'The Sandman's Kirby Howell-Baptiste on Bringing Death to Screen and Why Sarah Goldberg Deserved That Emmy Nomination – Collider

Howell-Baptiste also breaks down how her goals for Death evolved from her first audition to bringing her to life on set.
If you’d like to see someone making the absolute most with minimal screen time, checking out Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s performance in Netflix’s The Sandman is an absolute must.
Adapted from the Neil Gaiman source material, Sandman largely focuses on its title character, Dream (aka Morpheus) played by Tom Sturridge. Dream is a member of The Endless, a group of immortal beings who rule different realms. In Morpheus’ case, he rules The Dreaming. When he’s captured, The Dreaming and the waking world are thrown into disarray, so when he escapes at the very start of the series, Morpheus must do whatever he can to repair the destruction and rebuild.
Netflix’s The Sandman series adheres to the chapter structure of its source material. So while characters like Morpheus and his right hand, Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong) pop up throughout the season, other characters might only make a single episode appearance. That’s the case with Howell-Baptiste’s Death, another member of The Endless. In a single episode, not only does Howell-Baptiste spark some very well-earned tears, but she also delivers a performance that ensures you can still feel Death’s influence reverberating through the final episodes.
With The Sandman now available to stream on Netflix, Howell-Baptiste joined us for an episode of Collider Ladies Night to discuss her journey from acting school to becoming a Netflix series scene-stealer. A big part of that journey? The Emmy award-winning HBO series, Barry. At this point, Howell-Baptiste has quite a few impressive credits to her name, but when asked for the one she thinks best represents the types of projects she’d like to pursue and the ways she'd like to work, she immediately pinpointed Barry. Here’s how she put it:
“Barry was so interesting start to finish. When we auditioned for Barry — and I say ‘we’ as in the acting class because we were all sort of smushed together and really did become an ensemble. But we all auditioned with dummy sides. We all had the sides that were from a scene that Sarah Goldberg’s character, Sally, is part of … We all auditioned with Sally sides and when I say ‘all’ it was Darrell [Britt-Gibson], Rightor [Doyle], D'Arcy [Carden], myself, obviously separately, but we all had the same dummy sides. Did the audition and because it was an acting class in America, I had done an American accent and Sherry Thomas, who is a fantastic casting director — also casting directors don’t get enough love. They are artists — but Sherry, she often encourages you to sort of play around, bring yourself to the role and she said, ‘Let’s do it one more time, just any way you want.’ And I said, still in the American accent, ‘Any way I want?’ And she said, ‘Any way you want.’ So I dropped the accent, speaking in my real voice, which is this, FYI, and do the scene again and she kind of looked at me and she was like, ‘Okay. Don’t change your hair.’ And I left, and then I got that role and from the beginning, that was kind of the foot we started on.”
From that point on, Barry continued to afford Howell-Baptiste the opportunity to fully immerse herself in the world and also to bring some of herself and her own experiences to her character, Sasha Smith, one of the students in Gene Cousineau’s (Henry Winkler) acting class. She continued:
“We were allowed to improvise. We all brought stories from acting classes. Before we started shooting the first season, everyone who was in the acting class and Henry, we did acting exercises like he was our acting teacher for multiple rehearsals, so we were all so deeply saturated in that world and we all got to revisit the sides of us that were such scrappy actors trying to get our first role. And I felt like that was one of the first jobs that I’d ever been completely trusted in. Bill [Hader] and Alec [Berg] both were always like, ‘Do it. We’ve written these words, but try it your own way,’ and so I feel very, very proud of the work that we did on Barry.”
While on the topic of Barry, it was impossible to hold back and not express disappointment over Sarah Goldberg’s Emmy snub this year. Not only did Howell-Baptiste agree, but she insisted Goldberg’s work in Barry Season 3 is some of the best she’s ever seen; “Sarah Goldberg in Barry this season is one of the best performances that’s ever been on TV, period.”
Goldberg quickly became the topic of conversation again during our Collider Ladies Night interview because when pinpointing actors who made a big impression on her, Howell-Baptiste immediately recalled a memory from shadow directing on Barry.
“I shadow directed on the last season of Barry and I got to watch Sarah Goldberg’s performance — this is also why I feel adamant about her being Emmy nominated. It doesn’t even have to be [an] Emmy, but just recognized for what she did. But I got to watch her perform in a way where I could really be submerged in it because I didn’t have to worry about my own lines or I wasn’t reacting in the scene, and I actually went up and asked because you’re never done learning, and asked her, ‘How do you do this and how do you prepare?’ Because she’s really such a phenomenally tapped in actor and she treats it like theater. She knows her lines, she’s ready, she comes to play. You could say we’re shooting this on film and you only have one chance, and Sarah will give it to you.”
RELATED: 'The Sandman' Where Have You Seen The Cast Before?
Whether Howell-Baptiste put any of that specific advice to use or not while making Sandman, whatever she was doing worked exceptionally well. There are a number of standout performances in the series, but Howell-Baptiste’s work playing Death is a personal favorite.
So what’s the secret sauce? How did Howell-Baptiste manage to make such a big impression via a single episode of the show? Perhaps it has something to do with her determination to honor the source material while being open to letting her approach evolve during filming.
“My goal going into this audition was honestly just to sort of bring to life as closely what I had seen in the comic, as closely as possible. It’s very rare that you get a role and you have a cheat sheet, right? Normally you get a role and you have to figure it all out and put all the pieces together, but I knew who Death was. I knew the kind of Death that Neil wrote and how subversive she was and so different [from] what I had seen in pop culture. She’s kind, she’s careful, she takes her job seriously, and she’s gentle. So that was my goal. The way that was tweaked by Neil, both in the audition and on set, was the sibling relationship that Tom and I found very naturally. And I think that made things really easy. Like the walking and the linking arms and the holding, all of that just kind of came organically on set and that was really surprising, but again, another thing that kind of really helped us both sink into these characters because Death is the only person who ever physically interacts with Dream in that way. Most people either despise him or they fear him, and she’s like, ‘It’s my knucklehead little brother.’”
Looking for more from Howell-Baptiste on her experience bringing Death to screen in Netflix’s The Sandman? You can catch her full episode of Collider Ladies Night in the video at the top of this article!
Perri Nemiroff has been part of the Collider team since 2012. She co-hosts Collider FYC, The Witching Hour and hosts the interview series, Collider Ladies Night. Perri’s a proud graduate of Columbia University’s Film MFA program and member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Perri splits her time between Los Angeles and New York, but devotes every waking hour to her cat, Deputy Dewey.
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