Make no mistake – Hollywood, like The Magisterium, is a man’s world and for actress Ruth Wilson, her character of Mrs Coulter, albeit a complex character, sits in an environment that feels familiar in many ways.
“I think the stakes are higher because she’s a woman, you know, she’d have to fight even harder. And she’d have to have even more gumption and to stand up and be separate from the magisterium, you know, women seem to have to just be sort of 100 times, 10 times better than men at everything in order to be recognised. That’s what we’ve always had to be,” said Wilson.
Premiering its second season on 16 November 2020, His Dark Materials is a fantasy adventure based on Philip Pullman’s popular trilogy of novels. The story follows that of Northern Lights aka The Golden Compass, with Mrs Coulter taking on the role of the show’s villain alongside Ariyon Bakare as Lord Carlo Boreal. Season 2 will see Dafne Keen’s Lyra Silvertongue and Amir Wilson’s Will Parry take the main lead protagonists.
In season one, Mrs Coulter spends most of her time researching the inhumane act of separating children from their daemons whilst struggling to be an active parent to her child Lyra Silvertongue. As the only woman in The Magisterium, Mrs Coulter is met with pressures to perfect the means of her research, and works hard to maintain the level of respect she’s earned as a researcher. She also struggles to be a mother to Lyra who holds her father Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) to high regard.
Though the first season featured Mrs Coulter quite a bit, her character backstory remains a mystery. This is partly due to her lack of development in author Pullman’s original books, which gave the 38-year-old actress an opportunity to delve into Mrs Coulter’s psychology in trying to portray the complex character that she is.
“Mrs. Coulter, I find endlessly fascinating, because Philip never gave any reasons or answers as to why she acts like she does and why she has such a lust for power, or why she is so obsessed with her daughter – you don’t get many psychological understandings of that,” said Wilson in a roundtable interview with Geek Culture.
“But what you do have is the relationship with the monkey. And I thought, for me, that was key because that’s who she is, [the monkey is] her soul as well. So you can kind of indicate her own personality and her own psychology through her relationship with the monkey. So that for me was like, wow, this is a really, really fun and unique way of exploring character.”
Despite Mrs Coulter not appearing much in the second book, Wilson teases that that will change as viewers would learn more about her in the coming season, even hinting at a potential season 3, should the studio decide to complete the adaptation, unlike the failed movie series that started and ended with The Golden Compass.
“You see the woman you see in season one, so it’s sort of why did she make the choice not to be with her daughter? And originally why, how, has she succeeded as a woman in a male world, and at what cost? So that’s really what we discuss in season two, it’s quite interesting. Her relationship with Boreal really plays out, there’s a kind of odd dynamic between the two of them, which is sort of sexual, but also it’s about power,” said Wilson.
“We explore Mrs. Coulter in her relationship with her work, and her career, and then also her relationship with her daughter and how that still is something she can’t understand and that she’s driven to sort of obsess over and possess in some way. It’s something that she’s never explored in herself. Her instinct is still being drawn to her daughter so it’s quite fascinating. She is an endlessly complex woman and if you know the books, you know that she has to go on a huge journey, so we have to explore that to come to what we come to in season three.”
Character development isn’t the only thing Mrs Coulter goes through. Like her personality and identity, Mrs Coulter goes through a change in appearance too thanks to Wilson’s active participation in hair and wardrobe.
In season one, Mrs Coulter always had soft, fluffy, touchable hair and wore sparkly and alluring outfits when she was kidnapping and manipulating children. In scenes where she had to deal with men in the Magisterium, Mrs Coulter would put on something more sexy and feminine. After all, her sexual aura is what keeps the men in the Magisterium wrapped around her finger. Now that her research has met failure, and she’s left alone without the Magisterium in the palm of her hands, Mrs Coulter finds herself isolated from everyone and everything she’s kept in arm’s reach – and her clothes will reflect that too.
“I think she becomes quite intense and sort of loses a bit of control to be honest but in that sense, I wanted her to look even more in control and in makeup so she becomes a bit harsher looking. She’s got her hair stricter, her makeup is more defined. She’s got sharper looks on. It’s quite a complex journey because we want to get her to get to a place by season three where she’s sort of starting to loosen up and starting to learn about herself and soften,” said Wilson.
Many of Wilson’s inspirations for Mrs Coulter’s outfits in season two come from 1940s and 1950s film stars: “1940s Katharine Hepburn out in Africa (The African Queen). We give her an iconic look and in Cittagazze I was like, well, she can’t wear heels. I don’t want her to always be wearing heels. It makes no sense. So she wears like boots and sort of riding boots. She still looks good. She looks great everywhere she goes. But I think you see her slightly softening slightly becoming more, I don’t know, honest, as it goes on.”
Having a hand in Mrs Coulter’s development, frequent appearances and hair and wardrobe is just one example of Wilson’s to show the changing of attitudes in Hollywood. While not a producer of the series, Wilson made sure that she provided input on how she thought the character would look and behave.
“[Hollywood] has been male dominated. And I think that narratives have been predominantly male and white. I’m working at the moment on a film, which is written and directed by a woman, I produced. And we’ve got a female DP and half our camera crew are female. And it’s an extraordinary atmosphere. And it’s a very feminine lens that we are telling this story from. And it feels really different actually. And I think it’s really vital that the story is told through a completely different lens – I think we don’t have enough of that. The more we have, the more we’ll just accept it or acknowledge that’s what we’ve been missing, actually. And we have been missing these stories so I think it is changing. I feel really positive about what’s going on. There’s more platforms for women and everything is becoming grander, and the landscape is wider. And that’s really exciting,” shared Wilson.
Ruth Wilson certainly makes an evil character like Mrs Coulter relatable. Whilst it may not be her intention, Mrs Coulter being a complex character heavily scrutinised by a male institution is an experience that one can empathise with. With yet another major character development to come in the next coming seasons, Mrs Coulter is neither friend or foe, never less, always more.
Season 2 of His Dark Materials premieres on HBO on 16 November 2020.