Ian McShane on ‘ego, hubris and money’ behind the scenes of American Gods

American Gods’ Ian McShane gives his own take on what went on behind the scenes, and why season 2 is going to be better than season 1…

Contains spoilers for American Gods season one.

We’ll never know the exact truth about showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s exit from American Gods, says Ian McShane, because of non-disclosure agreements. “Lawyers were involved, you couldn’t talk about shit,” he tells Den Of Geek.

“I think it’s a lot to do with ego, hubris and money,” he offers, so enjoyably unfazed about any need for silence on his part that this is his answer to a question about costume. (I’d assumed we’d work our way towards American Gods’ behind-the-scenes drama over the course of the interview. McShane has other ideas.)

The news broke that Fuller and Green had left American Gods in November 2017, five months after its first season had aired. The split followed disagreements between the pair and the production company about “what form the show would take” in season two, says McShane. Ego, hubris and money are mentioned again. “Who knows what the hell happened between Fremantle and Michael and Bryan?”

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The industry press seemed to have a fair idea. This article published in September 2018 also outlined delays, frustrations and the apparent sidelining of replacement showrunner Jesse Alexander in season two (the rumour being that a second public firing was deemed too close to admitting production chaos). McShane says he thinks Alexander did a good job, having “to play more of a role as editor” to the existing material than anything else.

The widely cited article caused a ripple. On the promotional circuit, you’d expect American Gods cast-members to feign ignorance or use media-trained dodging to avoid it. Most have, but not McShane. Five minutes into the press screening Q&A, Ricky Whittle is midway through a sweet ode to his co-stars and telling the crowd what a great time and a good giggle they all have, when a voice intones from the back. “Not according to The Hollywood Reporter!” Laughter. Panic. 

Media training and Ian McShane, it’s easy to feel, might not get on. He quickly rights the ship by taking charge and booming, “Aren’t you just glad that we’re back on the fucking air?!” to a round of applause.

McShane was less rocked by the showrunners’ departure than some of the cast, he tells Den Of Geek. “I think a lot of the other actors worried about Michael and Bryan leaving.” He wasn’t beset by panic or hysteria. “People at the time were upset, they were all over the place,” but he took a soberer view. “I’ve been around a little longer, that’s all. Life moves on.”

Filming season two was fine, he says. Calm even. There was no fighting. “It was just the occasional talk about the right… where are we? Because it’s not easy and sometimes Neil [Gaiman, original author and executive producer] wasn’t available because he was doing his own show in Good Omens.”

With five decades of acting experience, McShane isn’t averse to just getting on with the job. The same goes for co-star Cloris Leachman (who plays Slavic goddess Zorya Vechernyaya, a sometime paramour of Mr Wednesday), who outstrips even his enviably long career by twenty years. “I love Cloris. She’s fantastic, she really is. She’s wicked on set.” He hoots when he remembers “a director actually tried to direct her! I said, “Er, no, just let Cloris and I talk about it because you know, she’s 91 years old, give me a break.”

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In TV work, McShane appreciates it if directors can stay largely out of his way. “Well, you know the character you’re playing. Unless they’ve got something to really offer that’s different. Mostly you say yeah, you know what you’re doing so it saves a lot of time. But it’s a different thing, directors aren’t coming in to do their film, they’re coming in to do a show which has a look and which must have a certain continuity about it, but a quirkiness to it.”

McShane suddenly interrupts himself to give his verdict on the new episodes of American Gods. “I think season two actually is better than season one. I think you get back to the book more.” It’s a verdict he repeats at the Q&A, and, you suspect, in every interview he gives today.

There was “some tremendous stuff” in the first season, he explains, “but it got a little too far…” he tails off. “We brought it back at the end with the announcement [that his character Mr Wednesday is the Norse god Odin]. You have to have a big finish.”

Listing season one’s flashback diversions from the central story of ex-con Shadow Moon and Mr Wednesday’s god-recruiting road trip across America, McShane builds an impression that season one was too divergent, too scattered. “We had the episode of going back to give the backstory of Shadow and Laura, and then you did the backstory of Essie McGowan, the Irish thing… I said you’ve got to give the audience something, because otherwise they won’t watch the show. The audience can only be teased so far until they want something back.”

Season one’s big finish with the Odin announcement, “some great visuals and some earth-shaking shit,” was more like it, says McShane. Hewing closer both to the book and to the show’s existing characters, he argues, serves the show better than wildly diverging.  

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In season two, he says, “You meet the gods more. You get to know about [Consulting Producer on season two, Orlando Jones’ character] Mr Nancy more. You get to know more about Ibis and the Jinn. People like the Jinn! They like Omid’s character, they want to know more about Bilquis…”

“I don’t think it could have kept bringing in new characters. You’ve got to find out more about the characters you’ve got. When I did Deadwood again—I just finished a film of Deadwood, just before Christmas—and that’s one thing that [creator, David] Milch did with characters. He never short-changed characters in the show.”

American Gods’ new deities, manifestations of modernity such as Media and Technology led by Crispin Glover’s Mr World, says McShane, “were a little short-changed” in season one. He had these discussions behind-the-scenes, proven by his executive producer credit on season two. “Well, I had a lot to do in the first season, I just didn’t have it up on the screen.”

It’s key, he says, for American Gods never to lose sight of Shadow’s story. That’s why McShane felt firmly that the season two opener should pick up just where season one had left off. “It seemed logical if you’ve been away that long, not to jump into another world but to check in a few hours later.”

Ricky Whittle’s character, he suggests, was in need of a shake-up. “You can’t keep him as passive as you did in series one, he’s got to move forward and feel as if he’s in a little more control of his own life than he’s just going along, like his name – Shadow. No, he’ll move forward because that’s what the character needs to do.”

Season two was a matter of “going back to the book, advancing the story,” he concludes. “There’s a visual style which we have kept to but script-wise we’ve gone back to the book, expanded the characters that you know of, expanded the story.” Expanded, while keeping the themes the same. “It’s still about immigration, it’s about integration, it’s about faith, it’s about love, about people getting on with their lives in an extraordinary way.”

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And in season two, it’s about war. “Wednesday’s trying to stir [the gods] up into a war – do they want a war? We don’t know yet! There’s a longer game being played here because all is not as it seems anyway. It’s all in Wednesday, it’s going on. He’s as capricious as everybody else.”

American Gods season two starts on Amazon Prime Video on Monday the 11th of March.