We’ve lost count of all the rumors and false starts surrounding the film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s seminal comic series The Sandman. Efforts to turn the long-running comic into a TV or movie date back to the book’s original run, which lasted from January 1989 to March 1996. We’d say we’ll believe it’s happening when we see it on the screen, but the latest updates do sound pretty promising: a TV series seems to be a done deal at Netflix.
With Gaiman as executive producer, the 11-episode first season is reportedly a big-budget affair that is absolutely, no kidding, on the way, and will cover the first story arc or so of the Vertigo comic series, Preludes and Nocturnes. The story focuses on Morpheus of the Endless, a tragic figure who rules over the Dreaming, the place that hosts everyone and everything that sleeps. Over the course of the series, the rule-bound and static Dream Lord is forced to reckon with the idea that life itself is change. The supporting cast of dreams, nightmares, gods, demons, ravens, pumpkins, and humans of various shapes, sizes, and orientations, is one of the most impressive and beloved in comics history.
With all that in mind, and not a lot of other details to go on, we’ve got some ideas for who we’d like to see inhabit these iconic roles. The very large cast expands throughout the run, with characters coming and going throughout, so we’ll stick to those who show up early on.
Dream of the Endless isn’t the most likable character in Neil Gaiman’s universe—not by a long shot. As in the best of Shakespeare’s plays, being personable and funny is a job for the supporting characters. Dream is sullen, moody, self-centered, and sometimes quite cruel, justifying even his worst behavior by relying on the letter of the very ancient laws of his people. The actor who plays Morpheus needs to have gravitas, and needs to be able to make the brooding and tragic character engaging without relying on the types of tics that would usually tell us, the audience, that this is a character we should want to follow. Though he may lack the Sandman’s trademark fair skin, multi-Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, Green Book, True Detective) has the physical presence to play the imposing dream lord, as well as a resume that includes more than one hard-to-love character. (Gaiman himself has suggested Tom Hiddleston as a good choice, and we can’t argue, so we’ll consider him a very worthy understudy.)
One of Gaiman’s greatest tricks was making us fall in love with Death. More than sullen Morpheus, she’s probably the most beloved character in the entire Sandman Universe, and with good reason: she’s the only one of the Endless that you’d want to hang out with. While Sandman and his other siblings are moody or unpredictable, Death is the wise, approachable, and calm center of the family. It’s her first appearance, in The Sandman #8, that brings the entire series into focus: Morpheus is being his typically brooding self when his sister swoops in and punctures his self-importance with some tough love before visiting some dying humans to make clear that she’s not to be feared. The look of Death in the comics was inspired by the late Cinamon Hadley, but Musician and actress (Moonlight, Hidden Figures) Janelle Monáe combines all of the elements that make the character so intriguing: there’s a mysterious and otherworldly quality to her experimental work, as though we could never quite understand how it is she does what she does, but her music also maintains welcoming messages of love and acceptance.
An early non-binary character in mainstream comics, Desire’s relationship with Morpheus hadn’t been particularly cozy for a long time as the series opens, and it only gets worse as the books go on. Though each maintains certain family formalities, casually cruel Desire is, in many ways, Dream’s most persistent nemesis throughout. At any given point, they can appear as any gender, or none—presumably representing whatever form and sensibilities that someone might find most appealing. Though she already has a DC-related job in the upcoming Batwoman series for CW, Ruby Rose (who identifies as genderfluid and generally uses female pronouns) makes an excellent physical match for Desire as first pictured by Mike Dringenberg. Ezra Miller, likewise, would make one helluva Desire…so maybe the two could share.
On the TV show, we might not get to the youngest of the Endless right away, as she doesn’t appear until the fourth major story arc of the comics. Nevertheless, the character has a major role to play later the series and stands out as the only one of Dream’s siblings, other than Death, with whom he has any real relationship—so we’d best think about the casting now. Once Delight, tragedy left Delirium in a state of constant upheaval—while, at first, it seems like it might be fun to be her, the toll of her mania becomes clear after a time, and the character takes on tragic notes. Though crimson-haired Tori Amos reportedly served as Gaiman’s inspiration, Uzo Aduba, best known as “Crazy Eyes” Suzanne Warren on Orange is the New Black, has more than demonstrated that she can play an over-the-top character whose bizarre behavior conceals both tremendous anxiety, and an intelligence struggling to work its way to the surface.
An example of Dream’s casual disregard for humanity, at least early in the series, The Corinthian was created as a nightmarish reflection of the worst aspects of the living. What he became, instead, was a serial killer feasting on people’s eyes. Following Morpheus’ departure from the Dreaming some time before the series began, The Corinthian escaped with so many other residents of that land, eventually making his way to a convention for mass murderers before being intercepted and altered by Dream. His most striking features are his eyes—or, rather, his lack of eyes, replaced as they are by two sets of teeth that he can use to eat various bits of his victims. Actor Doug Jones (The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth, Star Trek Discovery) has proven himself more than adept at playing engaging monsters and at selling us on a performance in spite of make-up and CGI.
Though he appears (and has an important role) in Sandman’s opening story arc, it’s unclear whether the show would include a character who’s otherwise fairly tangential to the Sandman’s universe. If they do, they should probably just go ahead and call Matt Ryan—he’s been playing Constantine since 2014 in his own series, as well as in animated movies and on Legends of Tomorrow. He’s doing a fine job of it.
The tall, bookish Lucien runs the Dreaming when Morpheus isn’t around, becoming one of Dream’s most trusted allies and companions even as he finds himself somewhat put-upon by the complications of pleasing his master while maintaining the realm and keeping its denizens in check. A few years ago this might not have been in the calculation, but Ted Danson‘s The Good Place character has shown that he can play intelligent, harried, sometimes confused, sometimes commanding, and often flustered—all the makings of a perfect librarian, and with the sense of humor required of Dream’s faithful and tolerant stand-in.
Dream and Death are hanging out in a London pub one day in 1389 when they overhear loudmouth Hob Gadling telling anyone who’ll listen that he has no plans to die—that doing so is just a bad habit, a thing for other people to do that he wants no part of. After a chat, the Endless siblings decide to grant him his wish, eternal life, fully expecting that he’ll come to see the wisdom of the cycle of life and, eventually, beg for the respite of death. He never does, and what starts out seeming like parable about being careful what you wish for becomes a story celebrating life with all its ups and downs. Jeffrey Wright (Westworld, The Hunger Games) is one of our best and most versatile actors, with the chops needed to play a 600-year-old character.
In the family dynamics of the Endless, Despair isn’t particularly close to her brother Morpheus, but sticks close to Destruction and, particularly, to Desire–the two making a potent team. Fans of British-themed period dramas will recognize Laura Carmichael (Downton Abbey, A United Kingdom, The Spanish Princess) for a range of brilliantly depressing characters who occasionally make out in the end, but not before running a largely undeserved gamut of rejections and disappointments. Like any good actor, she can play other types, of course, but there’s no one working today who can do more to express sadness and dejection with just a downturned eye and a slightly quivering lip.
Rose Walker grows up during the course of the Sandman series, but has her most prominent role during the Doll’s House story arc, relatively early on. Her own birth is manipulated by Desire in order to punish Morpheus, and ultimately Rose is marked for death by Dream in order to prevent her from inadvertently destroying his realm. Former Disney Channel star Zendaya broke out of her childhood roles in the two most recent Spider-Man movies for Marvel, as well as with the new HBO series Euphoria, and she’s perfect for the tough, but damaged, Rose.
What do you think of our picks? Share your own Dream cast for The Sandman below!