While the biggest genre TV shows of the last few years—The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones—dominated Hall H at San Diego Comic-Con this Friday, there was a powerful stirring of a new player upstairs in Ballroom 6. The cast and creative team behind Starz’s new show, American Gods, gathered to give fans a sneak peak of what’s to come when the series—based on the classic fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman—debuts in 2017. We caught up with the cast at a Starz-hosted event later in the evening to get some even greater insight into the complex adaptation, but first, here’s some spoiler-free information.
Gaiman’s novel follows an ex-con named Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) as he navigates a world populated by gods of the old world and the newly-formed ones of the modern age. The old are led—in a way—by Ian McShane’s Mr. Wednesday, and the first season will largely focus on his and Shadow’s road trip across America. News from the panel, which has already spread far and wide among American Gods fans, included both the casting announcement of Kristen Chenoweth as Easter/Ēostre—a Germanic goddess of fertility—and the debut of the first footage from the series.
The panel—which also featured executive producers Bryan Fuller, Michael Green, director David Slade, and Gaiman himself—was expertly moderated by Gaiman aficionado Yvette Nicole Brown and was enough to assure fans of the book that this adaptation is in the capable hands of people who love the source material. But as Fuller also pointed out, he isn’t the kind of show runner who is likely to be precious with source material. His inventive approach to adapting Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lector novels for NBC yielded what Fuller refers to as a kind of “fan fiction” version of Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal.
And Fuller has even less published material to work with here. American Gods is just one novel (albeit a lengthy one), and while Gaiman has written a few supplemental pieces (the spin-off novel Anansi Boys and the sequel novella The Monarch of the Glen), fans of the original book have been curious how, exactly, the tale of Shadow and Mr. Wednesday will stretch into a multiple-season series. Gaiman himself—who is very involved in the production—has said that the first season of the Starz series only deals with one third of the book, and it’s evident Fuller and Green are expanding the story to fill out multiple (at least three) seasons of the show.
In other words, unlike most adaptations, readers won’t have to worry about what’s missing. Instead, they can get excited for what’s been added (with Gaiman’s approval). During the panel the author outlined an American Gods chapter about a U.S. Japanese Internment camp featuring kitsune (Japanese fox spirits) that never made it into the novel. Gaiman off-handedly remarked that something like that could be an episode of the series, and the creators—sounding a bit more serious—urged the author to write them that episode for Season 2. On top of all that potential for extra material, Gaiman also told the Comic-Con audience to expect the long-gestating book sequel to American Gods to finally become a reality…soon.
Later in the evening, the cast of American Gods had even more information to share about how this series will grow and swell to keep the world Gaiman created 15 years ago going for several years on Starz, as well as how they hope to pull off some of the show’s strangest scenes. If you haven’t read the book yet (and what are you waiting for?), warning: here be spoilers.
SPOILERS FROM HERE
Are they gone yet? Good.
THE KING OF COINS
We’re going to start off slow with something that’s not really a spoiler, just in case. In the books, much is made of Shadow’s fondness for coin tricks. It’s not just a character quirk—it’s part of the plot. So Whittle says he spent the two months between when he was hired and when shooting started working on coin tricks through a combination of serious YouTube study and work with a magician that Starz flew out to consult with Whittle. Whittle demonstrated a few tricks for us with a coin he pulled from his pocket—and when things didn’t go as smoothly as he hoped, he said he had to warm the metal up. “The thing is, when you start off with a coin, it starts off cold. It slides off your fingers. Then it warms up and runs smooth. Then it gets too warm and then it sticks. So there’s a sweet spot you have to find.” Does Ricky Whittle have a coin warmer on set at all times, ready to hand him a coin that’s the perfect temperature? You bet he does.
A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD
And speaking of coins: a special golden one that Shadow gets from the (very tall) leprechaun Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) is instrumental in bringing his wife Laura (Emily Browning) back from the dead. Though Sweeney only get two or so chapters in the novel, Schreiber—who will be familiar to TV viewers from his work on Orange is the New Black and The Wire—says his part is considerably expanded in the show. As Gaiman pointed out during the panel earlier in the day, the book is largely told from Shadow’s perspective. It’s rare that we get to see what happens when he’s not physically there. The show doesn’t have that constraint and, according to Schreiber, while Mr. Wednesday and Shadow are on their road trip, Laura and Mad Sweeney go on a trip of their own. “He wants that coin back from her,” Schreiber explains of their unlikely partnership.
SPREADING SOME JOY
Another character with a significantly expanded role is Bilquis, played by Yetide Badaki. The Eastern goddess of erotic love only has two (albeit eye-popping) scenes in the novel, but Badaki—who is a longtime, masssive Gaiman fan—excitedly talked about her involvement in the plot. Her role will move the character out of the periphery and into the heart of the story. But just because Bilquis has more to do, don’t think she won’t be doing that one thing that made her character so memorable in the book. The character will, yes, consume a man whole through her vagina as part of an act of worship. In fact, that’s probably what we’re seeing her do in the trailer footage. During the panel, Whittle joked that they had nicknamed Badaki’s nether regions “Joy.” When I got technical and asked her if the nickname was required because there was some kind of prosthetic involved in the scene, Badaki said, “No prosthetic. I think that you start to envision it in your mind, but I don’t think you see Joy—as far as I know.”
CASTING A LARGE SHADOW
But Bilquis isn’t the only one with a racy sex scene (if we even want to call it that) in Season 1. This is cable TV, after all. Whittle said that his craziest day of shooting so far involved an intimate sequence with co-star Emily Browning, where he had to strip down farther than he ever did for his beefcake role on The 100. (If it looks like there’s a little more beefcake to go around, that’s because the lean actor gained nearly 30 pounds to play Shadow—a big guy whose been spending his days pumping iron in jail.) As for the sex scene between Shadow and his possibly undead wife, Whittle said, “It’s a little more than my mom and dad want to see. Sixty seconds doesn’t seem like long. But when you’re dry humping a friend of yours. . naked…in front of a crew… it’s a long sixty seconds.” Whittle says shooting that day was even harder than the one Shadow has to spend hanging from a tree. “I go home very frustrated, when there is a beautiful woman you respect and you are so professional during a day of love making, and you go home to an empty apartment. I mean, you know, you break out the candles, open up some wine, take a nice bath, you treat yourself good.”
But when asked if he had shot Shadow’s sex scene with the feline Egyptian goddess Bastet yet, Whittle laughed: “You gotta save the cat sex for Season 2.” Though Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes) and Mr. Jaquel (Chris Obi) have been cast, Bastet, Horus, and Cairo, IL will all have to wait until next year. And when they arrive, rest assured that the casting will be ethnically accurate. Gaiman said the only adaptation element he was a stickler about was the racial make-up of the cast, and Fuller added that he didn’t want any credit for not whitewashing characters like Shadow, Bilquis, or Mr. Anansi (Orlando Jones). “That’s baseline in any adaptation.”
COMING TO AMERICA
Interspersed among the main Shadow and Mr. Wednesday plot of the novel are several “Coming to America” scenes that explain how the gods of the old world got to American via the faith and dreams of immigrants. Set in various time periods and exploring several different kinds of immigrant experiences, the interludes are disconnected from the main story and—if Fuller and Green were so inclined—could be cut out entirely without undermining the plot. But they won’t be cut out. Omid Abtahihas been cast as Salim, the gay, Muslim man from Oman who gets tricked into a life of driving a taxi by a flame-eyed Ifrit (an Arabian jinn). You can see an Ifrit pass Shadow in the trailer, which means Salim’s tragic story could also intersect—at least fleetingly—with the main plot.
“A WALKING DEAD SITUATION”
Schreiber explains that because he was brought in a month or two after American Gods had begun production—he replaced British actor Sean Harris as Mad Sweeney—there were a few growing pains as he was folded into the cast. The wig he’s wearing is a modified version of the one Harris wore which, according to Schreiber, looked awful on him. “As soon as we cut off the sides and turned it into a mohawk, it worked.” Schreiber said his take on the character would be at home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the hipster capital of the world. But Schreiber—who is American—wouldn’t say whether or not he attempted an Irish accent in the show. (“I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” was his jovial threat.)
Sweeney in the books certainly doesn’t have to have an Irish accent, but he does—MAJOR SPOILER ALERT, SERIOUSLY—have to die. But according to Schreiber, if death is ever coming for the TV version of Mad Sweeney, it won’t be anytime soon. As far as he knows, his part is significant in both Seasons 1 and 2—and if he does eventually die, that won’t necessarily mean leaving the show altogether. Schreiber says Neil Gaiman outlined a resurrection possibility that he described as a “Walking Dead situation”—which doesn’t actually conflict with what happens to Sweeney after he dies in American Gods. It’s all part of the plan to keep this world alive (or undead?) on Starz for as long as audiences want to tune in.
Actor Ricky Whittle, writer Neil Gaiman, actors Bruce Langley, Yetide Badaki, writers Michael Green, Bryan Fuller and actor Pablo Schreiberattends Entertainment Weekly’s Comic-Con Bash held at Float, Hard Rock Hotel San Diego on July 23, 2016 in San Diego, California sponsored by HBO.