Asked what he brings to the role of Shadow Moon, the frequently nonplussed protagonist of American Gods, model turned actor Ricky Whittle deadpans, “Um, apparently I've got a very good WTF face.”
That’s a very valuable skill to have in play. After all, poor Shadow spends a lot of his time not understanding what the hell is going on around him. An ex-convict informed of the car crash death of his beloved wife, Laura (Australia’s Emily Browning) on the eve of his release from prison, Shadow is a man adrift until he is recruited as driver, bodyguard and general dogsbody by the mysterious con artist Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), and thrust into a world of mystery and danger.
The twist – and this being a TV series adapted from the work of acclaimed fantasist Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, Good Omens), it’s one we can see coming – is that Mr. Wednesday isn’t just your everyday itinerant grifter, but one of the last surviving Old Gods – deities from across the length and breadth of human mythology who still live in the forgotten corners of mortal society. Wednesday needs Shadow’s help to recruit his fellow idols, including African trickster Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones), pugnacious Irish spirit Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), Slavic death god Czernobog (Peter Stormare) and more, in the coming battle against the New Gods, including globalist Mr. World (Crispin Glover), the self-explanatory Media (Gillian Anderson), and technology god Technical Boy (Bruce Langley).
“They're every idol I think I ever had growing up,” Whittle marvels. “The list is endless, absolutely endless. And it's without doubt the best ensemble cast I've ever seen on TV. You know, networks stations would be lucky to have that across their whole slate. We have that in one season.”
It’s heady, wildly imaginative stuff, a journey through a whole hidden realm of secret magic, with Shadow having to think on his feet to avoid being chewed up and spat out by this strange new realm he finds himself embroiled in.
“Shadow is basically the universe's punchbag,” Whittle says of his character. “He is physically and mentally broken down in every single way possible and constantly being beaten, but he continues to get back up and move forward. I find that kind of inspiring, to play this character who, despite being broken, lost, empty, battered by life and those around him continuing to get up in the hope that it will get better.”
This being a sprawling supernatural drama it gets better before it gets worse, and Shadow must not only contend with the death of his beloved Laura, but also her return as a rotting revenant, and both what her undead status and revelations about her infidelities while Shadow was locked up might mean for their relationship going forward.
Whittle shares a number of emotionally charged scenes with Browning across the course of the series where, he says “…we see Shadow’s vulnerability, the love and pain that he's feeling. And you forget that one of them's dead - one of them is the walking dead and she's got her chest completely ripped open, but here she is. They're having a conversation and it really is beautiful and grounded at the same time. You know, it's a fantasy show, but yet it's just about two people who love each other, who are dealing with that, their differences.”
But the bulk of his onscreen time is spent in the company of the illustrious Ian McShane, clearly having a ball as the mercurial Mr. Wednesday. “He's so charismatic and charming, but he can be fearsome too He's very scary when he wants to be, but he's also lovely. He's that lovable, rogue that I grew up watching in Lovejoy, you know, he's one of the best actors of our generation. And I, as an actor, couldn't ask for a better education.”
And while their in-series characters have their differences, the real life Whittle and McShane found common ground on set very quickly. “We're both from the same area, both from Manchester, so we hit it off straight away, both supporting Manchester United. It could have been a very different situation if one of us supported Man City or Liverpool, another a rival team, we might not have got the same chemistry. There could have been fists thrown!” he laughs. “But we get on really well.”
Watch American Gods season 1 on SBS VICELAND with double episodes from Saturday, 9 May at 9:20PM. Catch up available for a limited time after broadcast at SBS On Demand. Check out the season 1 trailer: