SXSW 2017 Interview | Playing God(s) with the ‘American Gods’ Cast
You can’t have a series called American Gods without some honest-to-goodness gods. Neil Gaiman’s best-selling novel imagines a United States populated by deities who come into existence when mortal beings start to worship them, and that means that old gods like Bilquis, Anansi and many more will make an appearance in the new television series, debuting next month on STARZ. But it also means that new idols have risen over the centuries, and that audiences will be introduced to modern day deities like Technical Boy, Media and Mr. World.
American Gods made its exciting premiere at SXSW 2017 last weekend and the producers, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, brought many of these new American Gods with them. I sat down with cast members Yetide Badaki (Bilquis), Bruce Langley (Technical Boy) and Crispen Glover (Mr. World) to talk about their daunting new task of being the audience’s new (and old) gods, and also with cast member Betty Gilpin, who plays one of the human beings who gets dragged into the bizarre story of American Gods.
American Gods premieres on STARZ on April 30, 2017. [Editor’s Note: This interview describes some key moments from the first few episodes of the series.]
Crave: It’s an obvious question, but I think people are going to want to know, were you fans of the book before you were cast?
Yetide Badaki: Yes, yes, yes! I think we already know what a geek I am. I will watch or read anything that has a hint of sci-fi or fantasy so I actually read the book when it first came out, and I’m a huge Neil Gaiman fan, so… YES. The answer is “yes.”
Bryan Fuller has such a distinctive style to his shows, and Michael Green as well. Is working them different than working with people on other television programs or movies? Or from perspective is it all just about the character?
Bruce Langley: I mean, I can’t speak from working on an abundance of other tv shows, but I think it’s a trickle-down mentality. So these guys are, they’re our patriarchs. They’re our leaders. They’re our family heads in many ways and they really do set the tone for the entire production. It’s an incredibly safe place to work. It’s loving, it’s caring, and I think that really does come down from them. So working with them and the whole experience of American Gods wouldn’t be the same without because of the environment they create for us to work, play, fail, laugh and enjoy ourselves along the way.
I’ve seen the first episode, and Yetide Badaki, you have quite a scene.
Yetide Badaki: [Laughs.] Yeah…
You get to swallow someone with your lady bits.
Yetide Badaki: Right, right.
How do you play that?
Yetide Badaki: [Laughs.] Well, first off, exactly what Bruce said there earlier. Exactly because a safe space has been created, you can go into that space and you can explore and find new things, and you know they’re going to make it gorgeous and interesting and fascinating. There are also a lot of levels underneath of what does that all mean? What is being shown about power and agency, especially of the feminine? So there are all these other things to think about and play with so that you’re not just thinking “Oh wait, I’m swallowing a guy with my…” [Laughs.] What did you say, “Lady bits?”
Crispen Glover: The first time I watched it what I liked about that scene was that there are so many layers to it. It certainly wasn’t just that kind of description. I mean ultimately that happens in there but there is a lot more going on, which seems to happen in general with the Neil Gaiman writing and the dramaturgy that’s being put forth by Michael and Bryan. So there’s a lot going on. All of the actors sitting here, there is depth. My part is, I don’t mean to include myself because you haven’t seen me yet, but all three of these actors really have a lot of depth and different elements that might seemingly be on the page.
There are a lot of layers. I’m curious, do you have conversations with Bryan, Michael, Neil, the directors about the philosophical, religious implications about everything you do? Or is that left to your own devices?
Yetide Badaki: I would say that it’s a combo. It’s a conversation, it’s exactly that, a conversation where yes, you come with certain ideas and levels and they tell you certain things that they were thinking and then you start that dialogue. And you go, “Okay, that’s interesting, you were thinking this. How do we incorporate…?” So it is, it’s a dialogue, and that includes Neil and Bryan and Michael, and then the people that you’re playing with and the people on set and the visual [artists]. Also as you can tell there’s a lot of topical stuff going on, so things that came in on the day as well.
Betty Gilpin: I do feel like there was a really fun duality to play with in this script, of a simultaneous Greek tragedy level and then a very modern, noir-y, comic book-y type, very naturalist thing going on. For me it varied sentence to sentence, it kind of let you weave in and out of these stakes, of screaming at the sky, and then you’re talking out the side of your mouth. I think they let everybody go as far as they wanted to go on that day. I think that really shows in the pilot.
A lot of the older gods that we see have classical descriptions, but the newer gods like Technical Boy and Mr. World, you get to create that godlike personae and iconography from, obviously Neil Gaiman’s writing, but a lot of it is going to be your performance. Is playing a god different in any way than playing a person? Does it require more gravitas?
Crispen Glover: I keep saying that when I first met with Michael and Bryan, something that they said to me about my character was, “We are the world, we are the children.” And I liked that. It actually really means something.
Bruce Langley: In terms of approaching it with more gravitas, I think it’s a similar vein to approaching something as a quote-unquote “bad guy,” which is something that, an actor, you never do that. You never approach it along that way. You approach it as a character. With Tech Boy the really interesting thing is he literally thinks on a different paradigm of thought. So in terms of biological brain cycles he is literally thinking faster and differently than everything else that’s living, so that was a lot of fun.
I think what I’m getting at is that, as a god, you are by definition worshipped. That’s got to affect your mentality, that’s got to affect your confidence and the way you interact with and view the world.
Yetide Badaki: The interesting thing about that question is, and this was mentioned earlier, that part of what we’re talking about is how belief becomes cemented. So we exist because people believe in us. And yes, you do take worship, and there’s something that makes you very dependent, actually, on the worshippers as well. One of the questions that we’re asked often is, “What god would you want to be?” and I’m going, I would want to be one of the people. Because if you are able to create a god, how powerful must you be?
Bruce Langley: Very cool. Very cool.
I’m not sure I can top that but I am curious, Betty Gilpin, your role has been expanded a lot from the books. In the books you kind of vanish after the first couple of chapters.
Betty Gilpin: Yeah.
But we see in episode four, you get to go on the road a bit. Can you tell us about where you’re going? I know you don’t want to ruin it, but we tease this?
Betty Gilpin: Yeah, I think Audrey is sort of used to being the friend in Laura’s movie about her life. I think that she is sort of used to being her [Laura’s] sidekick and I think she kind of, in episode four, she gives it back to her and tells her what for, really. There’s a kind of freedom in Laura being dead, that Audrey can say all the things she’s wanted to say to her face. I think for fans of the book that’s going to be so fun. It’s as if they get to go into the book and walk around inside and go into doors that are just described as walking past, and kind of choose your own adventure through all these characters. Audrey gets to be one of those doors and there are hundreds of others.
Are there particular moments that were part of the production, or a part of your characters, that you’re particularly excited for people to see?
Bruce Langley: There are definitely some bits. Orlando Jones’s introduction to the series at the start of episode two is something I am incredibly excited for people to see. His introduction as Anansi, or Mr. Nancy, I shan’t tease or spoil any more than that but when it happens people will know. I’m really looking forward to it.
I got to see that bit. I knew he was an underrated performer but god damn…
Yetide Badaki: Amazing.
What about you…?
Yetide Badaki: Well, that’s exactly what I was going to say because growing up in Nigeria, telling stories by the fire, we were told all these Anansi stories. I had never seen a live-action depiction of Anansi. This, in my knowledge, is the first I’ve seen out there. So to see Orlando in that scene, just, he kills it. He knocks it out of the park. I can’t wait for people to see it.
Crispen Glover, anything in particular…?
Crispen Glover: It sounds funny but I purposefully haven’t read the book because I know that if I do, I’ll start getting conceptions in my head about how not only it should be played, but how it should be interpreted. I don’t want to go, “Oh, well this isn’t right,” because I trust Michael and Bryan. So I want to be informed, essentially, as things are coming into me so I don’t have that preconceived element. I know I can get that way if it’s based on a literary element, and I just know the literary element is excellent and the people that are interpreting it know what they’re doing as well. So I know probably less than everybody sitting at the table.
What is it that you get that way about? What do you get invested in, the way that people get invested in American Gods?
Crispen Glover: Well, I’ve made my own films as well and it’s something I’ve been thinking about, which could be a problem for acting. It’s a different kind of thought process, I find, for the directing versus the acting or the creation of the scene, and I don’t want to get into that part of my head.
Have you talked to Neil at all about your performance?
Crispen Glover: No, I worked with him on Beowulf, which I think came out in , and that’s when I met and talked to him. He’s a great person and I know that internally and what he’s doing as a writer is excellent so I have complete in him as well.
He’s given you no input on Mr. World?
Crispen Glover: I haven’t talked to him since this has come around. I look forward to talking to him but I haven’t since 2007 or 2008.
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Top Photo: Jonathan Leibson-Getty Images for Starz
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.