[Warning: this story contains minor spoilers from the novel American Gods and the TV show on which it's based.]
Shadow Moon lives inside his own head - an appropriate dwelling given that he's lived inside author Neil Gaiman's head for 16 years now, not to mention the heads of those who have discovered American Gods in the years since the book's original 2001 publication.
With any luck, the American Gods protagonist will soon thrive in the greater public consciousness, what with the Starz adaptation premiering its eight-episode first season April 30. For now, he's already spent the past year and change living alongside a crucial companion: Ricky Whittle, veteran of The CW's The 100 (a show he departed with harsh words for showrunner Jason Rothenberg), the actor charged with bringing Shadow to light.
For the uninitiated, Shadow stands front and center in American Gods, a mortal man caught in the midst of a war between Gods. When the story begins, Shadow is at the tail end of a prison sentence, on the cusp of reuniting with his estranged wife Laura (Emily Browning). He's released early after Laura dies in an accident, sending Shadow on a world-expanding adventure alongside the mysterious Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) and a slew of disenfranchised deities. Like the reader (and the viewer), Shadow learns about the vast network of Gods slowly but surely, a cynical gateway into a fantastic new world - and taking on the role of this hulking skeptic was something of a vision quest in its own right, at least how Whittle describes his process.
Before the launch of American Gods, Whittle spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the culture surrounding the new Starz series, how it differs from his experience with The 100, the work that went into realizing Shadow Moon's physicality and the themes at the heart of this story.
Courtesy of Starz
If all goes well, you're about to become the face of a very big television series. What does it feel like, sitting on the edge of American Gods' premiere?
We walked on set a year ago to the day. It's incredible. It's been a long time coming. Obviously I had a few months previous to that, with the audition process. And we all know how I left The 100, sadly, with Jason Rothenberg. But without the darkness, I wouldn't really appreciate the light. You have to learn and educate yourself in life and take every bad point as a learning curve. You need to take those moments and move forward and learn from them and take something positive from it. And for me, it's karma. I pulled myself out of a negative situation and removed myself from a negative person. I stood up for myself and for other people, which I can always be proud of, and it's something I'll always do. Every single time. And I've replaced this negativity with two of the most incredible showrunners I've ever had the honor of meeting, both professionally and personally. Bryan Fuller is a visual genius, and Michael Green is responsible for my favorite film of the year in Logan. Together, you have two incredible writing stars who have created this monster of a project, and they're the nicest people you'll ever meet. It's not often you get that package in the same person, but you do in Bryan and Michael: this creative genius wrapped up in a wonderful person who wants to make the best product possible. They're open to ideas. I came to scenes with ideas, and when they liked them, they went with them. If they had better ideas, we would work with it.
What were some of your ideas? For instance, Shadow doesn't speak much in the novel. He's much more talkative on the show. Did you talk that through with Bryan and Michael?
That's something we really had to work out straight away. My early auditions were very much Shadow from the book. He's very stoic, very blase about everything. We needed to move away from that and make him more adaptable to TV. You don't want to watch a man think [out loud] every week. We didn't want to do voiceovers. So they rely on me. That's why the audition process was so long. They needed an actor and a vessel who could go on this emotional roller coaster, someone who could portray this beautiful writing from Neil Gaiman, all of this inner monologue, that we're not going to vocalize. I had to do that. I got a little bit of a taste in that with Lincoln [on The 100], and I got to do that with mannerisms, and what was behind the eyes. It's a huge challenge. I also had to work on…because the writing is so funny and so great, I had to pull away from making Shadow funny. There are so many moments where I could have gone very comedic, and I had to pull away from that. He's not there yet. I have to earn that personality. When we first meet Shadow, he's just been released from prison, but he's also lost everything he holds dear in Laura.
He was also already in prison…
…which was not fun. (Laughs.) He becomes the universe's punching bag. He lost his mother when he was young. He didn't know his father. Laura was all he had in the world. To find out that she's died, that she just had an affair, that the affair was with his best friend? The universe is just knocking him down. He's this incredible strong human who just stands up and keeps moving forward. But he's broken. He's empty. He's this Shadow of his former self, so to speak - a Shadow of the man he's not yet become. You feel for him straight away, and I had to do that by resisting the wonderful and colorful characters around him, to keep him on the straight narrative, which is true to the book. I had to be the straight guy, which is very tough for me! But it's going to be great to see him grow in personality, as the show goes on. I had to work backward from where I wanted him to be. I found out where his rock bottom is, where he's this emotionless and unbelieving cynic, and allow him to enter this world as the audience does: completely confused and unsure if everything he's seeing is real. Has he gone crazy, or is the world going crazy?
In the book, Shadow regularly performs coin tricks. Did you learn any in preparation for the role?
I f - king hate coin tricks. (Laughs.) I would be great to hire for kids' parties, because for two months, I practiced coin tricks, and rolling coins across my knuckles, and then I would get onto set and Ian McShane just wiggles his fingers and they put a CGI coin on there and he looks magical. So, props to our post[-production] and special effects team, and props to my research! (Laughs.) Because, yeah, I had to do all of that, along with the physicality of having to gain 35 pounds…. Lincoln was 175 pounds, Shadow Moon topped out at 210 pounds. It was a big 35-pound swing. Four thousand calories a day, training two to four hours a day to build that massive frame from the book. He's big enough and "don't f - k with him" enough to survive prison. I felt a responsibility to give that to the fans. And I think I did. I look at him on the screen, and he's a big guy. He's 15 pounds heavier than I am now. He's a beast. I felt that responsibility, as I did with the magic. My day was like this: I woke up and I would eat every two hours, not because I was hungry, but because it was time. I would have four protein shakes in a day. I would train for two to four hours. Then I would go to my magician coach for an hour, and then my acting coach to work on Shadow - and I would be eating amongst all of that, by the way. Then I would go home, watch a bit of TV, eat, learn my lines, then eat again before bed.
And this was your daily ritual for how long?
Two months. It became impossible once we started filming 15- to 18-hour days. I lost a good 15 pounds when we started shooting. It was impossible to maintain. But I did the magic and the weight thing. It was tough…but I'm amazing at kids' parties now.
Is it true your first scene you filmed in the series was the iconic first meeting between Shadow and Wednesday on the airplane?
It was my first dialogue scene. My first scene was the stuff in prison with Jonathan Tucker, where he was just asleep during the storm. My first dialogue scene was the huge five-to-seven pager on the plane when Shadow first meets Mr. Wednesday. Neil Gaiman turns up to finally see his characters come to life and off of the page, and there's pressure there. There was excitement in working with one of the rocks tars of the book world in Neil Gaiman, and with two of the greatest visual and creative showrunners in TV, and one of the finest actors of our generation, and playing an iconic character for a lot of people. No pressure, Ricky! This is the moment you prove what you were talking about and why you deserve a chance. That was the moment. It was very exciting for me to realize where I was right now as the lead of the show that's been anticipated for 16 years, and I'm about to go toe-to-toe with Ian McShane. It's one of my favorite scenes of the first episode. I absolutely loved it. Working with actors like that, you don't get a better education. It really raises your levels. I feel my levels have been raised since The 100, which comes down to the incredible ensemble cast that I feel is the best on TV. Working with those guys, you can't help but rise up to their level. You have to, or you're getting fired!
You're the star of the series. It would be tough to fire you.
Everyone's replaceable, I've always said that. I'll never take it for granted. I'll always feel blessed and honored. I'm a very happy and positive person, which is why I hated that negative situation [at The 100], because it wasn't my own doing. I never understood it, because I was always very positive. To now be surrounded by this great and positive family…and I don't even call it a cast or crew. It's family, and that comes from the top, which is very important. I now know you lead from the front. We have leaders who inspire that. We don't have bosses. We have leaders. That comes not just from Bryan, Michael and Neil. It comes from Starz; Chris Albrecht [CEO of Starz] is my king. He fought for me for this role. And you have Craig Cegielski and Stefanie Berk from Fremantle, who worked their asses off. They got me to Unbreakable Gym in Hollywood, where I trained alongside UFC fighters and NFL players. They paid for all of that. They wanted to make sure I got everything I needed to become Shadow Moon. I never felt so much love and support than I have from this incredible family.
Courtesy of Starz
The show is thematically rich, centering on the powers of belief, among other topics…
Yeah. Something I haven't thought about is…are we around because Gods made us, or are they around because we believed them into being? I think it's a fascinating take on Gods. The fact that you have extraordinary people living ordinary lives. Normally, these Gods are crushing cities and throwing thunderbolts. These guys are just having sex. They're alcoholics. They make dinner. They hustle. It's an interesting dynamic. Despite us being surrounded by this fantastical world, it's really grounded. Even fans who aren't into fantasy, this appeals across the board, because it's a real life story. With Shadow and Wednesday, you forget what's going on, and it becomes a buddy-buddy road trip. Yes, we're fantasy. Yes, the novel was fantasy, but there are grounded elements and themes in this show. At the end of the day, it's entertainment, and we're here to entertain. But we have this platform to tell important stories about immigration, religion, sexism, women's rights, gun control, racism…it's all so important, and we need to be discussing it more, because we've been moving forward in the right direction for so long, and now it's never been more current and needed than it is right now in this heated political climate, regarding all of these themes. We just happen to be the most politically relevant show out there, and it's by chance or luck, because the novel came out in 2001. We wrapped in November, before Trump was inaugurated as President and started upsetting people with various policies regarding these themes and topics. We've become very lucky and relevant, and I'm glad we can have an intelligent conversation and discuss these important themes.
If you're lucky, you're going to engage in your daily calorie-overload ritual for the next five or six years. Are you prepared to live with and as Shadow Moon for a while?
Number one, I've stopped myself in the middle, so I'm about 195 pounds right now. I'm happy here. Everyone seems to think I'm a lot healthier looking with some more meat on me, so really, I only have 15 pounds to put back on. I solved that problem! (Laughs.) And my body is now craving so much food. After seven months of eating 4,000 calories a day, it still wants at least 3,000 calories a day…and probably 4,000. I'll eat a steak and fries and still be hungry afterward. That's going to be easy enough. But to be a part of this family and work with Ian McShane and Emily Browning longer, and to work with Bryan Fuller and Michael Green and see them develop this incredible novel of Neil Gaiman's? It's an absolute honor. We've been blessed by Fremantle and Starz to really open this book up. Everything that's in the book that everyone loves will be in the show, plus so much more. We hit the first hundred pages in the first season - not even a fifth of the book. With Neil writing a sequel to American Gods, and with his spinoffs, The Monarch of the Glen and Anansi Boys, the show has legs to go for a while. I'm definitely not looking to move anywhere anytime soon.
You're keeping it parked at 195 for the duration.
I'm parked. I'm happy at 195. And we'll be speaking about season six of American Gods one day.
Sound off with your take on Whittle's new role in the comments below, and stay tuned for more American Gods interviews and news. The Starz series premieres April 30.