In 'American Gods,' Even Deities Have The Immigrant Experience
The new Starz series American Gods is based on Neil Gaiman's fantasy novel of the same name, and it's many things: a road novel, a collection of mythologies, and a reflection of the immigrant experience.
The story follows an ex-convict named Shadow Moon, newly released from prison when he meets a mysterious man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday and offers Shadow a job as a bodyguard and chauffeur.
After some initial hesitation, Shadow accepts the job, and he and Mr. Wednesday head out on the open road, where much of American Gods takes place.
"It's a glorious American tradition," says Neil Gaiman. "If you take some people, you put them on the road, you see what happens to them, and you find out who they meet on the way."
The "who" that Shadow and Mr. Wednesday meet are far from ordinary, though. They're gods from different mythologies around the world. These gods are living as humans all over the United States, brought here when their believers first came to this country — as explorers, slaves, or immigrants.
There's Anansi, the African trickster spirit, who also takes the form of a spider; Anubis, the ancient Egyptian god of the dead; Bilquis, also known as the Queen of Sheba, and many others.
Gaiman says he was inspired by his own immigrant experience, when he moved to the United States in 1992. "I wanted to understand the country I was in and the culture that I was in, so I wrote what is an immigrant novel about immigration," he says. "It's about the fact that this is a huge and wonderful country that is filled with people who came here from somewhere else — but that, when I wrote it seemed probably the least contentious thing that I could possibly put in a novel."
Now, he says, we live in a world where immigrants are villified and immigration is seen as a suspicious thing. And he's somewhat baffled that the concept he wanted to celebrate is now considered fairly controversial.
"There is a madness in the world right now," he says, "and if American Gods is a political show, it has become a political show only because the world has changed."
Showrunners Michael Green and Bryan Fuller say they didn't set out to make a political show either, though it does touch on topics like religion and police brutality. One historical flashback depicts the god Anansi — played by Orlando Jones — telling his believers, on a slave ship bound for America, what they can expect.
"You arrive in America," Anansi says, "land of opportunity, milk and honey, and guess what — you all get to be slaves, split up and sold off and worked to death. A hundred years after you get free, you're still getting ... shot at by police."
"It wasn't so much a political agenda as much as it was telling an American experience story," Fuller says.
Both showrunners are comfortable with the fact that their show touches on some hot button issues, ones that might not be welcome at the dinner table.
"You're not supposed to talk about politics at the dinner table," says Michael Green, "but television isn't the dinner table. Television the thing you want people to be yelling about at the dinner table."
And the show hopes it will give audiences plenty to yell about. Gaiman says that's where the show has an advantage over the book. "The show gets to do what I would have done if I'd had unlimited pages. I was always very aware that there were places I couldn't go, stories I couldn't tell because I didn't have an infinite amount of space."
So far, the hardest part for the showrunners has been representing these different myths and cultures in a fantasy setting without turning them into caricatures, and much of that lay in the casting.
"It was a foregone conclusion that we were going to cast authentically to the characters and their respective cultural and ethnic backgrounds," Fuller says. The casting of these gods was "the line in the sand," Gaiman adds. "We aren't whitewashing, we aren't changing things. We are being true to the characters."
Both Fuller and Green admit this was a learning process. As they've started the casting process, they consulted with Neil Gaiman, who sometimes had to correct them.
"He'd go, 'no, you haven't done your reading about that,'" Green remembers, "and so we had to do our reading! That isn't that hard, you just have to take an interest in it."
"We were both fans of the book," Fuller adds, "so really our vision was to get the audience the images that we conjured when reading it."
Images like a goddess having sex with a man and devouring him through her vagina, improbable bank heists, and fantastical fight scenes. And old gods, struggling to find their place in a country that's become indifferent — even hostile — to them.
"It's very relatable to be lost and searching," Fuller says. "There can't be a human being brought into this world that isn't lost and searching at some point in their character arc."
Adds Green: "It's fundamental to American Gods. People came here, whether you're first, second, third generation. You're still defining yourself as American in the mirror of where you came from, where your families came from. That's all part of the process of finding yourself in America."