After many years in limbo, Starz is bringing Neil Gaiman’s critically acclaimed novel “American Gods” to life. The gorgeously shot epic, follows Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a man who is released from prison early after his wife Laura dies in a car accident. On his way home, Shadow encounters an eclectic man named Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), who offers him a job as his bodyguard.
As Shadow is pulled into Mr. Wednesday’s world, we soon learn that he is not, in fact, the con-artist that he is masquerading himself to be. Instead, Mr. Wednesday is the god, Odin, who is making his way across America to try and unite the old Gods who have integrated themselves into American life in a war against the new Gods, Media and Technology who are consuming the world.
As Shadow and Mr. Wednesday move across the country battling for the very soul of America, “American Gods” gives us the immigration stories of various mythical beings in America. Ahead of the series premiere, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ricky Whittle who stars as Shadow Moon, Yetide Badaki who stars as the love goddess Bilquis and Orlando Jones who brings Mr. Nancy aka Anansi to life.
Aramide Tinubu: Ricky, what did you know about Neil Gaiman’s novel prior to signing on to the series?
Ricky Whittle: I didn’t know about “American Gods” until fans started hashtagging me online. That’s why I’ll always have an affinity and a love for my fans because I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them. I feel very grateful that they introduced this project to my life and allowed to me to audition in the first place.
AT: What was the audition process like for you?
RW: Starz put out a search #CastingShadow. They wanted the fans to have input because it’s a huge book and Neil Gaiman is a rock star. After sixteen years of anticipation, the fans put me forward and feel very blessed and honored to be a part of that. That’s when I took it to my reps. I started reading the book during the audition process, and Bryan [Fuller] and Michael [Green] stopped me because it was affecting my auditions. I spoke to Neil about it recently actually. He told me they saw twelve-hundred tapes.
AT: Stop it! Just for Shadow Moon?! That’s incredible.
RW: So to whittle it down, wow that is a terrible pun. I apologize that is awful! (Laughing) But, to whittle it down to the last person that is an incredible honor. They stopped me from reading the book early on in the audition process because I was too much like Shadow in the book; quiet, blasé and too laid back. They needed to adapt him to screen. We wanted the character to be more vocal and charismatic and to have a little bit more about him; to ask more questions and to have anxiety and fears. After we finished filming, I was able to go back and read through it. That’s when I really appreciated the script for what it was because I could see the magic that Bryan and Michael had done with the script and in changing the timeline. It blew my mind. Fans of the book who know it inside and out are still going to watch [the series] with fresh eyes because everything they love in the book is in the show, but so much more.
AT: Yetide, Bilquis is the love goddess on the series. How did she resonate with you?
Yetide Badaki: It’s fascinating, I’d read the book back in 2001 when it came out because I am such a geek and such a Neil Gaiman fan. So, it was great because I now had fifteen years in between having read the book and getting these auction sides. There was all of this time for all of this stuff and these ideas to marinate. I remember seeing these things and having big feelings about them, but not having the words to describe what it was. So, when I got the audition side, I was immediately just struck by that human need for connection. It just hit me so deeply. We all strive so much just to have a face to face conversation; to have someone see you and to be seen. So that just spoke so loudly for me.
AT: You snagged the role because of your amazing audition. Can you tell me what that experience was like since it was the scene where Bilquis consumes a man with her vagina?
YB: Bryan and Michael were absolutely lovely, and I know they were very cognizant of,“This is what we are auditioning with so…” It was so much about that [human] connection. Imagine knowing joy and beauty and losing it. It didn’t feel awkward; it didn’t feel exposed. None of that, I literally just sat there and talked to this person. Words like, “Worship me, I’m not what I once was…” So there was no need for the theatrics of it. Yes, when you get there on the day there is other stuff that happens physically, but that was always the core of it.
AT: And that’s what Michael and Bryan connected with.
YB: I believe so. (Laughing)
AT: Orlando, your opening sequence in the second episode of “American Gods” is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on television.
Orlando Jones: Thank you!
AT: Is it true that you campaigned for your role on Twitter?
OJ: It’s strange because I actually got the phone call before all of that. Then, I started to realize what had happened on Twitter was really completely different from what was happening in Hollywood. I was like, “I’m a really a nerd! I really thought that this made a difference.” (Laughing) I got this call from Margery Simkin who is a casting director I have known for many years. She told me that they were making “American Gods” into a television show. She was like, “There is a character named Mr. Nancy I want to talk to you about.” I was listening to her and thinking, “Is she for real right now?” Then the next day I got a call from Mike and Bryan, and they’re like, “Do you know this?” In my head, I’m thinking, “YES!” While this was happening someone tweeted me about Mr. Nancy. I responded and added Neil Gaiman, and we were just going back and forth. But Bryan and Mike didn’t even know that. So, it was so weird, it came from both sides, so I have the fans to thank for putting it on Neil’s radar and then Margery Simkin our casting director to thank because I’ve known her for twenty years, and she was one of the first people to put me in the drama.
AT: What shocked you the most about Mr. Nancy’s opening sequence? I’ve just never seen anything like that before.
OJ: The show is beautiful. It is a visual spectacle, so a huge credit goes to the visuals and the storytellers and the whole team. But having said all that, for Mr. Nancy it was different. My response originally was we’ve never been able to say what he says unapologetically. We’ve always had to pretend to be emotionless about our experiences, and that’s not who we are as a people. So my first response was. “They’re not going to let me do this, but I’m going to try!” Neil, Bryan, and Michael are geniuses, and it was so gorgeously written that it was my absolute pleasure to bring it to life. But, I felt like it was bigger than me. It felt like the first time I heard Public Enemy or when I heard Kendrick [Lamar]. There is a passion, and I wanted to deliver it in a way that spoke to the generations of people that wanted to say this and to say it to each other in that capacity on a slave ship coming through the Middle Passage.
AT: What type of research did you do on Anansi before stepping into your role?
OJ: I knew I wanted the colors of the Ashanti people. I wanted purple because it’s a color of royalty and I really wanted that to be a part of him. Also, because we are from so many different places and we speak in so many different tongues, I wanted his lilt to drift a bit into the sounds of our people and the journey that we‘ve made. So hopefully you can hear all of that in there.
AT: The scope of “American Gods” is so massive that for many years it was said to be unfilmable. However, Neil Gaiman’s work has been put on screen so beautifully, and Bilquis, in particular, has been expanded massively. Yetide, how were you all able to reach into the material, taking her from just one chapter and expanding her out so that she stretched across the series?
YB: I think like a lot of people when I read the book I was like “Who is she?!” Then, by the time I was already in she was gone! Michael and Bryan always say that they are writing fan fiction because they are fans too. So, they have done a really beautiful job; they are masters at building a story from the bottom up. I mean let’s be real, we have an amazing source material from Neil Gaiman. But, doing it in a beautiful slow burn kind of way, you get to slowly learn about this character and where she’s come from. You start to get hints of where she may be going and her integral part in this war between the old and the new gods. So it’s going to be fun.
AT: Ricky what I loved most about Shadow is seeing the grief and rage that is constantly at war within him. This is a career-defining role for you. How do you feel about that?
RW: Seeing the reviews come out and people talking about my craft instead of abs or a smile is the proudest moment of my life professionally. It really is an honor to be working with the best ensemble cast that I have ever seen on TV. I’m working with my idols here. These are icons in the game who are starring in a show that I work on.
AT: That you are the lead of.
RW: It’s a blessing. I lead a team of superstars. It’s what you work so hard for. So for the critics and the fans to get what I’m trying to do, it’s awesome became I’ve worked backward with Shadow. He’s a skeleton of his former self, but also a shadow of the man I want him to become. It took a lot of effort for me to not add comedy. The writing is so funny, but I had to resist and remain straight because he’s broken. I couldn’t allow him the luxury of fun. He’s emotionless. He doesn’t believe in anything.
AT: Yetide, what shocked you the most about Biquis this season?
YB: Ian McShane says this a lot with all of these characters, and that’s one of the cool things about the show, and it’s that, nothing is as it seems. Every character and every situation, when you follow it a little longer, it throws you for a loop.
AT: It’s like we’re all in Shadow Moon’s head.
YB: Yeah! So there are some interesting things and relationships, that I don’t think many people will see coming but, that’s for every character.
AT: Ricky, what shocked you the most about Shadow’s journey this season?
RW: The toughest thing is that Neil Gaiman writes these beautiful monologues for Shadow’s inner thoughts, and it’s really tough to play because he doesn’t say them out loud. So I went through his whole thought process in my head and while trying to be engaged in everyone else’s conversation. Shadow has to be engaged in everything because we watch through Shadow’s eyes. In the beginning, we are confused because Shadow is confused. People who don’t know the book won’t have a clue what’s going on, but you’re not meant to because Shadow doesn’t know either. He doesn’t know if he’s crazy or if the world is crazy and that’s what we need to establish that at the beginning. As he learns what is going on and he’s awoken, and he begins putting these pieces together, the audience learns what’s going on too. So, coming from this empty vessel that he is at the beginning of the series, you see him grow. The story kind of changes as bit as well. He becomes the universe’s punch bag. He gets knocked around. So I guess more than anything I was surprised by his strength. Yes, he’s physical I had to put on thirty-five pounds of weight…
AT: Oh my God!
RW: (Laughing) It was insane. I went from 175 pounds to 210 pounds. I ate 4,000 calories a day, training two to four hours a day. But, I had to respect the character from the book. He’s an intimidating mass who is described as intimidating enough and don’t F with him enough to survive prison. So, I felt that responsibly to give the fans that character. When I watch him on screen, it’s not even me because he’s a beast, he’s a monster, and I’m looking at it like, “I was massive! How did my back even do that?!” However, despite the massive frame, it was his inner strength just to keep moving forward. When you lose the only thing in your life that you ever cared about, how do you even move on? But he does. He keeps getting knocked down, but he gets up and keeps moving forward, and hopefully, he’ll become the man we all want him to be. Hopefully, he will help people out there who are struggling with their own battles. We’re given this life because we are strong enough to live it and as hard as it is, he’s strong enough to keep going. That just really inspired me an individual.
AT: Do you have a favorite God within the series?
YB: There are so many great ones! Everyone brings such beautiful depth, and everyone is so precise and passionate. However, growing up I was told a lot of Anansi, and I’ve never seen a live-action like this before. I got goose bumps! It is absolutely amazing. Orlando is incredible and seeing Mr. Nancy in the flesh was brilliant. So, as much as I love everybody, there is a special place in my heart for him.
OJ: I like Tech Boy a lot. I love Bliqius. First of all, she’s stunning, I will never be able to describe it well but the energy that comes off of Yetide both on screen and in person. She’s special; she reminds me of my girl Aisha [Hinds].
RW: I actually don’t have a favorite because they bring so many wonderful colors. I’m so jealous that they get to be these fantastical beings and I’ve had to remain stoic for now and just observe.
AT: What shocked you the most about this eight-episode first season of “American Gods”?
OJ: That you could get it on camera.
AT: I mean that is a big deal! (Laughing) It sat at HBO for like ten years.
OJ: Yeah. There were a lot of things that I think were shocking. One is that it’s these two executive producers and creator; this trifecta. That’s a huge part of it. I think “American Gods” is honest in its metaphor about who we are and it’s providing a platform for conversation and not telling you what you should think. That’s really hard to do. They’ve really made a masterpiece here. Everything about it is epic. We’re connected to these Gods because they are human and flawed and we can see ourselves in them. It makes the show come to life in a way that is unexpected. That’s what’s shocking to me.
RW: I could just go on and on, and it’s just the first season.
AT: It’s not even the whole book.
RW: It’s the first 100 pages! It’s maybe a fifth of the book. Neil Gaiman is writing a sequel to “American Gods” as we speak. There is so much scope for this show to go on, and spin-offs and all sorts. It’s exciting, and I’m just like who is going to be here season two?! They’re talking about awards, and we haven’t even aired yet. So to lead that from the front it’s incredible it’s a very proud and blessed placed to be.
“American Gods” premieres on April 30th at 9 PM ET on Starz.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami