Interview: Michael Sheen and David Tennant on Good Omens

The two actors discuss collaborating with Neil Gaiman, their characters' Odd Couple chemistry and wanting to please fans of the cult book

From the outset, Amazon Prime Video’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s cult novel Good Omens earned a lot of goodwill for casting Masters Of Sex’s Michael Sheen and Doctor Who’s David Tennant as its central characters – a fussy angel and a strutting demon who make common cause to fend off Armageddon. And now that it’s done – with Gaiman overseeing the show himself – it’s clear their charming chemistry is the thing that holds the entire affair together, a perfect pas de deux in the middle of a frenzied tangle of subplots, guest stars and celestial ironies.

Amazon offered interviews with each actor separately, but we thought it would be worth the effort to pair them up for a chat. And guess what? It absolutely was.

We’ve been seeing a lot of shows extended past their natural lives, so it’s kind of nice to see that Good Omens is a one-and-done limited series. Was that part of the appeal of doing the show for either of you, the idea of not overstaying your welcome?

MICHAEL SHEEN Yeah. Neil and Terry did come up with the name for a potential sequel, even though they didn’t ever write it. It’s my favourite Good Omens joke, even though it’s not in Good Omens. It would have been called 668: The Neighbour Of The Beast. It’s one of the greatest lines ever.

Okay, I’d be up for that. And even though I just said I don’t want any more, I really enjoyed watching Aziraphale and Crowley just knocking around together. For all their supernatural trappings, these characters felt a lot like the actors’ own personalities, and that was delightful.

DAVID TENNANT I think it’s true that in a story full of extraordinary characters, these two supernatural creatures who’ve lived for millennia are sort of the most human characters that you can find. I think that’s part of the charm of the original novel, and I think that came through in the script that Neil wrote, absolutely. 

MS And they do sort of work together perfectly as a couple. That archetypal Odd Couple relationship, where they slightly blend into each other after they’ve been together for so long on Earth they start to pick up little qualities of each other as well, which is really enjoyable. It was such a pleasure to play this character – so it’s interesting, what you say about them being the most like ourselves in some ways. I feel like I very rarely get to play this sort of a character, and yet it does feel very comfortable, which is what I responded to originally, I guess, when I first read the script. That’s why Aziraphale was the character that I really felt was the best fit for me. 

Although that wasn’t originally the plan, was it?

MS I’ve known Neil for many years, so I was able to be a part of the development of the script – and the whole project, really. And when we first started talking about it there was a sort of assumption on both our parts that I would play Crowley. So there was an awkward conversation eventually where each of us – me and Neil – turned up being a bit scared, me to say on my part that I wanted to play Aziraphale, and he on his part saying “I think you should play Aziraphale,” because we’d sort of assumed the other way round. Once we got that out of the way, it was fine. 

And when was David cast as Crowley?

DT Oh, after all this had happened. I wasn’t aware of the project at all. And a little before it started shooting it came to me as a fully formed piece of loveliness. The script arrived I didn’t know the story, I didn’t know Neil, I’ve known Michael on and off for years but we’d never worked together. So it all just arrived as this wonderful piece of work that I was being invited to be to be part of. I had no idea that they’d been in development in some form since the book came out 30 years ago, so it was just a wonderful revelation when I read the script for the first time. And the idea that I would get to play opposite Michael was a dream come true. It was heaven from the off. 

Now that you mention it, it’s taken so long to bring Good Omens to the screen – were you ever intimidated by the prospect of working on something so beloved by its readers?

MS I mean… 30 years. There’s not many books in the top 10 most-loved books by British people that wouldn’t have had some kind of adaptation, so I think that has weighed on us both in different ways. So having Neil at the heart of it – being the showrunner and doing the adaptation and being on the set every day – really helped. It would have been quite a scary prospect to do this without him at the helm.

DT We’re certainly hiding behind that, very happily. [laughs]

MS You know, with anything that works so well in its original medium – like this book does – to then translate it into another medium is not an easy task. You need to be bold and confident with it and make changes, and having Neil be the one who is making those changes and being bold – I can’t really imagine how you could do it otherwise. You could do a version of it that is slavishly true to the original because you’re scared of changing anything – but I don’t think that would be as enjoyable. For people who are familiar with the book there’s a lot of new stuff that I think they will enjoy even more. Because it’s more Good Omens.

DT Yes! But all very much in tune with that very peculiar, unique voice that the book has – and I think that’s what needed Neil’s involvement. Any other writer would inevitably have normalized or made it saner or made it more like a TV show. I just think that would have been impossible to avoid. You needed the chutzpah of Neil’s commitment to his own world view, I think. 

And for yourselves? How did you make the material your own?

DT Certainly for me – and I think for both of us – it never really made sense until we started playing it. As we approached the first day, I remember us having a conversation: “What is the tone of this? How do you play this? Is it comic? Is it dramatic?” And only once we sat on a park bench – which is the very first thing we [shot] – and sort of batted the words back and forward, did it start to make sense. It kind of came into sharp focus for me. 

MS The anchor for me, for Aziraphale, was David’s Crowley. Who I was was defined by who David was, and so the relationship – the dynamic between the two of them – was the thing that was the most alive. It was what we both responded to the most. So our characters developed out of what the other was doing, it felt like, “Oh! Oh I see! You’re going to do that! And if you’re doing that, then I can do this!” And then we sort of defined each other. 

That seems to have carried over into Michael’s episode of David’s podcast, which was a delight. 

DT Oh, thank you. I have absolutely no skill set for it at all, I am just very good at persuading the right people to come – like Michael Sheen, who was one of my very favourite guests. 

He’s a proper raconteur. That Neil Gaiman sushi story is just amazing… 

DT [shouts ecstatically] ISN’T IT AMAZING?

MS And it’s the first public telling of that story! “Monkey prostitute” has become quite a popular thing, that [phrase] I said at the beginning of it. Apparently “monkey prostitute” was trending for a little while.

DT You must be very proud. 

When did you record that?

DT Oh, that was a long time after we finished shooting. It was another press day, actually, a few months ago in New York. 

MS It feels like we’ve been talking about this publicly for a long time. It’s such a pleasure to get together, because you tend to only do [a press tour] once, don’t you? But we’ve been able to kind of check in with each other every couple of months, which has been such a joy – and doing the podcast sort of captured that. 

DT Yes, I think it did. But we were just saying that, earlier this morning, that next week we’ll stop meeting up every few months! We might just have to do it socially. 

MS We might have to create a support group. 

All six episodes of Good Omens are available to stream on Amazon Prime Video Friday (May 31). Read review here.

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