I’m not ashamed to admit that I was first attracted to American Gods because of the insanely attractive male lead Shadow Moon, played by British actor Ricky Whittle. It was later that I discovered that it’s actually based on an award-winning novel by Neil Gaiman and tackles important issues like immigration, racism and more. May be I should be a little ashamed.
Now that we’re all confessing things we’re embarrassed about, here’s another one. The only reason I knew who Neil Gaiman was, is because of the Doctor Who episode he wrote for series six, in which the Eleventh Doctor discovers a woman on a strange planet who contained the spirit of the TARDIS. It’s then revealed that the woman’s name is ‘Sexy’ because that’s what the Doctor actually calls his time machine. (It might not sound like much, but it’s actually one of the best Doctor Who episodes by far).
The story focuses on ex con Shadow Moon who has just been released from prison, following the tragic death of his wife. He meets a man called Wednesday who offers him a job as his bodyguard, which Shadow takes. Wednesday appears to be a con-man at first but it’s revealed that he’s actually Odin. Wednesday is on a journey to band together the Old Gods, who have incorporated themselves in the American life, to confront the New Gods (media and technology) who are becoming more powerful and might threaten their existence.
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Like me, the aforementioned insanely attractive Ricky Whittle did not know about the source material before taking on the role. “I did know Neil Gaiman through Stardust, but didn’t know that he was the author (of American Gods),” says Whittle, who you might know from The 100, where his fan-favourite character Lincoln was unexpectedly killed off. Whittle’s association with the book and the show started when his fans began tweeting at him and created a hashtag to campaign his casting as Shadow Moon in the book’s TV adaptation that had just been announced.
In my experience as a rabid fan, I know how vicious we can get if the adaptation doesn’t do justice to the literature we hold dear. Whittle is aware of the pressure of expectations, “Fans have waited for an adaptation for 16 years. The last thing they want is for you to ruin their beloved book. So we very much hold the responsibility to stay true to the book, in every possible way.” So far the response to the casting announcements and previews has been positive, a fact that Whittle notes, adding, “The great thing about the TV show is that we’re able to flesh out the story line and characters that are only sporadic and mentioned once or twice in the book. For instance, when Mad Sweeney (played by Orange is the New Black star Pablo Schreiber) comes only twice in the book (in the beginning and the end), but with the show you’ll be able to see where he’s been in between and follow his journey.” For the fans who feel they’ll have no surprises to look forward to in the show, Whittle says, “They’ll think that they know the story but they don’t. Like I said before, we’ve fleshed out the show with a lot more content. They’ll know the main premise (because of the book) but we’re adding so much more and so many fresh characters that the hardcore American Gods fans will don’t know what’s going to happen next. Showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have changed the timeline around so things will jump around and it’s going to be exciting for them to see where the show is going.”
With the expectations of book fans, and people who are just looking for a good television show to binge watch, trained on the show and its cast, Whittle faced the added pressure of ‘becoming’ Shadow Moon. In the books, Shadow is described as an intimidating figure, gigantic in proportion, and while Whittle can, in no way, be described as ‘little’ (see what I did there? Whittle…little? No? Ok).
Whittle saw it as his responsibility to go insane with pizzas and burgers to put on the requisite bulk for the character. “Physically, Shadow was described as big and scary-looking enough to survive prison. So I started my responsibility to move from my 175 pounds, to an intimidating mass on the show that Shadow is. Shadow finally topped out at just over 210 pounds. I put on 35 pounds of weight by eating 4,000 calories a day, training for 4 hours every day. It was a real struggle but Shadow Moon is like a mountain.”
Rigorous training at the gym and binge-eating were not the only struggles Whittle had to face when it came to prepping for the role. In the book, Shadow is adept at sleight of hand magic tricks with coins. His vehement ‘No’ when I ask if any of it was CGI gave me my answer. “My day consisted of eating all day, training for four hours and then learning magic with a magician as well as learning my lines with my acting coach. So I had to learn all my coin tricks for real.”
A thing that most critics have been looking forward to seeing is the portrayal of Shadow’s internal dialogue, and he has a LOT, and how it’s going to be translated on screen. “Shadow in the book is very internal and thinks a lot and Gaiman writes these incredibly beautiful moments that showcase Shadow’s thought process about a certain situation or a moment that he is experiencing then. In the TV show, Shadow isn’t speaking in those moments and there is no voice over, so I have to portray all the internal dialogue written by Gaiman with just a look. It was all about mannerisms and what’s going on behind the eyes.”
It’s true that, despite the show being almost surrealistic in nature, there are underlying themes that even people who don’t like this genre would relate to and enjoy. “These are extraordinary characters set in ordinary situations. It’s set in modern day and they have real world problems,” says Whittle, adding that there’s something for everybody, whether it’s his and Laura’s relationship or the buddy-buddy road story with Wednesday and Shadow’s trip across America.
Knowing the background of the story and watching the previews, I figured that you need a solid base of understanding mythological figures like Odin and their tales to follow the show. Despite my many viewings of Thor (for the story, you guys), I felt wary of the pre–established mythology that I’d have to contend with. It appears intimidatingly complex, but Whittle is quick to assure me that I’ll be well taken care of. “People who haven’t read the book will just have their minds blown with an amazing show. We enter the show through Shadow’s eyes and he doesn’t know what’s going on either, like the audience. You might be a little confused in the beginning, but as Shadow learns so will you.”
We couldn’t talk about themes like racism and immigration without mentioning the orange elephant in the room. Whittle stresses on the relevance of a show like this, with invariable political themes and an ethnically diverse cast, in the current environment, “All eyes are on America, with the heated climate and Trump making all these accusations left, right and center,” he says, “America is an incredible country because it’s a melting pot. Unless you’re native to America, we’re all immigrants. The President himself is an immigrant. Even his wife is one. It’s what made America great, immigrants coming to the land and bringing their beautiful cultures with them.”
While the show may raise discussion about the issue, it was not intended to take a political stand, “We’re not taking sides in the show or answering questions. We’re just raising discussions and asking the intelligent audience to make up their minds on their own. We just want everyone to have a conversation about it all,” says Whittle before signing off.
American Gods will be available for screening on Amazon Prime Video India in May