Choosing Willem Dafoe to voice shingami Ryuk—basically a spirit of death—was applauded as one of the better casting decisions in Netflix’s Death Note. Director Adam Wingard told io9 that, while Dafoe was his first pick among actors, he originally wanted to go with a glamorous singer for the part.
While the Netflix version of Death Note makes a lot of changes to the original manga story, the one thing that stays basically identical is the design of Ryuk, a sort of demonic spirit who delivers the Death Note—a book that will kill anyone whose name is written in its pages—to the character of Light. Ryuk, said Wingard, was an essential part of maintaining the integrity of Death Note.
“It was import from the get-go,” said Wingard. “I saw Ryuk as being the definitive carry over of ‘What is Death Note, really?’ Just the face of that.”
Apparently, that wasn’t always the case, though. Ryuk’s presence in the film went through many changes as several directors came on board and left. “It’s really interesting, because you know, this movie was set up at Warner Bros. I think they’d been developing it for something like eight years,” explained Wingard. “It went through Shane Black, it went through Gus van Sant, of all people—which I would have loved to have seen. I hope it would have been like Gerry, and it would just be Light and Ryuk walking through the desert for an hour and a half. That would be amazing. And if that’s what it was going to be, I feel bad for not letting that happen.”
Ryuk was, in fact, missing from some versions of the script. “There were originally versions where, apparently, the studio wasn’t going to put Ryuk in it at all. Which seems kind of ridiculous,” Wingard continued. “At the end of the day, I guess there’s not a ton of precedent in American live-action films with a demon wearing glam rock clothing and leather pants and stuff, you know? So I guess on one hand you can see, like, what the hell is this? But, you know, it’s good that by the time I came on they at least came onboard with Ryuk.”
That description of Ryuk sounds a bit like David Bowie’s Goblin King from Labyrinth, and when I pointed that out, Wingard revealed who his first choices were for the part of Ryuk:
“Yeah! There you go. Well, as a matter of fact, David Bowie was actually originally who I wanted to [be the voice of] Ryuk—but then David Bowie died. And then the second person on my list was Prince, weirdly enough—and then he died. And I was like, we got to stop, we’re literally killing them off. Which is really morbid, but it was true.”
Instead, Wingard went with Dafoe, whom Wingard described as “always number one” on the list of actor actors. “He was the first person we actually approached. It’s one of the few times I’ve actually approached an actor right off and they said yes, thank god.”
Death Note premieres August 25 on Netflix.