An enthusiastic audience assembled to worship the cast and creators of Starz’ upcoming American Gods adaptation, which premieres in 2017. The panel, hosted by Yvette Nicole Brown, included co-showrunner Bryan Fuller, co-showrunner Michael Green, director David Slade, and stars Ricky Whittle (Shadow Moon), Ian McShane (Mr. Wednesday), Pablo Schreiber (Mad Sweeney), Yetide Badaki (Bilquis), and Bruce Langley (Technical Boy), as well as author Neil Gaiman. The stage, framed by two figures dressed in creepy bunny costumes, set the subtly wrong, slightly otherworldly tone portrayed in the series’ first trailer — as well as foreshadowing the announcement that Kristin Chenoweth had been cast as the goddess Easter, her appearance onstage inviting further adulation from the audience. Summarized Brown: “The idea of this show is that everybody worships something.”
- Gaiman said that American Gods — the novel — had its origin at Comic-Con. He said he has been coming to the con since 1989. In 1999, he came by train on a three-day journey from Chicago, and during that trip through classic Americana, he wrote the first chapter of American Gods.
Slade addressed the challenges of adapting a novel as complex as this one. “You look at it and it’s so big and massive that it can’t even be approached,” he said, “and then you break it down into little post-it notes.” It works, Slade said, “because of Michael and Bryan, you can be completely weird and entirely cinematic.” Elaborated Fuller: “It becomes fanfiction in a wonderful way. We’re dedicated to the source, but we’re also tasked with bringing it to television.” The collaborative nature of adaptation has other benefits, according to Green. “It’s also nice if you’re stuck that you can send an email to the author for advice.”
- Gaiman described himself as “very involved” with the casting process. When the adaptation of his novel began to be discussed by Starz, “The only thing I was going to be hardline on was keeping the racial makeup of the characters the same,” he said. He praised the fact that “there was no pushback” from the network. Green, however, brought up a good point: “We get a lot of credit for that [diverse casting],” he said, “but we should not get credit for that. That should be the baseline.”
- That said, the actors had some interesting audition stories. “We put poor Ricky through the wringer,” Gaiman said. “I don’t know how many audition takes he did.” “I know,” said Whittle, a little hollowly. “How many?” Gaiman asked. “I did sixteen,” said Whittle. He wasn’t the only one who truly had to earn their spot on the show. Anybody who remembers Bilquis’ character from the books probably recalls what everyone onstage referred to as “The Scene” — no more can be said without spoiling something truly incredible — which Fuller laughingly admitted was Badaki’s audition piece. At least one cast member got off easy: “With Ian,” Gaiman said, “it was as simple as getting a phone call from Bryan saying, ‘How about Ian McShane?’” For McShane’s part, “I had no intention of coming back to any form of television production,” he said, “but then I read this.”
- It was illuminating to get the actors’ takes on their characters. McShane described Mr. Wednesday as “a small-time but elegant grifter.” Langley said he doesn’t see Technical Boy as either a hero or a villain: “He doesn’t give a crap. You are cosmically irrelevant.” (Amusing to note: unlike his character, Langley admitted, he’s “crap at Twitter.”) Chenoweth, meanwhile, had perhaps the perfect quip to describe her character: “Easter is very, very pissed that Jesus took her holiday.”
- Do you have to read the book to enjoy and understand the show? Well, “If you haven’t [read it], you should,” said Green, but “We’ll take care of you if you haven’t,” Fuller promised. In Gaiman’s opinion, “If you’ve read the book, you are definitely ahead, but we have surprises for you, too. We have things that will puzzle you. And we get to spend a lot more time with a lot more people,” on the show, he said.
Gaiman went on to say that the show is also an opportunity for material that didn’t make it to the book to see the light of day onscreen. “When I handed in the original manuscript they made me cut 10-15,000 words,” he said. There were also numerous ideas that never even reached the rough draft stage. “By the way, here’s 4,000 years of backstory on Mad Sweeney,” Gaiman said, describing the types of imagined but unwritten material he would pass on to Fuller and Green. He had unpenned subplot ideas, too. “I wanted to do a story set in a Japanese internment camp in the U.S. during the Second World War that would have been a kitsune story,” Gaiman said. “So maybe Bryan can do that. Or maybe that can be in another novel, if I write one, which is seeming more and more likely these days.”
- The show, said Brown, also utilizes the opportunity to “incorporate current issues.” She said that she had read the first few scripts, and was impressed with their inclusion of stories that touch on “gun control issues, women’s rights, the way social media separates us, [and] racial divides.”
- As for the parts of the book that do seem like side-stories, such as the “Coming to America” chapters, Fuller said, “We get to use them as trampolines into bigger stories.” And never fear: “As a general rule,” Gaiman said, “if you love it in the book, it is probably going to turn up on screen.”
- Of the actors, Badaki claimed the most familiarity with the novel. “As a fangirl, I had already read the book when it came out,” she said. She explained why the story had resonated with her: “It’s an American immigration story. Facebook just reminded me that I became a citizen three years ago. Hey,” she said, smiling, “three years from American citizen to American god!”