Of gods and men: Ricky Whittle leads Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ out of turmoil

In the TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman's epic American Gods, a feud as old as the human imagination gets wilder and weirder. Back for a second season, star Ricky Whittle tells The Big Issue why it's all too real

The first season of American Gods dropped at a tipping point in global politics. Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s 2001 cult book of the same name, the story exists in a world where each of the many immigrants who built modern America brought their own gods with them. Being immortal, these ancient deities are still around, fighting it out for scraps of belief with the newfangled idols of society, technology and globalisation.

The result was a sweeping, overwhelming, borderline-hallucinogenic meditation on immigration, race, religion, identity, belief, the power of the media and the pull of tradition. Arriving in early 2017, it could scarcely have been better timed.

“It’s not something we did on purpose,” says the series’ star Ricky Whittle. “We wrapped the first season before the Trump inauguration – before the crap hit the fan. It just so happened that all this material was already in the show – and it became current. Neil Gaiman said at the premiere that he would have given up all the money and fame and accolades for this show to remain a fantasy, but unfortunately, we’re in a position now where a lot of this is happening around us here in America.”

As Shadow Moon, Whittle is our guide to a bizarre, eye-popping world where a one-eyed Gallows God earns his way as a grifter; the Queen of Sheba works as a prostitute (sometimes swallowing men whole with her vagina); and you might get your head in your hands from a bar fight with a leprechaun.

If you feel your head’s starting to spin, even without the aid of a punch from an Irish fairy, you’re not alone. Some viewers complained it was just too confusing.

Whittle says this was deliberate. “We’re watching the show through Shadow’s eyes and Shadow doesn’t understand everything, so therefore we don’t want to spoon-feed our audience. Rather than just watching the show, you feel the show.”

Worldbuilding complete, at the end of Season One American Gods seemed on track to take advantage of strong foundations – until news began to hit of turmoil on set. Series co-creators Bryan Fuller and Michael Green departed, followed by fan favourites Gillian Anderson (Media) and Kristin Chenoweth (Easter). When replacement showrunner Jesse Alexander was also removed late in production of Season Two, it seemed like American Gods might be coming apart at the seams.

“It really is mountains out of molehills,” Whittle insists. Still, it must have had an effect on set. “It’s tough for any show, but I genuinely take pride in the fact that people are talking about the turmoil because it means our show is relevant and it’s important to people. The only way gods can die is if they’re forgotten – and our show is never going to be forgotten.”

Whether it be race, religion, misogyny, homophobia, we will not shy away. Silence sides with the oppressor.

Despite the staffing changes, Whittle assures us that the second season will maintain the colourful visual style of the first. And, perhaps more importantly, it will stay thematically true to Gaiman’s source text, tackling questions that have only become even more relevant since 2017.

“Whether it be race, religion, misogyny, homophobia, we will not shy away from. It’s something that we need to keep constantly in the headlines because silence sides with the oppressor. As we’ve seen through the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, when people suffer in silence it doesn’t help anyone but the oppressor.”

At one point in American Gods, Shadow’s wife comes back from the grave and tells him he isn’t dead, but she’s not sure that he’s really alive. It speaks to the passivity of a sensitive stoic who’s often watching the action silently.

For UK viewers, who first got to know Whittle on Hollyoaks, the ability to carry such a complex story on the shoulders of an undemonstrative character is proof positive that he is a genuine international star. And Whittle stands by the equally bold decision to quit his first major US role on post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama The 100, saying he’d been bullied by the show’s creator Jason Rothenberg.

A risky move for a relative newcomer, Whittle felt it was his only option, to “stand up for himself and his fellow cast members”. He explains: “I’m a Royal Air Force kid. My mum’s my queen and my dad’s my idol, they taught me to treat everybody equally and with respect. In The 100, I refused to stay with people who I thought were disgusting,” he explains. “I’m a strong believer in karma. And I feel vindicated. I’m surrounded by my idols – Ian McShane and Orlando Jones and Gillian Anderson and Crispin Glover. And I’m number one.”

Season Two of American Gods is on Amazon Prime Video