It’s hard to explain American Gods, Starz’s bold new series, to most. Steeped in fantasy, mythology and Americana, American Gods explores immigrants and the gods and spirits they brought with them in a unique fashion.
Apparently the modern world, with its new technology and other distractions, has diminished the significance of the old gods, and they are being gathered to partake in an epic battle with the new gods. Mr. Wednesday, a manifestation of Odin from Norse mythology, played by Ian McShane (Deadwood, The Pirates of the Caribbean), is tasked with rallying the old gods. Shadow Moon, Mr. Wednesday’s bodyguard, a recently released convict now all alone since losing his wife and best friend in a car accident, is unwittingly along for the ride.
Sci-fi and fantasy fans know that the series is based on the award-winning novel by English author Neil Gaiman and have awaited its screen arrival almost since the book was published in 2001. Diversity is at the center of American Gods, and that hasn’t been whitewashed for the screen. British actor Ricky Whittle plays Shadow, the main character, a role he won after beating out more than 1,200 actors. He is “swirly” in appearance, to borrow from Wendy Williams, but is recognized as black.
The gods are diverse, too. Orlando Jones plays the most-buzzed-about Mr. Nancy, the iconic trickster god Anansi, more well-known as a spider throughout the African Diaspora. Yetide Badaka is Bilquis, a goddess of love. Chris Obi is Mr. Jacquel, Anubis or Anpu, the Egyptian god of the dead. Demore Barnes is Mr. Ibis, the god Thoth in Greek and Egyptian mythology known as an inventor of writing as well as a mediator.
It is through the eyes of Shadow, embodied by Whittle—most recently seen as Lincoln on the CW’s The 100—that the series’ complex story unravels. “It’s OK to feel confused,” says Whittle to those left scratching their heads from the series debut April 30. “It’s OK because Shadow’s confused.”
He continues: “Shadow’s got to piece this puzzle together and the audience as a whole is able to follow him and sort of piece it together, too. And it is a lot to piece together. There is a 6-foot-5 leprechaun, for example, who pops in and out of the story, as well as depictions of the afterlife just after some have died. Some characters even defy death.
But, as fanciful as American Gods gets, it’s also grounded in some things that are very real and timely. “The themes we touch upon are now incredibly current and relevant in the political heated climate that’s in America,” says Whittle. That’s especially interesting because that was not the intention of either the series or the book.
“We wrapped in November before Trump was elected. The book was written in 2001,” explains Whittle. “Yet because of the heated political climate, it’s very relevant because we do touch upon immigration, racism, sexism, women’s rights, gun control, you know, homophobia.” But Whittle does note that “this show is not a political show. It’s not forcing our opinions down your throat. It just so happens these themes occur within our storyline.”
American Gods has been very educational for Whittle, and he hopes it’s the same for the audience. “I’ve learned so much from this show. It’s educated me about different religions, about different physical, mythical gods and history and how some cultures came to America,” he explains.
Unlike Whittle, Nigerian-born actress Yetide Badaki, the only black woman listed in the main cast, was very familiar with Gaiman’s work. “I’m a huge sci-fi and fantasy nerd. I’ve been reading pretty much anything that’s sci-fi and fantasy forever,” she explains. “I’ve been a huge Gaiman fan for years. So when American Gods came out in 2001, I went out and I got the book, and it never even occurred to me that there would be the possibility sometime in the future to play in that and deal with a lot of the interesting issues that he was bringing up even then.”
Her character, Bilquis, is most interesting in that she swallows her lovers with her vagina, depicted with much awe in the debut episode. Now, Bilquis, like Mr. Nancy, is not a new idea. “There are lots of different variations and she shows up in so many different historical texts,” Badaki explains. “Bilquis is fascinating historically because you see her not only in the Bible, but you also see her in the Quran and you also see her in the Torah.”
Despite so many appearances, however, there is very little information about her. “You got maybe three things from each of these texts,” Badaki continues. “They all said that she was beautiful and that she was wealthy because she brings all these incredible gifts and that she was very intelligent because of the riddles that she brought to Solomon. ... I thought it was very interesting that she was mentioned in all these different texts but that there weren’t many more details of who she actually was. Now fast-forward to Neil’s incredible interpretation of her as the ancient goddess of love who is struggling to find her relevancy in the present day.”
Even with Gaiman, Badaki had to paint a fuller picture. In the book, Bilquis is a much smaller character than in the series, so Badaki drew from a variety of sources, including Oshun, a goddess of love, fertility and sensuality, in her own culture. Painting a fuller picture isn’t unusual for Gaiman’s work in general. In many ways, American Gods is very much about painting a fuller picture, especially as it pertains to making sense of the old ways in a new world or even under new circumstances.
“One of the things I love about this show,” Badaki says, “is that there are so many layers to it, so many characters that we get to explore, a whole range of issues and we get to ask a lot of questions.”
American Gods airs on Starz on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET.