David Tennant and Michael Sheen tell TV Drama about working together on Good Omens, collaborating with Neil Gaiman—screenwriter and showrunner—and fan expectations.
On May 31, Amazon Prime Video will give fans of Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, something they’ve wanted for almost 30 years. The cult-classic novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is finally making it to television, courtesy of BBC Studios, Amazon Studios, Narrativia and The Blank Corporation. Its Amazon launch will be followed by a debut on BBC Two in the U.K. The six-part Good Omens tells the story of angel Aziraphale and angel-turned-demon Crowley—played by Sheen and Tennant, respectively—who team up to avert the apocalypse. The mega-watt cast also includes Frances McDormand as God, Benedict Cumberbatch as Satan and Jon Hamm as Archangel Gabriel.
TV DRAMA: How did you each hear about the project?
SHEEN: Neil sent me an early draft of a first episode when he wrote it. That must have been a few years ago now. He would send me early versions of the episodes as he was writing.
TENNANT: I think it was Douglas Mackinnon, the director, who I heard it from first. I had worked with Douglas before and he said, there’s a script coming. I got this wonderful script that was a fully formed piece of genius. Michael was already attached, which already made me want to do it. I didn’t know the book, I’m ashamed to say. Now it seems that for everyone in the world it’s their favorite book ever! I don’t know how I missed it! I was very grateful that it landed in my lap.
SHEEN: I had read the book when I was at drama school. This was before I’d ever met Neil. I remember loving it. So when we talk about all those people out there who love this book and feel protective about how it’s going to be adapted, I’m one of those people. I have my hat where I’m just a fan, and I want the book to be done as well as possible, and then I have my other hat where I’m one of the people who could potentially mess it up.
TV DRAMA: Is there added pressure when you’re taking on material that is so beloved?
SHEEN: One of the things that really helped us was having Neil Gaiman as the showrunner.
TENNANT: He’s a thesaurus, isn’t he? It means that any decisions that have been made have been made by God, as it were. That takes a certain amount of the pressure off. But anything that is that beloved, it’s a huge honor to get to bring it to a different medium and to be the embodiment of these characters that people have lived with and loved for all these years. Of course you tread gently.
SHEEN: Also, just because something works well in one medium doesn’t mean that it’s going to work well in a different medium. We knew that certain things were going to have to change from the book. And having Neil be the person making those changes allowed us all to feel more confident. If it had been someone else who inevitably would have to change it for it to work as a TV series, that would have been very scary!
TENNANT: Preparing to shoot it, I was definitely liberated by not knowing the book. It was only after [beginning production] when I started to meet people for whom it meant so much. Nina Sosanya plays a fantastic role in the first couple of episodes. I sat with her at the read-through and she was trembling. She said, I reread this book every year of my life. This is so important to me. I would have delivered the sandwiches to the set just to be involved in this. So it’s moments like that when I started to realize how important this was to so many people. And it’s a mixed blessing. It’s thrilling to be part of something that has such a built-in enthusiasm, such a fan base, such love for it. But you have to take a deep breath. I’m sort of glad I didn’t know too much about it before we got started. [If I had] I may have been hamstrung by expectations.
TV DRAMA: Michael, did you go back and reread the book as you were preparing?
SHEEN: I read it again. I hadn’t read it for quite a long time, so it was a real pleasure to go back and just be reminded of what made me love it so much in the first place. And also, you go back to whatever source material you have when you’re doing an adaptation of something and look for clues that are going to help. When I first read it, I wasn’t thinking about playing Aziraphale. So it was the first time I got to read the book from the point of view of it being preparation. You’re looking to find clues: what they look like and how they sound. And I realized how little there was, which was great because it meant there was a lot of freedom. With the little that was suggested, there was a strong sense of the characters and the world. That’s quite a complicated area because then there’s no consensus—everyone has their own version of these characters and the scenes. That becomes quite tricky, because you think, well I’m going to look one way as this character and that really may not chime with the way people have imagined it. So I hope they like it! [Laughs]
TV DRAMA: I understand you had never shared any screen time before. How did you finesse your on-screen dynamic?
TENNANT: You finesse it by just turning up! You finesse it by reading the scenes and playing the scenes. It’s almost after the event that you look back and go, that was such a happy, creative, enjoyable time. There is a lot written about chemistry between actors. I don’t know if that’s a thing you can prepare for or measure or legislate for in any way, really. We did know each other and therefore I always felt quite confident that [the chemistry] would happen, and then it sort of did. We were on set looking at each other pretty much every day, which ended up becoming a real pleasure.
SHEEN: I keep thinking back to the first time we ever said the lines out loud with each other. We hadn’t really talked about how we were going to play these characters. It was all very fluid at that point. Within a short space of time, it felt like what I was doing as Aziraphale was completely dependent on what David was doing as Crowley. So my character developed around what David was doing. Normally that doesn’t happen. Normally, a lot of what you do comes out of just thinking about it on your own and talking to the director. This was the one thing I’ve done where what I did was so dependent on what another actor was doing. And I think we both have a sense of wanting to make the scene the best it can be.
TENNANT: We both work in quite similar ways. I assumed that was the case, from knowing [him] socially, and from having sort of worked together in the past, but that did prove to be the case. We both approach things, not the same way, but we have a similar kind of ethic of turning up and doing it and seeing what happens and we play off each other.
SHEEN: A lot happens if you just have the same goals. It’s interesting because actors don’t always have the same goals! [Laughs] If you do have the same goals—getting the most juice out of this scene in terms of what the writers originally wanted, making this the best it can be—then it’s amazing how good the chemistry can be.
TENNANT: The characters are well written, so that gives you something to start with. If you’re starting with good material then you’re off to a running start.
SHEEN: We were never trying to scramble around to see how to make a scene interesting. Quite the opposite! There was so much going on in every scene.
TENNANT: An alarming amount of time, you will spend the first hour on set in the morning trying to go, if we rewrite this and you say that—there was none of that required. We were starting with a Rolls-Royce of a scene. So it was up to you to not fuck it up, really!
TV DRAMA: What was it like working with Neil Gaiman?
TENNANT: Neil is the perfect mix of knowing exactly what he wants and being entirely open to other people’s ideas. Those are the best showrunners that I’ve experienced. They absolutely know what works and what doesn’t work. But they are always open to a good idea.
SHEEN: He’s one of the great storytellers of our time. He understands the way stories work. That works really well as a showrunner. On the hoof each day, he totally understands the world of this piece because he was a big part of writing it, but he also understands just the mechanics of storytelling. He’s a very good troubleshooter in the moment as well. And he’s a genuinely lovely person! He’s so respectful of everyone else’s process and what everyone else does.
TENNANT: And excited by what everyone brings to it. He will genuinely respond to ideas as they fly by, at the same time knowing the world that he has created, inside out, knowing what the parameters are that we all need to work with.
TV DRAMA: Amazon will roll this out on their global footprint this May. Were you thinking about that massive worldwide platform as you were working on the show?
SHEEN: I don’t know if you think about that when you’re shooting it.
TENNANT: It does change the way things are now, knowing that people can watch the whole thing in one go if they want. It’s six episodes, but a lot of people, I would imagine, will watch it as a six-hour film. That does make a difference, doesn’t it? As opposed to watching an episode a week. It is a very different way of relating to the piece. But I’m not sure that makes a difference to us in the acting of it.