American Gods Panel Gets Political at NYCC

Ricky Whittle, Pablo Schreiber, and Yetide Badaki on why American Gods matters.

Anyone who’s seen the first season of American Gods (or has read the Neil Gaiman book it’s based on) knows how important the theme of immigration is to its larger story.

The Starz drama weaves diverse representations of immigration into both its main story of the struggled between the Old Gods and the New Gods, and its “Coming to America” vignettes. It debuted into a post-presidential election TV season, seemingly in conversation with the racist, xenophobic forces emboldened by Trump’s victory.

“It’s an important show, and we were just very fortunate,” series star Ricky Whittle (Shadow Moon) said of the timing at tonight’s New York Comic Con panel. “The book came out in 2001. We wrapped before the inauguration and all the kind of shit hit the fan, to be quite honest. We were just fortunate that we happened to feature all these themes in our show.”

“I think that’s one of the real strengths of the show, to be honest with you,” Pablo Schreiber (Mad Sweeney) added. “We have a story that is about immigration. It’s about all of the different voices and kinds of people that have lent themselves to create this country and make it what it is, and so it’s being told by a number of outsiders — a number of immigrants to this country, people who live here now, without an outsider’s point of view on it. And that’s what’s important about the show. That’s why it is what it is.”

For Yetide Badaki, the Nigerian-born American actress who plays Bilquis, was a big Neil Gaiman and American Gods fan long before being cast in the role of an Old God. Badaki said:

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I was a huge Neil Gaiman fan, partly because of the sci-fi/fantasy element, but also Neil has tied in a whole bunch of issues that were really fascinating to explore and I remember, as a recent immigrant, all of these Old Gods coming to the New World was a fascinating idea for me.

In addition to the exploration of immigration, American Gods delves into other nuanced, underrepresented issues.

“With our show,” said Whittle, “we’re keeping stuff in conversation which needs to be happening. We’re talking about immigration. We’re talking about racism, sexism. We’re talking about homophobia. We’re talking about gay rights. We’re talking about gun control. All of this stuff matters. All of this stuff cannot be normal. We need to be having these conversations every day. And not just having conversations — how about we start making stuff happen?”

Whittle brought up the #TakeAKnee protest, currently making waves in football stadiums across America and beyond.

“I was really inspired yesterday morning,” Whittle said. “I was in the gym, and a soldier was talking to me, and he said, ‘I didn’t put my life on the line for anyone to tell people — free people, never mind the president — what they’re allowed to kneel for in their life.’ It’s not about the flag. It’s not about the anthem. Colin Kaepernick and all these sports stars love America. They love the flag. They love the anthem. It’s never been about that, and we need to focus on what it’s about.”

One fan asked Whittle, who grew up in the U.K., how he got into the mindset of a black American man, as a person of color from another country.

“I know all about racism from growing up, and I was able to draw upon very personal experiences for all those roles,” said Whittle, adding:

“This cracks me up, and this is something that Samuel L. Jackson tried to put out there like this year or last year. He was talking about Daniel [Kaluuya] and Chiwetel [Ejiofor] and all these great [black British] actors who were winning awards for their roles. Apparently, Sam seems to think there’s no racism anywhere else in the world. And maybe I don’t know because it was out of context.”

Whittle spoke briefly about the struggles of growing up as the only black kid in school or as the only English kid in an Irish school.

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Every day was a challenge, every day was a fight. And for people who think that I don’t understand racism because I’m not from America is insane. Unfortunately, it’s everywhere. I would love it if racism was only America and nowhere. I would love it if it was only in the midwest. But it’s, unfortunately, everywhere.

“We seem to think that this stuff’s over … these racist bits,” said Whittle. “They’re important, and we need to keep raising them up.”