There’s plenty that happens over Sweet Tooth’s eight episodes that you haven’t seen before. Human/animal hybrids! Post-apocalyptic theme parks! Sinister games of Pictionary! But despite all of the show’s sci-fi and fantasy overtones, the most remarkable thing may be the very human—and very unlikely—relationship at the show’s core.
Gus is a human-deer hybrid who has spent his entire young life in a secluded gated cabin with his father. Food, water, shelter, entertainment—anything and everything needed to survive is humbly provided by the woods around their home. It’s all Gus has ever known, outside the stories his protective father has told him about the outside world. Tommy Jepperd, on the other hand, is a grizzled, frequently violent drifter who’s sitting on a lifetime of secrets. He probably knows the world a bit too well, and unsurprisingly, Jepperd wants nothing to do with Gus when they first meet. Yet, soon enough, the odd companions find themselves on a cross-country journey to find Gus’s unknown mother, where they might just discover that they need each other.
“There are lots of sub-stories (in Sweet Tooth),” explains Nonso Anozie, who plays Jepperd. “You have Dr. Singh’s storyline, and then you have the Aimee storyline, and then you’ve got the Abbot storyline, but at the heart of it is definitely the relationship between Gus and Jepperd.”
While Sweet Tooth has a sizable cast, the characters don’t all interact, and some don’t meet Gus until deep into the story. But Jepperd spends nearly every scene alongside the young deer-boy.
“It was really important that we connected with each other,” acknowledges Anozie, “and it was important to me that we did that off-screen as well as on-screen.”
Fortunately, the veteran actor—who has been seen in shows like Game of Thrones, Zoo and Doctor Who—had no problem bonding with Christian Convery, the 11-year-old performer tasked with bringing Gus to life.
“Christian is a bit of a genius,” Anozie gushes. “I don’t want to make his head big, but he’s very clever. He knows how to take direction and change what he does accordingly on a dime, which is a really rare thing in adults, let alone children. For me to be able to portray Jepperd, where you’re just going to be acting with a kid most of the time, to have someone who’s as mature and talented as Christian was a great help.”
The hunt for Gus, who brings heart and hope to a story that’s otherwise pretty dark, was a thorough one, involving kids from all avenues of performance. Yet, ultimately the choice to cast Convery in the role was a simple one.
“You cast a wide net,” explains Sweet Tooth executive producer Susan Downey. “You look at professional kids, you look at kids doing theater in their local schools. You look everywhere. But we actually saw Christian really early on and it was so perfect that we were like, ‘It can’t be this easy.’ We followed through and did our due diligence, but Christian is just amazing. He is Gus. He embodies his sense of hope, his spirit, his curiosity. He’s both wise, but also kind of innocent and vulnerable at the same time. He’s physical. It’s just great. And he’s also a pro, which makes the practical production side of it a lot simpler.”
Despite his young age, Convery’s no stranger to the camera, with a list of film and TV credits that go back five years. Technically, Sweet Tooth isn’t his first comic book project—early roles included a single-episode appearance on Lucifer and a blink-and-you-missed-it cameo in Venom. However, the actor never considered himself a comic book fan…until just recently.
“Before I booked the role, I never was into comic books and I had never heard of Sweet Tooth,” he admits. “But after researching what Sweet Tooth was and learning that there were comic books, I bought the whole series. It turns out now I love comic books and I read them a lot.”
While the Sweet Tooth series differs a bit from the comic, notably with its lighter tone, the world of the show is still undeniably dark—and extremely hostile to young Gus. Ravaged by a virus that killed off most of humanity right at the same time that human/animal hybrids like Gus were emerging, the world’s population turned their anger and fear towards the half-animal children. Now they hunt them down and cruelly experiment on them in an attempt to find a cure. The frightening thing, at least for Gus, is that the boy knows almost nothing about this, having been shielded from the truth by his father for much of his life.
“His father talked to him about how there were fires (out in the world), and everywhere there were bad people, and there was all this chaos,” explains Convery. “It was kind of like a living hell. But there’s a scene in the pilot where he crosses the fence for the first time and he doesn’t see any fires, and he’s confused why there’s not. He runs back into his father, and then he gets in big trouble.
“But later, after he sees Jepperd, he goes to run away and I feel like, because he knows his father lied, because there are no fires, he crosses the fence thinking there’s no danger out there.”
He soon learns otherwise, largely under the reluctant guidance of Jepperd, who doesn’t offer to help Gus find his mother, yet finds himself doing just that regardless. But how much can Gus actually trust Jepperd? That’s one of the driving questions of the show (and the comic that inspired it). It becomes clear early on that Tommy Jepperd, a football star prior to the virus, is a man of many secrets.
“Jep is incredibly layered because there’s the man we meet at the top who wants nothing to do with us,” says Downey. “Then we start to understand that there’s such a tender heart underneath it all and that he’s obviously suffered a lot, in different aspects, both with what his job had been before the great crumble happened as well as with his own personal story.”
“Jepperd has a past that he’s trying to get away from and just trying to survive day to day,” shares Anozie, who turns in a remarkably nuanced and layered performance as the damaged character. “Obviously, I’m privy to the backstory, so I make up scenarios that I’ve been through and try to carry that with me as I play the character. I use kind of dark things that have happened in my own past that I carry with me. It all seeps through on the screen, hopefully.”
If there’s a third element that greatly shapes the journey and relationship between Gus and Jepperd, it’s the world around them, which despite all of its human ugliness is visually stunning. Sweet Tooth features shot after shot of lush, sweeping backgrounds in which nature seems to be gradually reasserting itself after generations of human dominance. For that, both Convery and Anozie are quick to credit the production’s location—New Zealand.
“It’s so full of nature and it feels so magical and surreal to be there,” enthuses Convery. “I just feel like New Zealand is just one big set, in a way. I really love the different contrast of colors in New Zealand. You’ve got the mountain tops over there, and then you’ve got the beautiful lush land. I feel like that contrast between the colors really helps with the scene, makes it more natural. And that’s why we didn’t have to use green screen so much. We barely ever use green screens.”
Anozie agrees, “The backdrop is just amazing to film with and it gives it to you for free. It’s almost prehistoric to look at, and just epically beautiful. I know a lot of the time we use that word ‘epic’ very freely, but this actually is. The south island of New Zealand feels like one of the last undiscovered countries.”
Making their way across stunning vistas, it’s remarkable that the relationship between Gus and Jepperd manages to stand out as much as it does. The growing friendship between the two serves as a reminder that as different as we may seem on the surface, we are still human and when we forget about that, when we lose sight of it, that’s when bad things tend to happen. After all, it’s our need for human connection and our trust in others that gives us hope, even when things get dark. That’s a powerful message for right now.
“The comic book is obviously very dark,” Anozie sums up. “It’s very gruesome, but what I think they’ve done very well—under the guidance of Jeff Lemire along with (executive producers) Jim Mickle and Robert Downey, Jr.—they’ve taken something that is quite dark and, keeping a lot of those dark elements, made it accessible to the entire family. I think it’s a great thing.”
Sweet Tooth’s debut season is now streaming on Netflix. Want to know more about DC’s newest TV series? Make sure you read our article on how it draws from the comic to skillfully blend horror with hope.
Check out the Jeff Lemire comic that inspired the series right now on DC UNIVERSE INFINITE.