In the UK, the name Stephen Fry is invariably prefixed with phrase “national treasure”, and with good reason. With his Wildean wit and turn of phrase, the actor, comedian, director, and best-selling novelist has been a perennially admired figure for decades. Early in his career, he was involved in some of the best-loved comedy series on British television such as Blackadder, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Jeeves and Wooster, and the game show QI. While his film appearances include titles as varied as A Fish Called Wanda, Peter’s Friends, Wilde, Spice World, Gosford Park, V for Vendetta, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. In 2013, Fry made his Broadway debut as Malvolio in Mark Rylance’s Tony-winning all-male production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, following a hit run of the production at London’s Globe. More recently he’s been seen in Sex Education, Russell T Davies’ It’s A Sin, and heard as the voice of Headmaster Barnes in Heartstopper. A BAFTA-nominee himself, for twelve years watching Fry host the televised BAFTA film awards ceremony was an annual fixture.
Now he’s starring as Gilbert in the highly-acclaimed adaptation of his friend Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. With the series currently sitting at number in Netflix’s most-viewed top ten in 89 countries, Stephen Fry spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about taking on the role, what he makes of the series’ approach to its multiple LGBTQ+ characters, the evolution of queer screen representation, his thoughts on Heartstopper, and why being part of It’s A Sin was particularly meaningful to him.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: What was your relationship with The Sandman before you were approached about being involved in the series?
Stephen Fry: “Well, I knew Neil, and when you know a famous writer it’s rude not to read some of their work! So I’d already read American Gods, because it was a book I suppose. I wasn’t familiar with reading graphic novels, I felt they were for other people but not for me. Then one day I was at the Ivy—the restaurant in London—and I ran into Neil. He told me to join him and he was there with this figure with enormous hair, Alan Moore, a remarkable writer who wrote V for Vendetta. I was in the movie, but Alan hadn’t been on the set at all and had made it very plain that he disapproved of the film. In fact, he’s disapproved of all of the adaptations of his work. He wrote The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen too and that was the one that he hated most. But also Watchmen, he didn’t like the film version of that either. Anyway, that’s when Alan said to me, ‘Have you read Neil’s Sandman?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t think I have.’ He should, ‘You should!’ And I said, ‘I’ve read American Gods.’ He said, ‘Read Sandman!’ So the next week, out of duty, I did.”
“I was aware Neil was hoping that one day The Sandman might come to fruition as a filmed entertainment piece, but he was pretty certain that it had to be TV. You couldn’t reduce it to a 100 minute film, or even a 300 minute film, as cinemas seem to have to show these days. Not mentioning Batman! But everything came together in the Golden Age of Television. People are taking more risks. They’re daring to do things at a greater length and in greater depth. They’re not insulting the audience’s intelligence, rather quite the opposite. And they’re providing entertainment for a variety of people. So there’s an expectation now when you approach something like The Sandman that it’s got to have the same ambition as the graphic novel. In other words, it must be compendious, the whole of humanity must be represented, and that means queer and genderqueer and racially diverse, because it’s about us all. I was aware that The Sandman couldn’t be made until a period when all those things came together, both technically and aesthetically. It’s a brilliant time for this kind of thing.”
Coming to it as a queer viewer, I was particularly delighted by how many LGBTQ+ characters there are in the series and how we see their stories unfold. None of them are defined by their identity and they don’t have to be nice people necessarily. What did you make of that aspect of the series when you watched it?
“I love that. I love the subtlety with which, for example, the killingly handsome Boyd Holbrook as the Corinthian could give the glad eye or receive the glad eye on the beach with John Cameron Mitchell and one’s thinking, ‘No, no! He’ll suck your eyes out!’ Then with the figure at the serial killer convention he picks up and slams him against a wall for a good kiss and then helps him get murdered! Everything flashes between and it’s charmingly done, it’s not self-conscious. Whether they’re a character from the dreaming or from so-called real life, they don’t apologize or pretend to be anything other than what they are and that’s always thrilling to watch.”
In the late 80s, when the original Sandman comics first appeared, there was such little LGBTQ+ representation. I remember going to the cinema with my dad to watch you in Peter’s Friends in 1992 and that was one of the first times I’d seen a queer character who was loved and accepted on screen. Because there were so few queer characters back then, there was a sense that they had to be positive…
“Well, unfortunately he had to be HIV-positive in Peter’s Friends. That was still part of the legacy of any kind of queer story. It was going to be about suicide, death, disease, rejection, unhappiness, stigma, and of course all those things were true in that a lot of LGBTQ+ people faced all of that. But how wonderful to live in an age now where we can be part of the world as well, that our story is one of acceptance and relationships, marriages, as well as the old pickups and other such things. We do live in a richer time for us, there’s no question.”
What did you particularly relish about playing Gilbert in The Sandman?
“I liked the fact that he was an amiable soul, kindly disposed, and very enthusiastic about his little short time on Earth trying to understand human beings. I loved having this relationship with with Vanesu, who plays Rose, who’s a wonderful actor and delightful company. We paired off from the first in a very happy way. It’s a surprising pairing, you don’t often see big fat old man and a smallish girl together in that way, exploring the world or helping each other out.”
“I was glad not to have to be a god in a heavy way, and that’s one of the things that’s so clever about Neil and his storytelling. I loved for example, how death was so nice. She was lovely. Why wouldn’t death be nice? We always assume it has to be a skeleton with a bony hand on the shoulder and a gleaming scythe and all this nonsense, but actually death comes to us all so it might as well be friendly: ‘I’m afraid it is your time, let’s go, shall we? I’m so sorry, off we pop.’ The way she walked around West London occasionally having to collect someone, I thought that was delicious.”
“There are so many bits that make you go, ‘wow’. The standalone episode in the diner is a masterpiece. It recalls the best days of The Twilight Zone, and then some. There’s real power to it. It’s a question that has been asked in films before. The Jim Carrey film Liar Liar is about someone who’s given the curse of having to speak the truth, and it’s a comedy. But in this case, people are suddenly freed to tell the truth and there’s nothing in the end but blood and guts and murder. It’s a grim way of looking at the world. Then there’s the comedy of a hotel convention of serial killers. How extraordinarily dark is that? One might think, is it a bit irresponsible to think that they’re funny? But of course Neil has a moral twist to it, and in episode 10 they’re made to face who they are, and that’s a marvelous moment, quite extraordinary. Like so much in The Sandman, not too much is made of it. One of the things I so admire about the storytelling is how graceful it is. One of the serial killers puts a gun to his mouth and kills himself, but it’s a quick thing and we see Rose looking at it and going, ‘Oh, that wasn’t nice’, and then she drives off. We don’t get a close-up and sobbing. You get it and you move on. It’s extraordinarily skillful.”
Yes, it treats the audience with intelligence, both emotional and cerebral. You were already a part of the Netflix family before this as the voice of Headmaster Barnes in Heartstopper. Why was that something that you wanted to do?
“Oh, how could I not? When they were first in touch with me, they said, ‘It’s nothing really, it’s just a voice.’ I said, ‘Well, I do voices, I don’t mind. What is the show exactly?’ And they said, ‘It’s set in a school’. Then I got sent a little bit of the script and I said, ‘Wow!’ I think anybody queer who’s watched it, will say, ‘Oh, if only that was around when I was 12 years old, it would have changed my life to have seen a story told in that way’. Because we were wrapped up in our own mixture of shame, guilt, excitement, and hope. All the feelings. I grew up in the 70s, way before you were born, but I bet even as young as you are that you probably felt the same. Gosh, I would have valued that when I was young. So to be a part of it is a great honour and a great pleasure.”
Absolutely, I was born in 1977, so I had Section 28 looming over my school days. It’s A Sin was such a cultural phenomenon in the UK, it had such an impact and it really felt like a watershed moment for some of that stigma against HIV/AIDS to begin to be addressed at the very least. What did it mean to you to be part of that series?
“Oh, the world. When Russell called me up and asked if I would play the role, I was utterly entranced. I’ve always admired his work and been amazed by his productivity and his passion and his depth. Everything about him. He was very honest and said, ‘Nothing has meant more to me that I’ve ever written than this. This is everything to me.’ I read the script through gallons of tears—let alone when I watched it—because I came out in every sense really from university in 1981. I arrived in London with my friends at exactly the same time as the virus arrived. So I remember all those details that Russell put in it. People were saying, ‘Have you heard about this bathhouse flu they’re getting in San Francisco?’ I was going, ‘What?! That doesn’t sound right. Really? Is it like a bird flu or something?’ Then it was, ‘Remember that bathhouse flu I was telling you about? Apparently it’s quite a bit more serious, it’s like a cancer or something.’ ‘Cancer?’ ‘Yeah, and you catch it and it’s mostly gay men in America who are getting it’. And I thought, don’t be ridiculous, how can a disease know whether someone’s gay? Then a few months later, you started hearing more and more about it and there were a few notices going up in the bars and clubs. Exactly as it as Russell told it in It’s A Sin, there were some people who were pulling them down because they were a buzzkill and other people putting them back up again.”
“I remember going with friends to Hampstead Heath with boxes of Mates, which were the Virgin condoms that were being given away at the time. I would stand there on the edge of the Heath as people were going in, because in those days at the Heath you couldn’t hear yourself for the sound of belt buckles hitting the ground and bushes rustling. And I’d say, ‘Hi guys, if you’re going to do this, could you take one of these?’ And it’d be, ‘Oh, fuck off, darling!’ Or they’d say, ‘Bless you, can I take a handful?’ All the different attitudes. Then it very quickly stopped being funny.”
“It’s been torn down now, but the Broderip Ward at the Middlesex Hospital on Mortimer Street was the major AIDS ward in London. I remember you’d go there and you’d see parents sitting on the edge of beds, with skeletal sons, who were going to die horribly, who were already dying. But then on the other side of the bed might be their lover, their partner, and the parents had their backs to them literally. So there were two sets of people on the bed with their backs to each other not speaking. The parents thinking, you gave this to my boy. But then on other beds, the parents were making new relationships with the surviving partner. Some of them were in denial, like the Scottish guy who was burning his son’s clothes in It’s A Sin, really fucked up about it. Others went into the movement and visited the hospital every day after their sons had died and visited new patients and befriended the doctors and worked in activism and went to Parliament. You couldn’t tell how people were going to respond to a crisis like that, especially when it touches you personally. But I went to too many funerals.”
“I was very fortunate because of two reasons really. One was that I was absolutely convinced that no one would ever be interested in me, and I hated gay pubs and bars because of being raked with the eyes as you come in. Everyone just turning and looking at you and then immediately turning away again, and I’d be thinking, oh, God, I hate this. And also because I hate dancing and that sort of stuff. And secondly, I was so thrilled that my career was taking off and because it involved writing as well as performing I was so busy that I literally didn’t have time. But my best friend and ex-lover from university became HIV-positive very early and dozens of people I knew died. So to have someone write it up properly like that was was a great gift to the community and I hope to young people as well who will learn from it. As it so happened, we filmed it in December 2019 and January 2020 and about six weeks after the final wrap Boris Johnson appeared to go, ‘This Coronavirus 19 seems to be quite serious’, and then suddenly we were in lockdown.”
It’s an incredible piece of television, as is The Sandman. Thank you Stephen.
“Lovely to talk to you, an absolute delight. I’ll see you around, but not in a gay bar!”
By James Kleinmann
The Sandman is streaming now on Netflix.