‘American Gods’: Pablo Schreiber on Why He Was Hesitant to Sign on, Finding the Look, and More
From showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green and adapted from the best-selling book by Neil Gaiman, the Starz series American Gods weaves a provocative tale of faith and belief, or our lack thereof, unlike anything that’s ever been on TV before. When Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is released from prison following the death of his wife (Emily Browning), he meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), with whom he makes a deal that will change the course of his entire life. As he finds himself in the center of a world that he struggles to make sense of, a war between the Old Gods and the New Gods starts to bubble over in ways that are both horrific and mind-blowing, and that you won’t be able to take your eyes off of.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Pablo Schreiber (who plays Mad Sweeney, a down-on-his-luck leprechaun who’s always up for a good fight) talked about why he was initially hesitant about signing on for American Gods, that the role came back his way after another actor dropped out, playing a leprechaun, finding the character’s look, bringing suspenders back, Sweeney’s need to get his lucky coin and his mojo back, having to go to the hospital after he and Ricky Whittle accidentally really head-butted each other during a fight scene, what he most enjoys about playing this character, and evaluating where his own worship falls. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.
Collider: First of all, congrats on playing what is probably my favorite new character on TV!
PABLO SCHREIBER: Oh, nice!
This show is both magnificently beautiful and thought-provoking in such exciting ways, and this character just seems like so much ridiculous fun to play!
SCHREIBER: It is! I’ve been blessed. I feel pretty grateful to have done the work with the writers that I’ve worked with and to have them think about me in the way that they have. I feel pretty lucky to have gotten to play Pornstache (in Orange is the New Black), and now Mad Sweeney, and I did The Wire in there, too. Sometimes I pinch myself.
How do you feel about inspiring a fashion trend, with the return of the suspenders?
SCHREIBER: You know, time will tell, if I’ve been successful in my mission to bring suspenders back permanently. The suspenders were a concerted decision based on the influence of the old country, but also it was important that each of the Gods felt like they could exist in some sub-sect of modern American society. With Sweeney, we made a pretty concerted decision to place him in the realm of the hipster. In that world, everything old is new and there’s a real aching for the throwback, and the suspenders seemed to fit right into that.
When you first read this script, did you read it knowing that you’d be playing Mad Sweeney, or were you ever looking at any other characters, as well?
SCHREIBER: I definitely knew that Mad Sweeney was the character that was on the table. First, I only read the pilot. And then, when things got more serious, later on down the road, I asked for them to send me some future episodes, so they sent me the first six episodes and I read them all. When I read the pilot, I was just struck by how different it was from anything I had ever seen on TV, but it was also quite confusing, which is probably the same feeling that people who haven’t read the novel had when they watched the first episode. It was confusing in good way, in the sense that I was just like, “What is happening?! I need to know more!” So then, when I read the next five episodes, I became a little more clear about what they were trying to do and where things were heading.
When I first read this book, years ago, I remember thinking about how much I loved it, but how there was just no way that it could ever be brought to life.
SCHREIBER: Right?! It reads as un-filmable, definitely as a movie. You can’t do this book in two hours. There’s just no way! So, TV, if anything, seemed to be the medium for it. And Bryan [Fuller] and Michael [Green] did a really smart thing, in opening up the book. The book is really just an individual road trip with Shadow and Wednesday, and all of these little vignettes where they meet these random Gods. But one of the very smart decisions they made was to elevate the character of Laura and make her road trip with Sweeney a parallel road trip to the Shadow-Wednesday one.
You originally turned down the audition for American Gods, and then someone else was cast in the role of Mad Sweeney, and then that actor left the show and they came back to you. When it came back your way, was it an immediate yes, at that point?
SCHREIBER: No, it wasn’t an immediate yes. By that point, there were a few other things going on for me. There were a few other possibilities that were in the works, and that is when I asked for a few more episodes. In the pilot, there’s just one scene. It’s a great scene and you’re like, “Wow, this could be a really cool character,” but you have no idea where it’s going. It was really just one scene in a pilot, and at this point in my career, when I said no to auditioning for it, the feeling and the thought was that I’d gone past the point where I should be auditioning for one scene in a pilot. Obviously, they had bigger intentions for the character, and that’s what they showed when they sent me the future scripts. It was clear that they were trying to take Sweeney somewhere else and that he was going to have an importance to the story and plot of the show.
How did you wrap your head around playing a leprechaun? Did you want to just completely lean into that, or did you put that out of your head?
SCHREIBER: You can’t play a leprechaun. You can, but I don’t think it’s helpful, in the context of this show. When he says, “I’m a leprechaun,” he says it with the tongue-in-cheek irony of what he’s been reduced to in the culture. I’m not playing a leprechaun. I’m playing a guy who feels unappreciated. He’s a guy who’s lived for many hundreds of years with a lot of worship, admiration and followers, and he’s felt that admiration dwindle and almost disappear. He has a huge chip on his shoulder from the fact that things aren’t as they used to be. Now, when you combine where we meet him, at the beginning of the show, with the fact that he loses his lucky coin, and you’ve got a guy who’s hitting rock bottom.
Everyone should know better than to take a leprechaun’s gold coin. What does his coin mean to him and how does he feel about losing it?
SCHREIBER: It’s a huge part of the story. The coin is the initial creative spark that we are all created with and that we all have within us. When he loses that, he loses his mojo and he has to get it back. It’s not a coincidence that he goes searching for it in the form of a woman. For most of us, when we look for life force in the form of a significant other, it’s not attainable. He spends the majority of the season trying to get it back.
How long did it take for you to get comfortable holding and playing with the coins, and how long does it take to shoot the scenes with the coin tricks?
SCHREIBER: It’s funny because it’s all movie magic. On the one hand, for some of them, we shot real coins and I was holding real coins. The one that came out of my mouth is a real coin. But essentially, his only trick is that he plucks gold out of thin air, and that’s not a trick, obviously, that I can pull off, as a human being. That’s something that we use visual effects for. And in order to shoot it, I was in the dark. I looked to Bryan Fuller for some help in guiding me with how to create this thing, and he really just left it in my lap. I said, “How should I pluck these coins out of thin air?” And he was like, “I don’t know, just make it look cool!” It was about throwing yourself over the abyss and trusting that somebody there was going to do something cool with it because I had no idea if, with what I was doing, they were going to be able to create something that looked realistic. Thankfully, the visual effects on this show are top notch, and they did. They created coins everywhere I pretended they were.
How does Mad Sweeney feel about Mr. Wednesday and what he’s trying to do, and the fact that Shadow Moon is involved now, whether he likes it or not?
SCHREIBER: It’s complicated. He obviously has some hard feelings toward Wednesday. He spent a number of years in his employ, doing jobs for him. In his warnings to Shadow, we get that it’s not all love and roses between the two of them. You learn more about that, as the season goes on, but hopefully, we’ll get even more of that in subsequent seasons. There’s a chip on his shoulder at the world, in general, but specifically toward Mr. Wednesday, as well.
Your character makes quite an impression, between both his own look and the visual of being inside of the Crocodile Bar. What was the process like, for deciding on how Mad Sweeney would look, and how involved were you with that?
SCHREIBER: I was very involved. I wasn’t willing to do the project, unless we could come up with a look that works for me. They had already gone down the road with another actor who had made certain choices that he was hoping would work for him. After they sent me the first six scripts and I decided that the material was there, then it was a question of whether we could find a look that works. So, before taking the job, I flew out to Toronto to see if we could make something happen. The process of the wig was a tough one. At first, we started with this reference photo of Tom Waits, with his hair all askew. That was great and looked like everything that we were going for, but then they made a wig from that reference material and it didn’t work on me. It just looked ridiculous. It just wasn’t working and coming alive. And then, I was looking at it and I said, “What if we take the sides out and make it a mohawk kind of thing.” Once we did that, everything started to come alive, but it was a bit of a terrifying moment because when you cut the sides out of a wig, there’s no going back. But, that’s really where it started to come alive. And then, the beard was my beard and they just painted it red. They weren’t sure if that process was going to work too well, but they did this three-step coloring process, where they painted it white, they painted it red, and then they muted it with the yellow. The first time they did it, it really worked and everyone was shocked that it worked so well. It really just came alive.
Did people think you were just crazy, when they would see you out in public?
SCHREIBER: We had to reshoot the fight scene. We actually did the whole Crocodile Bar scene we did twice. The first time we did it, the sets weren’t ready. The dailies came back to L.A. and they just were not happy with how it looked, so they ended up re-shooting the whole sequence at the very end of the season, after we’d been shooting for about six months. And in the process of that, in the moment where Ricky [Whittle] and I have a head-butt, we actually head-butted each other by mistake and I split my head open and was bleeding all over the floor. I had to go to the hospital to try to get the cut addressed, and I went in my costume as Sweeney, with all of the hair and the beard and a bleeding head. That was definitely one of the highlights of the production. Walking into the hospital as that guy and having all of the heads turn was humbling.
When you have a hand in telling a story like this, do you find yourself evaluating what you give your own attention to, in your life, and where your worship falls?
SCHREIBER: It’s so funny you say that. Yeah, that’s really been the gift of this show, for me. If nothing else, the novel and the show, itself, have inspired me to take stock of where I put my energy. That’s the main take away for me, from this project. We could all be a little more conscious and aware of what we give our energy to ‘cause we’re co-creators of this experience, and everything that we put our energy into becomes real. So, you should be careful about what you give your time to because it will be created.
What’s it been like to have the genius minds of Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, bringing such a wild story to life?
SCHREIBER: Amazing! It obviously all starts with Neil [Gaiman] and his novel, which is so complex and has so many amazing ideas in it. To give it a new life and really to crack the code of it, Michael and Bryan have put so much attention into figuring out how this can work and how it can be relevant for conversations that surround our culture today. That part of it has been amazing. And then, there’s the gift of getting to see these guys, every once in awhile, when we’re together doing press. To have the luxury of trapping Neil in a corner and having a conversation with him is one of the amazing joys of this project.
What do you most enjoy about what you get to do with this character, and do you enjoy getting to play a character who causes trouble, just because it’s fun?
SCHREIBER: There is a mischievous side to Sweeney, for sure, but I wouldn’t say that that’s what we see the most of, this season. He was introduced as being a shit-stirrer, trying to get Shadow to lose his cool and fight with him, but pretty quickly, he loses his coin and things are happening to him, and he’s put in a whole new situation that he’s never really experienced before. And then, he’s dealing with Laura Moon. His coin has brought her back to life, but then he has to spend most of the season trying to get his coin back from her. As soon as they met, he realized that, in the reanimation process that his coin has done for her, it’s also given her super-human strength and it won’t be easy for him to get his coin back. So, to watch him deal with these incredibly difficult circumstances that he’s not used to is really one of the great fun parts about it for me. He’s introduced as so physical and so tough, and then you see him be completely dominated by somebody who’s half his size, which is definitely one of the joys of the character.
American Gods airs on Sunday nights on Starz.