The actress explains how she brings one of Neil Gaiman’s signature characters to life in audio form.
This past weekend, Netflix finally unveiled the first footage from its upcoming adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s comic The Sandman. Although the footage did not include a look at Death, viewers of Netflix’s TUDUM event saw actress Kirby Howell-Baptiste speak about her portrayal of the character.
Death is one of the signature figures of The Sandman (so much so that she got a couple solo graphic novels in her own right after the original series concluded) and must be an integral part of any adaptation of the comic created by Gaiman, Sam Kieth, and Mike Dringenberg. While Howell-Baptiste takes on the signature silver ankh for the TV version, Kat Dennings has been voicing Death on Audible’s audiobook adaptation, which just released Act II last week. Dennings’ journey to playing the embodiment of mortality began with her brother showing her The Sandman as she was growing up, but really got in motion when she befriended Gaiman on Twitter years ago.
“We became Twitter friends through the miracle of the internet,” Dennings tells EW. “He’d always said, ‘I hope we can work together,’ and I would be like, ‘uh, me too!’ So one day he just texted and asked, ‘would you like to be the voice of Death? We’re making Sandman as an Audible original.’ She was always my favorite character, I could not believe it and agreed without any further thought. But I’ve since felt that pressure on my shoulders since we all love her so much. It’s a huge honor.”
From Gaiman’s point of view, Dennings could bring the cheeriness that makes Death so unique from pretty much every other depiction of the Grim Reaper.
“By that point I known Kat for about seven years,” Gaiman says. “I love a lot of things about her, including her voice and the range that she has, but most of all I loved the way that talking to her always cheers me up. One of the things I wanted in Death is a lightness. She has to be able to speak truth to Dream, she has to be instantly recognizable (especially in an audio context), and she has to be somebody that you’d just like to hang out with. And I thought, well, Kat actually has all of those, plus I knew she’s a fan.”
Death first appeared in The Sandman #8, an early chapter titled “The Sound of Her Wings.” Up until that point, protagonist Dream (also known as Morpheus) had been doing some pretty standard fantasy-quest stuff, reclaiming his relics of power from various corners of the universe after escaping a decades-long imprisonment. Having finished his quest, Morpheus feels a little morose. It’s then that his big sister comes in to remind him what life is all about (she would know, being the master of its opposite).
“I really enjoyed recording that scene,” Dennings says. “The cool thing about Death is her ‘job’ really goes against her adorable bubbly personality. Her storylines are obviously very serious and pretty dark, but her personality and attitude keeps it somewhat cheerful. And I think that’s something people really love about her. ‘Sound of Her Wings’ is sort of her most memorable chapter, even though it’s her first. All of the famous Death quotes kind of come from that. She sits down next to Dream and gets mad at him, they have this cute sibling argument. That was really fun, but the weight of that recording was not lost on me in the moment because I knew how much was riding on it for fans of the graphic novel.”
Act II was recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic, where the world of back-to-back nightshoots had been replaced by one of remote video recordings. But Gaiman thinks Dennings’ performance has only improved in the second installment.
“I thought she was terrific in Act I, but it felt like she was figuring it all out. She was finding the character,” Gaiman says. “In Act II, she’s found the character. She knows exactly what she’s doing; we’re in the middle of this amazing family dinner and she keeps it all going and you believe her. When I created the character of Death, I loved the idea of somebody who, when they say, ‘you know, you really should have looked both ways before you crossed that street,’ you believe them. You get both regret and joy and all of those emotions.”
For her part, Dennings has also gotten used to embodying a character purely through her voice. Her own process doesn’t change much — especially since, by her own admission, she already dresses in black pretty much every day anyway.
“It’s more similar than you would think, for me anyway,” Dennings says. “While I’m doing these, if I don’t act them out the way I sort of would in a visual medium, it doesn’t come across quite right for me. I like to really get into it. It’s almost easier because I don’t have to think about what I look like and all that stuff, but you find yourself thinking about your voice. You never really do when you’re acting in front of a camera. I have a very weird voice and a very like odd way of talking. And I really become very conscious of that while we do these things. So I do try to control my voice a little bit more, which is an interesting exercise. You know, you can pick your voice up or down…you know, the options are endless.”
As endless, perhaps, as Death and Dream and the rest of their immortal siblings.
The Sandman: Act II is now available to listen on Audible.
Written by Christian Holub for Entertainment Weekly, article published on September 28