The cast and creators of the Netflix series on finding the humanity in DC’s immortal Dreamweaver.
By Jesse Schedeen
Photo credit: Laurence Cendrowicz/Netflix
The Sandman co-creator Neil Gaiman worries fans might have gotten the wrong idea about the Netflix adaptation.
Back in 2020, when Audible was just launching its star-studded audio adaptation of the acclaimed DC Comics series, and when the COVID-19 pandemic was proving to be the latest in a long line of hurdles to adapting the comic for live-action, Gaiman revealed that the two projects had different goals in mind. Audible’s Sandman is meant to be a very close adaptation of the source material, right down to the fact that it takes place largely between 1989 and 1996. The Netflix series, on the other hand, is updating that source material to reflect the world of 2022.
But as Gaiman explains to IGN, that’s created the mistaken impression that Netflix’s The Sandman is a drastic departure from the comic, when the truth is anything but.
“It’s not like I looked at Sandman and went, ‘We need to update you.’” Gaiman says. “It’s much more, ‘Okay, we’re going to set it now. What does that mean for the story? How is that going to affect things?’ And the answer is, mostly, it doesn’t affect things at all.”
Some of the changes in the Netflix series are born out of necessity. Many of the more prominent DC Universe cameos have been cut (sorry, Martian Manhunter fans), a reminder that The Sandman is the rare big-budget DC series not making its home on HBO Max. Other changes are more about reflecting the contemporary world and establishing a more diverse cast. Key supporting characters like John Constantine and Lucien the librarian have morphed into Johanna Constantine and Lucienne, respectively.
Okay, we’re going to set it now. What does that mean for the story? How is that going to affect things?’ And the answer is, mostly, it doesn’t affect things at all.
That’s to say nothing of the decision to cast Killing Eve’s Kirby Howell-Baptiste as a Black, decidedly British Death, a move that still has certain readers fuming (and Gaiman certainly has thoughts about that).
But in terms of the sweeping, fantastical plot of The Sandman, little has really changed in the decades since those first issues of the comic began hitting the stands. Why should it? The Sandman is a story of demons, gods, faeries and the seven immortal siblings known as The Endless. What difference does an extra 30 years make for a cast of characters older than humanity itself?
No, Netflix’s The Sandman isn’t strictly a 1:1 adaptation of the comic. But even so, Sandman fans have a unique opportunity to see some of the series’ most iconic moments recreated on the small screen. To illustrate that point, IGN is able to highlight two specific scenes from The Sandman: Season 1. The first, from Episode 4, showcases a tense reunion between Tom Sturridge’s Dream/Morpheus and Gwendoline Christie’s Lucifer Morningstar. The second, from Episode 6, sees Dream watch silently as his sister Death goes about the work of shepherding souls to the afterlife.
Tom Sturridge as Dream and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death in The Sandman.
“We want people to be able to watch this show in 10 years or 20 years and feel like it’s still present-day for them,” showrunner Allan Heinberg tells IGN. “So it wasn’t so much updating it to the minute, as much as it was adapting it and updating it for the screen, which required us to reexamine a lot of moments that Neil had laid out in his original scripts, which we had access to, and then the ways that the artists interpreted them.”
Dream and Lucifer: Eternal Frenemies
Much like 1989’s The Sandman #4, Episode 4 of the Netflix series chronicles Dream’s descent into Hell. At this point in the series, Dream has recently escaped a more than 100-year imprisonment at the hands of Roderick Burgess’ (Charles Dance) dark magic cult. Weakened and haggard, Dream is searching for the missing tools that grant him the power to shape and draw power from dreams. Unfortunately for him, one of those tools – a helm forged from the bones of an ancient god – has found its way into Lucifer’s realm.
“I think he’s feeling vulnerable,” Sturridge tells IGN. “I think he knows that this is his last chance. I think he knows that if he is defeated, he will be committed to Hell forever. But having said that, the only way that he can confidently interact with Lucifer is by hiding all of that.”
The series actually marks the third time DC’s version of Lucifer has been depicted in live-action. Peter Stormare gleefully played the character in the climax of the 2005 film Constantine, and Tom Ellis famously starred in the Lucifer TV series (based on a post-Sandman comic book run by writer Mike Carey). However, neither version of Lucifer much resembles the one seen in The Sandman #4, where the fallen angel is depicted as a beautiful, sexually androgynous monarch who bears more than a passing resemblance to a young David Bowie.
Neither Gaiman, Heinberg nor executive producer David Goyer ever seriously considered having Ellis reprise his role, despite the fact that the Lucifer series made the transition to Netflix in its final seasons. Including that version of the character would have added too much baggage to a series designed to stand on its own.
“[The Sandman’s] Lucifer is not the horny, funny, desperate-for-redemption Lucifer that we meet in the Lucifer TV series, although I love the Lucifer TV series,” Gaiman muses. “But we couldn’t have gone back. You couldn’t have cast Tom Ellis and back-filled that Lucifer to Sandman if you’re telling the Sandman story. So let’s go to the comics and ask, ‘How do we cast that character?’ Let’s do this Lucifer. And also, let’s do a Lucifer where we are scared for Morpheus to ever go back [to Hell].”
That’s where Gwendoline Christie came in. Heinberg reveals that the Game of Thrones star embodied the elements this version of Lucifer needed most.
“Androgynous and regal. I mean, like a fallen angel,” Heinberg says. “Not taking anything away from the other two depictions, but Gwendoline feels like the classic Morningstar to me.”
In fact, the producers were so taken with the idea of Christie playing Lucifer that they skipped right over the traditional casting process. Gaiman simply offered her the part.
“For me, weirdly, it was much less Brienne of Tarth and much more her Titania in Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre that the National did, the gender-swapped one, that really brought it home,” Gaiman reveals. “Because essentially her Titania is Oberon, and she played it with so much power and so much majesty. She seemed faerie. She seemed otherworldly.”
Not taking anything away from the other two depictions, but Gwendoline feels like the classic Morningstar to me.
Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer Morningstar in episode 104 of The Sandman.
“Neil’s presentation of Lucifer as being ice cold was just so fascinating to me, so interesting, but the flamboyance and depth of the relationship with Dream and this idea of power coming through, being expressed, not simply through human suffering, but through all of these hyper-real, hallucinatory experiences in the battle that they go through was really exciting, because that’s the kind of world that I’m interested in,” Christie tells IGN.
There’s a clear dichotomy between Lucifer’s angelic appearance and demeanor on the one hand and their horrific crimes on the other. That dichotomy is expressed as much through Lucifer’s costumes as through Christie’s performance.
“What we wanted to explore was this idea of theatricality of things in opposition, of a kind of almost angelic or classical robe, and also something that was more traditionally rock & roll and also sexuality, but I think we all wanted to convey that through very heightened means and for them to be theatrical, but having newness to them,” Christie says. “The design was stupendous, and I felt incredibly lucky to work with all involved with the design, from my wings, to my costumes. We really played around with scale and with my scale and about embracing all of my tallness and making Lucifer take up even more room, to be even taller, to be even more imposing, with broader shoulders, a longer scale, and a pair of the most fabulous wings you could possibly imagine, which I really loved. I really did.”
Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer and Tom Sturridge as Dream in The Sandman. (Credit: Netflix)
This scene may serve as the first of multiple encounters between Lucifer and Dream in the series, but it’s also a reunion between two of the oldest beings in the DC Universe. Lucifer is the “first of the fallen.” Morpheus is the living embodiment of dreams. They share a long, complicated history together. They’re closer to enemies than friends, but there’s also an intimacy to their relationship that can only exist between two people who have come to know one another over the course of (millions of) years. This scene seeks to highlight that ancient dynamic, if not through words than through Christie and Sturridge’s performances.
“The thing about Gwendoline is she’s such an extraordinary, formidable presence, and it’s easy to be intimidated by her, but at the same time, it’s also very easy to fall in love with her,” Sturridge says. “I do think that beyond the respect they have for each other, there is a strained sort of love. And I think just her as an actress made it so easy to hold those two contrary ideas in your head at the same time.”
“I have to give the major props to Tom, because I walked on set and he really was Dream,” counters Christie. “Not only had all of the creative departments done a stupendous job of really making Dream come to life visually, but I truly felt that Tom had mined the character – had really mined it – and had pulled something out of himself that encapsulated who Dream is.”
This scene is also pivotal in the sense that it reveals Dream at his weakest and most vulnerable. With a protagonist this old and powerful, The Sandman is all about finding those moments where weakness, doubt or humanity reveal themselves. As Christie notes, that weakness is something Lucifer is eager to prey upon.
“Lucifer thinks they’re all-powerful,” she says. “So, when they are confronted by Dream, it’s like a cat with a mouse. Lucifer believes that they are going to have some fun, are entirely able and capable of torturing, tormenting and humiliating Dream for Lucifer’s own pleasure. It was really enjoyable to play someone who is so all-powerful, they’re bored by it. They are so self-assured that they are effortless. They are still; they are bureaucratic.”
Christie adds, “It’s something that’s very, very unfamiliar to me, but the idea of confidence resulting in total economy of movement, of not needing to really do anything at all. And then when Lucifer’s rattled for the first time, and this is the first time possibly ever other than obviously with God, which has resulted in Lucifer going from being God’s favorite angel to a fallen angel, to the ruler of Hell, that then it becomes a lot more emotional.”
When they are confronted by Dream, it’s like a cat with a mouse.
Death: A Day in the Life
The second scene is taken from Episode 6, which is (among other things) an adaptation of 1989’s The Sandman #8. The first of many standalone vignettes in the comic book, that issue introduces readers to Dream’s older, wiser sister, Death.
At this point in the Netflix series, Dream has dealt with his first major challenge since escaping his confinement. But rather than basking in his victory and immediately setting about rebuilding his broken kingdom, Episode 6 reveals a despondent Morpheus at a loss for what to do next. Vengeance hasn’t brought him any comfort, and so Death comes along to help give her younger brother some badly needed perspective on life. Reluctantly, Dream joins her as she pays a visit to a recently deceased violinist named Harry.
Of the massive supporting cast in the comic book series, Death has proven the most popular and enduring. She’s gone on to feature in several spinoff books like Death: The High Cost of Living and occasionally appeared in superhero books like Action Comics. Even more than Lucifer, Death is a case of a character completely subverting reader expectations. This is no hooded, scythe-wielding skeleton. Gaiman’s Death is a cheerful Goth girl who makes it her mission to provide a warm, comforting hand as she guides the newly dead to the other side of eternity.
Gaiman has been especially protective of Death over the years. If casting Christie as Lucifer was the easiest decision the producers made, finding the right actress to portray this multifaceted character was incredibly difficult and time-consuming.
“There were actresses of every possible ethnicity,” Gaiman recalls. “Amazing actresses. Incredibly beautiful, incredibly brilliant, fabulous actresses. And their audition included talking about Mary Poppins and telling Dream that he was the most pathetic excuse for an anthropomorphic personification on this or any other plane.”
Gaiman continues, “They had to be delivered with certainty. You had to know that this person really was Dream’s big sister, who he would listen to. And when we saw Kirby’s audition, that for me was really the first time that I saw those lines delivered in a way that I believed. And I was surprised, because I had imagined that we’d have at least an American, or an American accent, on our Death. Was not expecting a British Death. And then when I saw what Kirby had given us, I was like, ‘Oh, this is what I want. This is magic.’”
“She had the gravity to sort of stand up to Tom, and Tom in this role carries a lot of weight and a lot of authority and whoever we cast as Death needed to project that sort of light and loving quality, but also be able to tell him, ‘You are on the wrong path,’ and to have him listen to her,” Heinberg says. “It’s part of who [Kirby] is as a human being. She’s extremely present, she’s extremely loving, and she’s really smart. And she brought all of that to Death and gave us everything we hoped that an actor would bring to the part. And she and Tom loved each other immediately and had instant chemistry. And the episode is, I know it’s one of Neil’s favorites, it’s definitely one of mine as well.
Gaiman has always adamantly shot down criticism regarding the decision to cast a Black actress as a traditionally white character. As he points out, the Endless change their forms constantly to suit the eye of the beholder. Morpheus himself appears as an African man in The Sandman #9, a flashback to a much earlier time in humanity’s relationship with The Endless. For him, all that mattered was finding an actress with the right personality.
When we saw Kirby’s audition, that for me was really the first time that I saw those lines delivered in a way that I believed.
“For me, the key thing with Death was always, I want Death to be played by somebody who when you meet them, and they say, ‘You really should have looked both ways before crossing that street,’ you feel glad to meet them. They’re reassuring. They’re nice. They make a bad moment a little bit better. And that’s how I feel about Kirby’s Death.”
“I find that the compassion and the relatability of Death is what, for me, was the best way into the character, because I think that those are her defining features,” Howell-Baptiste tells IGN. “In the majority of pop culture, when we have any depiction of Death, which essentially is just an idea, a concept, it’s a lot more dark. It’s doom and gloom, it’s a lot more negative, for lack of a better word. The idea that people go into it kicking and screaming. And I think that the heart of what Neil created in the character of Death is dignity in death, and in that there is someone who is… It’s a very uncertain and difficult thing, both for the person transitioning, and obviously the families that we focus on, the people transitioning.”
That being said, the appeal of Gaiman’s Death is more than just her upbeat personality or off-kilter fashion sense. More than perhaps any other member of the Endless family, she’s a being who feels the full weight of the responsibility that’s been bestowed upon her.
Tom Sturridge as Dream in The Sandman. (Credit: Netflix)
“She talks very candidly about a time when she struggled with what she had to do and struggled with people’s perception of what she was there to do,” Howell-Baptiste says of a later scene in Episode 6. “There’s the line where she talks to Dream and she says that they [mortals] enter your world every night without fear. And yet they fear me so much and the same thing could happen, but they enter the dream world with no concept of where that could take them or what might happen. So I think it does weigh [on her], but then I think she finds a way to make her peace with it because she understands that she is, in being Death, she’s intrinsically part of life. So she’s just sort of part and parcel of if there is life, there has to be death.”
“I cried the first time I saw the Harry scene,” Gaiman reveals. “Not when I saw it filmed – I’d seen it filmed and seen it put together – but sitting and watching the whole of that first episode the first time. And I realized I was tearing up at that point, because I believed. Because there was so much kindness and depth in her performance, and because the whole thing felt right.”
In some ways, these two scenes serve as two sides of the same coin. If Morpheus’ encounter with Lucifer is meant to show him at his most physically vulnerable, his reunion with Death is about revealing the humanity within his cold, austere surface. As Dream watches Death at work, we can see him beginning to understand the burden of her position and feel a sense of compassion for Harry.
“It really is about Death saying to Dream, ‘You’re putting your job and your honor, and your responsibilities ahead of the people that you were made to serve.’ And so she’s trying to teach him the beauty and the poetry of engaging one-on-one with these people and seeing their value,” Heinberg says. “And it takes Dream a really long time… I think he gets it in the course of the episode, but it’s one thing to nod your head and say, ‘You have taught me a lot, my sister,’ and it’s another thing to do your job differently the next day.”
Goyer adds, “It basically takes him the length of the series to fully embrace that lesson. I mean, that’s his character’s journey.”
Sturridge’s performance is key in this scene, revealing much about Dream’s emotions despite him remaining almost entirely silent. Sturridge’s eyes tell the story here, which also speaks to one of the more significant changes the Netflix series has made to the comic.
Adapting Morpheus’ Look
Traditionally, Morpheus is drawn as an ethereal figure – tall and gaunt, with ivory white skin and an unruly mop of hair that recalls The Cure frontman Robert Smith. But no matter how much his form shifts, Morpheus is distinguished by his eyes. His sockets are bathed in pools of black, with a few glittering stars visible within. It’s a striking look, but not one that necessarily translates to live-action. Though the crew certainly made an effort.
“We tried it and it looked distractingly cartoonish in real life and it completely disengaged Tom. We lost Tom,” Goyer admits. “The minute we blacked out his eyes, we lost him. He was gone. It’s such an internalized character – everything he thinks and feels – he doesn’t express himself very often with his words. And so if we take away the actor’s eyes and Tom’s ability to convey everything that Dream of the Endless is thinking and feeling without saying a word, we just lost him.”
Tom Sturridge as Dream in episode 109 of The Sandman.
Goyer continues, “So we knew we’d be disappointing fans who were hoping for a sort of literalized version of that, because it is such an iconic look in the comic book, but there was no way for us to tell our story and have the audience love Dream, and relate to Dream, and have him interact with other characters in a way that wasn’t occluded by that effect. So, unfortunately it didn’t work.”
“The first thing that Neil said to us when we were trying to build [Morpheus], was that when he walks down the street in London or New York, while you may feel a certain power or charisma, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid,” Sturridge says. “He should look, seem like one of us. And the person that we first created, when I walked even down the corridors of the studios, people would be like, ‘Whoa. Okay. Who’s this guy?’ Which was entirely the effect that Neil did not want to have.”
Heinberg adds, “Let’s just say that Neil Gaiman took one look at it and said, ‘Nope, Nope. We’re not doing that.’ It took less than a second for him to react to it. No one was torn in that moment.”
The Sandman: Season 1
debuts on Netflix on August 5, 2022.
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