American Gods is the most relevant fictional show on television right now. Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel of the same name, the enigmatic show and its dazzling imagery mines our collective psyche as it encourages us to re-evaluate what we stand for. It’s a battle of old gods versus new ones, belief in magic in the world versus faith in technology and ultimately what will appeal to our hearts and souls. Even then, are things really that black and white?
We follow the journey of Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a recently freed felon who comes home to discover his wife Laura and best friend died in a car crash while engaging in fellatio. He soon becomes employed as a bodyguard to a mysterious, charismatic man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). Throughout their strange, rocky travels across America, Shadow begins to learn, much to his initial disbelief, that he has become part of a brewing war between gods old and new for the future of humanity’s belief.
What made this series so engaging in its first season, which debuted in April and ran through June, is the many topical themes it invokes with one of the most diverse casts on television. The show crosses sexual and racial boundaries as it examines a group of disparate characters trying to find their way through the confusing cultural maze of America. The characters themselves are quite colorful, including a very tall, angry leprechaun named Mad Sweeney, the amorous Bilquis the Queen of Sheba, the bratty wunderkind Tech Boy and the dapper but sinister Mr. World, leader of the New Gods.
Whittle says that despite American Gods being highly relevant, its creators and cast would prefer it could remain in the realm of fantasy. But given our current state of political and social upheaval that is not possible.
“It’s something that we’re living each day,” says Whittle at a party at New York Comic Con. “Fortunately, we’ve got a great platform to salvage stories. We’re not taking sides, we’re just raising awareness of various cultures and various themes. We need to be working on immigration, racism, sexism, homophobia, gun control—this is stuff that we’re always talking about and maybe should start acting upon.”
The show pushes boundaries particularly in the sexual arena. Whittle and co-star Emily Browning, who plays his zombie wife Laura Moon, steam up the screen with their intimate moments. (“When you’re dry humping one of your best friends for several hours of a day, it’s quite an awkward situation,” he admits.) The scenes with Bilquis, played by Yetide Badaki, are luscious exhibitions of raw sensuality climaxed each time by her devouring each lover into her vagina.
The most controversial love scene takes place between two Muslim men, one of them a jinn of ancient Islamic and Arabian lore. “That’s groundbreaking, and it shouldn’t be because we live in a world where this happens,” says Whittle. “Unfortunately, it’s illegal and punishable by death in some countries, which is so mind-blowing to me because love is love and you can’t help who you fall for. I think it’s such a beautiful story that was shown. Now we have a whole group of young boys growing up with something to relate to where they didn’t before. That’s what it is—it’s about educating the whole world about all these different themes and allowing people to relate and just be absorbed into it.”
While Whittle says they are not trying to change the world but entertain people, it is clear that the show means more to him than that. He also rebuffs the notion of people thinking that because he is an actor that he does not have the right to a political opinion.
“These are Twitter trolls who are living in their mom’s basement,” scoffs Whittle. “What makes you be able to tell me to shut up and not be able to speak my mind? [They think] athletes are not allowed to have a political opinion. That’s the beauty of America. Everyone is allowed their own opinion. Even if you’re against me, to have that opinion is completely fine. But don’t tell anyone to shut up. No one has any right to tell someone whether they can kneel or not for something they believe in.”
Although the original text was published 16 years ago, Whittle says most of the its themes remain intact, save for some tweaks. Shadow Moon’s interior monologue has not been carried over from the novel, so Whittle works hard to convey all of those emotions on his face. His past experience as a model has certainly come in handy for the numerous close-ups of his character.
One big scene change, he notes, is the inclusion of the crazy, gun-toting citizens of a Virginia town raining bullets into the sky in episode six. Whittle says showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green “were taken over by this crazy political climate that we we’re currently in. They changed this empty funeral town into almost like a Trump rally where these people are so fired up about stuff—gun control and stuff like that—but they added some extra bits and bobs.” (While filming his shots, Whittle only saw an empty town, not the extras seen in the episode.) “It really did change the tone of that episode, which is what Bryan and Michael are all about. They’re very clever about using existing footage and manipulating it to tell a different story.”
Pablo Schreiber, who plays Mad Sweeney, notes that Tech Boy is the character that received a big upgrade. “He’s written as a basement dwelling, pimple covered, Matrix-obsessed teen, and it was important for Neil that Tech Boy now represents what tech has evolved to which is very cool, very sleek, very sophisticated,” notes Schreiber. “He’s still an asshole and a little shit, but it’s a much different version than that little nerd that we saw in the book.”
Mad Sweeney is certainly a pain in the ass in his own right. While Luke Skywalker was a little short for a stormtrooper, Sweeney is a bit tall for a leprechaun, but six-foot-five Schreiber knew that despite his “height challenges” he could not pass up the chance to play a brawling, cursing, bawdy leprechaun who’s an outright prick.
“He starts the season as an almost repulsive character. He’s so mean to everybody around him—foul mouthed, fighting, drunk—and by the end of the season so much has been revealed about his motives and about his guilt about what he’s done to people. In a way, you feel sorry for the guy,” says Schreiber.
Beyond the already intense first season, fans are clamoring to learn more about what will transpire in the second season, which is set to air mid-2018 on Starz. The show’s creators have been tight lipped about any details, but Whittle offers some thoughts about his character. “We’re going to be seeing a lot more proactive Shadow Moon which is going to be exciting for me because I work backwards,” says Whittle. “I understand where Shadow’s going to be and what I want him to be, so I have to work backwards. I started with him as this very broken, empty vessel who was very observational, but we’re going to see him do a lot more in season two. He’s going to start taking control of his life, maybe challenge these gods now that he understands that they exist.”
Considering that so many people were getting it on in the first season, one wonders if perhaps Mad Sweeney will find himself some female companionship. “Obviously he seems to have a shine for ‘dead wife’ [Laura Moon], so we’ll see what will happen there,” muses Schreiber. “I don’t foresee too much sex in Sweeney’s future, but maybe they’ll surprise me.”
Schreiber says that what he relates to the most in the story is the idea that “where you put your energy is what you create. The whole idea behind this novel is having us look a little more closely at what we believe in and what we’re putting our energy into. And what we put our energy into—like the gods that we worship—are the things that we are creating in the real world. So when we see this war that’s coming between old gods and new gods, it’s going to be won by the new gods because that’s where we’re putting all our energy. It’s just asking us to look a little bit closer at what we value and what we spend our time doing.”