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For years, the concept of death and the grim reaper has largely been portrayed as a somber, frightening and skeletal being, but actor Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death in the Netflix series The Sandman, adapted from Neil Gaiman's comics, makes you rethink the entire concept of living, and dying.
While The Sandman may initially have you believe that the titular character, who also goes by the name Dream or Morpheus, played by Tom Sturridge in the Netflix show, is the iconic character to focus on, it’s actually Howell-Baptiste in Episode 6 in the series that is the one to watch.
In the episode titled “The Sound of Her Wings,” Dream had previously been on his quest to retrieve the three stollen items connected to his magical powers, his sand, his ruby and his helm, but Dream indicates that he now feels even worse than when he started his quest, he now feels “nothing,” and is questioning his purpose as the king of dreams.
As a source of comfort for him, Dream accompanies his sister Death as she performs her daily tasks, which is essentially, to be a smiling face with a caring and nurturing disposition as she tells humans it is time for their death. It’s heartbreaking in many ways, but also oddly comforting, as we’re introduced to this concept of a lovely woman holding our hand and helping us into death, understanding the fears and approaching the situation with compassion.
For Howell-Baptiste, learning about and “discovering” Gaiman’s unique representation of the concept of death was a highlight for the actor.
“My favourite part of this whole process in discovering Death, I guess rediscovering because I'd read the comics two years ago, and in getting this role, I was afforded the opportunity to go back and re-read and recognize what it was I originally fell in love with, which is this more nurturing, caring, considerate take on Death,” Howell-Baptiste told Yahoo Canada. “Because we shot this during lockdown and I'd flown back to London to film, we were in quarantine, I had an incredible amount of time alone and so I had an incredible amount of time to really focus on my research for this role.”
“Death is a concept that is as old as time, for as long as there has been life there has been death, and so it has been written about, painted, there are songs about it, there's everything, so I had endless material. I went down so many rabbit holes and read mythology and folklore, and things like that, and I think it allowed me to steep myself in this concept, and then find a way to then humanize her, so that we could put her on screen and she wouldn't just sort of be the idea of death, but be the embodiment of it.”
Death exemplifies why 'The Sandman' is still relevant after more than 30 years
The entire construction of the character of Death, this particular representation of the concept, taps into why The Sandman is still so relevant and revered today.
Members of The Sandman cast are all aligned in identifying that what gives the series and the comics lasting power is that the story taps into out inherent human desires, and fears.
“I think there's just a lot of things in the comics that people can kind of take with them,” Vanesu Samunyai who plays Rose in The Sandman told Yahoo Canada. “I think there's something that you can take away with you, like with the concept of Death, and how she is just very comforting, a woman, and how a lot of people have said things like, ‘oh, yeah, I would love if when I die, if I was to be taken away by someone like this, it would make the whole transition easier.’”
For Mason Alexander Park who plays Desire, a sibling of Death and Dream, they highlight The Sandman’s ability to address the constants in our human experience allows everyone, no matter the particular circumstances of your individual life, to relate to the story.
“I find the humanity in the piece to probably be the thing that prevails over time, I think that it is about change and it's about life and death, and all of the things that are constant in every single human experience,” Mason Alexander Park said. “No matter what you look like or where you come from or who you are, it's very easy to find yourself in the pages because it is very representative of not only the human condition and the human experience, but the world that kind of surrounds that.”
“I think that our series takes that even a step further, in the way that it was cast, in the way that it was kind of put together because when I watched the series, it looks like the world that I grew up in, and it looks like the people that I know, and it's a deeply, deeply felt piece because I hope that every single person can see themselves in every iteration of The Sandman, but especially in ours, and that's probably what's going to keep it timeless, hopefully.”
For Kirby Howell-Baptiste who had the task of embodying Death, she echoes the comments from her co-stars, stating that these existential questions raised in The Sandman are things she couldn't get out of her mind.
“This story has a unique way of reaching people beyond a comic, beyond the sort of typical archetypal comic book fan,” Howell-Baptiste said. “I think that what we deal with, the issues,...social, psychological, political, throughout The Sandman, and the fact that when you put this thing down, I know, personally, when I put the comic down, these were thoughts that I kept coming back to.”
“It's something that really makes you think, it's the reason why people tell each other about it.”