Perhaps it was serendipitous that I didn’t read American Gods, published 16 years ago, until last year. The timeliness of the story, from technology addiction to the absurdity of a country of immigrants fearing other immigants, hit particularly hard in 2016. Today, the Neil Gaiman book is widely considered a classic, elegantly setting up an epic and literal war between modernity and the old world beliefs, customs, and mythologies that each of us brought to these shores.
At a time when America’s historical identity as a safe haven for immigrants is under attack, American Gods is a timely appeal asking viewers – of whatever faith – to remember how we all arrived. Immigration is a ripe subject for the printed American Gods, which also swandives into racism, woman’s rights, gun control, and religion. All housed in a very traditional road novel.
With so many topical themes and elements, American Gods is primed to become water-cooler fodder, and at the center of the show is Mr. Wednesday and Shadow Moon (Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle, respectively). After viewing the first four episodes, I had two dozen questions prepared for Ian and Ricky. We got through five of them.
Thanks to a shared enthusiasm for the source material, a pride in tackling some of today’s most controversial topics, and their mutual admiration for each other, the two could have chatted on for hours. As I listened in, the two leads, who play near opposites on screen, expounded on everything from Ian’s abs of steel to the importance of having a diverse, ethnically representative cast. Oh, and Cloris Leachman’s shocking birthday request.
American Gods is a modern classic, critically acclaimed and expertly written novel by Neil Gaiman. How does it feel to participate in bringing such an epic story to life?
Ricky: It’s a blessing and an honor to use this platform to tell this incredible story which is going to touch upon so many fantastic but sensitive and controversial topics that we now see across every headline in America. All eyes are on America. In what is a heated political environment, we get to talk about immigration, religion, sexism, woman’s rights, racism, gun control… and this book was written in 2001.
We wrapped in November, before the shit hit the fan, so to speak. So we feel very blessed and fortunate to have the most politically relevant show out there. It wasn’t planned; it just worked out that way. So great foresight by Neil Gaiman and a fantastic adaptation by Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Logan), and we get to tell this story.
Ian: Well, I think that in the second golden age of television, which they are calling this now, this could only be done by a cable company. It could never exist on network tv, given the content of the novel and the form it has to take to be told. Starz and Fremantle Media have been very generous both with money and time, and with enabling Bryan Fuller and Michael Green to cooperate with Neil Gaiman and add to it a visual experience that I think is… pretty fucking awesome.
Certain people know that my character is the god Odin, and I take upon Shadow — our characters are in a buddy movie for the first three episodes. I’m pleased that, in the first three episodes, there is no backstory. They assume the viewers have the intelligence to go with it.
And then in episode four, you get a chapter about Shadow’s wife, which is a character that isn’t as explored in the book. I think that’s a bonus; an addition that Fuller and Green have managed to coax out of the story, with Gaiman’s permission, of course.
In the novel, the relationship between Wednesday and Shadow is so important to the narrative and your on-screen chemistry is amazing - more compelling than your usual on-screen romance. How did you approach building that dynamic between the two characters?
Ian: The very first scene we did together was the very first scene in the show. So it was kinda make or break according to how we are with eachother. But Ricky and I are from the same part of the world, and we have some of the interests, especially football — or as you call it, soccer. Manchester United is one of our shared passions. So we bonded instantly, got on the set, planted our feet, looked each other in the eyes, said our lines and didn’t fall over the furniture. So it worked pretty well.
Ricky: Yeah, it was a lot of fun! And to get the pleasure and honor of working with one of the finest actors of our generation in Ian McShane? Yeah, it was a huge blessing and huge fun working with him. You don’t get this kind of education in acting school and to work with one of the finest professors in town, it feels good. The chemistry that happened off camera translated so well on-screen because we do get along, we are from the same area and we have a lot of fun on set. People don’t know this, but Ian’s a great practical joker. We have a good giggle and it translates on-screen.
We are very fortunate because while we are surrounded by so many fantastical elements and all the CGI, it is very grounding to see a very human element in Wednesday and Shadow, just talking in a car. Some of my favorite moments are them two just talking in the car…
Ian: Guy talk!
Speaking of Ian’s storied carrier, from Lovejoy to Deadwood, you have a history of playing charismatic, manipulative bastards. From the moment the show was announced, the internet was very vocal in insisting the role of Mr Wednesday was tailor made for you. When you read American Gods for the first time, what was your reaction to the character? What has it been like to bring him to life?
Ian: Well the internet has got very good taste, obviously. It’s interesting - first of all, Ricky was cast first, they had to cast the part of Shadow and get their protagonist. Then Michael (Green) sent me the script and offered me another part. And I said to Michael, “Well, that’s very nice of you… what about Mr. Wednesday?” He said, “That’s very interesting… well, do you want to do a television series?” I hadn’t read the book at the time, so I said give me a few days. I read the book, and then a week later they came along and offered me the part. And come on, its one of the great parts of TV. How could I say no? Terrific!
Ricky — your casting announcement was accompanied by high praise from Neil and producers Bryan Fuller and Michael Green. How did it feel to have such vocal support and enthusiasm from your collaborators as took on such an important role?
Ricky: I felt calmer. You don’t realize the light without having a bit of darkness and everyone knows of my situation working with a troublesome showrunner, so I feel blessed to have the love and support of my network, Bryan Fuller, Michael Green and Neil Gaiman. I just talked to them yesterday and they told me there was 1200 [audition] tapes for Shadow, which is just incredible. You don’t really think about that.
For Neil Gaiman, we’re basically lifting his words off the page; it’s a huge honor for the man who created our characters to enjoy our work. For me, it’s just nothing but a huge blessing to be part of what I think is the best ensemble cast I’ve ever seen on television and I’m excited to see what comes down the road.
In the early episodes, Shadow is responsible for a ton of emotional heavy lifting…how did you prepare to carry those scenes?
Ian: He worked out. A lot.
Ian: I could never find him in the morning, he was in the gym. Well, I was there too, doing 1,000 crunches.
Ricky: Ian McShane has abs of steel. Steel Abs McShane, that’s his nickname on set.
I think the first 35 days (of production), I did 35 out of 35. Next in line was Mr. McShane, obviously, but it was intense. There is a lot to cover and it’s a huge responsibility to portray this character who’s so loved in book form for so long. Physically and mentally, I had to prepare for this. Physically, I had to put on over 35 pounds. I went from 175 pounds up to 210 pounds. I felt a responsibility to give them the Shadow from the book, this man who is intimidating enough and don’t-fuck-with-me enough to survive prison without much problems.
So once I got that physical frame, it was all about the mental capacity to portray a broken man who has lost everything in his life that he loved dear — in the form of his wife, Laura. And so to carry that kind of weight around was a bit of a challenge but a great challenge. It allowed this empty vessel to remain vulnerable enough for a manipulative conman like Mr. Wednesday.
Ian: The wife! The wife! My nemesis, Laura. (For a bunch of other reasons you’ll find out later.) I love Emily because she’s quite kickass in this. Its not the normal female role.
Neil has spoken about putting his foot down regarding the racial makeup of the casting - that the network couldn’t whitewash or change the race of characters - but he was also surprised that Vanity Fair praised the show for ‘getting it right’ and casting Ricky as Shadow Moon. With the recent controversy over Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell and Finn Jones in Iron Fist, do you think your representation is an important or significant moment?
Ricky: I think it’s very important. It’s very important that the rest of the cast is as fantastically diverse and ethnic in order to represent the true country of America. America is a beautiful melting pot and that’s what it was about. The show is about immigration and religion and women’s rights and racism. But at the end of the day, it’s about people who came from all over the world and brought their gods and beautiful flavors, cultures and traditions. Some of them flourish and some of them fade away, but it built this country. I am now an immigrant myself and I’m hopefully going to add more to this country, as I hope everyone else who comes to this country does. From Emily who is Australian, to Ian and myself from the UK — it’s so important to represent the true America.
We have to remember that unless you are native to America, we are all immigrants. The president is an immigrant. His many wives were immigrants. So I think it’s very important to portray this, but it’s more of a thing for the press because we’re just casting what is true to Neil’s book. He wrote it a certain way and he cast it a certain way - and our casting team has been incredible. They literally picked fantastic actors out of the fan’s heads and they’ve been very receptive to the casting process that’s gone on and I feel like they’ve cast not only true to the book, but idols of mine throughout the acting world.
We have to remember that unless you are native to America, we are all immigrants. The president is an immigrant.
Ian: I have two words to say about the white man in America: Manifest destiny. Two of the most destructive words in existence. Work that one out.
In addition to Orlando Jones, American Gods features the great Cloris Leachman, Crispin Glover, Gillian Anderson, Kristin Chenoweth, Peter Stormare and Dane Cook. Which co-star was the most fun to share a scene with?
Ricky: Outside of Ian McShane…
Ian: No, Cloris was great because it was her 90th birthday. On the set, we had a little kiss. I kissed her and wished her “Happy birthday,” and she said “Is that it? Would you line the cast up so I can get fucked on my birthday?” She’s just a character.
Ricky: I mean, I dont even need to answer! That’s pretty amazing. That’s a great story.
But there are too many to name. Everyone brought their A-game. Like I said, they are all idols of mine. From the very beginning with Peter Stormare, who I think was incredible and a lot of fun to work with. We had a great giggle with Kristin Chenoweth, who was a breath of sunshine in the season finale.
Ian: The Energizer Bunny!
Ricky: The Energizer Bunny, for real! Everyone really brought something special, but I’m happy to go with the Cloris Leachman story as well.