'The Sandman:' Kirby Howell-Baptiste on Tackling a 'Completely Upended Idea' of Death (Exclusive)
By Mekishana Pierre
Taking on a character that's arguably more visually iconic than a show's titular character can be an intimidating task, but Kirby Howell-Baptise was more than ready to step up to the plate.
"I don't think it's helpful when taking on something like this to be thinking about what comes after, whether that be people's opinions or accolades or whatever. I think that in acting and in life, the way to be happy and satisfied is to be as present as possible," the London-born actress tells ET. "So for me, being presented with the opportunity to play a role that I loved from the first time I read The Sandman superseded any fears or doubts I may have had about the reaction after."
It's a wise approach that isn't unlike the confident attitude exhibited by Death, the big sister of The Sandman's nominal character. And luckily for viewers, that's exactly who The Good Place alum portrays in Netflix's long-awaited adaptation of Neil Gaiman's beloved comic series.
Tom Sturridge, Gwendoline Christie, Vivienne Acheampong, Stephen Fry, Boyd Holbrook, Charles Dance, Asim Chaudhry, Jenna Coleman, David Thewlis, Joely Richardson and Mason Alexander Park also star in the series, with voice work from Patton Oswalt and Mark Hamill.
While most depictions in popular culture show Death as an ominous harbinger of sorrow, symbolizing our universal fear of mortality, Gaiman's Grim Reaper is a decidedly more charismatic character. Known as the second-oldest of the Endless -- aka the children of Time and Night who were born just as the universe was put into motion -- Death was created just as life became a reality in the universe and is destined to be the last being left once the universe itself dies. The knowledge of her place in the grand scheme of the universe lends a sense of grounded peace to the character that her siblings notably lack.
"I think what was most surprising to me when I first read The Sandman -- and what I think will be really surprising to the fans that we gain who have no idea of the comic and are starting fresh from the show -- is this completely upended idea of Death," Howell-Baptise shares with ET.
"We're so used to the doom and the gloom and the darkness, and to find a character that actually brings a lot of light and a lot of positivity, a lot of sort of nurturing and care to Death, I think will be really surprising," she explains. "And I think it will continue, because I've spoken to Neil about this, about how that role has offered a lot of comfort to people throughout the years. And I think it will continue to do that."
And according to series creator and executive producer, Howell-Baptise was an easy choice to join the production. Gaiman told Entertainment Weeklythat Howell-Baptise held a unique quality of "being able to speak honestly to power" that made her an automatic standout in auditions.
"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 recalled. "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.'"