The new Starz's new series "American Gods," adapted from the bestselling novel by fantasy author Neil Gaiman, would be epic, mythic, and frequently mind-blowing. They expected it would resonate. But the creators and cast of the eagerly anticipated adaptation had no idea, throughout the years-long development process to bring it to the screen, that by the time it was broadcast that it would be so relevant.
Despite the fact that Gaiman's book was published in 2001, somehow its central themes are at the center of recent American political discourse in 2017: issues of immigration; inequality; polarization; flasher, more dangerous, and more powerful new systems supplanting the old, weakening establishment; and the essential fabric of the American psyche. The material, 16 years after its introduction, was taking on a red-hot immediacy, a realization that only gradually dawned on executive producer and showrunner Bryan Fuller ("Hannibal").
"I think our first indication of that was when we were watching dailies from a scene that featured Orlando Jones, and his introduction as the African trickster god, Mr. Nancy," says Fuller. "It's relative in a Black Lives Matter sort of way -- he was in a slave hold with 30-40 slaves played by black actors. And after his first take, they all gave him a standing ovation. That was the first time we thought, 'Oh, this is more than just the fun show that we wanted to see.' There are themes in the book that really speak to people deeply."
"It was mind-blowing," says actress Yetide Badaki, who plays a Bilquis, a contemporary incarnation of the Biblical Queen of Sheba who lives in the modern world as a carnivorously worship-seeking prostitute, of the increasing prescience of the subject matter."I woke up thinking, Who had the crystal ball all this time?" laughs Bedaki. "I guess Neil sees into the future. I'm absolutely stunned at how something that was written in 2001 and was filmed last year has become so incredibly topical. Every episode now I'm seeing through a new lens. It's possible that as artists we were tapping into the psyche, and feeling something that was on the horizon, because I think viewers are going to be absolutely fascinated by how relevant all of this is at this time."
"I would be very happy if it wasn't this relevant," admits Gaiman. "I'd be perfectly happy if it were not quite as timely. The headlines that say things like, 'Is "American Gods" the most political show of 2017?' 'Is "American Gods" the most important show of 2017?' They are wonderful. I would trade them for a slightly stabler world right now, and feeling like I understood what was going on."
Gaiman admits that the very notion for the novel was unique in the way that it first struck him, lingering in a way that typically unformed creative sparks don't. "It's weird, because most books you don't [remember when the idea first came to you]," says Gaiman. "They slowly congeal, and then suddenly you look down and this is a book.
"In this case, I was really tired, I was in Reykjavik, in Iceland," the author recalls. "I had not slept for about two days, due to it being the eternal summer. I looked down at a tabletop diorama of the voyages of Leif Erikson going from Iceland, to Greenland, to Newfoundland, which they call Vinland. I looked at it and I thought, I wonder if they took their gods with them?
"Then there was a beat, and then I thought, I wonder if they took their gods away when they went home. And suddenly I had a book. It was just like, 'This is a book.' A couple of days later, as soon as I had some down time, I wrote an essay and sent it to my agent and to my editor, and said, 'This is the idea, this is the story. By the way, I'm calling it "American Gods" right now. That's the working title, but I'm sure I will come up with something better.' And I never did."For many of the actors in the series, the mythic nature of the material and the iconic gods that populate it provided an initial allure. Jones says that his role, Mr. Nancy, derived from the African deity Anansi, "has been a character my great grandparents and grandparents have been reading to me since before I knew what Neil Gaiman was. In that sense, I guess it's always been a part of my life."
"As it relates to mythology in general," adds Jones, "the prototypes are the prototypes, the gods are the gods. They shift from region to region, but by and large, they kind of remain the same. I think what's interesting about this exploration is the themes and metaphors that you find are at play with a book written before there was an iPhone that finds itself so relevant technologically. And also just in terms of how humankind seems to be moving. Those things make this incredibly special."Others, like Corbin Bernsen, who plays Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and, adapting contemporaneously, guns -- a character created especially for the series -- were attracted by what "American Gods" had to say about instantly relatable topics like generational change.
"The idea of what's going on, the old gods coming out and dealing with the new gods, that I very much am invested in on a daily basis," says Bernsen. "Trying to, like all people, figure out where the hell we are in our lives. I think this is really timely, if it can be reduced to somewhat metaphoric of where we are right now ... Going down the rabbit hole of the mythology is one thing, but going down the rabbit hole of humanity? I'm somewhere around mid-Earth right now."
"We shot our scenes primarily in a working penitentiary in Oklahoma, in the middle of that state," says Jonathan Tucker, who plays Low-Key Lyesmith, an incarnation of Loki, the Norse god of mischief. "It added an extraordinary amount of authenticity to our work there. And also, it felt very right that a show about America, about the themes of Middle America, of what we brought to this country as immigrants, what we worshipped when we came here, what we've left behind, all the new things that have been brought to the shores of this country by the immigrants that make up this beautiful nation."
"It felt very right that we were in Oklahoma," Tucker adds, "that we were in this area that is not Hollywood, that's not a backlot, it's not a studio, we're not in Toronto -- this was real, man. That was just something you can't quantify."Ultimately for Gaiman, with all the increasing urgency and zeitgeist appeal that the show has accumulated, it was the simple pleasure of seeing characters he conceived and lines of dialogue he wrote come to life on the soundstage that resonated the most. "In Episode 2, watching Gillian Anderson playing Media, the new god of all of you [journalists and bloggers], having taken on the form of 'The Lucy Show,' and talking on a big screen to Shadow Moon, was just absolutely unbelievable for me," he says.
"It's not just as good as I imagined," he adds. "It's better than I imagined. You treasure those moments as an author."
"American Gods" premieres Sunday, April 30th on Starz.
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