The fate of the known universe hinges on Ian McShane getting bumped up to first class. The esteemed British thespian stars as corporeal divine avatar Mr. Wednesday in the long-awaited TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s mythological mashup American Gods, and when we meet the stand-in for all-god Odin, he’s conning his way into a seat upgrade. He has to, because that’s where he’s destined to meet a recently freed prisoner named Shadow Moon, portrayed by dashing British breakout Ricky Whittle. A Chosen One in the august tradition of Campbellian mythmaking, Ricky will decide the outcome of an impending battle between the mystical old gods and the material new gods of technology, media, and information. But first, the pair has to make sure they don’t get booted off their flight.
It’s a seemingly inauspicious start to a titanically ambitious modern fable, where nothing less than the soul of America hangs in the balance. Starz’s handsomely-produced treatment of the material goes to some wild places (trigger warning: vaginal absorption), and the complicated bond between uncomprehending Shadow Moon and his mentor Mr. Wednesday forms the humanistic foundation on which the batshit flourishes of surrealism and expressionism rest. It’s a big undertaking to be sure, but to hear Whittle and McShane fondly reminisce and shoot zingers back and forth with one another, you’d have think they just got back from shooting Grown Ups 3. The pair of actors kept it together long enough to chat with us about smartphone usage, Flaubert’s thoughts on acting, and the second coming of Jesus Christ.
What’s your attitude towards technology, one of the main antagonistic forces on the show?
Ian McShane: Well, Ricky’s very big on social media, he takes care of all that. My wife follows him, she’ll tell me, “Ooh, you know what Ricky did today?”
Ricky Whittle: He’ll call me like, “Why are you posting pictures of me?” and he’s not even online! His wife keeps tabs on me. But it’s just the evolution of the world. Consider this: the smartphone wasn’t even invented when he wrote this book, so for him to be talking about the potential of technology to overtake daily life to the point where we live in the palm of our hands, that’s very present. I mean, look! [Puts away iPhone heretofore resting on table.]
McShane: Where’d you just put that phone? Is that tucked under your crotch? Are you taking pictures of who-knows-what?
Check if it’s set to vibrate.
McShane: Oh, that’s cheeky.
Whittle: But we have mediated experiences now, we film or photograph instead of just living. We’re too quick to document everything, and Mr. Wednesday’s from the Old World, and doesn’t believe in that evolution. He has faith in humanity, but he likes to remember his past.
McShane: Wednesday’s just as capricious and willful as the gods that he’s railing against, except he says, “You’ll have a better time with me, I’m not on the spectrum like one of these guys running the tech companies.” He believes in getting up in the morning, glass half-full, and filling it up as the day goes on. But he does want a war. And he uses Shadow for that. People who know the book know precisely what I mean, everyone else will figure it out.
Ricky and I started production with the first scene we share together, in the airport. I don’t know if it was a whim of production or deliberate, but that was the most important scene they have, sets the whole tone. We majorly hit it off. We’re from the same part of the world, same football team — soccer, as you’d call it.
Whittle: And that’s the only interest we share. He disapproves of my personal life.
McShane: Do I?
Did you two ever compare notes on the ins and outs of the American accent?
McShane: I could get away with that pretty easily, because Mr. Wednesday could really come from anywhere. Ricky’s got the more challenging role to play, in the sense that Shadow is — not passive, but put upon. Ricky’ll tell you, but the guy’s lost everything. And it’s not by happenstance that I come along and offer him a job. But the audience sees everything through Shadow’s eyes, as in the book. So he’s got to accept things happening to him, but still lead as a protagonist.
Whittle: Shadow’s a broken shell when we meet him, yeah, an empty vessel. He’s lost the one thing in his life that he cared about. His father and mother weren’t there for him when he was young, and the backstory I saw in him was that he had traveled a lot, and his accent was filtered through that. So it’s not particular to any one spot, really. Just like me: my father was in the Royal Air Force, so I traveled around a lot, so my accent is kind of diverse. It drifts, depending on who I’m talking to. When we work with accents on the show, it finds you.
This is a varied show. Diverse, multi-ethnic cast which really does reflect the true America of today, the melting pot. People come to America and bring their flavors, cultures, religions, their gods.
McShane: When immigrants came to America, they brought their quirks with them. And that’s positive! When you move to a new country, you want hope, promise of a new world. Wednesday’s saying that we’ve forgotten about that. Now we’ve got a thing in your pocket that holds all the world’s knowledge. And he’s not saying to ignore that entirely, just to look around a little more, to look around at your personal history. Respect the gods that make the garden grow. I mean, Jesus Christ, when he came out of his grave, he stole the holiday from the goddess Easter. And if Jesus Christ was to come back today — well, he came back last year, in the shape of a 74-year-old Jew who had a message for everyone. Bernie Sanders, if we had listened to him a bit more, we might be in a different position now.
Whittle: Oh, wow, that’s the headline right there. ‘Ian McShane Calls Bernie Sanders Jesus Christ.’
McShane: They have similar sensibilities! Same teachings. But if Jesus really came back today, he’d be thrown in jail as a dissident.
Whittle: He’d be walking the streets of Hollywood with the other Jesuses.
If there’s a war on, it kinda feels like technology is winning, no?
McShane: That’s what Wednesday’s saying. He wants a war, and win or lose, it’ll be glorious. One final battle! At least he’ll have the satisfaction of meeting his foes on some kind of playing field. But there are way more episodes to go until we get there.
Whittle: The great thing about this, talking about gods in different shapes and forms, is that it all comes down to perspective. Just because you believe in your god doesn’t make mine any less real. Shadow meets this world through Wednesday’s eyes. He’s taken under Wednesday’s wing and introduced to all the gods through him. We automatically assume that technology and media are bad, but if Mr. World had gotten ahold of Shadow first and introduced him from his viewpoint, the old gods would seem like the enemy.
McShane: It’s also entertaining, mind you. We’re not doing a polemic. It’s not an op-ed. Gaiman writes entertainingly, with a serious message behind it. And cable TV is the perfect longform format to do this kind of thing. I love the coming-to-America sequences, the animation, I think it breaks a little ground. Shows talk about pushing the envelope; I think this one does a bit.
Somewhere around the second vaginal-absorption scene, I think I felt the envelope being pushed.
Whittle: The second one!
McShane: Ah, yes, Bilquis [played by Yetide Badaki]. She’s great, and that’s a tough role to do. Just don’t ask how she auditioned for it.
All these roles are pretty unusual, yours included. What was the most unorthodox aspect of the work on this project?
Whittle: Well, this was my first experience with green-screen. You’re working in a room that’s very limited, and surrounded by nothing but your childhood imagination, because there’s nothing there. You throw your whole trust in the director and producers to not make you look stupid. You hope that they fill in the pieces. You have the conversation before — what’s around me, what am I looking at, how should I respond — and you walk off set and have no idea if it worked, didn’t work, if you look stupid. Because you felt stupid. And you’ve got no idea until you see it back, and luckily we had an incredible special-effects team that exceeded my expectations.
McShane: I love what I do, I love my job, so every day is great. You get to depend on other people, that’s part of the charm of doing movies and TV. It’s a very socialistic profession, because you’re not on your own. You’ve got the cameraman, the director, everybody working with you. When they say action, a group of people telepathically join for the length of a take. You’re all there. And it’s exciting. It’s like Flaubert once said about writing, that you lead a middle-class bourgeois life and you get all your shit out when you’re doing your job of acting or writing. You can be as crazy as you fucking want, but then I get to retreat to a privileged life: I live near the beach with my wife, married 38 years, we’ve got three kids, grandkids, it’s all pretty normal. But on set, you can go anywhere.
Wednesday gets a lot of the best lines on the show, these grandiose speeches that sort of reminded me of your role on Deadwood.
McShane: When they cast me, I said, “Oh, the speeches are gonna get a little longer, aren’t they?” David Milch is one of the great geniuses of our business. There wasn’t one swear word that was out of place. Everything was fucking planned by him, absolutely. You put in one extra one, and he’d step in, ‘Hey, excuse me.’ It just took one ‘cocksucker’ too many. And there’s your headline!