Neil Gaiman‘s groundbreaking graphic novel series The Sandman is currently the source material for two very different adaptations — a highly anticipated live-action series for Netflix, and an audio drama that you can enjoy right now on Audible. For both projects, the fantasy tale about the embodiment of dreaming reclaiming his kingdom of sleep after a century of captivity has attracted truly awe-inspiring talent, but one of the most exciting members of either ensemble is James McAvoy, who plays Dream for the Audible drama, which Gaiman told Collider last year was designed to be explicitly faithful to the original narrative.
Just recently, Audible released The Sandman: Act II, which adapts Volumes 4, 5, and most of 6 of the graphic novel for an audio-only experience. So, in a one-on-one interview with Collider, McAvoy talked about his relationship to Gaiman’s work prior to joining the project, what it was like working with writer/director Dirk Maggs on the adaptation, and how his mental picture of Dream as a character is actually pretty different from the artists’ renderings from the comic. He also reveals what other fantasy and sci-fi properties he’d love to be a part of down the line, and whether or not he feels like he’s done playing (the younger) Professor X in the X-Men films.
Collider: To start off, what was your relationship with The Sandman, prior to taking on the role?
JAMES MCAVOY: Oh, I’d read quite a few of the first chapters of Sandman when I was a teenager. The first one I ever read was, at the behest of my friend, was the Serial Killer Convention, which was absolutely terrifying. And it took me a little while to get over that, actually, in terms of coming back to it, because as much as I loved it, it stuck with me, just how scary that was. And it took me a couple of months to come back and read some of the other stuff, because it’s not all scary, Sandman. A lot of it is, but it isn’t all scary. Some of it’s quite whimsical, and quite poignant and beautiful as well, and quite classical at times, too. But yeah, so that was my first study. That was my first instance.
And then I’ve become a fan of Neil’s through, I think, Good Omens, [which he wrote] with Teddy Pratchett, and then into things like American Gods. One of my favorite books ever, actually, is The Ocean at the End of the Lane. And so I’ve been a fan of his for many, many years. And also, I did a radio play adaptation of Neverwhere about 10 years ago, something like that, with Dirk Maggs, as the director.
So I was familiar that way. And also getting to work with Dirk Maggs again on Neil’s work specifically, was a real… That was a real coup, because not only is Neil’s work incredible, but Dirk is the guy. He keeps the flame burning for Neil Gaiman. I mean, not that he needs to. Everybody’s reading them, watching them, doing them, but there is something about Dirk. He just gets inside it. And in a way, I sometimes think he understands Neil’s work even better than Neil does sometimes. You know? Neil said that as well. That’s not just me. I hope that’s all right to say.
Of course. I’m sure that for this you were largely recording everything separately. Did you have any opportunity to record with other cast members?
MCAVOY: No. I don’t think so. The first season, particularly, was very isolated. I was in a play in the West End, and it was taxing on my voice, it was a big ask on my voice. And so I said to the guys, to Dirk, and Neil, and all that, “Would you mind very much if we put my recording off until after I’m finished the play?” This was February 2020. And by the time I finished the play, of course, the pandemic is fully settled in and there was no real opportunity to go in the recording studios and record anything, unfortunately. So we were scuppered. So I think after three or four months, we were like, they’d recorded every single character in the thing. Every single actor in the thing had been recorded, except for me, and this is obviously a problem.
So they sent me a do-it-yourself recording studio for inside your house, which I had to build and erect. And I’m not in the best at DIY, home improvement, or anything like that. So it was a bit of an ask, but we got there in the end, which is good. And yes, I was at home on my own recording all this stuff. It’s actually pretty cool. But the good thing is for me is that every other actor had obviously laid their stuff down. So the director was able to pretty much play the entire season except my lines. So I got to hear the entire show. It was absolutely fascinating. I’ve never had that experience before on any film, television, audio, live-action, play, whatever it is, it was a first for me. And I absolutely loved it.
I don’t want to make you play favorites necessarily, but if there was another actor from the cast that you wish you’d been able to do your scenes with together, does someone come to mind?
MCAVOY: Oh, I really enjoy the stuff that Morpheus does with Death. That’s Kat Denning’s character. What else? Taron Egerton plays John Constantine. I’ve always liked him. I think he’s a great actor. And maybe those two. Maybe getting the three of us together would be cool.
When you were recording, what were you doing specifically to kind of get into the headspace of the character, given all the parameters that you were coping with?
MCAVOY: I mean, it’s tricky with Dream because I think Neil sees Sandman… Maybe he doesn’t see it consciously, but it is just a playground for his imagination. It’s more than that, that makes it sound like he’s just servicing himself, but it’s so different one issue, one episode, to the next, that Dream’s almost a different character from one episode to the next sometimes. And you’ve kind of got to be the guy that he needs you to be sometimes. You go and be the Dream that Dream needs to be for that particular episode sometimes.
But it is really different. One episode you might be with going in Shakespeare, while they perform A Midsummer Nights Dream to the fairies. And in the next episode, you’re with John Constantine in modern-day Liverpool tracking down some criminal or something. And it’s so wildly and vastly different every time you come back to it. So you’ve got to trust Neil, and you’ve got to trust Dirk, because he’s just the best guy at getting you through this. There’s so much. It’s dense. It’s like it’s reams and reams and reams. It’s almost Shakespearian in terms of the amount of material that he’s managed to put together.
Yeah, absolutely. When you’re doing the actual recording, do you have a photo of the character nearby? Do you have other things you use to keep in mind what’s going on?
MCAVOY: No, no. I just try and let my imagination do the work for me. I mean, much as the listener is, or will have to do. If I’m not able to imagine it, then the listener isn’t going to be able to have much of a shot. So no, I’m pretty much letting my imagination do all the work. And also my Dream, I think he looks slightly different from the artwork that I’ve seen. In my mind he does anyway.
Interesting. How so?
MCAVOY: I don’t know. There’s something quite peculiar about a lot of the artwork, which is great. And I’m not saying that’s not who he is to people who see him that way, but I don’t know. I just saw him a bit more ordinary at times. There’s something strangely banal about Morpheus sometimes which I quite like, because he’s such a… It’s not ethereal, but it’s a physical fantastical figure. And yet there’s something quite mundane and domestic about him sometimes. I quite like that.
In general, across many different mediums, you’ve gotten to play an interesting variety of characters in the fantasy and sci-fi realms. Is there a dream role that you haven’t gotten to do yet, or a dream franchise you’d want to be a part of?
MCAVOY: I mean, I’ve often talked about loving Star Trek, and jokingly, but also kind of seriously been like, if you ever want to do a young Jean-Luc Picard, I’m your man. But I’m probably getting close to being too old to do a young Jean-Luc Picard now. So there’s that.
I mean, I remember when they made Lord of the Rings, the first time. (You have to say the first time, because Amazon is doing it again.) I remember me and my mate, Ross, just sitting in a pub and just being like, What’s the point of becoming an actor? They’ve already made the best story ever written. And so there was that out the window. But then, now we live in the land of remakes, so there’s always a chance. There’s always a chance that you’re going to get on a show. But the only one that comes to mind is Star Trek, I think. I’ve always loved it. Always.
Well, I think, I feel like you have some pretty good job experience under your belt for playing a Jean-Luc.
MCAVOY: Yeah, definitely. I’ve successfully been Patrick, actually, and balded up, although maybe again, the young Jean-Luc wouldn’t be bald. But yeah, no, maybe I’m overqualified for it, though. That’s the other thing. Do you know what I mean? It’s too easy, it’s too obvious a choice. So maybe that turns people off from it.
Of course. Along those lines, do you feel like you’re done playing Professor X?
MCAVOY: I feel like, yeah. I feel like I got to explore, not everything I wanted to explore, because there’s always more, surely, but I got to explore a ton of Professor X, and I feel quite satisfied with what I got out of him as a performer. It’s not to say that you don’t ever want to, you never want to come back, and you never want to do it again, and all that kind of stuff. You never say never, as I believe James Bond once said. But I’m not chomping at the bit. I’m not going to be gutted and desperately sad if it never happens again.
The Sandman: Act II is available now exclusively on Audible. In addition, the first installment is currently available for free on Audible, Amazon Music, and through Alexa-enabled devices, through October 22.
The spark between the two actors was there right from the start.
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