Veteran actor Neil Sandilands is set to play the lead antagonist in Sweet Tooth, who is named Steven Abbot. After a virus changes the world in the upcoming Netflix series, which debuts June 4, 2021, Abbot becomes a general that leads an army. To learn more about the character, ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke to Sandilands about playing the villain.
Check out ComingSoon’s Neil Sandilands interview below to learn more about how he approached his role in Sweet Tooth, what it was like working with Tom Hanks, and if he would ever play The Thinker in The Flash again.
Tyler Treese: Did you read the original comics to prepare for this role, or since the television show character is different from the comics, did you stay away from it?
Neil Sandilands: [I didn’t read the original comics], but I know there’s a lot of fans out there. I did have the visual. I tried to do a little bit of due diligence into what existed prior to, but just my physicality… There’s a whole range of things that were different to what came off the page. I think certainly understanding the archetypical value of the character, I think, and the discernible temperature that went along with that. I think that is what appealed to the creators. You can inform it certainly with who you are and with your homework as it were in what you want to bring to a character, but ultimately this is a team that creates a really good show like this. You are there to serve the team and the collaborative experience and what works, what makes for good television or cinema then. So you have to be at least pliable to a certain extent.
Your character, Steven Abbot, he’s a self-appointed general of a post-apocalyptic army.
“With intimidation, wit, and quirkiness.”
Exactly. So can you talk a bit about the character? We don’t really know all too much, except for that little quick blurb that has been released.
Yeah. Quirky, I never imagined this. Obviously, I take myself very, very seriously [laughs], but people have told me that I do have a tendency to be somewhat quirky. I’m playing a malevolent character, but I can have fun with it as well. Even if it’s on the dark side of things, and I think my personality lent itself very well to inform the character in such a way. So you are a very, very bad man, but you’re not going to play it with the undertones of being a bad man. You are going to have some fun with being a bad man. Does that make sense?
Yeah. I thought it was a bit ironic that the show itself deals with a virus, and then you filmed this during the COVID-19 pandemic. What challenges were there shooting in New Zealand?
Tremendous challenges. They shot the pilot prior to us knowing anything about the global pandemic. So they were set on New Zealand. That’s part of the miraculous quality about the show. I mean, Jeff Lemire created it in . They shot the pilot in New Zealand and then COVID happened, and then during COVID times, we went to New Zealand to complete the entire production. So the serendipitous nature of what happened there, I can only describe as being miraculous that we pulled it off in the first instance. Hats off to the entire team. I was in South Africa at that time when I booked the part and I had to fly to Dubai, then from Dubai to New Zealand. I had to do quarantine in Dubai. I had to do quarantine in New Zealand. Certainly, the whole time we had to follow a protocol. We had to get through an entire production without having any incidents. So you can imagine the stakes and they were certainly there. We were not immune to what was happening globally,
The show stars such a very talented young actor, Christian Convery. How was it like working with someone, so talented yet so young? He’s only like 11. That’s amazing.
He’s a trooper. I started my career when I was 14 and Christian was even younger than that. So I’ve got a vague understanding of what he’s going through and especially being number one on the call sheet. He is Sweet Tooth. It’s a tremendous responsibility. You need to be super professional, you need to have talent, and Chris embodies all of those qualities. His mother Lisa, who was also on the [set], she’s there in a guidance capacity, but he’s a natural. He just, he brings it. I didn’t have a lot of screen time with Chris because I’m obviously the nemesis and there’s a buildup to what happens and I don’t want to give too much away. I had very little interaction on screen with him, but we’ll see what happens as I don’t want to give you any spoilers. But I had plenty of opportunities to see him operate in the working environment and the kid certainly commands my respect.
You recently starred in News of the World with Tom Hanks. As you mentioned, you’ve been working in this industry since you were like 14, and after several decades, what did it mean to get that recognition and the opportunity of such a high-profile role with one of the biggest actors in the world?
What did it mean? That’s a difficult one to get your head around. I can tell you what it was like. I remember the day I had the privilege of meeting Tom and how gregarious and jovial he was. Literally arms outstretched, he saw me from afar. We were in Santa Fe high desert. He was like, “We all played brothers!” Because I had the beard going and he had the beard going. He just made me feel super comfortable It was a lovely experience working there because it was so tranquil and harmonious.
I wondered why that was, and it occurred to me that you’ve got all these masterful people in the elementary disciplines operating, right? So you can allow them to be masterful at what they do. You don’t really need to come in and throw in your two cents worth. People at that level, expect you to pitch up and do what you do best. That’s been the case certainly with Tom. He’s a consummate gentleman and professional … and just all-around pleasant experience. I’m super happy that it was received so well. It got four Oscar nominations, and suddenly my local audience I’m inside Africa at the moment. It meant a great deal for the people back home. So all around, it was a good experience and I’m super thankful to have had it.
You also had a very highly regarded role on The Flash as The Thinker. That run is over and the character kind of meets his end, but with comic books, nobody’s ever truly gone. Would you be open to reexamining that role in the future or are you happy enough with that arc?
We kind of joked about it. Eric [Wallace] and Todd [Helbing], the showrunners at the time. You know, how can we make this happen? I had a particularly pleasant time working with David McWhirter. We went like, “Hey, we got, gotta do this. We’ve got to bring that back.” And we were thinking about ways to do that. They’re delightful, a super talented writing team. I’m sure they can come up with something. But I would imagine that either there would be something like in a pre-history or the idea of A.I. and where that is going. DeVoe, maybe he morphed into some form of artificial intelligence. Yeah. I don’t know. That’s a creative solution, but it would be grand and lovely to come back as DeVoe and shoot in Vancouver again.
In fact, I’ve got to love the anecdotal value that I can offer you. The very first cinematographer that I ever worked with is a South African gentleman by the name of Alwyn Kumst. I worked with him in 1989 and 27 years later, I walked into Vancouver Film Studios, and who is the director of photography on The Flash? Alwyn Kumst. So that was also a delightful reunion.
Being a South African actor, how do you balance taking roles worldwide, and then doing stuff in your native land and representing it. It’s probably an honor to be able to do these wide roles and then also be able to represent your country.
You know, often these simple questions are way more complex than you might imagine. I’d say this. I’m very, very proudly from my hometown of Randfontein. I’m very proudly Afrikaans. I’m very proudly South African, but I’m also a dual citizen. I am a citizen of the United States of America and I’m proudly American. So these worlds can certainly coexist. Now where America has been tremendous, and I’m not saying this glibly or lightly, but it taught me something about the power of possibility. You know, if you can dream something, it sounds a little bit cliched, but it certainly is the possibility.
Where I find Americans are a tremendous people because they never capitulate on dialogue. They never close it down. They never shut it down like, “No. No. No.” At least this is my experience. They always go, “Yes. Oh, that’s awesome.” The enthusiasm that is in the discourse, which for me, is the power of possibility. You and I can disagree on minor things. Of course, we can, but it is finding that one thing that we agree on and taking that as the principle for how we move forward. Right? And I got that from Americans. So I know that’s a long, and long-winded answer to your question. So yes, I represent when I go to America and I work there, I like to think that part of my street value being from Randfontein, Afrikaans, etcetera. It is maybe something that people over there see, and go “Hmm, this is interesting.” And then similarly, when I come back to South Africa, I’d like to think that there is something of value in what I’m learning there that I can bring back here. So it’s a very healthy symbiosis. And I hope to keep on doing that. It’s an exchange of ideas. It’s about learning, right? Isn’t that what we, what we hear for becoming better somewhat.
Yeah. Beautifully put. Last question, can you just speak to Sweet Tooth and why fans should be excited?
When I was presented with a script of [Sweet Tooth], and I’ve read plenty of scripts in my life, I imagined it to be a certain way. Then when Jim Mickle, showrunner, writer, and director of the show, sent me the pilot episode of what that shot. I was absolutely blown away because it was one of the few instances in my life where I read the script, and what I saw was not only as good as the way that I’ve imagined it, it even surpassed that. I can honestly say that. That was my experience. After having worked 30 years in this industry, I think people are in for a ride.