At the heart of American Gods is the story of an Old God and a mortal man traveling the United States of America, both on vastly differently missions but on a singular journey. Shadow Moon is trying to find some sort of meaning/purpose after prison and the death of his wife. Mr. Wednesday is fighting to stay relevant in a world where the Gods of Old are being replaced by the New Gods.
You wouldn’t think that these two men would fit together, but surprisingly enough on Starz’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed book American Gods, we find out that they do. We got a chance to speak with Ricky Whittle (Shadow Moon) and Ian McShane (Mr. Wednesday) about their buddy roadtrip across America, and from the moment they entered the room you could tell that the chemistry was real. They were joking, poking at each other, and at one point they even cuddled up and jokingly told the room that they had something they wanted to share with everyone.
The compliments about each other were also abundant. According to Ricky, “Ian McShane is one of the best actors of our generation, and this is his best work.” And according to Ian, “I love what I do and so does he. We seemed to fit very naturally together.” It’s this kind of chemistry that transitions over to the screen and is easily accessible and attractive to viewers new and old as they approach the stunning and diverse world of American Gods.
Their chemistry made it easy for them to find the tone of the show from the very first scene they shot together, which happened to be the first time their characters meet on an airplane, to the moment they hit the road together.
“It’s very important that Shadow and Mr. Wednesday had to have this dynamic and this chemistry for the whole show to work,” Whittle explained. “Amongst all this kind of fantastical CGI and craziness is a very grounded real story between two guys in a car. And some of my favorite parts of the whole show is just Shadow and Wednesday, just shooting the shit in a car.”
Their partnership isn’t initially born out friendship, but more out of necessity. As Ian explains, “Shadow needs the job. Needs the money, needs the gig. Got no where else to go. Nobody else is gonna hire him, a black ex-con in middle America.” All of this works to Mr. Wednesday’s advantage of course because he’s in the need of a little bit of muscle as he tries to stay relevant in a world that has basically forgotten him. So why not pick up a broken man that he could shape into something useful?
When we meet Shadow, he’s broken, almost literally a shadow of his former self, empty, with nothing left to live for. In accepting Mr. Wednesday’s offer he opens his world up to a lot of possibilities but also to a lot of trouble, mayhem, and blood.
As McShane explains, “Everything happens to him. He’s not proactive. He doesn’t make anything happen. Later on he will. But in the first series it’s all seen through his eyes, what happens.”
Whittle continued on by explaining that, “Shadow basically becomes the universe’s punching bag. Everything just seems to be happening to him.” He’s the protagonist but he doesn’t push the story. He’s along for the ride, just like we are.
They attribute the ease they fell into their respective roles with each other and within the show in part to Neil Gaiman’s incredible writing. Because while some shows/movies/books boast about pushing the envelope, Gaiman actually does it. American Gods is original, something they’re happy to be a part of, and like nothing either of them has seen or read before.
McShane, who has worked on a Gaiman adaptation before, Coraline, went on to say, “He crosses so many boundaries, Gaiman. When I read the book, I thought why the hell didn’t I read this book? I mean, my preferred reading is non-fiction and crime. But reading that, it seemed to be a perfect blueprint for two guys like Michael Green and Bryan Fuller (executive producers) to take on and work their magic on.”
Whittle shared a similar experience, as he hadn’t read the book either, and managed to tie it into his previous work on The CW’s The 100. “There’s a massive hunger for his (Gaiman’s) work now. There’s whole new genres and generations coming through now who were unaware of this work. Fans have followed me from The 100, which is a younger audience who didn’t know about Neil Gaiman’s work. All of a sudden now they’re reading his book, blowing their minds, and going, “What is this?” And they get it because they love sci-fi and I feel sci-fi fans are the most intelligent fans out there. You don’t have to spoon feed them. They get it. We’re just here entertaining and they come along for the ride.”
Every couple, I mean buddy road trip duo, experiences a few wrenches being thrown their way as a means of testing their new found bond. Shadow and Mr. Wednesday are thrown a couple of pretty big wrenches.
First off, the New Gods.
This is not a religious show, but it is a show about faith. And right now Mr. Wednesday needs Shadow to believe in him, a powerful concept when coming from a mortal man, at the same time that he’s trying to get all the Old Gods to believe in him and what he’s trying to do by getting a little of their power back to be able to relive the old days.
McShane elaborated on this by saying that, “Mr. Wednesday is as wilful and capricious as the other Gods he’s fighting, except he’s saying, “You’ll have a better time with me. You’ll be more human. You’ll remember what went on in the past. Because if you don’t remember the past you’ll be condemned to repeat it. And the shitty parts too, as well as the good parts.”
With this hunger for better times comes supernatural danger, an unforgettable scene at the end of episode 1 that will shock viewers, and the second wrench to this blossoming relationship: Shadow’s wife Laura. Her death catapulted him into a life on the road with Mr. Wednesday and her return is not welcomed by McShane, “I want you to myself. I don’t want the wife around. For different reasons.” And intriguing for Whittle, “It’s gonna be an interesting love story as we go along and see how those two try to make things work. But you’ve got a big thorn in the side in Mr. Wednesday who doesn’t seem to like my misses.”
Shadow idolized Laura before her death. Changed for her, married her, and did everything he thought she needed without actually listening to what she wanted. And as Shadow and Mr. Wednesday journey across America she’s going to be a bigger presence than in the books, running parallel to their journey, on a mission of her own, but equally as defining.
As the show progresses all of these elements will be woven together and elicit strong emotional responses from Shadow, Mr. Wednesday, Laura, and every viewer sitting at home, especially people who’ve read this book before. Because this isn’t like the book you know and have loved for years. This is something old, yet something new, that according to Whittle, will be a grounded fantasy with crazy elements, a buddy road trip between two con-men, and a beautiful love story between two people with completely different views of the state of their relationship.
And for those ready to shout about a faithful adaptation, McShane’s got a message for you. “You can’t improve on the book. The book is the book, but you can give it the TV life it deserves. In other words, you don’t have to slavishly and faithfully adapt a novel and say everything’s the same. Cuz you might as well just read the fucking book then.”
American Gods premieres Sunday, April 30 at 9/8c on Starz.