For long time fans of the American Gods novel, fancasting the characters comes with a territory. Everyone has their own image of who they think would be perfect for Shadow, for Mr. Wednesday, for Technical Boy. When it came to casting for American Gods, each role presented its own challenges. For a story as diverse as this one, it wasn’t just about finding the best actor who could embody the character, but also a cast that could reflect the diversity of the United States.
As producer Michael Green said, “Part of the casting process for us was meeting people in person who made us see beyond our own internal casting so that suddenly the role either couldn’t be imagined as anyone else or the role got larger than what it was.” For him, it was also about finding inspiration from the actor. “When you’re casting for a television show, you’re trying to meet someone who will inspire the episode you don’t know how to write yet,” he emphasized, “and that’s where I think we got more than fortunate, we got lucky, across the board.”
While there were certainly old Bryan Fuller-verse repeats like Gillian Anderson, Orlando Jones, Kristen Chenowith, and Jonathan Tucker, there was also a deep dive into casting the leading role of Shadow. Although Ricky Whittle was the first to be cast, he was also the most challenging role to cast. As Bryan Fuller explained:
“Ricky auditioned 16 times, and what was interesting about that process was every time Ricky came in he was better, and that was the thing that set him apart. Whereas other actors plateaued, Ricky consistently got better and better and better. Every time he came in he was more Shadow Moon.”
For Whittle, it was an extensive process of discovering and rediscovering the character. He said:
“The thing that was holding me back was reading the book. In my earlier auditions, I was very much Shadow from the book. I was very quiet, very blasé. In the book, Shadow kind of goes along with everything. There’s a beautiful moment in the book where Neil talks about Shadow meeting Laura for the first time and he’s not scared. He walks in and his dead wife is sitting right there, and he says, ‘I can never be scared of her, dead or alive. I’ll always love her.’ And in the written word, that’s beautiful. Neil Gaiman’s words are fantastic. But in real life, I would shit my pants. I would be out the door in a flash, I might go back, because I need to see if it was real. But in the real world? You would freak out a little bit more, and that’s the kind of realism we needed to bring to Shadow. They stopped me reading the book and we made his character more vocal, he asked Mr. Wednesday more questions. You have this mysterious conman, who knows way too much about you — about everything — ask him what’s going on.”
Neil Gaiman also talked about the struggle of finding the perfect Shadow for the series, saying that they saw about four hundred actors for Shadow and that Starz insisted on the character being mixed race as a sense of loyalty to the novel. Gaiman also commented on the people who were initially surprised or even opposed to the idea that Shadow is a mixed race character.
“Yeah, well that’s only because they were lazy. That’s said with an enormous amount of love for my audience, and that’s said as somebody, who, as a little white boy, managed to read novels with characters who were not white and completely miss that fact. What is important to us about Shadow is that he is a mix of races. That is how he is described in the book. When his skin color is described, that is how people react to him. People want to ask about his racial makeup and we got an incredible amount of support on that. When we began talking with Bryan and Michael, I said, you know one of the things that is sacrosanct was the racial mixture. There are many things that are important to me, but actually the most important thing is the racial makeup in the book is the racial makeup.”
After seeking out their perfect Shadow, they then had to find someone to take on the newly extended character of Laura. As Yetide Badaki (“Bilquis”) commented on the expansion of the female characters, saying, “Originally, it felt like, without expanding [the female roles] it became sort of a sausage party.”
Indeed, Fuller and co-showrunner Michael Green elaborated on the importance of fleshing out the female characters and casting someone who understood Laura’s character was the first step. This turned into another long casting process, but one that did not disappoint. Fuller elaborated on this:
“[Emily Browning] 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,’ and even down to really interesting details like, ‘I don’t want her to shave her underarms, because that’s a thing that girls do to please men,’ and so she’s like ‘Laura’s not going to do that.’ And we were like ‘Great!’ And the first bed scene with her and Ricky, Ricky shaves his underarms and Emily doesn’t. It was a fantastic gender swap for expectations.”
While for some, their fancasting for the iconic Mr. Wednesday might have changed with the casting of Ian McShane, for Ricky Whittle (and also his mom) it was the obvious and perfect choice.
“He’s incredible. Anyone who read the book literally says, ‘Oh my god he’s perfect!’ My mum cast him two weeks before he was announced. She wants commission! She said, ‘You know who would be a perfect Mr. Wednesday? Ian McShane.’ Two weeks later, bang, he accepts the role.”
If the casting process for Shadow and Laura was so difficult, that certainly wasn’t the case for all of the cast. With Mr. Nancy, it was as easy as sending in a tweet. “There was a competition that popped up online and somebody looped me into it. It was very strange to have it come together,” Orlando Jones explained.
For the creators, it was exactly the kind of attention that made them notice Jones and consider him for the role. Fuller remembers seeing a tweet of Jones dressed as a dandy standing next to a sign that said Mr. Nancy. “We got on the phone with him, and Michael turned to me and said, ‘We’re done’,” Fuller added.
The cast can’t be complete without a handful of Fuller’s regular casts, and Gillian Anderson seemed to immediately fit the bill for Media. For Fuller, it was a no brainer in casting Anderson and getting her to be a part of the project.
“Media seemed to be the best fit, and also a wonderful challenge for her as an actress, who’s known for very iconic roles, to shift into the personalities of pop culture gods [was] fascinating to see. Her David Bowie scene, Neil has said is his favorite scene in all the eight episodes. The Marilyn Monroe scene is such a fascinating transformation, because she just went there and went there so authentically that we were surprised at the specificity of her impersonation that also kept Media alive and the representation of who the character is, not just as a shell of a dead actor. It’s a hybrid.”
Green elaborated, “She doesn’t do impressions, she takes the persona that she is wearing and weaponizes it to make the point and convince whoever it is she’s trying to convince.” As the face of the new gods, Media not only takes the shape of pop culture but also the shape of an entirely new and unique character.
The cast was more than happy to extol the casting of the series. “This is probably the best ensemble cast I’ve ever seen on TV,” Whittle said. Browning, who talked a lot about the casting of female characters in Hollywood, also talked on the diversity, or the lack thereof, that we see in casting today.
“Unfortunately, the amount of people, even people that I know who are filmmakers and writers, who are talking about diversity in a way that’s like, ‘It’s really hard to cast this film now that we have to consider diversity,'” she explained. “The fact that for Michael and Bryan it’s just not even a question; this should just be the base level of how we think about movies and tv shows. They represent the world and they represent people.”
Badaki agreed with the sentiment, saying, “If there is more representation, then there’s more freedom to do whatever kind. Because you know that that one representation does not stand for everyone in the group.”
In a story that is almost all about the diversity of people as reflected in their gods, the casting was one of the most important aspects of creating this new world. As we move close out season one, the only thought on our mind is when will we get to see the cast again? And who else will be added to the bunch?