As a crowded room (cameras, lights, at least half a dozen PRs) is being set up for the next interview at February’s American Gods press junket, Ricky Whittle is being berated by co-star Emily Browning. His crime? Not having watched The Wire in its entirety.
“What is wrong with you?” demands Browning.
“I only made it through three seasons,” Whittle shrugs, “I just got bored.”
“How could you stop watching?” she persists, outraged.
“I just got bored…” he repeats, his answer interrupted by the unmistakable voice of Ian McShane crossing the room. McShane takes his seat and nods towards Whittle. “He hasn’t even seen Deadwood”.
“I will watch Deadwood!” insists Whittle, hanging his head and laughing. He points at McShane and says in his defence, “He made me watch John Wick because he was in it, and it was probably one of my favourite films of last year.”
Deadwood, says Browning, is her dad’s favourite show of all time. When she told him she was going to act alongside McShane in American Gods, “he freaked out”.
“Thank you darling,” says McShane, warmly. “Give him my love.”
It’s almost a shame to start the interview. These three haven’t had much time to catch up since filming season one, the first episode of which is available now in the UK on Amazon Prime Video. They’ve been put together for a day of interviews with press who’ve seen only a ten minute clip (in which Whittle’s character Shadow Moon has a punch-up with Pablo Schreiber’s leprechaun Mad Sweeney). As enthusiastic as they clearly are about American Gods, there’s a sense they’d rather be mucking about and taking the mick out of Whittle’s new short mohawk haircut.
“You look like him!” McShane tells Whittle. “You’re growing your facial hair to look more like Pablo. I thought I was sitting next to Pablo for a minute!”
Emily Browning ropes me in, “If you’re Den Of Geek, maybe you’ll know who I’m referring to – do you know the character Oob in Dragon Ball Z? That’s who he looks like!”
“I’m auditioning for Dragon Ball Z next, for when we’re on hiatus” jokes Whittle good-naturedly. And then it’s time for the interview to start.
From the looks of that bar-room brawl clip I just watched, Shadow Moon seems to be a character with a few demons, I begin.
“His wife is one of his demons!” says Browning of her character, the recently deceased Laura Moon.
“His wife is literally one of his demons,” agrees Whittle. “He had a bit of aggression to let out and a six foot six leprechaun was the perfect recipient! He was feeling a lot of rage in that scene. He’d just been released from prison two days after his wife died, he’s a broken man, he’s a shadow of his former self.”
Then along comes the mysterious Mr Wednesday [McShane] to offer Shadow a job.
“I hire him!” says McShane. “Who else is going to hire an ex-con fresh out of prison? He hires him as his bodyguard and his chauffeur and that’s all I can say about Mr Wednesday!”
It isn’t all McShane can say, and it isn’t all he does say, but we’ve been requested to keep this chat as spoiler-free as possible so it’s more or less all you’ll read here.
Incidentally, the job of managing what Ian McShane does and doesn’t say in interviews doesn’t look like an especially relaxing one. As he talks, you can almost hear the PR spines stiffen around the room. Periodically, he shoots questions into the darkness: “Can we say [redacted]?”. “We’re not actively pushing that at this stage” comes the careful response. After the interview, I’m emailed a bullet-point list of all the things said that I’m not permitted to write about. Predictably, they’re all the best bits.
In previous interviews, McShane has said that the key to finding his characters starts with their shoes. Find the right shoes and you’ve got the character, he says. Is that true of Mr Wednesday?
“You start with the coat.” McShane says. “This time we started with a coat. Our Emmy Award-winning costume designer[Suttirat Anne Larlarb]—this is the first TV she’s done, she’s fantastic—she and I got together and talked about this look and the character and she came up with this coat. It’s a little thing, but it gives you everything, a flow…”
“When you first meet Wednesday,” he continues, “you think he’s this sort of charming ageing sort of graceful con-man who’s got a bit of money and is taking Shadow along because he knows a few tricks.”
As noted in an earlier American Gods chat, today seems very much like the age of the con-man, in terms of politics at least?
“No, no, that’s what he’s fighting against,” McShane makes clear. “That’s the opposite. Whatever [Mr Wednesday] is, he’s fighting against those very things. The show is about faith, it’s about immigration, it’s about acceptance of other people, whatever their colour or religion, that’s what it’s about, they’re all coming to America. It couldn’t be more topical.”
Browning tells me, “I think the person you’re referencing has never been considered charming by anyone, I think that’s the difference.”
Charm is key to Mr Wednesday then. He’s a hustler and a charmer?
“That’s what he is,” McShane agrees. “That’s what he’s written as and that’s what he is. He’s capricious, he just ploughs through. Wednesday just goes on, he doesn’t give a monkey’s. He carries on straight through. I’m surprised some of the time [laughing] people just don’t knock him out. He just keeps on talking!”
“He’s always prodding the bear, prodding the bear!” says Whittle. “Then he eventually gives the bear some honey to stop them from ripping his head off. He’s very clever. He’s got this charismatic charm, he wins everyone over that he meets, especially Shadow.”
“Shadow needs a job,” says McShane. “And Mr Wednesday introduces Shadow to this world of people who are not really of this fucking world, they are these odd creatures.”
Bringing those odd creatures from Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel to the screen was the job of showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, and no small feat according to Whittle. “There’s a lot of pressure – it comes with fifteen years’ worth of fandom, craving and champing at the bit for an adaption, it takes a lot of work to do that justice, it’s not something you can just throw out.”
The fans of Gaiman’s novel, says McShane “will all have their opinions on how it should be, which is kind of exciting as far as the online social media game. Everybody has their own opinion, which is absolutely fine as long as I don’t have to read it!” Browning laughs and he reiterates. “I don’t! You hear ‘oh, this programme’s terrible’, well why watch it? You’ve got five hundred channels, why don’t you just flip it! Anyway,” he smiles broadly.
As the show has the topical themes mentioned earlier, what do they hope viewers will take away from it?
“It’s a TV show at the end of the day,” allows Whittle, “but as a television show that’s touching sensitive and controversial topics, you want to enlighten, you want to raise awareness. Fortunately this happened before the political climate became very… heated.”
“That’s one way of putting it!” laughs Browning.
“You just hope they have a really entertaining time” Whittle concludes. “The show features a lot of stuff that’s going to speak to a lot of people.”
“But it’s not in your face,” adds McShane. “It’s not a political satire. This is telling a story about people and their individual faith.”
“I don’t think it’s pushing an agenda in any way,” says Browning. “It’s just pushing people to question what it is they worship and what they believe in.”
What does each of their characters worship in the show?
“My character, when she’s alive, doesn’t worship anything.” Browning says. “[Laura] lacks self-awareness but if she were to really go down deep she’d know that she essentially only worships her own contentment, she’s a bit of a narcissist. Once she dies, she realises, ironically, that what she worships in a broader sense, is love, and more specifically, Shadow.”
It’s a funny thought, Browning says, because if she were approached to play a character who worships their husband, her response would automatically be to say piss off. “But I think the way that it comes out for Laura is really interesting, it’s something she’s been fighting against but she realises that she has safety and love and security with this person and that’s what she ends up fighting for.”
“The same for Shadow.” Whittle says. “He lost his mother at an early age, he never knew his father. He’s always been looking for a place to just be, he’s a lost soul. In Laura he finds a home, that’s his everything. When she passes away, he’s lost his world so he’s just looking for somewhere to be. When she comes back, it’s very confusing for him, because…
“She’s decomposing?” offers Browning. Whittle laughs.
Browning continues. “In the book you don’t get to see Laura alive much, but the show goes into her backstory and she’s kind of awful to Shadow. I think she loves him but I don’t think she really knows what love means. She’s very self-absorbed. She meets him when he’s kind of a criminal and she thinks it’s going to be all fun and dangerous.”
Whittle continues, “and then he becomes domesticated and loses that excitement for her. He turns into the perfect man for anyone but Laura – he gives up the life of crime, he’s fixing the house up, he works out at the gym, he has a normal job and he’s just providing and she requires that spark.”
“She gets kind of bored,” says Browning.
Fans are in no danger of that with this series, they all assure me. The finale’s “mind-blowing” says Whittle, and Ian has “a fantastic speech”. A monologue by Orlando Jones, says McShane, is “incredibly powerful, incredibly.” All three start enthusiastically swapping memorable scenes, episodes and lines, talk that quickly becomes so dense with spoilers it can’t be repeated here, at least not yet.
Season one of American Gods, says Whittle, is set to cover around a fifth of the original book, so there’s plenty of scope for further seasons, not to mention the additional material Gaiman has set in the same world. “Neil Gaiman’s writing a sequel,” he starts to list on his fingers, “Anansi Boys is a spin-off, The Monarch Of The Glen’s a spin-off. This show really has a lot of legs to run several seasons.”
It’s a complicated job, they all agree, but very worthwhile. “That’s part of doing a new show,” says McShane, “if it all went smoothly that would be network TV and this certainly isn’t network TV!”
If you’ve seen head-spinning, arresting first episode, you’ll know that you can say that again.
American Gods launched exclusively on Amazon Prime Video on 1st May