Casting director Priscilla John had to rustle up a bilingual preteen girl with excellent martial-arts skills to play Laura, a.k.a. X-23. Simple, right?
Can’t a morose mutant warrior simply sail off into the sunset with his surrogate father? As Logan, the latest X-Men movie opens, all world-weary Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) wants to do is buy a boat so he and an ailing Professor X (Patrick Stewart) can spend the rest of their days at sea. But boats don’t come cheap, so Logan reluctantly agrees to escort a young girl named Laura—a pissed-off tween with powers not unlike his—to North Dakota for $50,000. Thus begins the final Hugh Jackman–Patrick Stewart X-Men installment (both actors have said this is their last superhero movie)— and the impressive film debut of newcomer Dafne Keen, who plays Laura.
Keen’s wild-eyed, charismatic Laura is memorable not only for her slice-and-dice adamantium-claw action scenes—shredding burly cyborgs with ease—but also for her ability to convey the young heroine’s feral yet innocent nature. (The latter is highlighted by a unicorn T-shirt and pink-and-blue floral sunglasses.) And she does all this without uttering more than two dozen words throughout the entire film.
While Keen makes playing a rage-filled mute mutant look easy, casting the young actress to play her was not. Initially, director James Mangold tasked U.K. casting director Priscilla John, with whom he’d worked on The Wolverine, with finding a 12-year-old girl with martial-arts, tumbling, and acrobatic skills who spoke both English and Spanish. But after scouring England and Ireland and seeing more than 500 kids, John was coming up short. When she expanded her search to younger girls and those living in Spain, her associate, Francesca Bradley, remembered Keen, who lives in Madrid with her British actor father, Will Keen (The Crown, Wolf Hall), and her Spanish actress mother, Maria Fernandez Ache.
John asked Will, whom she knew, to put Keen, then a 10-year-old acrobat and gymnast who’d already appeared alongside her dad in the Spanish TV show The Refugees, on tape. John was knocked out by what she saw: the four-foot-two-inch girl clambered up and down a huge bookcase in the Keen’s Madrid sitting room while picking up and assessing objets d’art. Once back on the ground, she did a tumbling run across the floor. In another sequence, she wordlessly gobbled down crackers without looking at them. “She’s looking all around her . . . and [in her eyes] you could see she was devouring everything in that room,” John remembers. “She had an innocence and a vulnerability, and I said to James, ‘People are going to fall in love with her.’ ”
Some notes from Mangold, and a second audition tape later—“My job was made much easier having Will look after her,” John says—and Keen and her parents were on a plane to the States so she could screen test with Jackman. Though some other American girls were also in the running, John, who previously discovered future X-Man Nicholas Hoult when casting About a Boy in the early aughts, was pretty confident Keen would snag the role: “I had a good idea that this child was extremely special, and I would have been surprised if she hadn’t gotten it,” she says. Still, since anything can happen in Hollywood, when the test was done, John told Keen to go back to school and get on with her life.
Of course, now that Logan has opened, Keen’s life will be drastically changed. Look for plenty more to come from this newly minted child star, whom John suggests is already signed to Fox (the studio releasing Logan) for future projects. Though the veteran casting director believes Keen’s parents will continue to focus on her education and keeping life as normal as possible, she has no doubt the now 12-year-old could be at the beginning of a long career along the lines of former child actresses Natalie Portman and Jodie Foster. “[Keen] has got such powerful presence,” John says. “She’s got extraordinary charisma. She’s either going to be heading a huge international company, or she’s going to be a big star when she grows up.” Whatever she ends up doing, it will likely involve a lot less glowering and a lot more talking. And if nothing else, she’ll have the best 2016 summer-vacation story about filming a superhero movie.
Then again, maybe Keen should keep her summers free. While promoting Logan, Mangold has said he’d love to see another film that centered on her character: “That’s certainly something I’d be involved in,” he told We’ve Got This Covered three weeks ago. A girl heroine taking over for Wolverine? That’s a story we can get behind.