Kirby Howell-Baptiste on diversity in Hollywood, Ru Paul and becoming Death in Netflix’s Sandman

·7-min read
Kirby Howell-Baptiste on diversity in Hollywood, Ru Paul and becoming Death in Netflix’s Sandman

Dressing in preparation for a day of publicising Netflix’s major new series The Sandman this month, a thought popped into actor Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s head: “What if Death did Ru Paul’s Drag Race?”

To explain, the star is playing Death – one of the Endless, alongside siblings Destiny, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair and Delirium – in this glitzy adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed comic book, which blends history, literature and mythology.

In the show, as in the comic, when we meet Death, she is dressed simply, in jeans and a t-shirt - in stark contrast to the actor’s own style inspiration: drag icon, Raja. “I love clothing, the pure expression of it,” she tells me. “Your clothes are your shell, your disguise, your cloak, your armour. I love that… fashion and style can be anything you want.”

“I've had an absolute blast on this press tour. Almost all of it, I've styled myself, and I've had an amazing time, just picking out bits. It has been my own little drag show.”

Her love of clothing, which has taken her all the way to a guest judge spot on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, stretches back to when she was young. Brought up in London, Howell-Baptiste spent her childhood hanging around her mother’s clothing stalls in Camden – “I’ve always been around people who were making their own things and creating and they've been so expressive,” she enthuses – before enrolling at drama school.

So a clear path to acting stardom? Not quite: after seeing Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, Howell-Baptiste dropped out of drama school and struck out for America to forge her career in Los Angeles.

“I remember thinking, ‘I've never seen a performance like this in real life,’” she says, crediting it with reinvigorating her love of acting. “It helped me realise that [drama school] wasn't the place for me, because what I wanted to do was exactly what I was seeing on that stage. I wanted to have a role that I could completely lose myself in and at that time, I did not feel like drama school was a place that I felt like that.”

Looking back, she doesn’t think she should have bothered with training in the first place. “I think a lot of the time drama schools are teaching you things that at this point are, I wouldn’t say irrelevant, but certainly outdated,” she says. “I just wanted to go.”

During a progress review with her teachers, she was criticised for “moving too fast”. She says, “Hearing that, I didn’t understand why it was being criticised as a bad thing, because I always thought that being a self-starter should be a thing of value.

“When I did leave, and I went to America and scrapped [for] it out there… that skill that here was seen as a bad thing is the only reason I’ve been able to do the things that I’ve done.”

 (Josh Wilks/ Netflix)
(Josh Wilks/ Netflix)

If it was a gamble to leave drama school, it has paid off. Alongside appearing in Why Women Kill, a dark US sitcom in which she played an attorney in an open marriage, Howell-Baptiste has featured in hit sitcom The Good Place, Disney’s 101 Dalmatians prequel Cruella and Kristen Bell’s revival of Veronica Mars.

She’s even joined a comedy troupe – the Upright Citizens Brigade, which boasts alumni including Amy Poehler, Aubrey Plaza and Donald Glover – but her best-known role might be as Sandra Oh’s assistant Elena Felton in Killing Eve.

“I don’t know that anyone knew that Killing Eve would be the cultural phenomenon that it was,” she says (though she confesses that she never watched the show’s controversial final episode).

“So it was really just us having a lot of fun. Phoebe [Waller-Bridge, who wrote the first series of Killing Eve] was shooting the Star Wars film or something, so she wasn’t on set. But it felt like a really, really core group of us.

“Sandra was sort of my go-to because she was the person who had been there the longest at that point. She’d seen everything. She was almost like the unofficial script supervisor, unofficial showrunner.”

Though she makes it sound simple, the path to success hasn’t always been smooth – like many of her black colleagues, Howell-Baptiste moved to the US because she wasn’t getting the breaks in Britain.

“I by no means paint America as any sort of utopia,” she says. “But I do think that what does prevail there… is the idea of the American dream. And if you want something bad enough, you can fight for it, and you can get there.

“I think that the reason why England has haemorrhaged black actors and black creators is because we’re playing catch up in the UK when it comes to casting. And so many black actors for so long saw the US as a place where they could go and not find themselves pushed into tertiary roles.”

 (COURTESY OF NETFLIX)
(COURTESY OF NETFLIX)

She continues, “There are more opportunities here now. But the mentality that people see for so long was, ‘I have to go overseas to have any sort of success.’ I think the UK is starting to give black actors a purpose, to be able to feel like they are safe here and can have success and create and be free.

“But I don’t think that was the case for such a long time. I mean, we have such amazing shows and amazing actors, and then you look at it and think, ‘Why aren’t we working here? Why aren’t we doing that here?’ And that really is a missed opportunity.”

It’s an issue that is still prevalent in the film and television industry: after Howell-Baptiste was cast as Death, the show suffered a backlash from some Sandman readers who pointed out that in the comics, the character was white.

However, she seems unfazed by the issue when I bring it up. “I understand that people are precious about this piece of work, but I didn’t feel as much pressure as you might think, and I think part of that just honestly came from the fact that we, as a cast, were picked by Neil,” she says.

“In real life, I think it takes off an immense amount of pressure, because you can go, ‘Well, look, they believe in me, so all I have to do is show up and keep doing whatever it was that I did that made them see me as this.’”

Easier said than done, but Howell-Baptiste wears the role of Death lightly, sparring with Tom Sturridge’s Dream – the focus of the book and the series – in the scenes they share together as they walk through London.

One thing that stands out is Death’s unashamed love of life. She takes off her shoes to feel the ground under her feet, eats an apple with relish and grins frequently – and speaking to Howell-Baptiste, that seems not too far from her own personality.

Not for nothing do her friends call her the “Fun Shaman” – a title she giggles at delightedly when I bring it up. “Truly, I think one of the joys of being an adult is the fact that you can do all the things you wanted to do as a kid, and no one can stop you,” she says. “I think a lot of my ideal days are if an 11-year-old had the financial capabilities and the independence and freedom to do whatever they want.”

With so much energy to burn, what does Howell-Baptiste have planned for the future? “Tonnes, honestly. There’s so much that I want to do: when I look at my CV, I don’t think any two projects have ever really been the same,” she says, pointing to her upcoming role in action series Culprits.

Action is a new genre for Howell-Baptiste, though perhaps it’s been a long time coming - as a longstanding love of the 2006 Gerard Butler action film 300 can confirm.

“I remember watching 300 and loving that the fact that these men all train together… it would be fun to do something like that, to get to come in and train with a bunch of people every single day.” And kick people off a cliff? She laughs. “And kick people off a cliff, exactly.”

The Sandman is streaming now on Netflix