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James McAvoy records The Sandman from his temporary home studio.
James McAvoy records The Sandman from his temporary home studio.
Photo: Courtesy of James McAvoy

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How the new Sandman audio drama cast Dream, Death, Desire, and Despair

Director Dirk Maggs on giving voices to iconic characters

How do you cast the right voice actor for characters that have become iconic while remaining entirely silent?

Director Dirk Maggs has encountered the question before, over decades of working with author Neil Gaiman on audio adaptations of the books Good Omens, Stardust, Neverwhere, and Anansi Boys. But adapting Gaiman’s comic The Sandman for audio was a particular challenge because the characters are so familiar to fandom. With the audiobook The Sandman (which covers the first 20 of the comic’s 75 issues) due out on July 15, we talked to Maggs about what he was looking for in the voices for his most important and familiar characters, and how the title character — Morpheus, a.k.a. Dream or the Sandman, among other names — could have had virtually any accent, and nearly wound up with a Scottish one.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

Morpheus from Sandman Image: Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg / DC Comics

Dream — James McAvoy

James was pretty much at the forefront of our mind from the off, because we worked with him on Neverwhere, the BBC dramatization on BBC Radio Four in England, with Neil, and he was just a joy to work with. He’s a very inventive actor.

The thing about Dream ... everybody’s got their own idea about Dream. And of course there’s no pressure in casting a character who’s spent 30 years in everyone’s consciousness. I felt that what we needed to be careful of with Dream was that he might always sound passive. We needed to have a sense of latent energy in him, even if things are laid-back. And James always has a passion and an energy in him. If you’re in the studio with him, he’s literally on the balls of his feet, bouncing around. He’s got all this power. So I thought, for a start, he could vocally do it, because he’s got this beautiful voice. Secondly, he could give us whatever accent we wanted. We were thinking maybe Scottish.

And then we thought, “No, we’ll go English,” and so on. And he brought this sense of being, this presence, and in the end, that was really our key thing with Morpheus. He has to be an active part of everything all the time, because the story is about him. If he’s around, then we have to feel there’s a presence in the room. We knew James would give us that. That’s it in a nutshell, but I could talk for hours about why we cast James.

Dream and Death from Sandman sit together on a fountain, with pigeons. Image: Neil Gaiman, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III/DC Comics

Death — Kat Dennings

That was an interesting one, because we had a list as long as your arm of names for Death, and we had just any kind of actress at all. We had all ethnicities, everything in terms of nationality, absolutely no lines drawn. Neil was all for getting the person who could best do it. But not long into the process, as we were going through the list, he said, “You know, I just keep hearing Kat’s voice.” And I didn’t know Kat’s work, so I had to catch up online, and then I saw exactly what he meant, because it needed a kind of fresh, perky quality, which Kat has got. And Kat was up for doing it, which was great. And the thing was, Kat gave Death that sort of freshness.

The thing about Death is, she’s got to confound expectations. Those of us who know Sandman well expect the teenage perky Gothic girl, the, IHOP waitress, as Neil memorably put it. But what we needed was to bring all of that into just the voice, so that even if you didn’t know Sandman, you would immediately get the sense of someone who came in and just shook things up, whose very presence had a dramatic effect of changing everything. And not only did Kat come in and do that, she’s also the fastest reader of the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” I have ever heard in my life. She just [motorboat lip noise] through that word. So If that was the audition, she would have got it.

A series of panels from the Sandman arc The Doll’s House, featuring Desire talking about Dream. Image: Neil Gaiman, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III / DC Comics

Desire — Justin Vivian Bond

Neil was so ahead of his time writing this stuff, you know. Not all of it lands to a modern ear and eye, but he was right there in designing Desire, a nonbinary character. That was absolutely the casting rule — we had to cast nonbinary for Desire. We wanted it to be somebody who could handle it, someone who was really good in the acting department, with all the chops that was needed.

Viv was one of our early thoughts. We talked with them about it at a distance, and they were really interested in the character. When I went to New York City, just after seeing Kat, actually, to record, we had a brilliant sit-down and talked through it all. And Viv really got Desire. I did the least with Viv than anyone else on the whole series. They just got it from the off, really. It was uncanny. And the interacting — it cut in so well with James, and with Miriam Margolyes, who plays Despair. Miriam’s doing this very weak, very thready sort of voice, and Viv’s got this very assured presence as Desire. I’m really looking forward to more encounters between the Endless, the siblings, because they all have such presence now.

Despair and Delirium talking in the Sandman arc Brief Lives Image: Neil Gaiman, Jill Thompson / DC Comics

Despair — Miriam Margolyes

Miriam is in her mature years, but I just had this feeling that she could nail it. Despair is so elusive. The character embodies those qualities in the name, but at the same time, it’s not so lost in its own misery that it can’t operate, it can’t contribute to a conversation. Miriam came in and we did three readings of the part. We did a very, very low-energy reading, where we’re really going for — I’ve forgotten exactly what Neil wrote, but it was some description that was incredibly evocative, and totally impossible to match in real life. [Ed. note: “That voice that sounds like people with wet and bubbly stuff in their lungs buried under the ground being crushed to death by giant worms talking,” per Delirium.]

But it gives you something that you’re expecting. So we did very low-energy one, and then a slightly more assertive version, louder and more volume-driven. In the end, we settled on a sort of middle voice, with a drawly kind of sense to it. It gave us the feeling where she could rise to the occasion if she needed to deliver a line hard, but then she could drop back into the self-absorption that goes with the character. I’ve worked with Miriam over the years. She’s a big personality in her own right, and she’s still got these amazing vocal chops. When I was working on the mix the other week, my wife said, “Who is that playing that part?” She couldn’t believe it when I told her, because Miriam so moves away from where she is normally to do this part.

Delirium and Dream talking in the Brief Lives arc of Sandman. Image: Neil Gaiman, Jill Thompson / DC Comics

Destiny / Delirium / Destruction

We haven’t got to Delirium yet. This is the first 20 issues, so our last story is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And Destiny only has one line in this audiobook, delivered by Harry Myers, who was one of the ensemble casts that we recorded. And all had to say was, “Hrrrmm,” so that was straightforward, a kind of filler-inner.

So I know you want to talk fantasy casting, but it would be giving you hostage to fortune if I said, “Oh, we desperately want so-and-so to play Delirium or Destiny.” I’m gonna leave that one ’til I’ve had a conversation with Neil about it. Because to be honest with you, it was enough just to get this one done. We’re looking forward to doing more, we’re desperate to do more, but if I start saying names, I know I’m just making meself a rod to beat meself up with.

Four silent panels of Rainie, aka Element Girl, in the Sandman issue Facade. Image: Neil Gaiman, Colleen Doran / DC Comics

Who wound up being the biggest challenge, in terms of finding what you were looking for in audio form?

If I was going to select one in-studio experience that was utterly memorable, it was Samantha Morton playing Rainie, Urania Blackwell, Element Girl. That episode is pretty much a single-hander, a sort of half-hour single-hander play, or a single-actor movie. And Sam is such a good actor. She’s got all this intensity. This is a character who’s tired of living, and you’ve got to get through this half-hour, this story that Neil’s cleverly put together, where as an audience member, you’re willing to stay with her, even though the subject matter is pretty depressing.

Sam’s got this wonderful sensitivity. You might not see her display it so much in Walking Dead, but you might see it in Minority Report. In this case, she said, “Do you mind if we turn all the lights out in the studio to do this part?” I said, “Not at all, as long as you can still see the script, we’re good.” So we did this in this sort of twilight, this character. She was working maybe an inch, two inches from the mic. It was technically quite tricky to do. But she wanted to drop the energy level right down at times. And she was utterly magic.

And then when when Death comes in at the end of that episode, and they meet and talk — that was a real gamble, because I didn’t record them in the same place at the same time. But it dovetails so well. There was actually a point where Death gives Rainie a tissue to wipe her nose, and so Kat produces the tissue in Atlanta, and then hands it across the Atlantic to Sam in London. I’m making a joke, but the fact is, the chemistry in that episode, and the way Sam performed that, it gave me shivers. It really did.

Another small playlet in this set of issues is “The Dream of a Thousand Cats.” How did you end up with Bebe Neuwirth as the Siamese cat?

Funnily enough, I had Bebe in mind for one part, which was Chantal, in the house-share with Zelda. And Neil has her in mind for the Siamese cat. In the end, rather than fight each other over it, we just said, “Why don’t we have her play both?” Because we just both love Bebe. She’s such a fantastic actor. And of course she came in and was just brilliant. So it was a consensus, from different directions, arriving in the same place.

The Sandman audiobook is available now.

The Sandman

Audible and DC present the first audio production of the New York Times bestselling series written by Neil Gaiman, who serves as co-executive producer and narrator. When The Sandman — the immortal king of dreams, stories and the imagination — is pulled from his realm and imprisoned on Earth, he languishes for decades before escaping to rebuild his deteriorating dominion.

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