Ian McShane on American Gods: “It’s kinda good to have a bit of creative chaos”
Ivan Radford | On 11, Mar 2019Reading time: 6 mins
Today, American Gods returns to Amazon Prime Video for Season 2. The fantasy epic, based on the book by Neil Gaiman, premiered two years ago, introducing us to the world of Mr. Wednesday (McShane), a mysterious figure trying to rally the Old Gods (Easter, Ibis, Bilquis) to fight the New Gods (Technology, Media) in a battle for followers and belief. To do this, he hires Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a seemingly ordinary man, who has just left prison to attend the funeral of his wife, Laura (Emily Browning).
The show made a splash with its striking visuals and complex mythology, but also became known for the struggles going on behind-the-scenes. Original showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green left the production in 2017, while starting to write Season 2, with Jesse Alexander (Star Trek) stepping in, only for him, too, to exit the show last year. McShane joined Whittle and Browning to talk about the show’s return at preview event in London last week, and promptly stole the evening by talking frankly about the show, the characters – and the off-screen drama that led to such a delay between Season 1 and 2.
“I think the first season was visually exciting and the stuff that Michael and Bryan added to it [was good], but when you saw it eventually, I thought it got a little too far away from the book,” he said of Season 1. “Sometimes, you need to reward [the audience]. If they’re going to watch it, you can’t tease them forever. There was a fantastic show called Carnivale, but it went nowhere. You watch two shows and you go ‘Can I have a little something instead of just keeping teasing me?’ I think after the episode with Ridky telling his backtory and Emily’s character, we had to a make a sort of mad dash finish. But it kinda worked out.”
He highlighted the shift in focus for Season 2, which “gets back to the characters”.
“Bilquis doesn’t just eat men anymore,” he continued. “She’s an actual woman, you know what I mean?”
Season 2 picks up as Mr. Wednesday gathers the Old Gods at The House on the Rock, an actual, bizarre house in Wisconsin, stuffed with oddities and rare artefacts.
“It’s a roadside attraction, which America is full of,” he explained. “I remember going to Atlanta, filming there, and going to see the Civil Rights Museum and there were 3 people in that and 150,000 people queuing up for The Word of Coca-Cola. It says a lot about people, but this House on the Rock is an extraordinary place… And there was this carousel and all these lights and it’s just one of those places. And that’s why we go there, because they’re places of energy, because people go there, and where people gather together, there is energy and that’s what Gods feed of.”
Of adapting the novel for the screen, McShane admitted it’s a “difficult book because you don’t want to give away too much, but, on the other hand, you have to give something for the audience to remain”.
“Michael and Bryan did a fantastic job of introducing it,” he added. “Whatever went on, you never know, because lawyers came in, so you’ll never know the true story.”
“Hubris! Money! Greed!” he joked. “We’ll never know, because nobody can speak. You’ll never know the reasons because there are gag orders not to talk about it, but they left behind lots of ideas, which could still be used. It was a question of who the hell was going to step in. Top writer? Top showrunner? Step into that job in Season 2? No, you needed an editor who was willing to come in and sort out and clean it and then, towards the end, be a little more creative. And Jesse did his best, and it was fine, up to a point. Then it became a question of how do you end the show again, what you do to set the stage for Season 3. And I think, yeah, we did not a bad job on it, you know?”
He also spoke about Deadwood, the Western created by David Milch, which starred McShane, and which will return to HBO soon for a movie.
“Having worked on shows like Deadwood, it’s kinda good to have a bit of creative chaos going on behind the… no, really!” he commented. “I know it’s tough at the time, but when we did Deadwood, Milch was never satisfied. There was never a finished script, because he was too busy watching the process of how the script went and then he’d adjust to the characters later on in the episode. It weren’t sort of ‘I’ve written six scripts and you’re gonna say every word’. That’s like network TV, you will say this whatever, but this is different, and he’d tweak it, Milch. And that was what was kinda good about [American Gods].”
He described going back to Deadwood as “surreal”.
“It was 13 years later and it was exactly the same… because everybody got in, respected what they did, yet this time, you’d finish a scene and you’d go ‘Well, this is goodbye’. Because the first time, it was abrupt, the ending, whatever happened…”
“Television done like this is really exciting,” he went on to say. “Because it changes every week, it’s not terrestrial television and the people producing it don’t interfere.”
As for the future of American Gods, McShane teased that Season 2 will introduce new Gods, as well as give us more of familiar deities.
“Anansi, Bilquis, Ibis… you really haven’t met them much,” said McShane. “You had the one scene with Orlando [Jones, who plays Anansi], which was phenomenal, this one scene on the slave ship, and then he disappeared after that. And coming back this year to that, still bit of a road trip with Ricky and I, you get a backstory of Sweeney, you understand why he’s so angry and hurt, and my character, you go back to when Wednesday… in the 30s, when he was someone else.”
Will it ever be as big as Game of Thrones?
“I don’t think it’ll ever be like that,” mused McShane. “I know it sounds funny, but it’s a much more complicated show. I love this show, I really love doing it, and the actors are great, everyone gets on with it, there’s no friction. Season 2 will be really good. Season 3 will have to change again, because the book shifts tone all the time… Who knows? It’s complicated. It’s good.”
American Gods Season 2 premieres on Amazon Prime Video in the UK on Monday 11th March, with new episodes arriving weekly. Season 1 is also available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.