“You know how every show says it’s groundbreaking, it’s game-changing? Well, this one actually might be,” star Ian McShane said of American Gods. As co-lead of Deadwood, and with appearances on Game of Thrones, Ray Donovan and American Horror Story under his belt, he knows a thing or two about innovative television. The British actor was on the Starz panel at Deadline’s The Contenders Emmys event Sunday to discuss his part as the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday in the new series adapted from Neil Gaiman’s contemporary 2001 fantasy novel by showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green
Debuting on Sunday, April 30, American Gods posits a world in which the old gods are being replaced by new gods, with the ancient mythological deities of days gone by fearing irrelevance as their believers either die off or are seduced by the money, technology and celebrity offered by their younger rivals. The show stars fellow Brit Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon, an ex-con who, left adrift by the recent death of his wife, becomes bodyguard and traveling partner to McShane’s con man. But in truth, Mr. Wednesday is a powerful old deity, on a cross-country mission to reclaim his lost glory.
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Whittle admitted that taking on a cult novel was no easy task. “It came with great pressure,” he said. “Sixteen years’ worth of fandom craving an adaptation, so you felt the pressure to deliver what they have imagined. But everyone’s imagination is limitless, budgetless and individual, so we had to come as close as we could get.” Nevertheless, he insisted that the series is not a slavish imitation. “I started reading the book,” said Whittle, “and that’s when Bryan and Michael stopped me. They said, ‘Look, we’re not re-creating the book.’ In the book, Shadow Moon is stoic, and internal monologue is abundant. You don’t want to watch a man think every week, so we had to create more layers. He’s more vocal, asks more questions.”
McShane acknowledged that the role was a challenge for Whittle. “Ricky’s got the most difficult part,” he said, “because Shadow Moon is the eyes of the audience — they see the story through him. So he’s not a proactive character. But we found a way of making it into a buddy road movie, which it is, in a sense, for the first three episodes. Then you find out after reveal upon reveal upon reveal.” He paused. “The problem with talking about this show is that you’ve got to see it as it’s being revealed. Nothing is as it seems — ever.”
In addition to McShane and Whittle, the stellar cast includes Crispin Glover, Orlando Jones and Gillian Anderson, who appears as new god Media — an acknowledgment of the explosion in social media tools in the 16 years since Gaiman’s book appeared. “We kind of hybridized media and fame into one character,” explained Fuller, “so whenever Media manifests, she manifests as a famous dead person that has contributed greatly to the artistic landscape. So we have her as David Bowie and Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland. And the thing that surprised us about Gillian is that not only is she a wonderful mimic, she’s so willing to transform for a role. When she did Marilyn Monroe, we were gobsmacked by how dedicated she was in bringing that character to life.”
The themes of the novel, in which age-old traditions suddenly are threatened with extinction, seem especially relevant in these turbulent times, though McShane insisted, “It’s not a political show — it just happens that we made it and things happened in this country.” Instead, the creators saw it as being timeless. “I think, first and foremost, it’s a wonderful platform to talk about faith and belief and where we put our energies in this country” Fuller said, “and all those themes are really exciting. Then you look at the fantastic characters – gods and mortals – and it is a vast toy box that continues to be able to be unpacked.”
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