The Sandman creator and star discuss bringing Morpheus to the screen
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Of all the questions the creators of Netflix's upcoming Sandman show had to answer, one loomed above the rest: Who will play Morpheus?
The character at the center of the sprawling comic series created by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, and Mike Dringenberg goes by many names. He is, of course, the titular "sandman" who is capable of putting people to sleep, but he is more formerly known as Dream, one of the Endless who embody eternal concepts (his siblings include Death and Desire, among others). The character himself prefers the name Morpheus, but what's most important to him are his duties — as Lord of the Dreaming, Morpheus is in charge of the stories that humans tell ourselves, especially when we're asleep.
The story of Morpheus' screen casting is a long one. Ever since The Sandman comic became a pop culture phenomenon in the '90s, there have been numerous failed attempts to turn it into a film. The most recent one was overseen by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who would have starred in the lead role. After that fell apart and the adaptation transitioned into a TV show co-produced by Netflix and Warner Bros., a worldwide search was on to find the perfect Morpheus.
"I think I have personally seen 1,500 Morpheus auditions," Gaiman tells EW. "I hesitate to imagine how many [casting director] Lucinda Syson and her team have seen."
That process was elongated even further by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which gave Netflix and Warner Bros. extra time to cast their protagonist. Yet the whole time, Gaiman felt extremely confident in one of the very first tryouts he had seen: Two-time Tony nominee Tom Sturridge, who will indeed play Morpheus in The Sandman when it hits Netflix this summer.
"Having watched all those other auditions, we were able to go to Netflix and say, 'it's Tom,'" Gaiman says. "We know it's Tom."
For his part, Sturridge doesn't have many complaints about the lengthy process.
"It was entirely necessary, because this is a character who is so utterly beloved — by me more than anyone," Sturridge says. "That requires you to spend time with a human being to discover if they can live up to the dream you have of who he is."
Sturridge adds, "I think The Sandman pervades culture. Even the name Morpheus, King of Dreams, kind of haunted me in my youth."
The first time viewers will see Sturridge in the role, he'll mostly be naked. The story of The Sandman starts in World War I, when a few ambitious humans with pretentions of mysticism seek to capture Death in order to revive the loved ones they lost to the great war. Instead, they capture her brother Dream — and keep him imprisoned in their basement for more than a century.
"It was definitely a baptism-by-fire to be introduced to the people I was going to spend nine months with naked, climbing into a glass box — which, because of the way it's built, couldn't be broken apart easily. I would genuinely sit in it for hours at a time, which was very COVID safe!" Sturridge says with a laugh.
It also presented a challenge that Sturridge could actually wrap his head around.
"I cared very much about the physicality and image of Morpheus," he says. "We've all seen those pictures, we know about his skeletal, muscular, otherworldly physique. Something that's very exciting about the physical aspect of things is you can solve that problem. I can make my body look like that — it requires A, B, C, and D — in a way that I can't easily get into the soul of an Endless. There was something quite satisfying about beginning with a task that was achievable, and I worked hard to create this physicality that I felt that was unusual."
In addition to his ethereal physicality, Morpheus is also verbally distinctive. His speech bubbles in the comic are black with white lettering, and the words spoken in those bubbles are a big part of what gives The Sandman its literary flavor. Both Gaiman and Sturridge worked in their own ways to translate that quality to the screen.
"Morpheus' dialogue is incredibly specific," Gaiman says. "It was probably the thing I was most obsessive about. Someone would have written a fabulous script, [showrunner] Allan Heinberg would have rewritten a fabulous script, and I would have seen it at every iteration, but there would always be a point at the end where I would still be noodling on the Morpheus dialogue: Making sure the words were right, that the rhythms were right."
Sturridge adds, "I remember you said to me that everything he says has to feel like it was etched in stone. He's never improvising. He has experienced and perceived every thought, dream, and moment, and therefore he knows what you're going to say. That was very helpful."
Gaiman gave Sturridge another important piece of advice early on, to help distinguish his performance from another comic book icon.
"I growled at him once and said, 'stop being Batman,'" Gaiman says. "He was trying to get a bit whispery."
"It was literally my first day!" Sturridge says in his defense. "But it was incredibly helpful."
Watch EW's interview with Gaiman and Sturridge above.
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