‘Sweet Tooth’ Actor Neil Sandilands Talks Playing the Big Bad & the Future of the Series
Adventure, cute animals and a hefty dose of fantasy — Netflix’s Sweet Tooth brought all of this and more to our screens when the series premiered on June 4. Depicting a world ravaged by a pandemic and dealing with the emergence of half-human half-animal hybrids, the show blended realistic drama with a sense of fairytale fantasy that had us glued to our screens.
One of its cruelest and most intimidating characters is General Abbot (The Flash‘s Neil Sandilands), leader of the Last Men. The group seeks to exterminate hybrids, like Gus (Christian Convery), and constantly pursues him across the series. With his distinctive mustache and deep, growling voice it was hard not to feel shivers down our spines whenever Abbot appeared on our screens.
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TV Insider spoke with Sandilands about adapting the character, the challenges of shooting during a pandemic, and more.
What attracted you to the role of General Abbot, and how did you adapt the role from how it was written?
Neil Sandilands: I had the honor of working with [showrunner, writer, and director] Jim Mickle [on] Hap and Leonard. That was just such a great experience for me. When this came around, [I was] invited to audition and then Jim and I started going back and forth and he was super stoked with what I brought. But obviously, ultimately it’s not down to just him. There was a series of rounds of tweaking. I would have been on board with a Jim Mickle production regardless. You meet people on the journey and you’re excited about what they bring to the craft. Jim is certainly one of those people as he’s always done interesting work. He’s a very considerate director, he’s got a very keen eye on things.
And I think Sweet Tooth speaks for itself … The script was really, really good. I enjoyed reading Abbot and at face value, I thought I could have a lot of fun with him because he’s written in such a way that that quirkiness and wit do come through. It was really nice being presented with a big bad, which isn’t necessarily only striking those ominous keys. In fact, what makes him I’d say even a little bit more sinister is that he seems to be having a tremendous amount of fun as he’s going about his merry way. That was evident right off the page and I could bring my own physicality, my own understanding to that.
Answering the last part of the question, this was a deliberate choice. There were certain references online that [were] very usable but what I got, moreover, was that people and fans of [the Sweet Tooth comic] often remarked on the dark tone of the original subject matter. I made a choice to serve the script and I didn’t want to imbue it unnecessarily with too much of the original idea. What did happen consequently, [Sweet Tooth comic author] Jeff Lemire and I — post the release of Sweet Tooth — did have a little back and forth and I’d be okay if I say I have his approval.
Did anything about the story or the characters or the portrayals change as a result of filming during the pandemic?
They were very, very clever about it because as certain things — human behavioral aspects, the science behind it — unfolded, they did have time prior to filming, this window of opportunity where they could look closely at what was happening in the world and incorporate some of those elements into what we now know as the final product.
Now that the first season’s been out for a few weeks, how do you personally feel about the reception to it?
The first word that comes to mind is “gratitude” for me. The second word would be “unexpected.” I left New Zealand with a real good feeling, understanding, if you will, that I know it was solid work all around. After being on film sets for a long time, you can pretty much come up with the equation that, “OK, this script, these are the key individuals involved, this is the team, this is the cast.” You can put all of those things together and fairly accurately leave knowing that you gave it your all and it’s going to be solid.
For actors it’s hard, I think you feel fine if you don’t have to cringe. And there was nothing about it that I thought was even remotely close to cringe. But then it went out into the world. I couldn’t have expected [the way it was received]. Consequently, I’ve been thinking a lot about it — why, how, all of that. But it is like working in the eye of a perfect storm and I think ultimately it did quite a few things right.
Are you able to say anything about a potential Season 2 or your involvement in the show going forward?
It’s the million-dollar question: “Where is Waldo?” When I get confronted with this question, I touch wood. What I know about Los Angeles and Hollywood and the business, as it were, is that if you apply your logical brain to it, you’re going to be dead in the water. But if you apply your magical brain to it, you might be pleasantly surprised. I’m just opting to go over the magical side of things, and that’s about all I can say. Other than that is zero. I don’t know any more than anyone else.
You’ve played a lot of eccentric characters like on The Flash and The 100. General Abbot is also really eccentric in a villainous, bad guy sort of way. Are you particularly drawn to these kinds of roles, or is it just a coincidence that you end up with roles like that?
It’s a very curious thing back in South Africa I, by and large, played protagonists. There’s a specificity, which is wrapped up in the discourse, which locals understand and I can tap into that. …But it’s not that it bothers me, it’s trying to find the nuanced differences between these. They all have a different pathology. And it’s trying to find whatever that pathology is and imbue it with an amount of authenticity.
The key thing is that the bad guy isn’t walking around, knowing that he’s the bad guy. No, he thinks very much he’s the good guy, he’s the hero of his story. This has also been said before a million times over. It’s a real tricky thing. I’ve got a lot of praise for actors who do the protagonist, and perhaps the straightforward straight romantic lead, very well. It’s a very particular thing and it’s hard. To do the antagonist, you often get presented with great opportunities to do, as you rightly put it, eccentric stuff. The subtext that they play with is rich … If you do a real good job at playing the antagonist, you make the hero look phenomenal. It’s a challenge and I enjoy it. I don’t know, gratitude is ringing today.
When you look back at filming the first season, what were your favorite moments from the show?
There are scenes that I obviously liked. I liked the interactions between myself and Adeel [Akhtar]. The scene where I go and interrogate the old lady. That was where I was eating the chili. I may have had maybe about eight tins of chili that evening. I had a lot of chili. They make it alive as well, but other than that I didn’t have a lot of interaction with the other fellow actors. It’s quite a tricky thing to do. For example, I think when we first see [Abbot], it’s only a single line or maybe two lines. Often, pitching that right you can do it a million ways and quite often your first instinct is usually correct. It becomes such a refined thing because you’re doing so very little but hitting the right discernible temperature for where it is in the storyline is quite tricky, I found.
What’s next for you?
That’s been such a tremendous year for me, personally, over and above Sweet Tooth. I came to South Africa, and then it was lockdown. And because I was here [with] my people, my family, it was a quick, “Just stay here until we know more about what’s going on.” There was a beautiful fatalism that set in. I got to work. Because I’m an artist I need my head, really, and then I can start working. That led to doing one of my own projects here. I did a radio drama in South Africa in Afrikaans, which I loved and enjoyed doing. I did a series here for local television, literally completed that, went over to New Zealand, did that series there, got on a plane, got back here, and literally drove from the airport for a production meeting for another series that I completed.
And I made an album in Afrikaans; there’s one English track on it. That album was released, and it went straight to number one on iTunes South Africa, which I’m really proud of because it’s in my tongue, in my native language. So I’ve really been super busy and in the aftermath of all of this, Sweet Tooth came out, so there was quite a lot of work in terms of junkets and doing press for it. And now I’m wrapping up the South African side of things and then I’m getting on a jet plane, going back to LA, and continuing with life, as it were. But right now I’m having a little bit of a hiatus, which is marvelous.
Sweet Tooth, Season 1, Streaming Now, Netflix