On Monday, April 17, 2017, the cast and writers of Starz’s American Gods, adapted from the 2001 novel by Neil Gaiman, met with press to talk about the new television series, the original source material and their roles in bringing Gaiman’s gods to life onscreen. Here is my behind-the-scenes fact guide to American Gods, featuring sneak-peeks, surprises and more from the cast and writers behind the series.
Gaiman was inspired to write American Gods by his own outsider experience in America.
“The main inspiration I suppose was in 1992; August 1992 I moved from England to America and I was a young writer; I’d been visiting America and writing about America … for at least the previous five years and I’d grown up watching American television and American movies so I thought I knew all about America, and then I moved out to rural Wisconsin and discovered incredibly quickly that I knew absolutely nothing about America, that the place I was in was so much weirder than anything I possibly had imagined,” Gaiman said. “That really was the starting point—feeling like a stranger in a strange land.”
… But the idea didn’t fully hit him until a trip he made to Iceland.
“I was in Reykjavik in Iceland, summer of 1999, I was looking at the tabletop diorama of the voyages of Leif Erickson going from Iceland to Greenland and then into Newfoundland and then going back, and I thought, ‘I wonder if they brought their gods with them,’ and then I thought, ‘I wonder if they left their gods behind when they went home,’ and then suddenly I had a novel,” said Gaiman.
American Gods is timeless and more relevant now than ever.
While the source material certainly addresses at its root the idea of immigration and assimilation into American culture, the series expands on that notion, visually representing a series of “Coming to America” vignettes and taking on more stories.
“[Neil Gaiman] was an outsider coming to America himself and learning to navigate its very specific strange waters. Those waters have only flooded further in the intervening years, so the things that were relevant seem prescient but America seems to become more intensely itself in a very disappointing way in the last few months especially. We just wrote about what we were interested in and those things became explosive,” said writer Michael Green.
Writer and creator Bryan Fuller agreed, “Unpacking what it is to be an immigrant, to be an outsider in a new world, to try to adapt to a new way of living and yet remain yourself all felt like really important rich themes to unpack.”
Gaiman has already brought mythology to the screen before in the form of 2007’s Beowulf.
Gaiman co-wrote the 2007 film, based on the classic epic poem of the same name. It was through this movie that Crispin Glover, who appeared in the film as the monster Grendel, was introduced to Gaiman’s work.
… And Ian McShane was also previously acquainted with Gaiman’s work.
McShane appeared as Mr. Bobinsky in the 2009 animated, stop-motion film Coraline, adapted from Gaiman’s fantasy novella of the same name.
The show was filmed in Toronto.
Though it’s a show with the word “American” in its name, and it deals with a particularly American set of values and beliefs, ironically, American Gods was filmed in Toronto, and Bruce Langley, who plays “new god” Technical Boy, was a fan: “Toronto’s beautiful,” Langley said. “We were very fortunate to be there during the summer as well, which is lovely. The people are great. The way I think of it is if London and New York had a really really chilled out kid, it would be Toronto.”
Orlando Jones was part of an online campaign to play Mr. Nancy.
For Jones, the process of getting this role was a bit different than usual. Jones, who was a big fan of Mr. Nancy and the novel before talks about the adaptation even began, said he was “geeked out heavily” and “fan-girling” about the fact that he got to play Mr. Nancy, a character who’s undoubtedly a fan favorite.
According to Jones, “About a year and a half ago, there was a convo online about who should play Mr. Nancy. Neil [Gaiman] was out talking about the book. In the conversation, my name came up and then that got sent to Neil, and then Neil and I became Twitter fans off of fans telling him that I should be Mr. Nancy. So that started almost a year and a half, two years ago, so online there’s been a conversation about me being Mr. Nancy this entire time. So what was weird is that Margery Simkin, who is the casting director for this show… she was the one saying to the creators, ‘It’s Orlando Jones; that’s the person you should go to.’ So both sides collided, but it was weird for me, because I’m like, ‘We’ve been talking about this for two years in fandom. Y’all just showed up to the party?’ but those parties have to meet in order for this to happen.”
Jones requested Mr. Nancy’s colorful costuming.
Those familiar with Gaiman’s Mr. Nancy, both from American Gods and his novel Anansi Boys, know he has a, well, colorful personality to put it kindly. A trickster god from African mythology, Mr. Nancy, or Anansi, has an unforgettable, incendiary (literally incendiary) introduction to the series in episode two. While Mr. Nancy is typically portrayed as a scheming old man, Jones’ Mr. Nancy is young and witty, sly and underhanded, and has a distinctive flair that’s immediately apparent in his costuming.
“I really wanted him to be a king, and purple is such a royal color,” Jones said, “That was really my only request. Our costume designer is extraordinary. My only contribution was African print, something that speaks to the true heritage of it, and also bold. This is not Armani, this is not European, and my hope was that it would not be like that because it would be disingenuous to the character; we felt like we would be homogenizing him, and that was important.”
Pablo Schreiber wasn’t the original Mad Sweeney.
British actor Sean Harris, of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation and The Borgias, was originally set to play the brutish leprechaun Mad Sweeney but had to drop out of the show after a week of filming. Schreiber, perhaps best known as the notorious George “Pornstache” Mendez from Orange Is the New Black, then hit the ground running as the new Mad Sweeney.
“The role was cast originally already, and then they decided to go a different way with it, and so I came on afterward,” Schreiber said. “I was thrown in. My first day was that fight scene and the coin trick scene. So I was thrown into a moving train.”
You might’ve already met a Mad Sweeney in your local hipster bar.
For Schreiber, this Mad Sweeney isn’t purely the talk of myths; this Mad Sweeney is very much of our time, and, in fact, may look familiar to you: “We wanted [Mad Sweeney] to be somebody you could meet quite easily in this country. My thought for him was that he would be quite easily found in Williamsburg or in L.A. or in Echo Park and Silver Lake—that you could go into a hipster bar in any of the major cities in this country and find that guy with that haircut wearing suspenders.”
Mad Sweeney’s getting his own set of adventures in the series.
“I had a lot of freedom…in the sense that Mad Sweeney pops up in the book in two scenes, and then what we’re creating for the T.V. show is really all the time in between those two scenes that you don’t see,” Schreiber said. “So we’re creating a whole new part of the novel that wasn’t written originally.”
Bruce Langley’s Technical Boy is a bit more complicated than your run-of-the-mill villain.
“He’s the effigy and representation of our current relationship with the thing that’s defining the direction of our species our most in history,” Langley said of his Technical Boy. “He’s also the representation of the progress and the things that are changing and what could be possible. Technology is a one-way street; it’s the representation of hope and a better life. It’s that and also the representation of what makes us traditional and human. He is the combination of so many different ideas and he’s amalgamated into one form and he’s forced to interact with humans.”
New technologies are represented in American Gods.
Because technologies have changed since the novel’s original publication in 2001, the series has been adapted to reference and incorporate the new technological advances we’ve seen in the last sixteen years. One of those technical advances is referenced in the very first episode when Technical Boy has a violent meeting with Shadow.
“In the initial episode, they went through many iterations in the script, but I believe they’re being referred to as my ‘children’ now, as they were originally in the book, so the guys who have a slight physical altercation with Shadow in my limo—that is a true representation of bio-synthetic printing,” Langley said.
Look for more of Laura (and other of your favorite female characters).
Fans will be pleasantly surprised to discover that the series expands upon the many different characters in the book, particularly its female characters, whose own stories and backgrounds and complicated character arcs will now be revealed.
“Neil opened a door for us, in that the novel is about Wednesday and Shadow, but a television series is about every character that’s on screen, and this is absolutely an ensemble,” Fuller said. “It also gave us an opportunity to stake a claim in the character, because in the book she’s primarily just a cheating wife, and Bilquis was a whore, so we didn’t want to fall into the female character stereotypes. … We didn’t want the women in the show to be represented in that way so we made a very conscious change and talked about infidelity a lot and we talked about what it is to have as an affair. … We wanted everybody to understand and empathize with the choices she made and go on that journey with her as opposed to just have her be the wife that cheated.”
Gaiman’s also excited to have more of Laura, who will be the “spleen” of the show.
“[Laura]’s probably one of my very favorite characters in the book,” Gaiman said. “I love her attitude, I love how complicated she is, and it’s kind of frustrating that you only get to see her whenever Shadow sees her. So part of the joy was this was we knew going into it that she was going to be a co-star. The fun of television is we don’t have a word count; we don’t have a page count; also it’s very easy to take the camera off Shadow and go and follow somebody else’s story.”
Emily Browning, who plays Laura, was excited to hear about the changes that would be made to the characters as well. Browning recalled her first interaction with Fuller and Green regarding the character: “The first time I met with them, I said to them, ‘If you tell me she’s the heart and soul of the show, I’m leaving. That’s not what I want. I’m so used to people being like, “Well, she’s a small part; she’s the wife, but really she’s the heart and soul of the show.” It’s like no, you can’t fool me with that line again.’ And Bryan and Michael said, ‘No, if we’re talking about body parts, if anything, she’s the spleen.’ It’s like, ‘Great, because I’ve never really gotten to see a woman in a show be the spleen before.’”
Ian McShane was originally offered the role of Czernobog.
Despite the fact that McShane seems to have born to play the role of Mr. Wednesday, he was originally under consideration for the role of Czernobog, a part that ultimately went to the perfectly cast Peter Stormare. “Michael, who did Kings with Ian, called him and said, ‘We wanna offer you this role of Czernobog,’ and he said, ‘Well, that’s interesting, but this Wednesday role is much better,’” Fuller explained. “It wasn’t that he didn’t like Czernobog,” Green added, “It was, ‘Well, this guy Czernobog leaves.’ He said two things: ‘This guy Czernobog, very well-written, but I’m not feeling the burn’ was the actual quote, and I said why and he said, ‘Because he leaves.’”
There will be penises (and blood, but also penises).
Just as the novel has an interesting relationship to sex, so too will the series indulge in depictions of sex that are a few steps outside of the everyday imagination. “We want the show to be very sex-positive,” Fuller said, and Starz—a network known for series such as Spartacus and Outlander—has been supportive of the show’s take on sex outside of the mundane (and severely lacking) white, heterosexual variety.
Fans of the novel may recall two particularly memorable vignettes incorporating mystical sexual experiences: the story of Bilquis and the story of Salim and the Jinn. While Bilquis’ story certainly comes with its own set of particulars, the Salim and Jinn story stands out for its tenderness and its depiction of homosexual sex between two Muslim characters. Those stories are honored in the series—sometimes quite graphically. “The Salim and Jinn scene is pornographic,” Fuller said. “I mean, there are erect penises and there’s penetration and there is a ‘money shot’ as it were, and we wanted those things not to be lurid but beautiful and captivating and for heterosexuals to watch the love scene between these two men and not go, ‘Eww,’ but go, ‘That’s gorgeous, and sexuality is beautiful.’”
The scene did have its challenges, however, as Fuller explained: “Both the actors are straight and the director was straight and we had to shoot it twice, because when we watched the dailies, it was like, ‘OK, unless he has a 12-inch candy cane cock and can fuck around corners, his dick’s not getting in him. So you guys need to go back and figure out where holes are.’”
In general, look for more of Salim and the Jinn.
“Now we get to follow Salim and the Jinn and both of them become a lot more important. Salim’s story continues driving us through season one and the Jinn will become a lot more important in season two,” said Gaiman.
Yetide Badaki had over a decade to prepare for her role of Bilquis.
Of course, Badaki had no idea all those years ago that she would be cast as Bilquis. However, as a self-proclaimed geek and a fan of American Gods, Badaki was already familiar with—and even enthralled by—the character before talks of an onscreen adaptation had even begun.
She said, “I’d already been a huge Neil Gaiman fan for a long time, so when the book came out, I did read it back in 2001, and the first time I came across the [Bilquis] scene, I was like, ‘I don’t know what just happened, but it’s giving me life.’ It was just mind-blowing, and it resonated. I couldn’t quite put words to it at the time. … It was really interesting because it had been how many years had gone by between that initial reaction of ‘OK, something has resonated but I don’t have words for it’ to ‘Now, OK, you’re going to go in a room and audition for this, for the goddess of love. What does this mean to you?’ So I had years for it to marinate, which is not something you always get, and which was an incredible opportunity because then things came to the forefront that I’d never fully seen before.”
The women in American Gods will not be apologizing for their sex.
The series, which has tweaked and expanded roles across the board, will depict its female characters with more complexity and sexual agency—something the show’s female actors found particularly new and refreshing in the world of television and movies: “Often you see something done to us as opposed to someone owning it, and there’s no apologies about it. I found that incredibly freeing,” Badaki said.
Easter has beef with Jesus.
You’d think Easter (Eostre), played by Kristin Chenoweth, would be off fighting with Santa Claus, but in this series, look out for an Easter with a chip on her shoulder—and her beef is with the son of God himself. “She has been around since the beginning and Eostre is now having to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on her special day and she’s a little bitter about it,” Chenoweth said. “She has had to find a way to be accepting and tolerant, politically correct with sharing her day, and that’s what was so fun about playing her. I did scenes with Jesus himself. She’s actually really a complicated woman. I think she had her day and now Wednesday’s inviting her back into a world that she forgot she was great in and in the finale you get to see why she is who she is.”
Speaking of Jesus, he’s in the series too. And there’s several different versions of him.
“One of the things that I think is the most interesting about this part of the show, and especially at the end, is we have a certain way of how we view Jesus, we have a vision of what we’ve been told our whole life that he looks like, but I actually work with 13 Jesuses, and they represent all different walks of life,” Chenoweth said.
Easter is the Miss Congeniality of the old gods.
When trying to understand all of the complicated feelings Easter has about her place in American mythology, Chenoweth framed the question in terms of a bit of old-god competition and pageantry: “What I said to Bryan [Fuller] was, ‘So if there had been a Miss America at the beginning of time, would she had been Miss America?’ He thought about it, and I went, ‘Or would she have lost and been Miss Congeniality?’ and he said, ‘That’s it.’”
Ricky Whittle really did learn coin tricks for the role.
No, he can’t pull a coin out of thin air, but Whittle can certainly do some tricks. “You’ll notice Shadow’s always playing with a coin, and I tried to learn that,” Whittle said. “He’d been doing it for three years in prison, and I wanted to make sure I got that, so for two months, I’d eat my meals and watch T.V., almost getting arthritis trying to make this work.”
Generally, look for the old stuff from the novel along with some new surprises.
According to Fuller, “We’re going to be doing a mix of what’s in the book and also new gods—or new ‘old’ gods to us—that we’re fascinated with their stories and want to see how they manifest and also looking at how legends would manifest and what are the rules of thought-form if you believe in it enough you can manifest in reality, which is the central basis of this show, how does that apply to voodoo priestesses and those types of characters who may not be gods but are worshipped as gods.”
American Gods will premiere on Starz on April 30, 2017.