Emily Browning is back in our lives and making her debut on television as Laura Moon in American Gods. We talked to her about her new role as the zombie-back-to-life-wife of Ricky Whittle’s Shadow Moon and her thoughts on this polarizing but intriguing character.
After deciding to adapt the novel by Neil Gaiman into a TV show, showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green set out to expand the roles of the female character. “They were underrepresented in the book, because the book wasn’t about their story. But as a television series, you’re telling many people’s stories and so our first order of business was we want more Laura, and in the book she was the cheating wife, and Bilquis was a prostitute, so we felt that we had to untie some of those knots because neither of us wanted to write whores and infidels as our female characters,” Fuller explained. “We wanted them to have as much humanity as they possibly could, and we both immediately responded to Laura’s character because it was a character that we could tell our own story with. I love episode 4 because it so clearly represents the best of Michael and I, as writers in a joint venture together, and that gave us some liberty to actually get some foothold in the world, because that character wasn’t wholly moved by the novel and it allowed us to make her someone that we couldn’t do the show without.”
Of course, the standalone episode “Git Gone” did more than just highlight Fuller and Green’s ability to weave new personality and texture into old character, Browning’s enigmatic performance as Laura turns her into a key player in the story. The episode dedication shows her tenacity, and defies many of the classical tropes created for a female love interest. Not only do we learn the love story of Shadow and Laura, but we also witness her life and choices after Shadow is sent to jail and how she ultimately finds herself buried and dead.
Browning said that Fuller had told her, “Death is the best thing that’s ever happened to her [Laura]. And I think it’s true. In her life, she’s sort of lost and stuck, and she doesn’t know what she wants, she just knows she doesn’t want the life that she has. She’s sort of banging her head against a wall. And then she meets Shadow and he’s sort of this dangerous criminal, I mean he’s coming to rob the casino, and it’s exciting for her. She wants to feel something.” Ironically, it’s only when she dies that she actually realizes her feelings for Shadow. “Love is the only good thing that she remembers from her life,” Browning explains. “She never noticed it before, but the only thing that ever felt comfortable and real to her was him. And so, that becomes her mission, to kind of get him back. Which is sort of ironic, because she’s not a sort of romantic, lovable character. She’s sort of awful, but that’s her journey.”
Browning’s take on Laura is refreshing in an industry that is still chock full of female stereotypes and undeveloped tropes. And while Laura’s actions and personality might not be something you want to emulate, that doesn’t mean that her role as the character isn’t important. Her complexity and her flaws make Laura stand above and beyond many of the females being written today. “One thing about her that is inspiring to me, and hopefully inspiring particularly to girls, is just to see a girl on TV who doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks about her. She just doesn’t care,” Browning elaborated. “As a people pleaser, to be able to play a character who is just really couldn’t care less, I think think it’s really… I don’t know, I think we need more of that.”
Co-star Yetide Badaki, who plays the Goddess of Love, Bilquis, was quick to agree. “It was refreshing, you know, to be able to see a woman being incredibly flawed. You then get to see every aspect. It feels like a human being, you get to play a human being.” Badaki and Browning stood on equal ground on the prospect of playing a more compelling female character, one that is more than just physically strong. “I want to play horrible people,” she explained, “and I want to play weak, pathetic people, and like sniveling people, like that’s exciting, I think. The exciting thing about this show is that Laura kind of gets to go between the two.”
While we’ve certainly been seeing a trend towards a more emotionally diverse set of female characters in film, television remains the place to go. From Breaking Bad‘s Skyler to Orange is the New Black‘s Piper, critics and audiences are praising the appearance of intrinsically flawed and interesting characters that have a depth to their character that exists outside of the male characters. “Tv’s the place to be if you’re a woman and you want to play a cool character. It’s like, finally, it’s been a long time. The amount of times that I’ve read a really cool script and I’m like, I love this script but I don’t want to do it because the part that they want me to audition for is like the wife who doesn’t do anything. That’s not fun. That’s not fun for me, but I also think that’s not fun for people to see,” Browning said.
“I think Laura is a person I don’t see that much [on TV]. I think the fact that we’re seeing more and more of those kinds of characters, like these women who are a total mess and don’t know what they want from their lives and they’re like sexually really open. It’s cool to see that kind of thing. I wish I had that when I was a teenager, to see women on TV who represented me and my messy brain,” she added. Indeed, the idea of a woman who is an emotional mess, but still in charge of her own sexuality is often a foreign concept in entertainment, even if the demographic of women who are like that are more prevalent and vocal than ever before. Laura’s sexual dominance and power in her sex scenes demonstrates only one of the many aspects of her character that are so rarely seen on television.
On top of that, as the season progresses, Browning explained that we would be seeing more of Laura’s past, something that was barely touched on in the novels. “I think, perhaps, you understand Laura’s actions in the story a little bit better when you see what she’s dealing with. The thing is, with Laura, [she] doesn’t have a difficult life,” Browning admitted, emphasizing Laura’s own privilege. “I mean, there’s a moment later when she goes back to her childhood home. She’s like grown up wealthy and she’s fine, she doesn’t have any external issues, she’s kind of just a spoiled brat really. But, I do think that it’s interesting to see [how] some people’s brains are wired. Their hormones and chemicals are balanced or imbalanced. It’s just really hard for them to exist, and I think Laura’s one of those people where it’s not desperately bad, but she doesn’t know how to feel joy. And she’s just one of those people who is kind of numb and confused, and I think once you know that about her, you maybe empathize with her a little more.”
A lot of this comes from Browning’s interpretation of the character. The cast agreed that while the creative team got the characters started, the individual actors would continue to shape the character as the show progressed. “When we first signed on only the first five episodes were written, and from then on whenever we would get scripts coming in and you could tell that the character had been shaped, the way they were writing the character had been shaped around your performance, which was really cool, because you feel like you have some part in creating that character. But, I think with Laura especially, I love her character in the book, but you don’t get to learn much about her history, and she’s integral but she only exists in relation to Shadow, and I think it’s really important to learn about her and what made her the way she is, because then I think you empathize with her a little bit more when she does all these morally questionable things,” Browning explained.
The casting process for Laura wasn’t easy, as Fuller divulged. Second to the monumental task of casting Shadow came Laura. “[Emily] captured our hearts, and had such a wonderful understanding of Laura as a young woman. [She] wanted Laura to be a role model for other young women to not give a shit about whatever people think of them and their lives, and that was really inspiring. We had never considered Laura [as a] role model, and Emily said, ‘No, she’s a role model, because women shouldn’t give a shit what other people think and she doesn’t, and she is her own person.'” It comes down to the details, as well, Fuller described talking to Browning about Laura and Browning’s input on Laura’s underarms. “She said, ‘I don’t want her to shave her underarms because that’s a thing that girls do to please men. Laura’s not going to do that.'” In the first sex scene between Shadow and Laura, Whittle has shaved his underarms and Browning hasn’t. “It was a fantastic gender swap for expectations,” Fuller said.
And after being brought back to life, it seems that Laura’s got a one track mind and that’s on Shadow. Despite being essentially shown that she was wrong, that there is something waiting for you after you die, Browning is sure that Laura’s quite smug about being right. “So I think she’s too much of an asshole, I think she’s pleased that she was essentially right [about nothing happening after death], even though obviously she wasn’t.”
This arrogance and smugness is another thing that is so rare when it comes to female characters. Her deep personality flaws under a cool and distant exterior seems to fit the traditional Byronic hero rather than the formulaic love interest. “We’ve been talking about the misconception about what people say when they want strong female characters. For me, I think people think that it means they want a girl who just kicks ass, but I want to play a character who is really intelligent, and I want a character who is a complete idiot, and I want to play a character who is lovely, and I want to play a character who is totally oppressed and has a controlling husband. It’s not about wanting to be one specific thing, it’s about wanting to run the gamut and wanting to play a bunch of different characters, and have them all fleshed out as real three-dimensional human beings,” Browning explained.
“And I think the thing about Laura is that she has a one-track mind. She’s not the kind of person who is like, she’s not a particularly philosophical person. I think [when] she dies, I mean she’s just as unaware of other people’s feelings, it’s just that now she cares about Shadow, and that’s all that she’s thinking about. And when Audrey is like, ‘What are you going to do? Have a zombie baby? A zombie dog?’ She’s so completely arrogant that she’s like, ‘It doesn’t matter that I’m rotting or that I stink, he loves me.’ She’s not a very self-aware, kind, thoughtful person. She’s got her mission, and it’s what she wants, and I’m really excited to see what happens when her and Shadow finally reconnect. I think she’s going to be brought back down to earth.”
And while we’re sure to get some more push back from Wednesday, whose strong personality can only be matched by Laura, Ian McShane seems to think she completes the team perfectly. “In order to make a TV show, as Jean-Luc Godard said ‘it’s a gun, a girl, and a car.’ So we had a gun and a car, but we didn’t have a girl. So Emily completes that beautifully. But Wednesday’s not happy because the attention goes away from me, and I want his full attention.”
“Git Gone” stands as one of the strongest episodes of the season so far, with it’s detailed shots of Laura’s life with Shadow and without. It mixes comedy and the macabre while pinpointing both the fallbacks and highlights of Laura Moon’s life. She’s exciting to watch and we’re certainly hungry for more of Emily Browning’s award winning performance.
American Gods airs on Sunday nights. Episode 5 “Lemon Scented You” premieres May 28th on STARZ at midnight, EST.