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James McAvoy: 'Dark Materials' is a 'good yarn' that asks important questions

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Season 3 of James McAvoy's fantasy drama, "His Dark Materials," premieres Monday. Photo courtesy of HBO
Season 3 of James McAvoy's fantasy drama, "His Dark Materials," premieres Monday. Photo courtesy of HBO

NEW YORK, Dec. 5 (UPI) -- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and X-Men franchise star James McAvoy says his fantasy drama series, His Dark Materials, is family entertainment with serious undertones that he hopes spark conversations.

Based on Philip Pullman's novel, The Amber Spyglass, Season 3 premieres Monday on HBO and HBO Max.

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McAvoy plays Lord Asriel -- explorer, academic and father of Lyra (Dafne Keen), a galaxy-traipsing young woman who is prophesied to bring about great change.

The new episodes see Lyra journey to a dark place from which no one has ever returned as her father's war looms large against The Authority, the first angel who came into existence and convinced other angels, as well as humankind, that he is actually God.

"I'm proud that we're making a family show that is asking questions. It is questioning systems and institutions that control and it is asking people to see the difference between institutional religion and spirituality," McAvoy recently said during a round-table interview with reporters at New York Comic Con.

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"You can sanitize so much for a family show that it's like, 'What is this, except nullifying?'" the 43-year-old Scottish actor added.

"Philip does such big, heady, spiritual and controversial at times story arcs, but ultimately, he's just an expert at telling a ripping good yarn, as well, and that's what I think this is."

McAvoy gets his most screen time of the series in its third and final season.

"I did like two seconds in Season 1 [but] some of those scenes are my favorite scenes. I love this character," he said.

"Season 2 was disappointing because I was meant to do a whole episode, and that got ditched because of COVID. So, after all this talk of 'war in Heaven and the Republic against Heaven and the Kingdom must fall,' finally getting to come and show you what that looks like, is really exciting."

From the start, McAvoy wanted Lord Asriel to have a no-nonsense, get-things-done demeanor that made him believable as a man who studied at an English boarding school and served in the military.

One person did not necessarily inspire his performance.

"He's slightly sociopathic and very much the center of his own universe," the actor said. "It was a distillation of a type of person."

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Lord Asriel is pretty much the same driven and focused guy he was at the end of Season 1, McAvoy noted.

"He's completely certain, in an egotistical way, that he is right, and that this goal that he wants to achieve of overthrowing the Authority and emancipating the human spirit from the manacles of institutional oppression is the right thing to do -- and that any acts that he has to undertake to make that happen are all right," McAvoy said.

"Kid killing's all right. Lying, cheating, stealing are all OK."

The character, who has ignored being a father and a partner for his entire life to achieve his goals, faces new tests this season.

"His particular crucible is going to challenge his feelings about fatherhood massively, and challenge his ego and his position in the center of the universe," McAvoy said.

"It's going to make him consider his daughter and who she is for the universe. He's really got some questions to answer about fatherhood this season, and whether he answers them correctly or not will help tip the balance for the good guys or bad guys."

McAvoy is clear-eyed about Lord Asriel being the antagonist of Lyra and her friends' story.

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"In the format of TV, you want to follow him as one of the good guys or protagonists. We had to keep reminding ourselves, he's not a good guy," McAvoy acknowledged.

"He's maybe not a bad guy. He's a good guy who does really bad things. He's not introducing helpful things to the good guys. He's generally making things worse for the good guys. It's an interesting role and line to straddle, which makes it more fun."

The actor said much of the cast members' time in between filming scenes is spent trying to figure out how to deliver their densely worded lines.

"Some of the stuff reads really well in the book, and then when you have to say it, you're like: 'Nobody talks like this -- not even on this show. How do we say this without taking anything away from it?'" McAvoy said.

The show may be enjoyable to watch, but putting it together costs the sweat, labor and time of hundreds of artists.

"Film sets are generally work, work, work. The glamour happens in here, guys," McAvoy laughed, gesturing to the cavernous Jacob Javits Center at which thousands of convention attendees clamored to catch an early peek of the new episodes of His Dark Materials.

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"The glamour happens very rarely. On red carpets. The rest of it is pretty grueling, so you have fun where you can."

The cast also includes Ruth Wilson, Simone Kirby, Will Keen, Jade Anouka, Ruta Gedminstas, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jamie Ward, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Simon Harrison, Chipo Chung and Amber Fitzgerald-Woolfe.

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