Taking on the role of Morpheus in The Sandman is a daunting task for any actor. It’s not just because the character has never been seen beyond the comic book page before, nor because it’s hard for any human actor to try to put themselves into the role of an immortal, anthropomorphic personification of Dreams. For James McAvoy, who plays the lead character in the Sandman audio drama for Audible, it was particularly difficult to play a character who was so inhuman and so silent — two very difficult elements to convey across the medium of audio. But McAvoy was up for the challenge, and up for the honor of being the first actor to ever portray Morpheus in an adaptation.
“Personally what I love about Gaiman’s writing [is not only] the strange fantastical worlds, but actually characters that you can identify with,” McAvoy said in a roundtable press conference over the phone ahead of the release of The Sandman audio drama. “Even if they are the lords of the Dream Realm and they’re not strictly human, there’s just something that compels you and brings you into them.”
The character of Morpheus is about as far from human as you can be. Described as a pale, shadowy figure with a shock of black hair, the character is often drawn in The Sandman comic books with speech bubbles that are black with white outlines, the edges wavy and the text thin and curly, to communicate just how unearthly he is. How did McAvoy give form to these strange speech bubbles?
“We started experimenting with just tone and register and depth,” McAvoy said. “And we kind of hit on something that was a little part of my own voice and the speech of thought.” He continued:
“A little bit slower, more contemplative, of someone who has been alive for millennia, or more like trillennia. That sort of informed — when [you’re immortal] you don’t think as quickly; you can take a longer time to formulate a response. And that became quite interesting. And so that deeper tone and that slow [delivery] really formed the backbone of how he reacted to situations. It was quite easy to identify when it felt like I was being a bit too normal, just generally I would get more hyper and speak faster, and [director Dirk Maggs] would say, no just bring it back to Morpheus.”
Another element that added to that timeless, immortal quality of Morpheus was to have the character speak in Shakespearean verse and poetry. It was a choice that stemmed from writer Neil Gaiman‘s original idea of Morpheus as sounding “classical.”
“[Neil] wanted to sound almost like he was speaking Shakespeare’s verse some of the times, which of course not all the dialogue allows for,” McAvoy added. “But there’s moments of almost poetry in there too, and we tried to go for that.”
McAvoy had the additional hurdle of performing this kind of inhuman character separately from the rest of the cast due to his straining his voice during a West End performance of Cyrano de Bergerac at the time he was meant to record. He ended up having to record his lines from his spare bedroom after the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown shut down the recording studio where he was scheduled to record in March. But in a sense, it helped him get into the isolation that Morpheus experiences at the beginning of the story — which finds the character captured and imprisoned by a human organization for 70 years — and listen to the entire show before he had even recorded his own part, which was “a position that I’d never been before in my entire career,” McAvoy said. But it helped him feel out the part and find a way to empathize with Morpheus’ own journey of “self-realization,” McAvoy described. He explained:
“How do you make somebody who is so detached from humanity, who is so regal, who is so stoic at times, how do you make that interesting to the human beings? Who, when they watch drama, generally want watch somebody go through change? The backbone of most drama is watching somebody go through something that changes them. So really grasping on the elements in the script, which are he’s been tortured and been abused, and he’s trying to put himself back together, and he won’t let himself be attacked like that again. Not from his brothers and sisters, not from anyone. And trying to just take ownership of his duties, his roles, but also just his life as well. So those are the things that hopefully adds layers to that stoicism and that classical regal quality that he has as well.”
The Sandman is now available to purchase on Audible.
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