When Vivienne Acheampong first auditioned to be in The Sandman, the 10-episode Netflix show based on Neil Gaiman’s comic book series, it was for the role of a grandmother. “They were like, ‘So, this character is 70 years old. Don’t worry about the age,’” she says. “I was like, ‘Yeah … O.K.’” But it was September 2020—the middle of the coronavirus lockdown—when many productions were halted indefinitely, and the part sounded interesting to the millennial. So she just went with it.

One month after that audition, the casting directors gave her a new part to read for: Lucienne, a librarian in charge of every book ever written—or even imagined. (In the comic, the character is a man named “Lucien.”) The project was tightly guarded, so Acheampong was given only a few scenes instead of the entire script. As she read through the material, the part “clicked” for her. “Even though there were limits to what I knew, instantly I was like, This is incredible,” she says.

Now Acheampong is acting opposite Tom Sturridge, who plays Lord Morpheus, the commander in chief of a mystical realm called “the Dreaming.” After numerous failed attempts at movie adaptations of the 1990s comic, Gaiman’s world is finally on-screen. With it, Acheampong has gone from a substitute teacher who takes small acting jobs to a rising star.

Balancing Act

Performing always came naturally to Acheampong, who was born and raised in London. As a child, she’d impersonate her aunts and siblings with ease as she told stories, and she played the trumpet, piano, and guitar for 10 years.

Acheampong in The Sandman.

While she acted in school plays, she never thought acting could be a job. “We’re from a working-class background,” she says. “I had an amazing upbringing, and my parents were always very supportive, but I think that, especially if you’re from a Ghanaian family, I’ve got no performers, no actors, no artists, nothing like this in my background.” Her parents told her, “We really support you … but have something you can fall back on.”

In college, she studied psychology and law, and took a few drama courses on the side. “I really was not having a great time,” she explains. She confided in her sister, who helped her look for other options. Eventually, Acheampong’s sister found the Brit School, a highly competitive performing-arts program that’s free for those accepted.

“I’d never heard of anything like drama school, and I never thought of being an actor,” says Acheampong. Once she enrolled in the program, “it just changed my life and I just never looked back.”

Between acting jobs, such as roles in fringe shows in Edinburgh and the BAFTA-winning BBC sketch series Famalam, Acheampong worked as a substitute teacher at London primary schools. Emerging actors “don’t know how or where the money is going to come from,” she says. “I just never wanted to be in a position where it was money that stopped me from doing this, because I was so focused on wanting to do it.”

It doesn’t look like she’ll be back in the classroom anytime soon. She’s currently filming a hush-hush project in London she can’t discuss.

Actors often talk about the moment “it” happens, when their career is launched by a big part in a buzzy show or movie. “I don’t know if ‘it’s’ happening,” Acheampong says, “but whatever is happening feels really lovely.”

Season One of The Sandman is available for streaming on Netflix

Bridget Arsenault is the London Editor for AIR MAIL