Kirby Howell-Baptiste previews Death's 'nurturing, caring side' on Netflix's The Sandman
The Sandman is an epic story about the king of dreams. But despite his central importance to the upcoming Netflix TV show and the Neil Gaiman comic it's based on, Dream, a.k.a. Morpheus (Tom Sturridge) is not the most visually iconic character in the series. That would be his older sister, Death, who will be played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste.
In much of known culture, the grim reaper has been depicted as a terrifying skeletal figure who symbolizes our collective fear of mortality. This Death is not like that. She's a spunky big sister, dressed simply in a black tank top and ankh necklace, who offers warmth and comfort to the people she escorts to the other side.
"Most of the time when we see a representation of Death, it's so focused on the end," Howell-Baptiste observes. "But this character says, 'I was there in the beginning, and I'll be there in the end.' Death is born of life. I think there's something very beautiful and cyclical about her position in the world, because it's so much about the full journey that she is there for. That lends itself to a more feminine energy — there is this much more nurturing, caring side to Death than we've ever seen before."
Death's arrival scene in The Sandman TV show is adapted almost directly from her first appearance in the comic. The episode even shares the same name as The Sandman #8, "The Sound of Her Wings." As in that issue by Gaiman, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III, Howell-Baptiste's Death finds Dream sitting in a park, not sure what to do with himself after reclaiming the magical artifacts that had been lost to him after his decades of imprisonment by human sorcerers. Death walks up, quotes Mary Poppins, and implores her brother to chill out a little.
In both the comic and TV show, Death's charm is an important counterbalance to Dream's gloom. It was Howell-Baptiste's ability to incarnate that big-sister aura that made her stand out amidst hundreds of candidates to take on this iconic role.
"We saw a lot of Deaths, well into the many hundreds. But Kirby had a quality that was unique of being able to speak honestly to power," Gaiman recalls. "That honesty, and the fact that she could deliver those lines and you believe them, were what sold me on Kirby 100 percent. We had supermodels, we had all sorts of amazing people a lot more famous than Kirby auditioning. But I didn't believe they were Death, I didn't believe they were Tom's big sister that could boss him around. Then Kirby came on and it was just like, 'I love you, I believe you, and you're it.'"
Sturridge worked hard to translate Dream to the screen. As he told EW earlier this year, his first days on set were mostly spent naked in a great glass cage. Howell-Baptiste's arrival was as much a breath of fresh air for him as for his character.
"Kirby was the first person who walked on set and wasn't in awe," Sturridge says. "I spent the whole time with people going, 'How do you behave in front of someone who's supposed to be this eternal being?' She was the first one who was like, 'What's the big deal?' It was such a relief. She's an extraordinary actress."
Filming in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic didn't give Sturridge and Howell-Baptiste much time to rehearse together, but their shared love of the source material helped them connect.
"It's rare to get presented with a role where you already know so much about the world," says Howell-Baptiste, who first connected with Gaiman's writing through his novel American Gods before discovering The Sandman. "Because we both knew our characters so well and were both so invested, we came together really easily. Tom and I have this natural chemistry for a sibling relationship."
Just like issues of the comic, episodes of The Sandman series play like short stories, with Dream mostly interacting with different characters in each installment. In spite of Death's importance, her debut episode is one of the most down-to-earth.
"It probably has the least amount of special effects or bells and whistles. It's mostly just walking, talking, and ruminating on our place in the world," says Howell-Baptiste. "When we think of power, our idea of it is being dominating and forceful. But I think Death's power is quiet, humble, and self-assured. She is aware of what she can do."
That simplicity also makes Death's appearance easy to replicate, and Howell-Baptiste is excited to see cosplays inspired by the show.
"[San Diego] Comic Con is always a feast for the eyes," says The Good Place alum. "But certain costumes take a lot of time or a lot of money. What I think is beautiful about this costume is how simple it is: People can literally just get a black tank top, black jeans, boots, and an ankh. I cannot wait to see people dressed as Death. It's one of the things I'm most excited about."
The Sandman premieres Aug. 5 on Netflix.
Sign up for Entertainment Weekly's free daily newsletter to get breaking TV news, exclusive first looks, recaps, reviews, interviews with your favorite stars, and more.
- The Blood Origin of The Witcher: Inside Netflix's prequel event series
- Watch 9-1-1 get tense as Athena clashes with mom over her dad's accident
- The Calling star Jeff Wilbusch on what sets his TV detective apart
- Tulsa King boss says Sylvester Stallone gets to flex his comedic muscles in new mob drama