Armageddon is imminent. You wouldn’t know it from looking at David Tennant and Michael Sheen though. The actors were cool, calm, and downright chipper as they entered the Garden of Earthly Delights, a mammoth pop-up event space constructed by Amazon to promote their new six-part series, Good Omens. This was March, before we’d even seen a full trailer for the long-gestating adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s 1990 novel, but it boded well for all involved that the studio would shell out a small fortune to create an immersive experience that took up nearly an entire city block in Austin during SXSW. Tennant and Sheen strolled through the grounds, passing several book easter eggs come to life, including the A.Z. Fell & Co bookshop and Crowley’s 1926 Bentley. They were flanked by none other than co-star Jon Hamm and showrunner Gaiman, divine figures in their own right, but the tunnel vision was on the show’s leads. They projected an appearance of two schoolyard buddies linked at the hip, a promise of chemistry pivotal to the success of Good Omens.
The series, which releases all six episodes on May 31st on Amazon, was considered unfilmable for some time. The beloved book is too large for a feature film runtime. Narratively it required significant rewrites even for the small screen. And a book with Hellhounds and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse calls for intense CGI. Luckily, television caught up and Amazon made a significant investment in the show. Above it all, it was a personal crusade for Gaiman to make the project at the request of his friend and co-writer Terry Pratchett, who passed away in 2015.
The visual scope of the show is secondary to the relationship of its two protagonists, if you can call a demon that. For Gaiman, the casting process started with Sheen, whom he befriended a decade ago. The fantasy writer sent early story drafts to Sheen and eventually asked him to play the angel Aziraphale. He was the only person considered for the role. Casting Tennant as Crowley proved trickier. Gaiman decided halfway through writing episode three that Tennant was his top choice to play Crowley, the surly demon who takes a liking to the imperfections of earth. Gaiman, who executive produced and wrote the adaptation, spent nearly a month trying to persuade Amazon to lock down the Scottish actor. “I phoned them and said you have to say ‘yes’ because I don’t have anyone else,” Gaiman said. The studio eventually obliged and Good Omens found its lead angel and demon, the buds who must find common ground to save a world they’ve both come to enjoy. Too much of anything is never a good thing, and apparently that also applies to endless heaven and endless hell.
When we sat down with Tennant and Sheen inside the pop-up, we discussed the show as a fitting allegory for our current end times after a long and playful exchange about their colorful hairstyles.
The real question on everyone’s mind after seeing the first trailer: Who has the better hair in the series?
Michael Sheen: David always has fantastic hair. Huge hair envy.
David Tennant: I had a lot of different hairstyles going on. I had wigs, and pieces. You had a classic style.
Michael Sheen: Well, the enjoyable thing for me is when you start off with this [points to his head], having straight-ish blonde hair is just a thrill because this is what I’m working with most of the time.
David Tennant: Well, I didn’t mean to agree with that, like yes. I think you have beautiful, luscious locks.
Michael Sheen: You always have interesting spiky things going on.
David Tennant: Yeah. Well, I went ginger for this, which was a new thing for me. I didn’t know how that would feel, but I kind of liked it. I’m from Scotland, so I’ve got to have red hair in there somewhere in my genetic makeup.
Michael Sheen: I did really enjoy it, because there’s a bit in the show where we go through history. Each scene is a different period of history, tracking our relationship, and every time we did one of those scenes, one of the most exciting things for me is what is David’s hair going to be like?
David Tennant: Well, and Stevie, who did my hair, always spent hours coming up with new versions of Crowley through history. It was great to be able to play. It’s dress-up really, isn’t it?
The thing that hooked me into the book was the relationship between your two characters, the dialogue, and how they play off each other narratively. How did you approach the source material and incorporate what you individually bring to the table as actors?
David Tennant: It’s a buddy movie, I guess. It’s about the relationship of these two unlikely best friends, and that’s great to get to play because you get Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s words to speak.
Michael Sheen: And they create such an amazing world in the book, so to be able to then just inhabit that world in every single department. Hair and makeup, costume, and production design, and music… Everyone is bringing their A-game to it. Everyone was really enjoying the opportunity to be part of that world. So then we just sort of swim around in it.
David Tennant: It’s joyous, because it’s heightened, and it is fantastical, and also rather domestic. It comes down to, like you say, this unlikely friendship that has spanned the millennia, and you get to do that with Michael everyday. It was a joy, it was a treat, just to get to play these scenes. It could’ve been awful. It could’ve been terrible because every day it was pretty much sitting often like this on a park bench discussing the end of the world. But we just got to play every day.
Michael Sheen: And there would be ridiculous moments, like where we would turn up to do a scene both in full suits of armor, and just sort of looking at each other, doing these things. Or being at Shakespeare’s Globe in full Elizabethan outfits.
Early in the book there’s a line about how humans are better at making hell on earth because we have a better imagination than demons. Today humans are probably even better at it than Terry and Neil imagined when they published the book in 1990. How has the story been updated for 2019 to reflect our current end times?
David Tennant: I think the world has conspired to make it terribly relevant suddenly. The apocalyptic themes are probably even more relevant now than when the book was written.
Michael Sheen: Because the book came out in 1990, it was set in modern day 1990. So, of course, if we were to set it in 1990 now, it would be a period film, so we didn’t want to do that. So it is updated, but it sort of has a strange timeless quality about it as well, doesn’t it?
David Tennant: Yes. I mean, there are mobile phones. There are the things now that I suppose weren’t in the world when the book was written, so it is very much of the now, of 2018, 2019, 2020, I guess.
Michael Sheen: And what you said about people making it a hell on earth, I think what Neil and Terry were doing with the original book was the idea that, for all this fantastical stuff, and angels, and demons, and the apocalypse, it’s just about people. It’s about who we are as people. That’s the thing that you’re allowed to connect with. For better or for worse, we’re all these sort of imperfect, messed up, flawed, and that’s the best thing about us. So we’re in charge of everything. We’re the ones who are making it good or bad.
David Tennant: You have this angel and demon who are from very much opposing sides. They should have fundamentally different positions on everything, and yet what happens in the story is that they find common ground somewhere in between, and if anything’s going to save us, it’s going to be that. It’s going to be talking to each other.
Michael Sheen: They’re supposedly here to corrupt or make them better, but actually, they end up just falling in love with humans, and the world, and everything that comes with it.
David Tennant: All the imperfections of the world are what make it extraordinary, and what makes them want to live here for the rest of time, and not to have to go back to boring old heaven and boring old hell.
It’s now commonplace in the TV industry for authors to be more directly involved with adaptations of their work. What’s it been like having Neil produce, write the scripts, and be an active part of the production?
David Tennant: I think it’s essential, actually. I think the voice that Neil and Terry Pratchett have in this book is so individual, so unique, and so specific, if it wasn’t Neil writing the script, I think anyone else would just naturally kind of normalize it. They’d make it more accessible. And actually, Neil’s not done that. And that voice is what makes this such a brilliant piece of television.
Michael Sheen: And for a book that’s been around for so long and hasn’t been adapted into something, there’s a lot of people out there who are really protective of the book. It’s their favorite book. The fact that we’ve got Neil at the heart of it, it gives you a great deal of confidence, knowing that you’re in safe hands, and that the story itself, and the characters, and this loved book is in safe hands, I think. It would’ve been hard not to do it with him there.