Adapting a book as dense with metaphor and thick with plot as Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” series creators and show runners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green had some intense challenges ahead of them. There was a rich story of mythic figures, which will reportedly be divided into three seasons (if ratings are good enough). There was a cast to pull together that would not only stay true to the book’s descriptions, but also bring life to larger-than-life deities. And there was the challenge of unpacking a beloved novel that questions the very identity of America through a tale of immigrants and native-born inhabitants.
“American Gods” follows a mixed-race ex-con named Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), whose plan to return to a settled small town life is cruelly disrupted by a freak accident and a fateful run-in with a mysterious figure who calls himself Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). The two set off on a strange road trip, and an epic quest to unite the old gods — like ravenous sex goddess Bilquis and the lucky leprechaun Mad Sweeney — in a winner-take-all battle with the new gods, like the TV-inhabiting Media and the frog-vaping Technical Boy.
When CBR sat down with Green and Fuller in New York, we enjoyed a long, and spoiler-rich conversation about the show’s first four episodes, which we’ll roll out in pieces over the coming weeks. Ahead of “American Gods'” television premiere on Starz this weekend, we’re focusing on the show’s creation, intent and how this talented twosome–who’ve created “Logan” and “Hannibal” respectively — avoided one of Hollywood’s most damning traditions.
I kicked off our conversation asking how the daring new series will speak to the an America at war with itself over its identity. Fuller replied, “What is so interesting about and prescient about what Neil wrote, is that there’s something very relatable now to his story, the battle of old ideas versus new ideas is something I think this country is always going to struggle with. And there’s no better delivery mechanism for ideas than fable. So what he has created is this wonderful tale that we can draw many comparisons to how people operate and the kind of primal, tribal instincts of how our brains function in choosing a side, in choosing an identity. And that felt like it was central to Neil’s story and it is central to life in America right now.”
While studios and producers have repeatedly earned the ire of the internet and fans over whitewashing roles for films like “Gods of Egypt,” “Doctor Strange,” and “Ghost In The Shell,” Green and Fuller dodged that bullet by following the book. Fuller described casting racially appropriately to Gaiman’s source material as “liberating.” While Green expanded, explaining that sometimes whitewashing isn’t even a studio note, but an assumed one.
“Neither of us have ever been personally asked to whitewash something,” Green said. “You sometimes see it in casting, where there’s a sort of pre-editing people do, because they think that’s what’s going to be asked of them. And it’s not necessarily the case. With production in this show, it’s actually quite liberating to tell all of your artists that you’re bringing in, ‘Hey. The first ideas that you throw away because you think that someone in charge is going to tell you, ‘Well we can’t do that.’ We want to do that. We want to do the best version of everything.'”
“The same is true with casting,” he continued. “How can we be as top shelf as possible so we can bring to life these characters in the most real, most engaging way? And much of that has to do with the racial diversity and make-up of your show. If a character is meant to a representation of the melting pot of America, and is specifically described as of undetermined mixed race, then you lose something very integral to the story by not doing that. We actually had debates. What if we cast a character who was Black, as opposed to mixed race? It would be more true to the source material, but in a way it changes things because there isn’t a debate about their identity to be had.”
Fuller concurred, “So much about the casting of a mixed-race man for Shadow Moon was vital and central too the metaphor of America as a melting pot. It’s exciting for us to not have to be color-blind in the casting, because so much of the casting process there is a political correctness in wanting to make sure everybody has an equal opportunity to play a role. But what was wonderful about casting “American Gods,” we weren’t color-blind. We were very color-aware and we wanted to make sure those colors were represented accurately to the characters in the book. So that was a guiding post that we just didn’t deviate from because it would be counter to the tale we were telling.”
But even color-aware casting has gotten trickier. Recently, the acclaimed Jordan Peele horror movie “Get Out” found an unexpected detractor in Samuel L. Jackson, who took issue with the casting of British actor Daniel Kaluuya as a Black American in a film that deals so heavily with racial conflict in contemporary America.”I tend to wonder what would that movie have been with an American brother [in the lead],” Jackson said on New York’s Hot 97, “Who really understands that in a way. Because Daniel grew up in a country where, you know, they’ve been interracially dating for a hundred years . . . So what would a brother from America have made of that role?”
As “American Gods” has British performer Ricky Whittle starring as American everyman Shadow Moon, we asked Green and Fuller their thoughts on this issue. Green was quick to refer us to Whittle himself, but as we didn’t have the opportunity to speak with the actor, he gamely agreed to “paraphrase him terribly,” saying, “(Ricky) has some choice words to say about Samuel L. Jackson’s presumption of his experience. England has a very complicated relationship with race just the same but different. I’ll leave it at that.”
“It brings up an interesting issues of cultural appropriation from a completely different angle,” Fuller added, “Which was the Black experience in the UK is different from the Black experience in the US. But it is underselling the artist’s ability to transcend those divides and create an authentic performance. Which in “Get Out,” Daniel Kaluuya was amazing. I get the points of both sides. But ultimately you’re talking about an artist creating a performance that they didn’t experience. So it gets tricky when you start to quantify the value of someone’s experience in those situations.”
The pair also teased how some characters who have brief appearances in the book will get greater representation in the series. Speaking specifically of Mad Sweeney, Media, and Bilquis, Green shared, “They were wonderful characters that come on so strong in the book. Then the book continues on primarily in Wednesday and Shadow’s perspectives. We wanted to see where they went. We didn’t want to say goodbye to anyone too quickly. We want to keep on doing this for a long time. Plus, once you see those roles inhabited by people like Pablo Schreiber, Gillian Anderson, and Yetide Badaki, you want to see them do more. It’s also once you see the humanity brought into the gods, you can start to see very human desired underneath which suggest longer term arcs that we want to see happen. I mean, Mad Sweeney’s lost a coin that is the source of all the good fortune and getting by that he’s used to for the last several hundred years–or arguably thousands of years–on Earth. With that taken away, he’s got a new set of circumstances that suggest a lot of great story for us.”
“American Gods” boasts diversity in front of the camera with cast members like Whittle, Anderson, Badaki, Mousa Kraish as the unnamed Jinn, and Orlando Jones as righteously vengeful Mr. Nancy (more on him to come!). However, behind the camera it’s a very different story. Season one’s writers and directors are all male, and most are white, including Green, Fuller, Gaiman, and helmers David Slade, Craig Zobel, Adam Kane, and Vincenzo Natali, while Guillermo Navarro is Mexican. Meaning the melting pot vibe doesn’t currently extend to the film’s key decision-makers. Green and Fuller admitted this is an area they hope to improve in season two.
Fuller began, saying, “I think because this show is representing the melting pot, the production behind the scenes and in front of the camera have to reflect that as well. We’re always looking for non-white writers and non-white directors.”
“Yes. It’s a goal, something we’re looking to,” Green concurred, “Something we’re always aware of. We’re not there yet.”
Fuller mused, “It’s interesting because of what’s happening now that there are all sorts of diversity programs specifically to increase awareness of non-white, non-male artists in the industry. Those institutions are relatively new. It you were a non-white writer in Hollywood, and you’ve been doing this for a while, chances are that you’ve got a job, and you’re not available. So the younger writers who are a part of the diversity programs are generally very green. It is about bringing people in, and helping them get further along. We’re now in the seeding stage of more inclusivity, and it’s going to take a little while before those seeds bare fruit. But you’ve got to start laying those seeds down.”
“And you have to provide the soil at some level,” Green interjected.
Fuller rejoined with a laugh, “And the bullshit for fertilizer!”
With a smile, Green concluded, “Of that we have an endless supply!”
“American Gods” premiers on Starz Sunday April 30th.