they’re shiny or made of velvet, and her hair is really fluffy and touchable — it’s all very tactile. I also gave her a sort of controlled look, even though it was fluffy, there was a control to it. And as you see her go through the story, it gets more and more controlled as she’s losing control. Her hair gets more stuck, and her makeup gets stronger as things start to fall apart.
The show gives us a little bit more on Mrs. Coulter’s backstory. We learn why she might be the way she is, and this makes her a bit more sympathetic. How did you ground the character so that she didn’t just feel baselessly evil?
In working out the psychology of why she is like this, to me the clue was always in the monkey [her soul, in animal form]. The monkey doesn’t speak and the monkey doesn’t have a name, so to me it always seemed like there was something shameful that she’s not naming in herself, that she’s repressing.
I came up with my own theory — my version of how Mrs. Coulter became who she is, by looking at the monkey. In public, they work together as sort of master manipulators, but in private they can’t stand to be around each other. There’s a part where she slaps her monkey and it’s like she’s slapping herself, because ultimately, she hates herself. She really hates herself.
Do you have anything in common with her?
God no, I hope not. I think she’s despicable. I mean, I do sort of admire her. I don’t want to be manipulative, but in a way, I admire people that are master manipulators. I’m like, How’ve you done that? How did you manage to charm that person into doing something? Really amazing.
What would your daemon be?
An urban fox. We’ve got loads of them in London, and they’re sort of rabid, and scavenge through bins, and they’re always on their own. I quite like them. We always sort of eye each other out.