American Gods' Ricky Whittle Talks 'Rock Star' Gaiman, Adapting Shadow

Ancient gods walk among mortal men in Starz’s acclaimed TV series, American Gods. Based on the novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman, American Gods follows Shadow (Ricky Whittle), a convict released from prison early after his wife, Laura (Emily Browning), perishes in a car accident. Mourning, and with no clear direction in life, Shadow accepts a bodyguard job for the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). However, as Shadow and Wednesday embark on a road trip across the States to visit Wednesday’s eccentric colleagues and acquaintances, it soon becomes clear that nothing is as it seems. Shadow begins to question his very sanity, especially when Laura pops in for a visit.

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Ahead of this week’s episode, “Lemon Scented You,” Whittle spoke with CBR about Shadow’s state of mind, reuniting with his deceased wife, his character’s journey and the series getting an early Season 2 renewal.

CBR: Congrats on American Gods' success and Season 2 renewal. How does it feel to be on such a buzz-worthy show?

Ricky Whittle: We knew from the beginning it was an honor to be a part of this because of the rock star Neil Gaiman is. It doesn’t guarantee success. You can pump out famous books and famous adaptations, but never be guaranteed it’s going to work. But, when Neil Gaiman is flanked by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green – Michael Green has come up with my favorite film this year, Logan – this guy is a genius. He’s incredible. You add Bryan Fuller to that, with the mind of Neil Gaiman and his words, and, all of a sudden you have something that is potentially going to be special.

Then you start adding the cast, which I keep saying is the best ensemble cast I’ve seen on TV in one season. Most networks would kill to have that on their whole TV slate. We have it in the first season. That’s incredible. You can’t really go wrong with that kind of concoction. The fact it’s garnered the acclaim and the reviews has been so great. I kind of expected that.

For me, it was the fans’ reaction. The critics will always look at the details and see how it’s beautifully shot and how the acting is. But, they say that about everything because there is so much great TV out there. I love TV and could watch it all day. But, it’s when fans see something that has been going in in their minds for 16 years and turn around and say, “Your Shadow is perfect. He’s even better than the book.” In the book, he’s very blasé and passive and accepts a lot of the fantastical things going on in his mind and in front of him. He’s very neutral, whereas the Shadow in the TV show – I worked with Bryan Fuller and Michael Green to bring this character a bit more off the page, to make him more vocal and give him more anxiety and fear and intensity. Fans have really reacted very positively to that because they could have chewed us up and said, “You ruined the book. You’ve ruined my favorite character.”

When I was first cast, people were judging on appearances. So, if they don’t know me, they are like, “Oh my God. That was great. You are exactly like in the book,” which is a strange and wonderful thing. But, they would always finish the tweets with, “Don’t fuck it up.” Oh, wow. There’s some pressure. But, they’ve reacted and said, “You are perfect as Shadow.” As the episodes have gone on, they are responding really positively. For me, that’s the greatest thing.

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Shadow witnesses a lot of trippy stuff. How does he justify what he sees?

His struggle, as an intelligent man, is to always go to the logical answer. By design, Bryan and Michael have changed the timeline and stopped Shadow from believing so soon. They felt we lose a bit of friction between Shadow and Wednesday. With Shadow staying cynical and not believing until further down the line, it creates more of a journey and struggle for him to believe what’s in front of his eyes. As an intelligent man, he thinks he was high in the limo when he saw Technical Boy, because he was smoking something and it was probably a passive high. Did he really imagine this? Is this really happening? Or, is he having what he read about, where ex-cons are released from prison and go a little bit crazy. It’s much easier to believe his mind is going rather than the fact that everything in front of him is real. If you look inside yourself, would you believe that your wife is back from the dead?

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Shadow’s deceased wife, Laura, shows up in his hotel room. What is running through his mind?

How do you deal with it? Is she dead or is she alive? What happened? Are you a zombie? Are you a ghost? Can I touch you? Will my hand go through you? These are all things that will be going through Shadow’s mind. It’s actually one of my favorite scenes, is when the two actually get to speak. This is the one thing he loved in his life, was his wife Laura. He lost his mother when he was young. He never knew his father, so he traveled. The only thing he found was Laura. That was Shadow’s only home. That was the only thing he believed in, was love. So, when this turns up in front of you, you are questioning everything, but you also want to know what happened. You found out she was having an affair with your best friend. All of a sudden, this perfect image of the one thing you love in the world is shattered. You want to know answers. I love the fact that he wants to know and he asks her. In the book, he’s very blasé and doesn’t ask Laura many questions, which is one part where I pull my hair out. You’d want to know everything. Fortunately, Shadow is straight in there going, “So…. Robbie.” You kind of bypass the “Are you dead? Are you a zombie?” It’s like, “So, my best friend. I was in prison.” I love the realism about that. You forget that one person is dead. The one thing I love is people who don’t even like fantasy or sci-fi can watch this show because it’s so grounded and you are just watching a beautiful moment. You forget one is quite possibly dead.

What’s the turning point where Shadow starts buying into the notion of gods roaming the Earth?

I think when he meets the youngest Zorya sister in episode 3 was a big turning point for him. He was just going along with what Wednesday says. For him, Mr. Wednesday is just a crazy old man, who just rambles on about other things. If you watch Shadow’s face, he’s constantly engaged and thinking, “This guy is an idiot. This guy is crazy. I wish this guy would shut up. He talks too much. Then, wait a second. What did you just say? Are you a dirty old man or are you real?” There are so many different things going through his mind. But, at the end of the day, he’s just a crazy old man who talks a lot to Shadow.

Then, you have this young innocent girl on a rooftop, one of the Zorya sisters, with hundreds of telescopes. I think that opens Shadows’ eyes that something else is out there. She, too, knows more about Shadow than Shadow knows about himself. Now, he keeps getting edged away slowly by different characters. The more people he meets that are part of their world, that doubt is going to be edged away a little bit more, allowing him to slowly start to believe what’s in front of him and he’s not going crazy and there is magic and gods out there. This journey is more of an awakening. It’s always been in front of him, but he’s had his eyes closed.

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Right now, Shadow seems like he’s just along for the ride. What is his journey this season?

His big journey is cynic to believer. That is essentially his journey right now. The fantastical elements are piling up. There is only so far you can go with all this evidence in front of him before you have to make a decision. As Wednesday put it, “Is he mad or is the world mad?” That’s a frightening place to be. If you feel your mind is unraveling and that’s something you can’t control, how do you come back from that? When we get physically injured, you go see a doctor who can fix that. For somebody to lose their mind, it’s a scary place to be. It’s an easier option to take than believe there’s magic and gods walking among us. Hopefully, Shadow figures it out sooner than later.

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