The Sandman Tom Sturridge as Dream

Tom Sturridge on Dream’s trajectory in ‘The Sandman’ season 1: ‘The most important thing within the story we’re telling is the birth of empathy inside of him’

The Sandman television series was a huge focal point of SDCC 2022, and Subjectify was able to speak with some of the stars and EPs of the new Netflix’s adaptation on site in San Diego. Tom Sturridge, who leads the cast as Dream, shared plenty of insights about picking up the helm of Neil Gaiman’s Prince of Stories.

Warner Bros and Netflix brought their long-awaited adaptation of The Sandman to San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday July 23, in advance of the show’s Netflix debut on August 5. Panelists included The Sandman’s author and creator Neil Gaiman, showrunner Allan Heinberg and stars Tom Sturridge, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Mason Alexander Park, Gwendoline Christie, Vivienne Acheampong, Boyd Holbrook, Jenna Coleman, Vanesu Samunyai, and Patton Oswalt, and loyal fans were treated to a first look at a number of scenes — some moments instantly recognisable from the comics, some curious and new — as well as the full first season trailer.

‘The Sandman’ at SDCC 2022

After The Sandman’s packed Hall H panel, Subjectify sat down with the EPs and a number of the show’s stars to hear more about the ambitious undertaking that was taking the story of The Sandman from the pages of Gaiman’s comic to the screen, more than 30 years after the title was first published by DC. This particular article will be exploring what we learned at Comic-Con in regards to the portrayal of Morpheus, the show’s titular Sandman, by the Tony- and Olivier-nominated British actor Tom Sturridge.

Morpheus is Sandman’s eponymous and catalytic central character. Also known as the Lord of the Dreaming, the King of Dreams, Prince of Stories, Lord Shaper, or simply Dream, he is one the seven Endless — a family of ancient beings, more huge and more powerful than gods. The Endless siblings are more like living embodiments of various inescapable aspects that affect sentient existence: Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair and Delirium (who was once Delight.)

Morpheus, or Dream, rules over “all that is not in reality,” serving as the manifestation and the master of all dreams and stories. The story of The Sandman begins with the imprisonment of Dream, who was captured by occultist Roderick Burgess, although he was not the first choice — Burgess was hoping to snag Dream’s sister Death and gain some sort of control over the inevitably of that fate which she represents.

Naturally, Dream is not best pleased about the indignity of being trapped in a basement by a mortal, not to mention missing a century of time — early pages of Sandman let readers know that time passes no quicker for the Endless as it does for us — and our story begins when he’s finally able to break free of his cage and return to the Dreaming, the realm where he is king, only to discover the terrible consequences of his absence. Throughout The Sandman, we walk with Morpheus through both the waking world and the Dreaming as he comes to terms with the impact of his imprisonment, and reflects on the mistakes he has made over millennia — missteps that perhaps contributed to him becoming vulnerable to capture in the first place.

Of all Gaiman’s characters, Dream is the one that readers tend to associate most strongly with him, identity wise. Many have assumed that Dream’s distinct look was actually based on Neil, and while that’s not the exact truth of the matter, it’s easy to see why people might think it. (Peter Murphy, of Bauhaus, was the first real-person facial inspiration for the early renderings of Dream, with Robert Smith hair, and Neil’s recurring comment on the matter, when asked, is that he thinks he and Morpheus have grown to look alike over time in the same the way that some people end up resembling their dogs.)

Nevertheless, Morpheus, far beyond all of Gaiman’s other creations, has come to be seen as the author’s avatar, and that’s perhaps truer in spirit than it is in image — the idea of the ultimate storyteller, the ruler of a realm of imagination, the crafter of things so strange and twisted and kind and mysterious and beautiful that they simply could not have come from the mind of anyone other than someone who deals directly in dreams for a living. Dream’s role, in his world, is to purvey to people not just stories, but the power of stories, much as Gaiman’s is in ours, and Morpheus’s titles, in particular, have often been applied to Gaiman himself — Master of Dreams, Prince of Stories — in tribute to his position as one of the world’s most important living writers, with a body of work that span genres and mediums but always, in some way, seems to embody that core premise inherent to Sandman — the nature of stories themselves, the ubiquity of them, the necessity of being able to find truth in that which is not “real.”

That is what Gaiman stands for. And that is what Morpheus stands for. That, rather than their image, is why they are the same, at least in my eyes. Gaiman has always been famously protective of The Sandman — I mean, why wouldn’t you be — and I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for him to finally, after all this time, select the actor who was going to embody the anthropomorphic personification of, well, his essence as a writer.

He finally found his Dream in Tom Sturridge. Or rather, he found Sturridge immediately, but it seems that no one involved could quite believe that their star was there right from the jump, because they went on to view many other auditions before Sturridge was cast. Speaking at The Sandman SDCC panel, Gaiman said, of the casting process:

“Tom was there in the first email from Lucinda [Syson, casting director.] She sent us four audition tapes, and Tom’s was obviously the best, and I figured that soon we’d have a dozen like him and, you know, he was there, and then we saw another fifty or sixty people and it was still just Tom, and then we saw several hundred more people and it was still just Tom, and by the end of the process I think we’ve seen about a thousand auditions and poor Lucinda Syson must have seen anywhere between five and six thousand Sandman auditions and it was still Tom. So we cast Tom!”

(Gaiman elaborated on this anecdote in an interview with EW, revealing that once it became clear that, after viewing 600 auditions, the shortlist for Dream was still just Tom Sturridge, the Sandman team at Warner Bros did something Gaiman had never seen done before: they told Sturridge that it was probably going to be him, and offered to pay him to not accept any other roles in the meantime while they finished reviewing every single other candidate, long before he was formally offered the part.)

At the panel, moderator Kari Bryan also acknowledged the enormity of Sturridge’s role, and asked the actor how he’d prepared to tackle it.

“The first thing is — I care so deeply about this piece of literature,” Sturridge explained, “and I think the only way you can begin to understand him is to subsume yourself in the words and the images that Neil created. And so I just spent months — because the casting process was a long one — reading, over and over again, until it was in my bones and in my blood. And I think that there is no more honest way to try and find a character than to try and get inside the mind of the man who made him.”

Bryan also rightly pointed out that as Dream, Sturridge is the only actor that worked with every person in the cast across the entire show. How was it to keep all the different stories cohesive while working with everybody throughout the whole series? Sturridge used the opportunity to point out an inherent feature of The Sandman — the individualistic nature of its installments, whether they’re in comic or episodic form:

“I think what’s exquisite about our show is that each episode is a different film. It’s an entirely different story, but within this cohesive world. And it was so thrilling, to, every month, come to set and meet this extraordinary group of human beings, and to learn and change, and specifically as the character to change, because the key, with our story, is that Dream goes on a journey, and he becomes someone who he isn’t at the beginning, and that change was inflicted by the performances of these wonderful people.”

Prior to seeing the presentation for Sandman at SDCC, I had — by choice — not delved too deeply into the interviews and other promotional things that had been beginning to roll out about The Sandman over the summer. It wasn’t so much about wanting to go in blind to the series itself — more that there was a reasonable risk of getting overwhelmed by the sheer emotion of hearing Gaiman and the cast talk about what it feels like to have brought the pages of Sandman to life at long last. This was probably a smart decision, as I was able to join the Sandman cast in their press room and witness it for myself.

It goes without saying that I have a history with The Sandman, as I do with all of Neil Gaiman’s work. But I’ve also been a fan of Tom Sturridge for well over a decade — in fact, I recently did a throwback review of The Boat That Rocked, the Richard Curtis film in which I first encountered him — and the announcement of his casting made me extremely excited. He’s a fascinating actor who hasn’t yet had the chance to truly shine on-screen as a leading man, and I cannot wait to watch the world watch him in this role. Over the years, popular fancasts of this iconic character have come and gone, but I don’t know if any of them have ever fit the Dream ideal for me as well as Tom Sturridge does, and hearing Sturridge speak about his perspective of Dream, and his responsibility, I found myself incredibly moved. I can say with more confidence than ever: I am so, so glad that it was him.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet Sturridge casually several times in the past, including in San Diego the day before the panel, but I was incredibly endeared to find that when getting deep about Sandman, Sturridge’s speaking voice — his natural one, never mind the way he sounds as Morpheus — is almost as lyrical and alluring as Gaiman’s is when the author speaks with his signature storyteller purpose. A similar quality has snuck in — something hypnotic, almost. Gaiman fans will know what I mean. A mellifluous quality that’s querying yet commanding. Part lullaby, part sermon, energized, yet eternal.

Similar, as well, is the somewhat startled reaction to the idea that a lot of people are paying attention to him, the apologetic “ums” before going on to deliver a ridiculously profound statement in a rather offhand way. That part, of course, can be attributed to the fact Gaiman and Sturridge are both just very, very British, but personally, I think there’s a little something extra at play. The soul of Dream is in Tom Sturridge now, the way he’s in Neil Gaiman, and quite simply, Sturridge is a fine heir to Gaiman simply in the way he tells you a story. And I mean, that’s what it’s all about, right?

Conversing with Subjectify in The Sandman’s press room, Sturridge expanded on that idea:

Neil always says that Dream’s most important title is the Prince of Stories, and I just wanted to know, what does that mean to you both for the character and in general as a storyteller, as an actor? This is a story about stories — can you talk about that power?

One of the most important things to me about Sandman is exactly what you just said. It is a story about stories. Although it has a cohesive narrative, it’s about how the stories we tell each other inflict themselves upon our lives and upon our dreams. I wouldn’t call myself — Neil Gaiman is a storyteller. I am just a prop in the way that he…

But you’re a theatre actor. That’s a storyteller.

Yes, alright, but I think what’s really important is for large groups of people to bear witness to the same stories. Because I think we’re all different and we all think differently and react differently, but we can only really understand each other if we talk about the same things. Does that make sense? Like if we all go and watch Sandman together, we’re all going to think entirely different things about it, but there’ll be a bond in us talking about what we think about it. And that’s why stories began around campfires, that’s why they continued into theatres, and that’s why they went to the cinema. It’s because it’s about people being in a dark space and listening.

Recognizing something that’s not from their own experience.

Exactly! And then talking about it with the person next to them who potentially also had a different experience.

And so do you think Dream has that lesson to learn, because he’s been sort of jaded by his own realm or his own existence? What does it mean to him?

I think it’s complicated. I think that Dream contains the fears and fantasies of every single being in the universe, which means he does understand how other things, creatures, feel, but he has to hold it inside. And his burden is this kind of discipline that he has to have and that’s why he seems so enclosed. And I think what he needs to learn is how to open up, so that he can better understand what his responsibilities are.

If he felt everything that everyone who’s ever existed ever felt it would be too much.

Too much! Exactly! So you have to hold it in, and that’s why he seems so insular.

More from Tom Sturridge about ‘The Sandman’ season 1

Speaking to Subjectify and other outlets at Sandman’s press room roundtables, Sturridge also shared his thoughts on a few more tangible elements of The Sandman’s first season — namely, how he approached the role of Morpheus from a practical perspective, and what to expect from his character’s arc as we follow him throughout the season.

On Dream’s emotional state in the first episode of The Sandman:

“For the first time in his existence he’s become powerless, or at least significantly less powerful and I think that that is, if not frightening, it’s a cause for contemplation. I think he’s angry, I think he wants vengeance. I think that there is a danger and a violence in him and a need to destroy those who have done this. And I think that’s the energy that begins the journey, but as the key episode, episode 6, shows, when he talks to Death, he’s fueled by this vengeance but it leads nowhere. What was exciting for him was a quest, and the moment the quest is completed he feels empty, because there has to be something more than hate.”

On personifying Dream’s distinct physicality:

“What’s incredibly bizarre about adapting a graphic novel is that unlike anything else, you have these images to return to, like a storyboard, and so with realizing the physicality, a lot of the ideas were generated quite literally from looking at these images and finding ways to make them breathe and move.”

On finding Dream’s voice in the waking world:

“I didn’t think about the physicality of it, how to create it. I thought about what Neil told me, which was that Dream should sound like the voice inside your head. He should sound like the voice that summons you to sleep. He should sound like the voice that guides you through your fears and your fantasies. And I started to think about what that would sound like and it was much more trying to realize that intention, than it was about trying to have a deep voice.”

On what to expect from Dream’s journey in The Sandman season 1:

“The most important thing within the story we’re telling this season is the birth of empathy inside of him. I think that comes from being impotent and powerless for the first time in his existence and suddenly being in a space where he has to think about who he is. And most importantly, he requires the help of humans to regain that power. To find his tools of office he needs Johanna Constantine, he needs Matthew, who is a human inside a raven. He needs to understand how John Dee feels to try and win back that ruby. And then most importantly, his sister Death teaches him how important it is to feel how other creatures feel, because that’s the only way you can take them into the afterlife. And I think that education really changes him and opens him up. It changes his relationship with Lucienne, it changes the way that he deals with dreams and nightmares who have betrayed him. The key arc is him opening up the insularity he has, the closed-off-ness, and starting to feel how other creatures feel around him.”

‘The Sandman’ season 1 is out now on Netflix