Published: Sunday, 28 August 2022 18:35 | Written by Jamie Ruby
The Sandman series finally was released on Netflix, and newcomer Vanesu Samunya, who plays Rose, and veteran actor Stephen Fry, who plays Gilbert, recently talked to the press during a roundtable interview.
With Sandman being the first big production that Samanyal has worked on, we asked her what she learned from the experience and from working with the other actors. “I learned a lot of stuff,” said the actress, “mainly about kind of, I think, everything outside of myself, just being on set for a prolonged period of time and really digesting scripts, especially whole scripts, where there're just so many scenes and so many things that you've got to read. I learned to pace myself and I learned kind of, I guess, how to manage myself, because this was my first opportunity to have a prolonged period of filming. That was the biggest learning curve for me.”
Fry told the site that there is still always more to learn, even for him. “I think you'll get the same answer from actors even older than me,” said Fry, “[which] is that every day is a school day with acting.”
He went on to say that you can’t “rely on it” either and told a story about Lawrence Olivier getting upset after getting an especially long-standing ovation at a performance, not understanding what he did special that night. “Even a great actor, who is brilliant, is afraid,” he explained, “because they don't know why they're brilliant that particular time…I mean, you have to hope that you've got enough technique to be able to convince people, but you don't want to use that. You want to be just in the moment…every scene you do has never been done before in filming…So, it's always an adventure.”
The two also talked to SciFi Vision about connecting to their characters. “I think, in a way, it's quite easy,” explained Fry, “because the world, or indeed I should say worlds that are presented, are so unusual and so daring, in that they penetrate the membrane between the real and the illusory or the real and the dreamlike, that, in a sense, the job of the actors is to be absolutely as real as possible, otherwise, the whole thing floats away. So, you've got to be anchored in a truth…So, in a sense, it's not easy, but the role is clear. I think if you're an actor in such things, you mustn't be aware that you're inside something astonishing that's to do with fantasy or reality, but that you're grounded, and then, it all makes sense, I think.”
Samanyal agreed and spoke a bit to the difficulty in playing emotional scenes when in her real life she felt a bit blocked. “I think the only thing [difficult] maybe was conjuring up emotional responses sometimes, because I felt a bit blocked up in myself, like in my personal life I felt a bit blocked up, so I wasn't as willing to explore very vulnerable places in front of everyone, because I was like, ‘If I start, I don't know if I'm going to stop, and I don't know if I'm ready to feel a lot of pain.’ ”
During the interview, the two also talked about the natural friendship that formed between them, their favorite filming locations and parts of their costumes, and much more. Watch our portion of the interview and read the full transcript below and stream The Sandman, now on Netflix.
***Note that the following contains slight spoilers. Edited for clarity and length*** QUESTION: Is there, at this point in your career, any hesitation or nervousness in taking on a role in a project as esteemed as this?
STEPHEN FRY:No, I think it's one of the real pleasures of the way television and film have developed in the last twenty years is that you do get these really exciting projects that you just feel honored to be a part of. I know that sounds a bit cheesy, but The Sandman is, for most people, one of the masterpieces in graphic novels of the past thirty, forty years, forty years now. And because I've known Neil for some time, I know how much it means to him and how much it meant to get it right. It reminded me of how my friend Douglas Adams, with his Hitchhiker's Guide, if only he'd lived another ten years, they really could have done it properly. The technology, but not just the technology, the budget and the will to make things properly and give them due care and attention is at a high pitch at the moment. So, it's a kind of easy call I've found.
QUESTION: How did you develop Gilbert and Rose's easy, relaxed sort of relationship? You two sort of seem like you just gelled the second you were on screen together, and I was wondering how you managed that.
VANESU SAMANYAL: Yeah, it was just completely natural, really. We just showed up to set, and it was like, “Hello.” [laughs]
STEPHEN FRY:Yeah, we didn't have any rehearsals or get to know you period.
STEPHEN FRY:And she, as you can see, is a very easy person to get on with.
VANESU SAMANYAL: Likewise.
STEPHEN FRY:Thank you; that was the correct answer. [laughs]
VANESU SAMANYAL:Yeah, we were just lucky that we're able to get along like that and just talk and have a genuine friendship that showed onscreen.
QUESTION: Vanesu, your performance was extraordinary, and I had not heard of you before, I'm sorry, but how did you get cast on this show, and where did you come from?
VANESU SAMANYAL: Yeah, firstly, thank you very much. I auditioned; it was one of the auditions that found its way into my inbox. So, I had an agent that I'd been with for maybe a year or more that sent it over. Actually, I kind of left that agent at the time, but they sent it over anyway, and I did the audition. And I'm thankful I was lucky enough to get cast. Before that I did some small things. I did a few short films; I was the lead in a short film. Then, I did like a movie thing, feature film independent thing, a few commercials, just really small stuff, but I just started off small and built up, and then suddenly this came.
QUESTION:You're definitely ready for the primetime.
STEPHEN FRY:Isn't she just? I quite agree. And of course, it is a thrilling thing to work with someone who is such a natural actor and so easy to work with, but also knowing that they're a find for the audience, that the audience will be enchanted, because you only get one chance to play as an unknown, and that means that the audience don't know your limits. They don't know what you can do. So, it's a very exciting thing to watch newcomers. Anyway, sorry, I mustn't keep blowing smoke up you, but you're quite right. She's terrific, and she was an honor to work with.
QUESTION:I still don't think we've reached your limits either.
SCIFI VISION:That kind of leads into my question. Vanesu, obviously, this is then your first big production. What did you sort of learn about yourself as performer from working on the show and working with other actors? Then, Stephen, is there still things you learn even now?
VANESU SAMANYAL:What did I learn? Well, I learned a lot of stuff. I learned a lot of stuff, mainly about kind of, I think, everything outside of myself, just being on set for a prolonged period of time and really digesting scripts, especially whole scripts, where there're just so many scenes and so many things that you've got to read. I learned to pace myself and I learned kind of, I guess, how to manage myself, because this was my first opportunity to have a prolonged period of filming. That was the biggest learning curve for me.
STEPHEN FRY:Yeah, and I think you'll get the same answer from actors even older than me, [which] is that every day is a school day with acting. Also, you can't rely on it. I mean, there's a famous story about Laurence Olivier. One of his performances was so great that the audience stood. It got a standing ovation every night, but this one just went on and on and on. He was particularly astonishing that night, and then he ran offstage and slammed his door. One of the actors was sent to find out why he could be so annoyed. They knocked on his door, and said, “Larry, What's the matter?” “Go away!” “But don't you know how brilliant you were tonight?” He said, “Of course, I fucking know, but I don't know why!” So, even a great actor, who is brilliant, is afraid, because they don't know why they're brilliant that particular time. And you can't bottle it. So, every day is an adventure. I mean, you have to hope that you've got enough technique to be able to convince people, but you don't want to use that. You want to be just in the moment; all the old cliches are there. Every scene you do has never been done before in filming. It's never been done. So, it's always an adventure, and I just had a great time. We were all off the leash, because it was probably the first job any of us have done since lockdown. So, it was thrilling to be amongst human beings, let alone to be doing such a great project.
QUESTION:…Steven, are there any filming locations that stick out?
STEPHEN FRY:In my case, it's selfish, because we were down in Surrey, I think it was in a sort of quarry for one of the final scenes of Episode Ten where I get turned into something that is a spoiler alert, and it was on one of the hottest days we had that year, if not the hottest day. And as you probably noticed, I wear an entirely green thick tweed waistcoat coat and cape and hat and mustache. And it was very hard to think of anything other than wanting to dive into an ice bath. So, the secret is, “Oh, the agony gentleman [and] ladies, the agony of having to perform,” But we coped, didn't we? Because we have very kind people come with fans. But you had some great locations to work in as well.
VANESU SAMANYAL:Yeah. The first location that we filmed at on my first day, which was the scene where we arrived in England to see Unity, it was a gorgeous, gorgeous big building. I think it was just so nice to just look at it. I love old buildings. So, it was just a real treat.
QUESTION: Similarly, just as there're these incredible sets and locations, your costumes have so much detail, you were talking about the green tweed, but are there any little details in the costumes that people should look for that you think really match the character or something that you personally wanted to put there?
STEPHEN FRY:Well, it was a prop, but I loved having the sword stick. [It made a] little hissing noise of the steel coming out. I don't usually get trusted with weapons for very good reasons. So, it was quite exciting. It was our first scene in fact, was the bit where I have to use it. I'm hopeless at that kind of thing. I mean, your costume was one of the more normal costumes.
VANESU SAMANYAL:Yeah, just regular clothes. I mean, Rose clearly likes pant suits a lot. I mean, I don't know if they were technically [classified] as that, but they looked like that.
STEPHEN FRY:You managed to avoid the Hillary Clinton look.
VANESU SAMANYAL: [laughs] Yes. [Rose] actually had rings. She had a ring that we decided was from her mother who is now gone. You know, she's gone. I can't remember which finger I had it on, but there was like a cross ring on I think maybe - not my wedding ring finger.
STEPHEN FRY:You're given the annulet as well.
VANESU SAMANYAL:Yes, and I was given that. So, that was very nice. I can't remember which fingers they went on, but yeah, I guess her rings; they have a lot of significance.
QUESTION:Was there anything you remember discussing with Neil Gaiman in particular is that allowed you to find your character more easily?
STEPHEN FRY:Well, I had a Zoom with Neil and Allan [Heinberg], and I was aware that the character of Gilbert was based on GK Chesterton, the writer, who created Father Brown, who was a favorite writer of Neil's when he was young and happened to have been a favorite writer of mine as well. So, it was rather pleasing, because given who the character truly is, in the background, if it had just been a Victorian gentleman, it would have been quite hard to hang any personality on it. But knowing that Chesterton, this paradoxicallist, as he's often called, you know, someone who sees the nature of things in an unusual way, with a little twist, usually. I bore [Rose] at one point at the end of the car journey, where I go on about how everything is paradoxical, you know, hope is there, because things are hopeless, and desire's there because we're undesirable, and how everything is a reflection of its negative. It's a very Chesterton way of looking at things. So, I enjoyed that, even though it won't be picked up on, it's fun to inhabit something like that, I think.
VANESU SAMANYAL:[laughs] What was the question?
STEPHEN FRY:[laughs] It was a good one.
QUESTION:Was there anything in particular that Neil Gaiman told you to help you get into character?
VANESU SAMANYAL:Okay, I wasn't actually able to meet or speak personally with Neil until afterwards. I met him for the first time in person this year, when we went to New York, and before I saw him briefly on a Zoom read-through that we had, just the whole cast for Episode Seven and eight. But I spoke mostly with Allan. Was there anything that helped me get in touch with her? I think I was already very in touch with Rose. I was very fortunate, because we're very similar, and he just kind of just gave me a rundown of her and of how she was in the show, and how that differs to the comic. They gave me a bit of background, but it was more so my deep diving into like, me kind of constructing Rose as a person beyond the comic that really kind of helped me get in touch with her.
SCIFI VISION: You talked about similarities and getting in touch with her, but what were sort of the - for both of you - the difficulties that you had getting connecting with the characters. Was there anything?
STEPHEN FRY:I think, in a way, it's quite easy, because the world, or indeed I should say worlds that are presented, are so unusual and so daring, in that they penetrate the membrane between the real and the illusory or the real and the dreamlike, that, in a sense, the job of the actors is to be absolutely as real as possible. Otherwise, the whole thing floats away. So, you've got to be anchored in a truth, and you've only got to look to look at Vanesu's performance to see she is a genuine - I know that sort of person, [who] is having to come to the decision to become a mother at a young age, as it were, to her younger brother, to take responsibility to fight for things against them [that are] quite frightening. And if that had been ethereal - despite the nature as a dream vortex as we discover - it would have been lost. So, in a sense, it's not easy, but the role is clear. I think if you're an actor in such things, you mustn't be aware that you're inside something astonishing that's to do with fantasy or reality, but that you're grounded, and then, it all makes sense, I think. Do you agree with that?
VANESU SAMANYAL:I agree, yeah. I think it was definitely - When I think of our time filming, I don't think of anything particularly difficult, thankfully. I think the only thing maybe was conjuring up emotional responses sometimes, because I felt a bit blocked up in myself, like in my personal life I felt a bit blocked up, so I wasn't as willing to explore very vulnerable places in front of everyone, because I was like, “If I start, I don't know if I'm going to stop, [laughs] and I don't know if I'm ready to feel a lot of pain.” So, yeah.
QUESTION:Stephen, this is such an interesting world for you, and you're with a magical cane as well. Can you talk about working with such a unique prop?
STEPHEN FRY:It is a dream isn't it? We have to be careful about using the word dream, but it's a long held ambition to use a sword stick like that, even though - and I honestly wouldn't recommend anyone to be within six feet of me when I'm holding such a thing, because I'm the clumsiest, most uncoordinated person yet devised by nature, but it was a real pleasure to be in something so complete of itself. You know, I think one of the delights of acting is dressing up, is the primal pleasure of the first meeting with the wardrobe department and the decision about how things should be, what color should it be. We knew it should be Tweed. And as in everything in this, there's reference to the original graphic novels, the comic frames that have been drawn by the artists who work with Neil on that, but part of the building of a character is that excitement. And those pince-nez, as I insist on calling them, the French name for them, those little spectacles that spring onto your nose, literally “pinch nose.” Once you've got those, you almost don't need to act. It sort of does it for you. And the mustache, which my husband pointed out to me when he saw a photograph, he said, “Oh, it's on wonkily.” He said, “No, it isn't; of course, your face is wonky,” and that is the sad truth. I have a bent nose. So, whenever I have a fake mustache, or real one as I sort of have at the moment, it always looks as if it's slightly put on wrong, but if you put it on right, it looks even [more wrong]. Anyway, sorry. I bagged all your answer. You should be answering this now…What did you wear? We talked about your pantsuit at some depth didn't we?
VANESU SAMANYAL:Yeah, I wore a very boring thing.
STEPHEN FRY:You had, I noticed - it's so funny is that you can't help noticing it. If it's an Apple production, everybody has iPhones, of course; in this…it’s not Sony [phones]. It's Warner Brothers and Netflix, but didn’t you have one of the big screen foldable ones? One character has a foldable phone, don’t they? I remember thinking “Oh, that's quite cool.” [laughs] That's really pathetic. But Isn't it surprising how little technology is in it? It's set in the present day mostly. Obviously, it goes back, but there's your laptop for you writing a novel at the end, and you're on the phone a bit in the car, but it's so refreshing, isn't it? You don't have a story that's dependent on mobile phones and technology and social media that they all live proper lives - old school.
VANESU SAMANYAL:Yeah, I think it's very nice. It just keeps you very grounded in the reality and the events and them existing as humans.
STEPHEN FRY:It was also great to have on set…little Eddie [Karanja], running around, who was a ball of fire. He was so energetic and charming, wasn't he?
STEPHEN FRY:It always helps to have a child on set, because it keeps you from talking lazily about things that you shouldn't and also someone to entertain and to remind you of how little energy you have yourself because the energy there is so impressive.
STEPHEN FRY:There we are. I don’t know what we were babbling about there, but it was enjoyable.