The Sandman Star Mr Tom Sturridge Is On The Cusp Of Something Big
“We’re literally sitting in bird shit,” says Mr Tom Sturridge, grinning. The Tony-nominated actor is sitting beneath a tree in a park in Bethnal Green, east London, bordered by basketball courts and dog walkers and soundtracked by police sirens. This is proof, in his estimation, that his life is normal, that he’s not really a celebrity. “Ask anyone in this park [who I am] or tell them my name,” he says. “Their faces would be blank.”
For most of his life, Sturridge has enjoyed relative anonymity. His previous roles – in period dramas (Far From The Madding Crowd), arthouse movies (Song To Song) and beloved British comedies (The Boat That Rocked) – have made his face recognisable. But his penchant for working in the West End and on Broadway, as a stage actor performing for modest crowds, has permitted him to focus on the art over prestige.
Now, however, there’s a strong chance he will become a world-famous star. In August, Netflix will release its hotly tipped series The Sandman, a collaboration between the global streamer and the superhero behemoth, DC, based on the comic books written by Mr Neil Gaiman. It’s a big-budget fantasy drama, the kind of thing Sturridge hasn’t done before, and it comes with the requisite built-in rabid fan base. Sturridge’s life is likely to change drastically the moment it meets its audience.
He doesn’t live in London any more. Several years ago, he upped sticks from his home here, where he was raised by his film director father and actress mother, to live in New York. There, “[theatre is] much more in the bloodstream of the city”, he says. “You can get in a taxi and the driver will be like, ‘Oh, you’re the guy in that play.’” In London, he says, the culture of theatre “doesn’t really permeate beyond whatever building it’s breathing in”.
It’s that sensation, of being consumed by a role, of feeling it fully, that Sturridge chases. He found that in Dream, The Sandman’s brooding central character who, when his tools to spin reveries are stolen from him, sets out to reclaim them in a gargantuan quest. Since 1991, there have been several attempts to adapt the comic book’s abstract concept. The one that stars Sturridge, alongside Ms Gwendoline Christie and Ms Jenna Coleman, is the first to succeed.
His path to the project was, pandemic notwithstanding, “very conventional”, he says, but Gaiman, the show’s writer and executive producer, frames it differently. Gaiman claims to have watched more than 1,500 auditions for the character, hellbent on finding an actor who could do Dream justice, but he struggled to shake Sturridge’s, which was one of the first ones he saw. Apparently, during the later stages of the casting process, Gaiman and the team were so convinced Sturridge was right for the role that they paid him to turn down any forthcoming roles. Recount that to Sturridge, though, and he’ll recoil uncomfortably.
Having auditioned in early 2020, Sturridge proceeded to have promising conversations with Mr Allan Heinberg, The Sandman’s showrunner, who invited him to Los Angeles for a screen test. “Then the pandemic hit, which basically meant every single actor in the world was suddenly unemployed,” he says. “Warner Bros and Netflix quite rightly sat back and were like, ‘Let’s see everyone because we can because they’re all at home.’”
“I wanted to have a physicality that could convey this powerful animal, as if you had shaved a panther”
It did not feel like a thousands-strong punch-up for the part. “The problem with acting as a profession is that it’s never that much of a battle,” he says. “You want to have an opponent to fight, but really you lay down what you’ve got, send it out into the ether and hope.”
By the end of July 2020, his official preparations for the shoot had begun, starting with the physical. Though Dream often shapeshifts, his most recognisable form is as a man with dark hair and jagged features, “just sinew and bone”, says Sturridge. For the first 45 minutes of The Sandman, Dream is mute, naked and imprisoned in a glass orb. “I wanted to see the creature that I bore witness to in the books,” says Sturridge, “to have a physicality that could convey this powerful animal, as if you had shaved a panther.”
Losing weight to inhabit that state was an easy task compared to the character development, says Sturridge. “You just do A, B, C” – a process he boils down to “going to the gym for long periods of time and not eating anything – and D will happen.” He was slender already, but in the show, his sharp, shaking frame is terrifying. Achieving the physique helped the character come to life. “There’s something very comforting about having something tangible you can hold on to when you’re [asking yourself]: how do I play the god of dreams?”
Sturridge spent months almost entirely isolated, away from loved ones, while making the series. It must have involved a huge amount of sacrifice, perhaps even compromise, considering his humbler theatre roots. He seems confused by this suggestion. Yes, the scale of the production was bewildering at times, involving, as it did, both green screens and gigantic sets, but it was a learning experience. He worked with industry-leading CGI artists with whom he never would have crossed paths otherwise. He wandered through Lucifer’s lair in hell and felt the flickering heat of real flames as he went. Moreover, he was doing something other than “binge watching Love Island” while most of the world was shut down. That, he insists, “was a privilege. I can’t really see the sacrifice.”
Halfway through our conversation, his phone rings and he unveils a black burner with a greyscale screen. It’s a jarring sight in 2022, but it’s the phone he’s always had, he says. iPhones were expensive when they first came out and he never bothered to upgrade. “There’s no ideology behind that telephone,” he says, deadpan. “I mean, I accidentally, voluntarily, have shut out some aspects of the world.”
The closest thing Sturridge had to tabloid fame came 10 years ago, when he started dating the actor Ms Sienna Miller, with whom he co-parents a daughter. They parted ways in 2015 and remain close friends. Days before we meet, a British tabloid publishes pictures of Sturridge at Wimbledon with a rumoured new partner, the fashion designer Ms Alexa Chung. They are sitting in the row behind Miller and her new boyfriend. “I’ve not seen any of those photos, so I can’t be weirded out by it at all,” he says of how his personal life plays out in public. It feels like the question catches him slightly off guard. Not paying attention to what’s being written about him, he says, “I think that’s the key [to staying grounded].”
This shunning of fame, something that, should The Sandman be successful, will become more difficult, has thus far helped Sturridge to be choosey with projects. We go back and forth, reeling off the names of directors he has worked with: Mr Olivier Assayas, Mr Thomas Vinterberg, Mr István Szabó, Mr Terrence Malick… “I try to keep my head down,” he says. “I haven’t said that list out loud ever. I’m proud to have had even small moments with them.”
In May, Sturridge attended the Cannes Film Festival in support of his new HBO series, Irma Vep, directed by Assayas. There was a party for the festival’s 75th anniversary, for which he stuck around, “just because I wanted to be in a room with all my heroes”, he says. They were everywhere he looked: Mr David Cronenberg, Ms Claire Denis, Mr Joel Coen. He might be gearing up to become the centrepiece of a global comic book juggernaut, but it’s still the small-scale, auteur-led stuff that moves him.
In the grand game of celebrity, you get the impression Sturridge would sooner be sitting somewhere such as here, beneath a tree, toying with fallen pine needles, than in the sightline of red carpet paparazzi. Sturridge seeks neither fame nor public validation in his line of work. He looks at me, makes rare eye contact and shrugs at the notion. “You should just do what you love and be good at it,” he says.
The Sandman is on Netflix from 5 August