When performer Mason Alexander Park discovered that Neil Gaiman was involved in bringing his own award-winning DC comic book series The Sandman to the screen, they decided to get in touch with the writer via social media to ask if the role of Desire had been cast yet. It hadn’t been, and Park’s initiative paid off, with Gaiman telling The Queer Review that he immediately got in touch with The Sandman series showrunner Allan Heinberg saying, “I think we may have found our Desire!” The visually stunning and thrillingly expansive Sandman is set between the realms of the waking and sleeping worlds, and sees Park play one of the all-powerful supernatural beings known as the Endless, opposite Tom Sturrdige as their sibling Dream, in the major Netflix series which launches on Friday, August 5th.
This isn’t the first time that Park has taken on a much-loved and iconic role, having starred in theatre productions of Rocky Horror as Frank-N-Furter, Cabaret as the Emcee—for which they won the Helen Hayes Awards for Outstanding Lead Performer in a Musical—and as Hedwig on the first Broadway national tour of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Last year, they reprised their Hedwig in a more stripped back production at Olney Theatre Center in Maryland, following a run in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, I Am My Own Wife, at the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut in 2020. Away from their stage work, Park can already be seen on Netflix as Gren in the live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop, and will play Ian Wright in NBC’s upcoming Quantum Leap, a continuation of the classic series.
Ahead of the premiere of The Sandman, Mason Alexander Park spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about what it means to them to be embodying Desire, their thoughts on the series’ range of LGBTQ+ characters, and why Hedwig is such a significant part of their life.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: When did The Sandman first enter your world and what impact did it have on you?
Mason Alexander Park: “I’m a big fan of comic books and I’ve been collecting them with my dad for a very long time. So I was always aware of The Sandman and I had read single issues of it throughout my teens and early 20s. There was a point where I was researching nonbinary and gender nonconforming individuals in literature, and Desire is one of the most prolific and one of the first, especially in the comic book world. I knew that this was someone that I thought I looked and sounded like, and I really reimmersed myself in it once I knew that it was being adapted. It gave me the perfect excuse to read it from beginning to end again and to experience it in different mediums, like listening to the audiobook which had just come out. That was the first time that I sat down and went from number one straight to the end and had a full experience of the entire world of The Sandman, which was very needed and probably happened later in my life than I would’ve liked it to.”
What does being part of this screen adaptation mean to you?
“What is it like to dream of something since you’re a kid, playing a role like this, and then being able to not only do it in a remarkable television show, but to do it alongside some of the people that you respect the most as an artist? It’s really hard to describe how it feels. It’s hard to put into words how touched and honoured I am by the excitement for the show and how incredible it is to consider people I’ve been such a massive fan of like Neil Gaiman and Patton Oswalt, and all these remarkable performers, as friends and family. It’s everything that I could have ever wanted when I was growing up watching fantasy and sci-fi from the sidelines, wishing that I could one day see myself represented in those forms of media. Now, not only do I get to see myself represented in that way, but I get to be a part of that representation for kids like me moving forward. It’s a remarkably humbling and moving experience.”
What about the character of Desire themselves, what did you relish about diving into this incredible creation and getting to embody them?
“Desire is so layered. When you think about that aspect of humanity in reality, it is an unbelievably multi-dimensional thing that we experience. Desire can be so many things, from sexual to physical, to emotional to mental. The needs and the wants that we have on a day-to-day basis are the things that propel us forward and that make us human. From Desire’s perspective, they are the most important aspect of humanity because without want and without need there would be nothing to dream of, there would be nothing to imagine. So they definitely consider themselves to be very important in the grander universe. With Desire and Dream’s inability to put their egos to the side, they bump up against each other constantly. In the comics, obviously you go into the mythos and the lore of why that is. They once were each other’s favourite sibling. Dream once loved Desire more than anyone else in the family and when we meet them in season one that is not the case, and Desire is not necessarily being the most helpful individual in Dream’s life.”
“It’s really fun getting to play someone that is so complex. In this genre, you don’t always get to play such beautifully well-rounded antagonists or ethereal beings. Sometimes you just show up and look amazing and do your thing and then leave, because there are so many stories to tell and so much to cram into it.”
As well as playing this layered and complex character, you also get to look amazing. There’s such attention to detail in the production design of Desire’s lair known as the Threshold, along with some exquisite costume design and hair and makeup. What did you make of those elements and did you get to have any input?
“Absolutely, we started having conversations when I first landed in London about what we wanted Desire to look like and went through the comics and a bunch of clothes and different iterations of the character and agreed that this was our season one Desire. It’s fun because there are elements of Desire’s hair and makeup that evoke the original comic which was written in 1989. It has a very 80s aesthetic to it. The show is timeless and the fashion is timeless. It’s fun getting to play these individuals that shift and change and morph so often. Hopefully, over the course of the series we will get to explore so many physical versions of what Desire manifests as. In this Sandman universe, we went with panels from the comics and tried to recreate what the inside of that heart looks like, what the Threshold looks like.”
“Our version of Desire’s catsuit from the comics is a deep plunge instead of a turtleneck. It’s small details like that which give the audience a nod and give them the respect of saying, ‘We are just as massive fans of this as you are’. Every single frame of the show is embedded with so much love and research and reverence for the original and that’s evident right down to the design of the physical spaces and the costumes that we wear.”
As a queer viewer, one of the things that I found exciting about The Sandman was just how many LGBTQ+ characters emerge throughout this first season. Often, particularly in this genre, we’re lucky if we get just one. Here, it’s never the first thing that we find out about them, and they’re not always the nicest people; they can be flawed, they can can be anything, and they’re not defined by their gender identity or their sexuality. I know you’ve already watched the series, was that something that struck you?
“Definitely, I was unbelievably surprised and really moved by my first experience of watching the show. It took me a couple episodes to realize that there was more queer representation in this television show that was casual, and not commented on, than I had ever seen before in anything. The fact that it was in a show like The Sandman, something that is so accessible and so beloved by millions of people, and knowing that all of these people were going to have an experience like I did watching the series, seeing the world reflected in such a beautifully normalized way, was incredible, it was unlike anything that I had expected. Allan our showrunner had such a major hand in that, as did Neil.”
“The fact that there were more queer characters who had partners and relationships than there were heteronormative relationships displayed on screen was shocking to me and needed, because that is not usually true of things in this genre and in this medium. Queerness has always had a major place in fantasy and sci-fi, but it’s never quite in the sense that almost every single lead or every single guest star has some sense of ambiguity and queerness embedded in who they are. That was just remarkable to be surprised by, as someone who had only worked on my stuff on the show. I’m not the only queer person that’s in this series and I won’t be the only trans person in this series if it continues, and I won’t be the only nonbinary person in this series. It’s really amazing to not be the only representation that exists in a show, the only person who checks off the list. I’m one of so many, and it’s so cool to be in such great company.”
When I spoke to Neil Gaiman recently about the series he mentioned that you showed him one of your Desire tattoos when you finally met in person, which he was delighted to see, knowing that the role meant so much to you. You also have some Hedwig tattoos don’t you?
“Yeah, I’ve got a few Hedwig ones.”
What did getting to be that iconic character—another iconic character—of Hedwig mean to you?
“Hedwig changed my life. It was my first professional job out of college and it was the role that I found myself in and the role that made me decide to study theatre instead of pursuing film and television. I lived in Los Angeles during high school and I had been doing a bunch of Nickelodeon television shows. I was at a point in my life where I could easily have done the thing that most of my peers were doing, where they stayed local and they just kept auditioning. I got some really wonderful advice from Harry Abrams, who was a friend of mine and ran the agency that I’m still with to this day. He said to me, ‘You’ll never regret going to school, but it’ll be really hard for you to go back and do it over again if you miss this opportunity. The industry will be here when you’re done and we’ll get you set up and ready to go when that happens’. I took that advice, then I found Hedwig around the same time that I graduated and was like, ‘Oh, my God! Okay, I guess there really is a place for me in the theatre world and there are characters that represent me in a way that feels worthwhile’.”
“Hedwig was the first time that I had seen a trans individual that was the lead and it’s Hamlet on heels! It was one of the most challenging roles that I think any actor could ever play. Doing Hedwig was life-altering and felt like the ultimate opportunity to find myself in another individual. I’m really grateful for that time. Now John Cameron Mitchell is in The Sandman as Hal. We’ve been friends for years, ever since they first let me play the part. Hedwig will forever be one of the most important roles of my life and one that I hope to continue to revisit as long as I’m in good enough shape to walk around in heels!”
Finally, what’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“It’s Hedwig. That story and those lyrics were the first time that I really understood my experience as nonbinary and with not fitting into the binary categories that are forced upon us. As each year goes by, and the more time I spend with John and with Stephen, the deeper that connection furthers itself for me. It is a constantly evolving thing, that means the entire world to me. It’s really hard to put into words what that role means to me and what that music and what that show has done for me as a queer individual; what it’s done for my career; what it’s done for my understanding of myself; what it’s done for my ability to have conversations with other people about myself and about my identity. Hedwig has opened every door and it continues to be my favourite piece of theatre and one of my favourite works of art in general. I’m so deeply honoured to be a part of the legacy of that show, and The Sandman is also an extension of that. Without Hedwig there might not be a Mason Alexander Park as Desire, because part of why Neil knew that I was a serious actor and that he could trust me with this, was that he knew I’d played Hedwig and he knows how difficult that role is. So everything leads to everything else and I’m really touched that Hedwig has been such a big part of my life for such a long time.”
The Sandman debuts on Netflix on Friday, August 5th 2022.
Watch more exclusive interviews with The Sandman cast and series creators: