The Sandman, which is based on Neil Gaiman’s much-loved high fantasy comics, sees the titular cosmic being face a number of foes. But none, perhaps, spook Morpheus quite like Rose Walker, a human who has the potential to destroy worlds.
Rose – a character that doesn’t show up until episode 7 – is a dream vortex, meaning that she can travel through people’s dreams, and occasionally turn hers into reality. The actions of a vortex’s subconscious can break down walls between dreams, causing violent earthquakes in Morpheus’s The Dreaming. If the realm crumbles, people will have nowhere to go when asleep, which means vortexes pose a threat to the Waking World, too.
Rose, played by Vanesu Samunyai in the Netflix series, isn’t a villain like Lucifer or The Corinthian, though. Unaware of her powers, she sets off on a quest to find her missing younger brother – which, of course, catches her up to Morpheus. Along for the ride is her friend Lyta Hall (Razane Jammal), who’s having difficulty accepting the fact that her husband Hector has not long passed away.
The actors sat down with Total Film to discuss how their storyline allowed them to process their own losses during the pandemic, becoming fans of the graphic novels, and whether Lyta’s ties to Wonder Woman – she’s Diana Prince and Steve Trevor’s daughter – will be addressed more explicitly in a possible season 2. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Total Film: I want to start by asking how familiar you both were with the original comics before signing on to the project?
Razane Jammal: We both haven’t read them, at least before the audition process, and weren’t familiar with it. But when I started reading, I was a converted fan, and I feel like that’s how everyone is going to react to it – those who haven’t read the comics, the people like us. That’s very exciting for both of us.
Vanesu Samunyai: Exactly what she said. Hadn’t read it, hadn’t heard about it before. But you know, as soon as I became linked to the project, I found out about it, learned about it, and loved it.
Both of your characters are navigating pretty sad situations – particularly yours, Razane – but they bring such light to the show. Was that part of the appeal of playing them?
Jammal: I was excited about the grief. I was actually going through grief. You know, the human experience was the most important thing to me, giving a voice to people who are going through a loss and trying to be as authentic and real as possible. Allowing the space for myself to go to those spaces, and that wouldn’t have been possible if we weren’t supported by a platform like Netflix, if we weren’t supported by people like Allah, that gave us a voice. They offered such a collaborative space for all of us, and a very safe zone for us to dive into those feelings. During COVID, the warmth that we added to the screen and that we were living in real life just made it a nicer experience.
On the theme of Dreams and Nightmares, what was your biggest highlight of making the show and what was the biggest challenge?
Samunyai: The biggest challenge, I feel actually, was tapping into the emotions. I was going through my own personal thing, and my emotions were very blocked up. I had a lot of stuff that I had to purge from my system. Because of that, I wasn’t really in a space where I felt like I could just be vulnerable and fully dip into it because if I did, I would open up the floodgates, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to stop. So I think that was kind of hard for me at times. Biggest highlight? Oh gosh, I think the whole experience in general is just a great thing. We traveled a bit, in and around London. The overall experience was the highlight.
Jammal: The human connections in a world of COVID, where you only see masks, and having a human that you’re interacting with at a time where everything was setting down was definitely a highlight for me. Getting to work with Allan and challenging the grief, allowing yourself to feel the grief both on and off screen and opening those gates and living it. I’m getting through it all eventually.
When you guys got the scripts, did you just get your parts? And what was it like seeing the whole thing come together?
Jammal: I didn’t get the other episodes. I only got the ones we were in, so I had no clue what was happening. Even when you get the audition, you don’t know what you’re auditioning for. Everything was a little bit secret, so there are no spoilers and I was totally fine with that, because it allowed us to cocoon and create our own world. If you look at the episodes, there are all these little cocoons because there’s always a story within a story. So I’m kind of glad that we didn’t get involved with everything else happening because it doesn’t directly contribute to my character in any way.
Rose is a dream vortex, and she can essentially walk through dreams. There’s a sequence in one episode where she walks through a few different people’s dreams back-to-back and it plays out like a one-take; how did you guys film that on set?
Samunyai: That was really fun to film. We filmed them on different days, and we were out in London for it. I think the first scene that I filmed was me coming out of Chantal’s dream. It was definitely more fragmented than it looks. Well, it was out of order. I’d just walk through a door and then have the reaction and then walk out of it, but it was super fun. Just like that whole, little linear thing.
Jammal: You were walking right into intimate moments… [During the episode, Samunyai’s Rose interrupts Jammal’s character while she is having sex.]
Your character was surprisingly calm about that, to be fair.
Jammal: Maybe she likes being watched. [In character’s voice] “Rose, why don’t you join us?” I’m joking! In all seriousness, these are things that I’m very grateful for; us to be on a platform like Netflix and work with Allan, and the Me Too movement because nobody would take those scenes into consideration in the past, and what it does to an actor. We had an intimacy coach, we discussed what we were comfortable and not comfortable with. Protection was worn, there was separation. There was nothing that made me uncomfortable. The set was closed. So all the precautions were taken for me to feel comfortable as a human being, and as an actor. That is something that is changing in the industry and something that I’m so grateful for.
Things are definitely left open for more seasons. What would you like to explore through your characters if you do come back for season two? Razane, as your character’s got ties to Wonder Woman, perhaps we could get a little mention there?
Jammal: I mean, yeah, we didn’t explore that in this one, so I would hope so. I always wanted to do that. It’s obviously not up to me, but if it were up to me, I would definitely explore that. What I am excited for, if there were a season two, is the arc of the character and she’s so nice and supportive, but I’d love to examine how certain experiences can taint you and change your behavior into something a bit darker.
Samunyai: For me, I’d just like to explore who Rose is post-vortex. I’m super disappointed about it, but obviously it had to happen. I’d love to see what it looks like for her to go after her dreams, and just expand as a person.
All 10 episodes of The Sandman are available to stream now. If dark fantasy is your bag, and you’re after more content, check out our interview with cast members Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Jenna Coleman, and Gwendoline Christie or our chats with Gaiman and showrunner Allan Heinberg. If you’re not, and find yourself overwhelmed by the amount of content on the platform, then look to our list of the best Netflix shows for some viewing inspiration.