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SYFY WIRE Interviews

The Good Omens cast are all long-time Neil Gaiman super-fans, too

By Jennifer Vineyard
Good Omens cast SXSW

Neil Gaiman has often joked that his works such as Sandman, Good Omens, and American Gods are like sexually-transmitted diseases, passed from one friend or lover to another. And since most of the Good Omens cast are diehard fans of his writing, they also remember how they caught the bug, so to speak. Usually, it starts in college.

For Nick Offerman, who plays the American ambassador whose son is believed to be the Antichrist, he became indoctrinated while attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. Since he had grown up in a "cultural vacuum," one of the luckiest things that ever happened to him, he said, was making friends with a group of five or six people who had "the best counterculture taste."

"I came in as just an absolute neophyte," Offerman told SYFY WIRE. "I was like Luke Skywalker: 'I think I might be good at this, but I've never driven anything.'" And so his new friends helpfully caught him up to speed, giving him music (Laurie Anderson, Talking Heads), movies (especially those directed by David Lynch), and, of course, books (William S. Burroughs, Sandman). "I was so culturally ignorant, they had to turn me on to the Beatles!" Offerman says with a chuckle. "And I was like, 'These guys are terrific. Do people know about them?'"

The group of friends — which eventually became the Defiant Theatre company — had a resident comics freak in Richard Ragsdale. "We all loved all kinds of underground comics," Offerman says, "but he was the collector. He's the one who still knows what's up."

Ragsdale had collected issues of Sandman from the very beginning, and since Offerman and Ragsdale were roommates for many years, Offerman had access to it all. "Sandman made me realize you can live an adult life as an artist," the actor says, "and still have it be incredibly fun and exciting and magical and full of sexuality and humor." Sharing these cultural touchstones with his friends, Offerman said, made him feel like he'd finally found his "tribe." ("We see things, we understand things, we feel things that the normals can never know," he explains.) To come full circle and get to work in an adaptation of Gaiman's work, Offerman said, just blew his mind. "I can't think about it too long because I get too freaked out," he said.

Good Omens - Official Trailer | Prime Video

Michael Sheen, who plays the angel Aziraphale, also discovered Sandman in college. While attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, he made a friend in his year named Gary Turner, who invited him one night over drinks, asking, "Do you read comic books?" At first, Sheen told him, "No, I don't," because he thought Turner was asking him about DC or Marvel superhero stories, and he wasn't interested in those. Turner then told him about "a revolution going on in comics" at the time — this being 1989 or so — and gave Sheen his first taste of more literary comics by Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and more.

Sheen found that he loved Watchmen, V For Vendetta, Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, and Sandman, but Sandman most of all because of how it blended mythology, folklore, fairy tales, philosophy, and Shakespeare. That led to Sheen reading more of Gaiman's work, including Good Omens, which came out around six months later. ("At that point, I couldn't tell what was Terry Pratchett, and what was Neil Gaiman," he says. "Although subsequently, after reading more of both, I can kind of see.")

Years later, while promoting his roles in films like Twilight and Underworld, Sheen got a little testy with an interviewer who expressed some snobbishness about sci-fi/fantasy and genre material. "I lost it a bit," Sheen says, laughing. "And I started rattling off the greatest writers of the last 50 years, including Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and Neil Gaiman."

Somehow, word of Sheen's rant got to Gaiman, and soon afterward, Sheen's doorbell rang with a big box delivery. When the actor opened the box, he found a collection of Neil Gaiman first editions and a card that read, "From one fan to another." So naturally, the two became friends.

The first time they met, Gaiman offered to take Sheen to dinner. He asked, "Do you want to go somewhere fancy, or somewhere interesting?" Sheen picked interesting, only he didn't realize how interesting it would become. In town for the 2010 Oscars, Gaiman took him to a sushi restaurant called the Hump near the Santa Monica airport, and at the end of the meal, law enforcement rushed in and shut the place down. Apparently, the chef had been serving illegally procured endangered species, and customers had been eating whale without knowing it, as it was served as a chef's choice "mystery" dish.

"That was kind of extraordinary!" Sheen says, noting that Gaiman and Pratchett had hoped to appear together as extras in the Good Omens sushi scene, if there were ever an adaptation. "So for some bizarre reason, we're all connected through sushi."

Good Omens, Michael Sheen and David Tennant

Jon Hamm, who plays the angel Gabriel, was an Anglophile growing up. He watched Doctor Who, Monty Python, Blackadder and other British shows he could find on PBS. So naturally, he also gravitated towards Neil Gaiman's writing, but his novels first.

"I was a rare bird," Hamm says. "I was one of the few people who wasn't introduced to Neil Gaiman through Sandman." And the first Neil Gaiman book that he read was Good Omens, which he counts himself lucky enough to have gotten into soon after it as released in 1990. But either he doesn't remember (or he doesn't want to disclose) who turned him on to it.

Hamm provided two possibilities. Memory number one: Somebody plopped it into his lap, saying, "Have you ever read this guy? You should check him out. I think you'd like him." Memory number two: He read a review of the book, and he thought it sounded interesting. ("So I either went out and bought it, or I might have stolen it," he says, laughing.)

Good Omens hooked Hamm right away. "I thought, 'Oh, this guy is just my speed. I like the way this guy tells a story,'" he says. "And I was familiar enough with the touchstones therein because I'm a comic book fan, I'm a mythology fan, and I get it." It reminded Hamm of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and he loved "how the intelligence and wit of the story harmonize with each other."

Years later, he met Gaiman socially but didn't talk to him at first, feeling overwhelmed. Little did he know that Gaiman was having the same awkward response. Later on, Hamm let him know that he loved both Good Omens and American Gods, and this fleeting conversation came to mind when Gaiman was trying to cast the part of Gabriel. He wrote Hamm an email: "Dear Jon, I remember you telling how much you love Good Omens. I've written a part that's not really in the book. It's Gabriel, the boss of the angels. You would be the most irritating boss, the most appalling know-it-all. People would want to punch you in the face. Would you be interested?" Hamm wrote back one word, "Yes."

"It was the most succinct way I could figure out how to respond!" Hamm says. "I knew whatever it was going to be cool. I don't care how many scenes or how many lines I have. I just wanted to be in something I'd want to watch, and to be in an adaptation of a book I love is just bonus."