James McAvoy Is Living The Dream In The Sandman Act II [Interview]

James McAvoy played the captive Morpheus in his own kind of locked room. In the first part of "The Sandman" audio drama directed by Dirk Maggs and released by Audible, Morpheus — the ancient anthropomorphic personification of dreams — is captured by a group of cultists that hold him captive for 80 years, before he's finally released to return to his decaying domain. And McAvoy performed the part of Morpheus in the first part of "The Sandman," released in July 2020, while in lockdown in his spare bedroom. Okay, he wasn't locked in there per se, but he could probably empathize with Morpheus' plight: a little lonely, a little isolated.

But in "The Sandman Act II," Morpheus has finally escaped his cage and so has McAvoy (again, this imagery is very loose, I'm not implying that McAvoy was locked in a cage). The "Glass" and "His Dark Materials" actor got to return to the studio to record his parts for "The Sandman Act II" and he was overjoyed to do it — even if he was only acting opposite director Dirk Maggs.

"It was really nice to step into an actual recording studio, and have [Dirk] as my scene partner this time round," McAvoy told me over the phone in an interview timed to the release of "The Sandman Act II" (now available on Audible). "Because last time, yeah, it was pretty mental, just being stuck in my bedroom, on my own. A bit lonely."

But listening to "Act II," you wouldn't expect the actor playing Morpheus to be lonely, let alone acting alone in a studio with one other person. The ensemble has exploded since the first part of the audio drama dropped to positive reviews, with actors like Regé-Jean Page, Jeffrey Wright, Brian Cox, Emma Corrin, John Lithgow, David Tennant, Bill Nighy, Kristen Schaal, and Kevin Smith joining the fray. And Morpheus isn't even in the audio drama for a lot of Act II, notably absent during many of the events in the "A Game of You" arc. ("Act II" adapts the volumes "Season of Mists," "A Game of You," and parts of "Fables and Reflections"). Not that McAvoy minds.

"He feels quite mischievous at times," McAvoy said of playing Morpheus as a side spectator to many of these events. "And he's letting other people do the heavy lifting, he's not doing it all himself, which, as a performer, is quite nice sometimes."

I chatted with McAvoy about returning to the Dreaming, giving Morpheus a little more humanity, and what it will be like for the audio drama to exist alongside the upcoming Netflix live-action series.

"I feel like, for me, Dirk is the voice of all of them."

James, you last played the part of Morpheus back in April 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, recording from your spare bedroom. What was it like getting back into the role of such an ancient mythic character, however many months later?

It was nice. It was also nice to be able to do it in a studio this time, with Dirk. No other actors. I was about to say unfortunately, but actually, I loved doing it with Dirk. Bloody brilliant. It was just the way I like it. But it was really nice to step into an actual recording studio, and have him as my scene partner this time round. Because last time, yeah, it was pretty mental, just being stuck in my bedroom, on my own. A bit lonely.

So this time, since you were in the studio, did you get to actually act opposite other people? Or was it still fairly distanced?

No, it was still really distant. I got to act opposite Dirk. But the nice thing about Dirk is that he's a writer, he's a director, yes. But he's also a glam rock metal drummer. Although I've never seen him, but he sports a pretty wild glam rock metal haircut. And as a performer like that, he understands and knows this material inside out. And in the words of Neil Gaiman himself, possibly even better than Neil does himself. So I think you're acting with somebody who, while he's not an actor, he's giving it more than a lot of actors could give. And loves acting and production. So basically, he played every single character in the show, except my one, when we're working together. And I bloody love it.

Wow. That's a lot that he gets to play. And yes, I have seen him. He has that great sort of blonde mullet, if I remember?

Yes, he's got a great sort of mane/mullet with a great equally daring and questionable 'stache, which is... He's just wild. He's just wicked. He's got a little bit of panache, just like a lot of Neil's writing. And he's the perfect guy to do this stuff with.

Were there any choices that Dirk made that you kind of wish the actual performer made during the finalized product?

Oh, that's a good point, actually. I haven't listened to the final product as yet, so I don't know. But, yeah, I mean, to be honest with you, all those guys, apart from maybe Kat Dennings, who I think just gives something so unique to the character of Death, I feel like, for me, Dirk is the voice of all of them. And that's nothing against the actors, who are all wonderful. But they didn't get to hear Dirk really go for it, and give it big licks, the way he does. And I love it.

"He starts to sound a little more off guard, off voice..."

So as familiar as you are with the graphic novels, where there any specific story arcs or scenes that you were excited to perform in Act II?

Probably the stuff with Delirium, his sister. I think that stuff was always going to be quite interesting. They're such two sort of diametrically opposed personalities, it was always going to be fun to play with that. And it was in the end. But, actually that was probably all. It was just as fun. I'd never read any more than season 1's worth of writing, when I was teenager. So it was nice to kind of get to that, and start to be surprised myself, and start learning as I was acting.

So Morpheus is notably absent for a lot of Act II, due to the events of "A Game of You." Apart from the whole, "not having to go into the studio as much" element, what was it like playing into the more mythic fairytale bogeyman aspects of Morpheus, when you pop in at various points throughout the series?

It's quite good fun, really. Because he feels quite mischievous at times. And he's letting other people do the heavy lifting, he's not doing it all himself, which, as a performer, is quite nice sometimes. So, no, it was good. It was nice to share that responsibility with other performers, other characters. And feel like you were adding to their stories, their narrative, and not just trying to build your own the entire time.

At the same time, there are more human aspects that reveal themselves within Morpheus in Act II. He gets sheepish around his siblings. He gets embarrassed. He admits his wrongdoings with Nada. What was it like digging into those aspects, and how did you approach it from a specifically voice acting angle?

I think the first season, he sounds quite different. He sounds quite... not inhumane, but he doesn't sound particularly human. There's something quite alien about him, without trying to make him into Mr. Spock, there was some quite otherworldly, or on another plane, about him, do you know what I mean?

Whereas I feel like in season 2, he starts to possibly ... not humanize, but slightly more humanized actually. He starts to, like you say, experience these things. So he sounds different, he starts to sound a little more off guard, off voice, off sort of company line, if you like. Where his responsibility, his job, the realm of which he is the custodian and all the weight that it carries, starts to get undercut by personal things. And that was actually quite fun. It gave me a different, just a different thing to play, a different tone to tap into. So it was actually really good. Because otherwise, you'd just end up doing the same thing twice.

"I think they feed each other, you know?"

Yeah. And how do you approach that from a technical aspect? For example, your voice in the first part was so gravelly and alien, as you said, but how do you bring that warmth to the performance?

I guess, partly is you're doing it consciously, and then partly you're just letting yourself play the scene and play it naturally. And if you are, I guess, succumbing to more familial pressures, and you start to really lean into the everyday and the domestic and the banal, then that comes out in your voice a little bit as well.

But yeah, I think that the slowness with which he spoke in the first season as well, was really important. It conveyed the gravity and the gravitas and the weight of the things that you're dealing with. So when it is undercut with the little bit of familial strife, or familial bonding even, it's appropriate. It feels like that tone and that cadence can be undercut a little bit. You can't just read the book. You can definitely modulate it and play with it just a little bit. And that's a relief as a performer, because otherwise, like I say, you are just doing the same thing again and again and again.

Right. So, as we're speaking, the Netflix live action adaptation of Sandman is in development. It's been cast, it's filming, the whole shebang is happening. What do you think of the Netflix series, and how do you hope that the Sandman audio drama and the live action series can exist side by side?

I think, probably quite happily. I feel that when you're dealing with something like this... Like The Lord of The Rings, or something like that, or Star Wars, or whatever it is, these big, huge properties, that people feel really passionate about, they generally want more and more and more. So, I read all The Lord of The Rings books, that didn't stop me going and watching the movies. I listened to every single radio drama version of Lord of The Rings and every single audiobook version of Lord of The Rings, and it didn't stop me going and watching those movies. And it probably won't stop me watching the TV show when it comes out as well. So I think that they don't really preclude each other. I think they feed each other, you know?

The Sandman Act II is available to order on Audible now.