Dafne Keen talks to Glass about joining The Acolyte

Glass sits down with the one-time child star Dafne Keen as she makes the leap to grown-up acting with a TV role already in the Star Wars franchise

From Winter Issue 56

Making the jump from “child actor” to “actor” isn’t easy. Evidence tells us it’s a treacherous leap many don’t make. Typecasting. Burn out. Trying to adapt to the ordinary challenges of adulthood with the pressures and powers of fame. The snares for young stars are many and varied. Eighteen-year-old Dafne Keen is dodging the potholes and having fun while she’s at it. 

Photographer: Zoe McConnell

Speaking to me over Zoom from her flat in London, we reflect on her first year of adulthood. Watching her bright smile light up my laptop is a little jarring – the last time I saw Keen on-screen was during her brilliant performance as a feisty mutant child in Logan alongside Hugh Jackman.

She was 11 at the time of filming. I remind myself how rare it is to be speaking with a teenage actor who already has a decade of professional experience behind her.

Next year, you can watch Keen as a young Jedi in the anticipated Star Wars TV series, The Acolyte. But journeying to the cruising altitude of mega-franchises isn’t always smooth. Once you reach those heights, cities you once called home become anonymous swathes of earth. How do you leave behind old comforts and step into the new, while acknowledging where it all began?  

Photographer: Zoe McConnell

Even though performing is in Keen’s blood, following her parent’s path wasn’t a given – her father is the British actor, Will Keen, and her mother is the Spanish theatre director and playwright, Maria Fernández Ache.

The star “stumbled” into acting as a distraction from ruthless bullying she faced at school in Madrid. Ache had a friend who needed a child for a short film so Keen entered into the world of cinema at eight. She was hooked: “All I wanted to do was act and spend my time around people who work on sets for the rest of my life. I just feel so stimulated and happy when I’m working.” 

Photographer: Zoe McConnell

I get the feeling that Keen sees cinema as a life-sustaining force. Her connection to her craft is primal. It makes sense – film first came to her as a lifeboat. But there’s a wisdom at the centre of her ethos that belies her age; creative expression is survival and it should be treasured in all its forms.

Keen would like to try her hand at writing, directing, cinematography, set designing or “anything, so long as it’s in film”. Cinema is a hearth, and the ability to be close to it – to stoke the fire, to be warmed by its glow and the community who keep it burning – is vital to her being. 

Like most child stars, her career has been heavily accented by one particularly long project – the type where you can’t tell where a character ends, and an actor begins. The person and their role age side-by-side, bodies growing as one. Together, they experience the pangs of first love and the loss of childhood naivety. For Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard, it all went down in the whacky world of Hawkins.

For Maisie Williams, it was the icy winters of Game of Thrones’ Westeros. For Keen, it was the multi-world magic of His Dark Materials. From 13 to 17, she starred as Lyra Belacqua in the BBC/HBO adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy.

When she came up for air, it was a little dizzying. She celebrated her 18th birthday just after the show’s final episode aired at the end of 2022. With that, Dafne Keen went from child to adult actress.  

Photographer: Zoe McConnell

What’s life like on the other side? For one, child hours are gone. Keen laughs as she recalls her first day cutting her teeth with the big kids: “On the Thursday, I did a nine-hour day and on the Friday, I did a 14-hour day. I came in and everyone was like, ‘happy first day as an adult’. I was like, ‘thanks, where’s my hour-long lunch gone?’” 

But longer days are a small price to pay for newfound freedoms. Now that she’s a grown-up, Keen is allowed to hang out with the crew. “When you make a film, there’s such a strong feeling that we’re creating something together. Being an adult allows you to properly experience that.” Clearly for Keen, hour-long lunches are an easy trade for the privilege of camaraderie, the feeling that you’re part of something bigger than yourself. 

Photographer: Zoe McConnell

Then there’s the seismic shift in the roles Keen is being sent. The actor made a name for herself playing “feral children’’ so it’s been a shock to receive scripts for “pristine love interest”. She rounds her mouth to execute a posh British accent, “Now that I’m 18, suddenly I’m a lady.” She is excited to explore unchartered roles, but never at the expense of authenticity. “I want to portray humans, not props.” Her last sentence is a spoken like creed. Complex female characters are, and always have been, non-negotiable. 

This goes hand in hand with Keen’s passion for fresh perspectives in the industry, “For years, we’ve only spoken about Western stories and, more specifically, Anglo-Saxon ones.” She marvels at the “beautifully written” lead of Norwegian drama, The Worst Person in the World, fleshed out by Renate Reinsve’s scintillating performance.

Recently, Keen watched Lukas Dhont’s Close, a “fascinating and heart-breaking” look at boyhood in rural Belgium. Her enthusiasm for novel stories is only buoyed by the global success of foreign films like Bong Jon Ho’s Parasite

Photographer: Zoe McConnell

The star is quick to recognise the power of hearing stories in their original language. As a bilingual, Keen feels grateful she has access to art from two linguistic universes. “It’s such a privilege to read Lorca in Spanish and Shakespeare in English. I always feel so sad when I can’t read or watch something in the language it was written in.”

If Keen didn’t have such an instinctual desire to relate to others, she simply wouldn’t care or think along these lines. At school, she studied terrible Spanish translations of Shakespeare. The sacrilege scarred her, so now when she reads Dostoyevsky in English, Keen thinks, “God, I hope this isn’t as bad as Spanish Shakespeare”. 

Photographer: Zoe McConnell

I deduce that botchy translations pain her, not because they’re clunky, but because she fears she’s missing out on some essential part of another’s story. Keen respects tales and their tellers far too much to accept this.

What subtleties are lost as a work passes through the hands of its author to a translator? What are the songs she can’t hear being sung in another’s mother tongue? No one can predict the future, but I get the feeling that Keen will handle the stories entrusted to her with the same curiosity and care she uses to listen to others. 

Back in the present, adulthood continues to usher in dazzling opportunities outside of cinema. In October, Keen attended her first Paris Fashion Week with Louis Vuitton to watch the house’s SS24 show.

Sporting a cropped wig and faux leather suit, Keen revelled in the artistry of women’s creative director Nicholas Ghesquière. She says, “[His] vision was stunning. He’s amazing at layering and mixing textures.” It’s clear she appreciates creativity wherever she finds it. 

Photographer: Zoe McConnell

Like most things when you’re her age, Keen’s style is ever-evolving. When we speak, she’s in her “wig moment”. For Halloween, the star cosplayed cinema’s favourite vengeful bride, Uma Thurman, in Kill Bill: Volume 1 (Keen proudly tells me she cut herself a platinum blonde hairpiece to complete the look).

Experimentation pervades every part of her life, from roles she’s considering to how she wears her hair. Keen is taking to the scissors, chopping up the old, trying zany dyes and shedding layers, only to realise she wants to grow them back again – just as it should be. 

With the spirit of someone sampling what life has to offer, Keen tells me she’s been leafing through editorials from the 1920s, “I love looking at the way people dress in cabarets and circus performances.” She also adores the laissez-faire flair of Francoise Hardy and Jane Birkin. Don’t get too comfortable in the minimalism of French bohemia though. Extravagance comes knocking again as Keen recalls a set of glamorous green tights from the Billy Wilder film Irma la Douce. Once the dust of Hollywood charm settles, Keen reveals her enduring muse is much closer to home – her mum. 

Photographer: Zoe McConnell

In many ways, this year has been about Keen proving to herself that she can do her job – and do it well – without her mother’s guiding hand. The duo worked in tandem for a decade. Until last year, Keen’s mum was on set with her, advising her alongside the directors. As Keen steps out alone, she’s taking control and surprising herself, “I was so scared I wasn’t going to act as well by myself. But I’m realising that all the knowledge [Mum] gave to me is within me. I go on set and it’s kind of like she’s there too.” 

When she came of age, Keen had to take the plunge. It was time, personally and professionally. She moved to London. She rented a flat. Hours got longer. Schedules got busier. Mum wasn’t on set anymore. There’s no rule book on this.

How are you meant to adjust to the new when the training wheels have been on since you could remember? You grip the handlebars. Your knuckles turn white. You can feel wind whipping your cheeks. Your helmet is fastened so tight it hurts. Keep pedalling. Do you feel that? You had it all along. You’re flying. 

by Christiana Alexakis

Photographer: Zoe McConnell

Fashion Director: Katie Felstead

Make up: James O’Riley using NARS COSMETICS

Hair: Declan Sheils using BABYLISS PRO

Lighting: Carissa Harrod

Digital Operator: Nick Graham

Styling assistant: Georgia-Sky Little

Talent: Dafne Keen

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