On the second batch of casting decisions for Netflix and Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Sandman’ adaptation


The two batches of casting announcements for Netflix's The Sandman have given fans of the iconic comic book series—after several years of "development hell" and pessimism—reasons finally for optimism. Now to be realised as a television series after decades of ill-starred cinematic attempts, Neil Gaiman's The Sandman (DC Comics) can finally begin its ascent into our side of reality.

It was at the end of September 2020 that entertainment website Collider first broke the news of a casting for the adaptation. Sandman's lead would finally be revealed to the world, and it wasn't any of the fan-driven ideals, who had dreamt of Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, and fellow-high cheekboned man Colin Morgan (Morgan was at least considered). The man announced instead was not on any enthusiast's radar. It was the relatively unknown Tom Sturridge, who cinemagoers may recall as Lord Byron in the little-seen Mary Shelley (2017), or as Ryan Gosling's brother in the unsuccessful Song to Song (2017). Neither Netflix nor Sturridge's representatives responded to any comments or proddings, and this announcement too fell by the wayside.

That was until the end of January 2021, when Netflix, now with a black-and-white banner brandished with the words, "It Begins…", announced formally the first round of Sandman castings. Confirming, indeed, Sturridge's role as Morpheus, the titular King of Dreams, the bill displayed a fascinating and inspired bit of casting. The lead, though hard to judge, promises a good start for the series, with the actor physically embodying the famous character quite well. Of the bits of Sturridge you will find in Google searches, you will see a mastery of the distant stare, a look of empty, endless yawning through eyes alone, that seems to already capture the morose Lord Shaper of Gaiman's pages. Fill in the long, Robert Smith-hair, the tattered robe, and the red glimmer of the eye, and near-fully formed is the character of Dream.

Alongside him is the publicity shot of actress-model Gwendoline Christie, the captivating Brienne of Tarth of Game of Thrones fame. Portraying "ruler of hell" Lucifer Morningstar, Christie is already better suited than her machismo-laden counterpart in Lucifer's Tom Ellis, who forever haunts my Netflix home screen. The actress is poised to bring to life the sleek, androgynous nature of Gaiman's character as originally written ("You must draw David Bowie", was among the writer's notes to original artist Kelley Jones. "[I]f it isn't David Bowie, you're going to have to redo it until it is David Bowie"). In Christie, Gaiman will find his Bowie, with the actress' natural Thin White Duke-swagger a perfect fit for the role.

Also of Game of Thrones fame is Charles Dance, who portrays Roderick Burgess, the cruel and self-centred magician who entraps our protagonist in the comic book's first issue, setting the events of the series into play. In 1916, Burgess captures Dream with a spell (mistaking him for his sister Death), bringing him out of The Dreaming and into human reality, where the occultist binds Dream for 75 years (in the comics), or 105 years (in the Netflix series). Burgess' actions bring about generations of trouble and nightmares, and Dance, though more handsome than the original, is tailor made for the part. Fans can expect to see something between the detached ruthlessness of his Tywin Lannister and the gleeful villainy of his Benedict in the Last Action Hero (1993).

Boyd Holbrook, an actor and model who has been forging over the last few years a commendable run of films, is well-cast in the role of The Corinthian, one of the escaped nightmares since Dream's imprisonment. Corinthian has long been a fan favourite (pay close attention to what's behind his sunspecs), who doesn't come into play until the second volume, The Doll's House (1989-1990). The roles revealed in the two announcements all but confirm the first 11-episode season's intention to amalgamate the structurally-different storylines of the first two volumes, which will likely see the first, more meditative volume, Preludes & Nocturnes (1989), truncated.

Change is key in the casting decision. Third billed in the first announcement is actress Vivienne Acheampong, who will play a gender- and race-switched Lucienne (originally Lucien), the chief librarian of The Dreaming. Also changed are Cain and Abel, "the first predator" and "the first prey" respectively, who are to be portrayed by British-Indian comedians Sanjeev Bhaskar and Asim Chaudhry. Bhaskar is the recipient of an OBE, and viewers may remember the comedian in Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No. 42 broadcasted in Star World in the early-to-mid 2000s. His on-screen brother, Asim Chaudhry is best known for his BBC series People Just Do Nothing, and has received his fair share of acclaim. While the two actors of Indian origin will spend the majority of their screen time killing one another (Cain routinely reenacts mankind's first murder in nearly all their appearances), it is, however, a nice sight to see actors of our subcontinent feature in a prominent production—though I can see their routine raising concerns in the future.

Months since this first batch of announcements, the second casting announcement was made on May 28, 2021—featuring, as all those familiar with the books wanted to know, the news of who would play the beloved Death. Taking the torch from January's batch, this new announcement features three radical changes. Rose Walker, the blonde- and red-haired protagonist of The Doll's House, is now a black woman portrayed by the debuting Kyo Ra. The character's grandmother, Unity Kincaid, has similarly been changed, with English actress Sandra James-Young set to play. Finally, and this is where the more bullheaded sects of the fanbase may erupt, is the change in the character of Death. Changed from pasty skin to black, Death of The Endless will be brought to life by Kirby Howell-Baptiste, who has delighted in small, recurring roles in The Good Place, Barry, and Killing Eve, among other shows. According to Gaiman in a recent blog post, "Hundreds of talented women from all around the planet auditioned, and they were brilliant, and none of them were right. Someone who could speak the truth to Dream, on the one hand, but also be the person you'd want to meet when your life was done on the other. And then we saw [Howell-Baptiste's] audition and we knew we had our Death."

Since the announcement last week, the celebrated author has received and has had to reply to a number of fan tweets decrying the casting of women and/or people of colour in previously white roles. Much of this backlash, as can be deciphered in an instant, is rooted in flagrant phobias. This isn't to say, however, that some bit of scepticism is not undue. Over the past few decades, with gender and racial inequality brought more so to public attention, the comic book industry has reacted in a stupefyingly lazy manner. Where readers rightly pointed out the disparity between male and female characters (to say nothing of nonbinary representation), the powerhouses of DC Comics and Marvel counteracted with repackaging of familiar heroes as either black men or women. "Insert famous superhero is now black" and "insert famous superhero is now a woman" has been a cheap marketing ploy, recycling the old heroes (that, too, in a pocket, non-canonical world, away from the regular, white, men in tights who are most definitely the real versions of the characters). Executives choose to have their cake and eat it too; opting out of investing in new, diverse characters in favour of a transparent duplication of the old.

On a surface level, the changes in Netflix's latest casting of Sandman echo that same executive decision. The streaming company has been known to diversify their original productions, by way of rewriting supporting characters as POC or people with disabilities. Motivations aside, this is the start of a modern positive change that can be seen in western media, but the problem of tokenism still perpetuates the industry as indeed the streaming platform. From Fate: The Winx Saga (2021) to Moxie (2021) to Neo Yokio (2017), several Netflix creations have received stern criticism of tokenism.

It is not the central character of The Sandman who has received any change. He remains the unnaturally pale, tall man of the comics. It is rather his sister, Death, one of the seven siblings that make up The Endless (Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, twin sisters Desire and Despair, and Delirium), who all share decidedly white skin—not 'white' in the sense of pink or red or the lightest of brown; the seven have white skin. This aesthetic has seemingly been done away with, as all but Death have so far been cast as Caucasians. [WARNING: START OF MAJOR SPOILER] Not only has Dream remained fair skinned, so has the character of Lyta Hall, played by British-Lebanese actress Razane Jammal. Lyta Hall will, of course, give birth to son Daniel Hall, who, by the end of the Sandman story, grows to succeed the mantle of Dream from Morpheus. [END OF MAJOR SPOILER]

A dynamic aspect of the best-selling series that will almost certainly be unrealised is the changing nature of Dream's appearance. His is a character that shifts entirely based on who or what is perceiving him. While he remains tall, lanky, and starry-eyed through all his appearances, every other feature is dictated by the ideals of the one before him—be it an African man to an African, a Japanese man to a Buddhist monk, a giant black cat to a group of cats, or a thin, dark-blue flower to a dreaming plant. While his dress and style will surely change, it would be a safe bet to make that the producers of this show won't risk accusations of "black- or yellow-face" (as was the case of Cloud Atlas' ambitious 2012 adaptation).

Rounding out the casting announcements are the names of David Thewlis, Stephen Fry, Patton Oswalt, Jenna Coleman, Mason Alexander Park, Donna Preston, Joely Richradson, and Niamh Walsh. Thewlis is undoubtedly the Netflix series' greatest get, and in different circumstances, he is who this article would be centred on. The actor, who since his breathtaking turn as Johnny Fletcher in 1993's Naked, has found himself a tremendous career, earning greatest fame as Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter films. Thewlis takes the part of John Dee, aka Doctor Destiny, whose psychosis will be pivotal in the first arc of the series. In the second arc, covering The Doll's House, we will see legendary comedian Stephen Fry as the debonair Gilbert, and Doctor Who's charismatic Jenna Coleman play the part of Johanna Constantine, a great ancestor of Hellblazer's John Constantine. Respected stand-up comic Patton Oswalt, no stranger to voice-acting, will speak for Matthew the Raven, who as Gaiman giddily recalls, will be brought to the screen with a real-life raven.

Playing the twin sisters of Desire and Despair are Mason Alexander Park and Donna Preston. Desire has consistently been depicted as a gender-fluid entity, and it is commendable that the series casted an actual nonbinary actor to don the role. (Also commendable is the casting pictures bearing gender pronouns for each performer).

While the series so far has stuck its public landings, it remains to be seen how well it carries on. Some of its casting choices may read like stunt casting at a glance, but whatever the motive, the end result is one to be celebrated. And yes, Kirby Howell-Baptiste will most certainly be a great Death.

A brief history of The Sandman's adaptation history

The story of  Gaiman's The Sandman, of course, extends beyond its texts, and has been a journey in itself.

The property had been passed around Hollywood for several years, amassing a notoriety in itself, starting from at least the summer of 1996. With the dust settling on the end of the comic book's original run, the assorted creative minds behind Pulp Fiction (1994), Aladdin (1992), and the future franchises of Shrek and the Pirates of the Caribbean banded together with the producer behind the Superman and Batman movies to bring Gaiman's creation into the silver screen. The fate that followed was the same for every iteration of adaptation; the label of "unfilmable" soon supplemented the articles bearing news of yet another failure. In 2013, the then-president of DC Entertainment, Diane Nelson declared her feelings on the property, deeming its franchise potential to be "as rich as the Harry Potter universe". And yet productions halted, developments stalled, and the Lord of Dreams would have to wait another six years—after two other Gaiman novels were successfully adapted for television.

Its transition to television was itself fraught, with HBO and the ill-suited Supernatural-creator Eric Kripke among names that met with that same outcome. As an editor of Rotten Tomatoes put it, the best-seller "could never be a film series, and television was simply not prepared for it until the streaming age".

Enter Netflix in mid-2019, now in the market for a massive IP of their own, much like rivals Amazon's Lord of the Rings and HBO's Game of Thrones and the aforementioned Harry Potter. Where HBO declined the franchise, owing essentially to the high budget The Sandman will no doubt require, Netflix has decided to take a chance. For what is said to have been a massive financial deal, the streaming company has signed on for the show, which sources unsurprisingly denote as the most expensive television series DC Entertainment has ever seen.

Fans and followers of this best-selling series, however, have borne witness to far too many false-starts and brief lives to get their hopes any way up. Speaking at least for myself, it was when I took notice of Allan Heinberg's role as showrunner in the upcoming Netflix series that some of that vitriol washed away. I had assumed that the previous powers—writer-producer David S Goyer and actor-director Joseph Gordon-Levitt—were in charge of the ship, with Gaiman's contributions being minimal and non-vital, as was then the norm. But while screenwriter Heinberg's résumé doesn't come preloaded with a great many selections, there are enough credits to his name to inspire confidence (he wrote the screenplay to 2017's Wonder Woman, and more importantly contributed to and helped oversee the two best seasons of HBO's Sex and the City).

A parallel source of cynicism came from the track record of Gaiman adaptations, of which only 2009's Coraline, a beautiful stop-motion animation film, and 2011's "The Doctor's Wife", an episode of the revived Doctor Who that Gaiman penned, were worthy of the author. The upcoming Netflix series, on the other hand, lists the author among its three executive producers, and his increased levels of involvement can already be seen.

The peculiar and particular nature of the graphic novel series invites finicky and overcritical fans like myself, and the new television drama looks to change expectations from here on out. The Netflix series will wrap principal photography in June 2021, and you can expect to stream the series in late 2021 or sometime in 2022. Hopefully what we get does justice to the fabled "comic strip for intellectuals".


Mehrul Bari S Chowdhury is a writer, poet, and artist. His work has appeared in Blood Orange Review, Kitaab, and Sortes Magazine, among others. He is currently the intern at Daily Star Books.


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