Aboard a 19th-century slave ship making the pitiless journey from Africa to the West Indies known as the Middle Passage, a strange figure appears. Dressed to the nines in a perfectly tailored purple suit complete with matching hat, he delivers a stirring speech to the awe-stricken captives, urging them to seize the reins of their own fate. In an eloquent call to action, he stirs them to go out in a literal blaze of glory by setting fire to the ship and taking their imperialist tormentors down with them. In the ensuing inferno, the figure known as Mr. Nancy cracks a small smile: Is he amused at how readily his marks sealed their own fate, or inspired by a show of independence from his fellow Africans? Because Mr. Nancy acts as a stylized stand-in for the trickster god Anansi, they’re just about equally likely.
Orlando Jones sinks his incisors into the curious role in the glossy new adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, which debuts this Sunday, April 30, on Starz. Mr. Nancy’s one of a large ensemble of “old gods” fading into obsolescence and readying for a great reckoning with the squadron of sleek, advanced “new gods.” Among such modern titans as Technology Boy and Media is Mr. World, a manifestation of digital omnipotence cannily portrayed by the mannered, intense Crispin Glover. Both Glover and Jones recently sat down with Uproxx in the penthouse suite of New York’s Langham Hotel — a rather ironic setting for a conversation about cultivating healthy distrust for the moneyed elite.
Prior to signing on to American Gods, did either of you have any familiarity with the book?
Orlando Jones: I had read the book. I had an interest in Anansi as a kid, parents and grandparents told me stories about him stealing from the sky-god, so I got wind of [Gaiman’s companion novel] Anansi Boys and was into it. But when I started in on that, I realized I had to get through American Gods first and then come back. I became a crazy Neil Gaiman fan after that. The metaphors he puts forth are interesting ones, because they change the way you look at your own country and your circumstances within it. His ending doesn’t decide left or right as to who should win, but rather opens up a gateway for conversation. The most interesting component, to me, was how he used common elements of language, story and metaphor to create conversations between cultural groups that are disparate, or see each other as enemies.
Crispin Glover: I had worked with Neil Gaiman on Beowulf. He’s a great guy, and he got me into talks for this. But I still haven’t read the book. Neil and Bryan [Fuller] described it to me, and I immediately found it very appealing. They sent me the first scene for my character, and there are specifics with the role — corporate interests, particularly — that are a great topic of interest for me. There have been corporate constraints on filmmaking in the last 30 years or so, where anything that can make an audience uncomfortable is necessarily excised, or else the film won’t be funded and distributed by a major studio. I’m very glad to be seeing that this show deals in stuff that can be discomforting, and yet it’s got Starz behind it.
But the reason I never read that book was that I’ve worked on adaptations before, and when I read the book, I’ll get a concept of how it should be interpreted. And this was so well-written, Michael and Bryan’s interpretation, it’s obvious this is a great work. I want to bring in what was right there on the page, perfect as it is, without adding in anything outside.
Being familiar with Anansi, Orlando, what qualities did you take from your prior knowledge to the role?
Jones: These types of characters span such a large period of time, so they have the opportunity to gather a diverse audience who all have an authentic connection to them. When you look at the Middle Passage and the slaves who were affected by it, from Africa to the Indies and the Americas, the culture all gets wrapped together. In Mr. Nancy’s voice is where the character lives, because the rest of him is defined by where he is. You bring in intonations and rhythms to his speech, and that creates personality beyond his historical context. A lot of his backstory falls away, and he’s faced with his believers, and he’s got to ignite their passions. The truth you need for a good grift, and the twist you need to get them to do what you want.
The book outlines a great spiritual crisis in America. Big picture sense, are you two personally concerned about the direction of the national identity?
Glover: Oh, yeah. I’m actually writing a book right now about this subject matter. I’m on page 425, I really gotta cut it down. But it’s on my mind a lot, specifically about propaganda. It’s a funny word, because you can take it in a lot of different ways. Everyone’s part of the art of persuasion, but specifically corporate propaganda ends up being beneficial for the corporations at the cost of everyone at large. I started getting concerned when I saw how it affected the messages within entertainment media. Something happened at a young age for me, where I felt that certain things… I shouldn’t talk about it here. Gotta save it for the book, it’s long and involved. But it’s not all about just corporate parentage, it’s about propaganda working properly and people getting used to it. People start redistributing it themselves, you know how the best propagandist is one who believes what he’s saying.
Jones: And then in the digital world, the best propaganda is one you disagree with, because people have a way of propagating even through disagreement. That creates more media impressions, even vehement disagreement.
Glover: I would add that there are healthy things going on with the internet, because there are freer channels to analyze and discuss and refute corporate messaging online. I hate to be overly political, but the fact that Bernie Sanders was able to start talking about corporate interests in Washington, I was happy that was being seen on this unprecedented level. That was made possible, in part, by the internet.
I take it you’re big into They Live?
Glover: I do like They Live, yeah. It’s a pertinent film. There are certain corporate but subversive films that are worth watching, I’d put that in the same group as Starship Troopers and The Matrix. They hide subversion in style of genre.
Some parts of this show are pretty out-there. How have you gauged the response from the public?
Glover: I’ve mostly heard reactions to [Orlando’s] first scene. Particularly when people have had something in their background they can relate to it, there’s a strong internal reaction. Have you noticed this?
Jones: I’m acutely aware, and it’s a beautiful thing. That’s what this medium does, creates visceral reactions. But that’s the part I never concern myself with. Because I truly believe that once you make it and present it, it no longer belongs to you. More importantly, it does belong to the audience, and they should have the ability to interpret the material on their own terms, be it good or bad. Because the role is to spark conversation, not to dictate narrative. In that respect, it’s important not to tell them what they should be thinking. I look forward to people saying they disagree with my take on the show. But as Crispin was saying, we live in the medium of television, which is financed by advertising. They only care about the adjusted case volume, moving numbers.
Glover: It’s better not to say too much, because you can spoil a good thought someone can contribute that you never would have thought of yourself.
Jones: I’m most excited about people who are going to be really, really furious over the slave ship scene. I have no idea who will get upset, but one thing I am sure of is haters gon’ hate. Someone’s gonna show up and say the show promotes, uh…
Jones: Yes. Thank you for being the one who said it. But I’m excited to see what that conjures up, because the truth of the matter is that they have no idea if Mr. Nancy is saying that to be on anyone’s side. He’s a trickster, he gets them to burn themselves to death. He’s not a propagandist, because you can’t even tell what his message is. It’ll be good to see people come forth and project their meaning onto it.