The ever-shifting face of America, a place shaped by faith, race, immigration, and oppression, gives lifeblood to American Gods, Starz’s stunning new adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s bestselling fantasy novel.
In this version of America, the gods of old-world mythology live among us, scraping by on what worship they can scrounge from a nation now infatuated with newer idols, particularly media and technology. These new gods seek to destroy the old and monopolize our worship for themselves.
The old gods now are all but forgotten. The Norse god Odin scrapes through life as a con artist; regal love goddess Bilquis gets by as a sex worker; Egyptian death gods work in dingy funeral homes; Arabian genies pull 30-hour shifts as cab drivers. They are immigrants, that is, transported to America over hundreds of years by seafaring, migrating worshippers.
We travel with desperate Mexican immigrants fleeing north across the border. We meet a gay Muslim man who has erotic, life-changing sex with a genie in his first week in New York. We find African spider god Anansi goading enslaved African men to burn their captors’ ship down rather than live a life in chains.
To assert these stories as quintessentially American—to acknowledge the global melting pot of cultures, faiths, and trauma that defines America—is something Gaiman, himself an English immigrant, never fathomed as controversial when the book was first published in 2001. “I never got shit for it then,” he says plainly.
“I thought that I was saying non-contentious things,” he goes on, shaking his head, clad in his customary all-black. “Things like, ‘This is a country where everybody’s an immigrant. And it’s been made by immigrants and it’s worked fundamentally by welcoming them in and being a hospitable place.’ I didn’t think that was in any way a controversial thing.”
Today, unfortunately, it is. Anti-immigrant sentiment fuels many of the current administration’s policies. Verbal attacks and heightened xenophobia have given way to deadly violence. Promises of border walls, deportations, and eliminating “filth” have instilled debilitating fear in immigrant communities.
“I wish the world hadn’t gone mad,” Gaiman sighs.
“It’s sort of like, we took this weird lurch to the right in which fringe Nazi beliefs are now just the right-wing,” he laments, hunched over a table inside a hotel room in New York. “Like, no. No. You guys used to be over there, hung against the wall, dressing up in your fucking sheets. You’re not meant to be in the White House. You’re not meant to be going, ‘We are the rational middle.’”
Imitating Press Secretary Sean Spicer claiming Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons” and Trump supporter Carl Higbie citing World War II-era internment camps as “precedent” for an immigrant registry, Gaiman mock-whines: “Obviously we’re not really Nazis because we don’t actually want to send anybody to camps—well, we might but there won’t be showers and they’re not gonna gas people!”
American Gods is anchored in the odyssey of an ex-con named Shadow (Ricky Whittle), who takes a job as servant and accomplice to a mysterious god named Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) after discovering his wife has died in a car accident. It wasn’t exactly intended as a direct response to current events, as co-creators Fuller and Green explain.
“When we first started talking about doing this [show] two and a half years ago, the immigrant stories were always the emotional foundation because everyone could get on board with immigrant stories,” says Green. “Now, representing immigrant stories has become a political act. And that’s fascinating in a very dark way.”
“We are living in a political climate where hate has been pushed out of many Americans and it’s what we see first before we see the color of their eyes,” laments Fuller. “And that is a great travesty that this administration has inflicted on the country.”
McShane, meanwhile, who plays rascally Mr. Wednesday, insists the show’s dissections of faith and race in America “would have been relevant at any time.” The show had nearly wrapped by the time of the election, he points out.
“I think things are coming to a head because they’ve been coming to a head for a while in this country,” he says. “But [Fuller and Green] haven’t gone out of their way to somehow seize on any immediate headlines. It’s a natural progression from the book, which asks these questions about faith, immigration, all those big things in life.”
As for those who’d rather not confront such weighty questions in their Sunday night entertainment, who insist pop culture and politics should not mix? McShane shrugs. “You’re missing out.”
“I’m very nervous watching my baby happen like this.”
American Gods’ premiere Sunday night is a long time coming for Gaiman, who by now knows a thing or two about the thrills and hardships of adapting his work for the screen.
The Sandman and Stardust author—now 56 and a father of four, with graying strands peppering his famously wild hair—first wooed HBO with a pilot script for American Gods back in 2011. An executive there loved it so much they snapped it up immediately. But by the time Gaiman had finished two drafts and a polish, that executive had moved on to another company. The HBO suits still standing, meanwhile, were far less enthused.
“They gave the rights back and were very relieved to have done so because they had no idea what this thing was. They didn’t get it,” Gaiman says now. HBO, meanwhile, has claimed multiple writers were simply unable to get the script “right,” a version of the story that prompts Gaiman to laugh.
“‘No you didn’t, don’t you even,’” he says, squinting in faux-indignation at an invisible HBO exec. “You’re just talking because somebody has asked you and you’re embarrassed.” The misfire did prove useful, however: it was through HBO that Gaiman met Freemantle Media’s Stefanie Berk, who then brought the show to Starz and Bryan Fuller.
Starz and Freemantle were “astoundingly supportive,” gushes Gaiman, citing the companies’ willingness to spring for multiple reshoots when Fuller and Green’s creation had “gone off the rails.” Gaiman’s surprisingly open about the specifics of these mini-crises—and how melodramatic he can be when handling them.
An early draft of the American Gods pilot, for instance, had protagonist Shadow accept a blow job from Audrey (Betty Gilpin), his dead wife Laura’s heartbroken best friend, right on top of her grave site. Gaiman recalls reading the script then phoning Fuller and Green, up in arms, raving that Shadow would never do such a thing.
The showrunners gently pushed back, Gaiman recalls, at which point he went full-diva: “If you insist on keeping that in the script,” he announced, “I will leave a note explaining why I am killing myself and stand in front of a bus.” As evidenced by his sitting here today, Fuller and Green yielded. (They admit now the move would have been a mistake.)
Gaiman prides himself on being hands-on throughout production, as he is with most adaptations of his work (more are on the way, with How to Talk to Girls at Parties premiering at Cannes this year and Good Omens, his apocalyptic comedy novel co-written with the late Terry Pratchett, headed to Amazon Prime).
“I may find myself overruled from time to time,” he allows, though he rarely goes down without a fight—or at least a satisfactory I-told-you-so: “I may even sidle over to people at the end of things and say, well, I was right. If you had listened to me you would have saved two million dollars.
“I can really be irritating,” he says, cracking a broad smile.
Fuller and Green express only gratitude for Gaiman’s input, and for the material provided in his book. “Neil gave us the opportunity to show characters from a wide variety of backgrounds struggling to be American in their own way,” says Fuller. “Whether that is Mexican immigrants, or black men and women in a culture that was established to make them subservient, or gay Muslim characters.”
Cultural authenticity was another mandate of Gaiman’s, one he flatly says was “never negotiable”: “We do not change the race of the characters in the book and we do not whitewash,” he says. “I never got any pushback. Everyone was absolutely behind that.”
He was adamant, for instance, that Shadow be played by a mixed-race actor, befitting the character’s role in the story as a symbol of America’s melting pot.
And when Fuller and Green tried casting an African-American actress as an Indian goddess, “Neil was like, ‘No, it has to be an Indian woman,’” recalls Fuller. “We were like, ‘Well, it says [in the book] that she has very, very dark skin.’ And Neil was like, ‘Then you’ll have to find a very, very dark-skinned Indian woman.’” And so they did.
But American Gods, while faithful enough to the source material to satisfy longtime fans, does more than simply translate words to screen. It expands the world Gaiman created, in particular fleshing out its fascinating, underdeveloped cast of female characters.
“The book is a bit of a sausage party,” admits Fuller. “It’s Shadow and Wednesday’s adventure. And we felt that there’s so much about general religious mythology that hinges on the power of women that it would be negligent not to have that represented in this show in a much more significant way than the book had the real estate to achieve.”
The undead Laura (played with an alluring crassness by Emily Browning) becomes a dangerous, willful protector for Shadow, just as she did in the book. Here, however, she’s driven more by rage, grief, and frustration—and a tenuous attempt at redemption—than by an uncomplicated love of her husband.
Goddesses Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), Media (Gillian Anderson), and Easter (Kristin Chenoweth) also take on expanded roles in the show.
“It’s kind of sad that it seems amazing that they want to have interesting female characters on the show,” Browning sighs. “It shouldn’t be amazing. It should just be the way that things are. But unfortunately, it hasn’t been like that.”
Shadow himself, meanwhile, becomes less of a cipher onscreen: “He asks more questions, he’s more freaked out by things,” promises Whittle.
“In the book, [Shadow] sees Laura and says, ‘I will always love Laura. I can never be afraid of her, dead or alive. She’s my wife, I love her,’” he says, stifling a smile. “And that’s great. It’s written beautifully. Neil Gaiman’s words are magical. But in real life, if my loved one turned up back from the dead, I would have freaked the hell out. And that’s what you see with Shadow. He’s going to be giving some very real reactions.”
Gaiman’s own story of coming to America begins in 1992, when he left England for Wisconsin to be closer to his ex-wife’s family. “I was suddenly an immigrant,” he says. “Not something I had ever imagined myself to be.”
“The country I was in was not quite the place I had expected,” he recalls. “I thought I understood America because I’d been watching American TV and seeing American movies and reading American books since I was a kid. I’d visited America and been writing stories set in America, and now I’m here. And it all seems…”—he trails off, remembering the dissonance—“stranger.”
“I’m out in the Midwest and I’m going, ‘Oh. Winters can kill you here.’” He recalls a local news story about a woman who’d gone outside in carpet slippers to fill her bird feeder. It was negative-twenty degrees. On her way back indoors, the woman got stuck to the sidewalk and had to be rescued. For Gaiman, the bizarre little tale revealed a glimpse of an America he’d yet to know.
“That’s the kind of thing where you just go, really?” he says, eyebrows raised. “And I stand here going, there’s all of this stuff that’s … weird. That I want to put in a book. I want to understand America, I want to understand the immigrant experience. I want to have an excuse to drive around and look at things. And that is really where American Gods began.”
Gaiman’s fantastical novel takes place largely in strange, in-between places: on lonely rural roads, in ramshackle motels, at old roadside attractions in flyover states. It revels in the weirdness of America’s lesser-known parts, and unearths the ugliness many would rather not see—or maybe know nothing about.
“My son, Mike, aged about eleven, came home from school one day in the Midwest and said, ‘My teacher says you’re a liar,’” Gaiman recalls. “And I said why? ‘I told her the thing you said about people being transported for committing crimes to America.’ She had said, ‘That didn’t happen, people only came to America seeking religious freedom and the right to be free.’”
“I said, ‘That’s really interesting,’” Gaiman goes on, smiling wryly. He told his son not to argue with his teacher, but “trust me, I was not lying to you. I thought, maybe people don’t know that story then, so I will tell one of those stories [in the book].”
Hence chapter four of American Gods, in which a Cornwall con artist, thief, and prostitute named Essie Tregowan is transported to America as punishment for her crimes, to live out her days as an indentured servant. With her, she brings a belief in piskies, the mythical creatures resembling fairies—one more faith to add to the melting pot.
“I’m seeing these headlines now, like ‘American Gods Is the Most Politically Aware Show of 2017,’” says Gaiman, with a note of ambivalence. He wishes today’s political climate were different, but understands the show is “more important now” because of it.
Then he smiles again, remembering the boldness of the show—its full-frontal male nudity; its lyrical gay sex scenes; its female antiheroes and complex, thorny female friendships; its acknowledgment of the brutal history of black people in America, from slavery through Black Lives Matter; its insistence that every non-Native American is an immigrant.
“I’m proud,” he says. “It’s like, yeah, this is our fucking show, guys. If you have a problem with it, change the fucking channel.”