‘American Gods’: Ricky Whittle on Immigration Themes and His 5-Month Audition Process
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 Ricky Whittle talked about how mind-blowing the praise of American Gods has been, the experience of leading a cast of his idols, the complicated dynamic between Shadow and Wednesday, why we’re all pawns to the Gods, the intense five-month audition process he went through, the scene he’s most excited about seeing the viewer reaction for, the aspects of the story that resonate with him the most, and looking forward to seeing what they come up with for Season 2. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.
Collider: How exciting is it, as an actor who’s been at it for a bit of time now, to not only be a part of a project that people are talking about, but to be in something that people are heaping piles of very deserving praise on?
RICKY WHITTLE: It’s mind-blowing for me that we’re talking about actors and directors putting their name into the hat for Season 2 already because they want to be a part of this project. And we’re already talking about awards season. All anyone is doing is talking about career-defining performances and how it’s the best ensemble cast they’ve ever seen. It’s really exciting! To be the lead of that show is a blessing and an honor. I just feel blessed that I’m surrounded by this incredible cast, who are some of the finest actors of our generation, and incredible leaders in Neil Gaiman, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, who have really created an incredible monster. And then, there’s the backing from Starz and Fremantle, as well. They gave their all to these fantastic producers to make an absolute monster. I feel that the pressure that was there, in the beginning, to deliver a hugely loved book from 16 years ago, with huge anticipation, has dissipated and stayed away. It’s just turned to excitement, for us to hand this incredible project back to the fans and see what they think. I’m very excited about it, as you can pretty much tell.
There are so many layers to this story and these characters, but one of my favorite aspects of the show are the conversations between Shadow Moon and Mr. Wednesday, mainly because it is just endlessly delightful to watch you and Ian McShane together. What are those moments like to shoot?
WHITTLE: It’s actually a lot of fun. From day one, myself and Ian got on like a house on fire. We’re both from the same area. We’re both from Manchester, and we both support Man United. We’re open jokesters. We’re pranksters. We like to have fun and giggle, and that kind of chemistry and camaraderie, off camera, has translated really well, on camera. That’s very important and integral for the central story of Shadow and Wednesday. I agree, some of my favorite moments of the season, are just Shadow and Wednesday talking shit in the car. You see this wonderful relationship – this bromance – develop, and it’s almost more beautiful than the love stories that are on TV, at the moment. We’ve got this wonderful epic beginning of a love story, in Laura and Shadow, and in The Jinn and Salim, but it’s a fantastic relationship and dynamic between the two characters that I’m really looking forward to exploring and seeing more of, as the show goes on.
How do you view the relationship between Shadow and Wednesday? Do you think there’s anything truly genuine about it, or is it all manipulation?
WHITTLE: I believe there’s two sides to every story. It’s always about perspective. The show, as a whole, we watch through Shadow’s eyes, so it’s his perspective of everything. Because he’s confused, we’re not afraid to confuse the audience. When you start this show, the audience has got no idea what’s going on, but Shadow doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. With every puzzle, you start with one piece, and that piece is Shadow. You add another piece, and that’s Wednesday. And you keep adding these pieces until the picture starts to make sense. As Shadow learns and starts to understand this world that’s being shown to him, the audience is going to understand. For him, he’s just taking everything as he goes. He’s lost everything. He’s a broken shell of a man. He’s lost his wife, he didn’t know his father, and he lost his mother when he was young. Laura was his everything, and to have that one thing ripped from your life is heartbreaking. It’s left him a broken shell of a man that’s a shadow of his former self. That allowed him to be vulnerable and it allowed him to be manipulated by Mr. Wednesday a lot easier because he had nothing else to live for. He just goes along with whatever is going on because there’s nothing left. But, I think it’s very genuine on Shadow’s part. He sees this mysterious con man, who he may be able to learn from and gain some wisdom, advice and tricks, but obviously, we know that Mr. Wednesday has more on his agenda. He’s manipulative and devious. We don’t know if what’s going on is genuine or not, but we know that these two have been thrust together for some reason, and it’s going to be exciting to find out what happens, down the line.
Do you consider Shadow to be more of a pawn, is he a willing participant in the Gods’ plans, or is it about the journey from one to the other?
WHITTLE: I think you hit the nail on the head, with all three. When you’re talking about Gods, we’re all pawns because they’re so elitist. They are the Gods, for Christ’s sake, as Easter, played by the wonderful and beautiful Kristin Chenoweth, puts it. At the moment, he’s just a bodyguard. He’s there to protect Mr. Wednesday. That’s what he believes, and that’s all he knows. He doesn’t believe in anything. He believed in love, and that was ripped from his life. Right now, his big struggle for the season is, is he going crazy or is the world crazy? He’s seen so many different things, but as an intelligent man, he looks for a logical answer. Maybe he’s just missing his wife, so she appeared, or did it really happen? That’s a frightening position to be in, when you don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. Eventually, he’s going to have to make that choice and that decision, and Mr. Wednesday is trying to make him do that. For now, he’s just a bodyguard, or a soldier, if you will, for Mr. Wednesday, as he builds this army. It’s up to him, later on, what kind of direction he takes.
Compared to other productions that you’ve been in, how trippy was it to be a part of this show?
WHITTLE: I’m literally leading a cast of my idols. I feel so blessed and honored to be working with the finest actors of our generation, in Ian McShane, Peter Stormare, Kristin Chenoweth, Gillian Anderson, Crispin Glover and Orlando Jones. I watched all these people when I was growing up, and now I’m working alongside them. It’s incredible! It blows my mind, as a kid from Oldham, living in California, never mind working on this incredible project with these heroes of mine. I genuinely think it is the best ensemble cast that I’ve ever seen on TV, and I work with them. It’s an incredible honor, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with for Season 2. This is Season 1, and it’s only going to get better from here.
Shadow sees some crazy stuff during his journey. How did you react to seeing Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s interpretation of Neil Gaiman’s craziest scenes, on set?
WHITTLE: As we know, Neil, Bryan and Michael have these incredible minds. They’re incredibly creative and incredibly visual. You look at the script and the book and you’re like, “You can’t make that happen! You can’t film that! That’s too shocking!” But, Starz and Fremantle have pushed the envelope and allowed these incredibly creative and genius minds to really explode with information and visual effects. As an actor, you know what’s good and when you’ve been working with an actor and it goes well, whether it’s a sad scene, a happy scene or a powerful scene. But then, when you add all of this CGI and effects afterwards, I now get the gift that the fans get. I get to watch like a fan and see all of the bells and whistles put on, and it’s a completely different scene. It adds so much because they’re adding all of this beautiful magic around me. It’s an incredible feeling to see it all come together, after you’ve walked off set. It’s pretty nuts!
As you went through the five-month audition process for this, what was that emotional journey like? Did you feel like you were willing to fight to the death, in order to play this character?
WHITTLE: I’m not going to lie, it was probably quite the opposite. I was so tired and drained, I literally felt like I was on American Idol, singing a different song, every week. I was like, “Just sign me already! Just give me the record deal, and I will be #1!” But every curse is a blessing, and we should always learn lessons and take positives out of a situation. I’m always a positive person. So for me, I turned it into more of a positive that I was able to work with the character and mold Shadow into the character he’s actually become. Without those five months of auditions and work, I would not have been able to work with Bryan and Michael and David Slade, who directed the first three episodes, to create a character that translates so well. He’s still recognizable as the Shadow Moon from the book that everyone knows and loves. He’s an iconic character from the book world, but he’s also someone who’s more watchable. No one wants to watch a man think, every week. He’s so blasé and laid-back and quiet. His inner monologues are so beautiful, but no one hears that or sees that. To be on TV, he had to be more vocal and more real, so we wanted to add anxiety and fear, and have him ask more questions and be more proactive. It really was a great challenge. I also had to make that choice to really sacrifice his emotion, to keep him neutral and to not allow too much comedy to drift in. He’s not ready yet for a personality. You have to earn that personality. He’s a broken man right now. He’s an empty vessel and a shadow of his former self, so I had to make sure that he learns to love life again and learns to live again. That’s something that all came up in that five-month process, so I really felt that the audition process, although grueling, was really a gift.
Is there a scene or a moment that you’re most excited about hearing the viewer reaction for?
WHITTLE: One of my favorite scenes is the Kinko’s photo copier, where Shadow is talking to Wednesday about Jesus, just because I think it’s really funny and a lot of fun. With the way it plays out over the episode prior, I’m excited to hear the reaction for when Shadow finally has his conversation with Laura, when she comes back from the dead. This is the beginning of a beautiful, epic love story, before she dies, but it only really comes to life when she dies. It’s almost like they didn’t learn to live until she actually passed away. So, I’m excited for people to see that. We touch upon it in the two prior episodes, and people will be anxious for it. I want to see the audience’s reaction to that moment, and where we go from there.
Obviously, you want any story you’re telling to be relevant, but the themes of racism, gender, sexism, sexuality and religion have all become so much more scarily relevant in a way that they weren’t before. What aspects of this story resonate most with you?
WHITTLE: They all resonate with me. I’m an immigrant living in America. I’m one of these people who moved to America looking for a better life and chasing the American dream, bringing your beliefs, cultures, traditions and Gods. I am the story, as Neil Gaiman was when he traveled to America, back in the day, and came up with this wonderful story. How can any of this not resonate with me when the world’s eyes are looking at America in this politically heated climate that we’re all facing, with regard to racism, women’s rights and immigration. These are all things that resonate with all of us, and it’s an important conversation that we need to be having. We’ve just been very blessed. The book came out in 2001. We wrapped in November. This is all before Trump became President, so it’s not as if we were trying to do anything sneaky. We’ve just been incredibly lucky to become the most politically relevant TV show out there, and we’ve become very current. It’s a great platform and we’re very blessed to be given this opportunity to tell entertaining stories, but also educate the world on these things. These things are important and they’re out there, and they need to be discussed, so that people are aware of them.
American Gods airs on Sunday nights on Starz.