Interview with Ricky Whittle, Star of American Gods and The 100

To celebrate the upcoming Supanova Comic-Con and Gaming exhibition in Sydney this weekend, I sat down for a phone chat with the cheerful and charming Ricky Whittle earlier this week. You may have seen him as Calvin Valentine on Hollyoaks, Lincoln in The 100, and as protagonist Shadow Moon in the new series based on Neil Gaiman's beloved book, American Gods (it has been blowing up just a tad lately).

Below we talk about Australian time zones, Ricky's fandom, some of the American Gods cast's interesting on-set pranks, and some hints about where Shadow might be headed next year for Season 2 of the acclaimed drama.

Chris: First of all, thank you so much for sitting down to talk with me. It's morning here, but I gather it's late night there for you in Los Angeles?

Ricky: It's just come into the evening, yeah. It's not too bad. I was just saying that the time difference isn't too bad when I come to Australia. Because you're so far ahead it's almost like a whole day for me, whereas when I go to Europe it's like seven or eight hours so it kind of really messes with your body clock, whereas I found this when I went to Australia, I was able to adapt to your timezone very quickly.

C: Well that's good, because most people sort of have the opposite approach, and say "Oh you guys are so far ahead, and when I get home my sleep schedule is so messed up." Nice to know someone likes it here.

R: [laughs] I love it, I can't wait to get back.

C: You're coming to Sydney for Supanova this weekend, after you did Brisbane and Adelaide last year - is this going to be your first time in Sydney?

R: This is gonna be my first time in Sydney. When I was in Brisbane and Adelaide I was really tempted to fly to Sydney because, I mean, it's such an important and incredible city. People still think it's the capitol of Australia. But we had so many fantastic things planned throughout the week that I wanted to stay and just enjoy my time in Brisbane and Adelaide - which I did. I had a fantastic time, I got the opportunity to take in the wildlife and those cities. And now I've again got the opportunity to come back to my bucket list country and really take in a lot more of the country.

Sydney is somewhere I've really wanted to go to, I want to take in all the sights. I've had a lot of friends from Sydney; my Dancing With The Stars partner Natalie Lowe was from Sydney, I've got a lot of friends I've acted with throughout my career from Sydney, and you guys are kind of world-renowned, having a great time and loving life. So I'm looking forward to getting there, and then Perth is the complete opposite end of the country. I've been told nothing is nearby, it's in the middle of nowhere, but I kinda like that, I love the fact that I'm just gonna be one with nature and the people of Perth. So I'm looking forward to taking in both cities.

C: How does it feel to play Shadow on American Gods so far? What's been your experience with that as we near the end of the first season?

R: It's been a lot of fun. A lot of fun. Very taxing, very intense, because Shadow is basically the universe's punchbag. He didn't get to know his father, his mother died when he was young, the one person, the one thing he had in this life - Laura, his wife - was taken from him. He was released from prison and fights a six foot five leprechaun, and gets strung up by a group of faceless goons in a tree. He's constantly being battered left right and centre, both physically and emotionally, and it's been a very taxing shoot for both myself and poor Shadow.

I'm looking forward, as he grows as a character and is awakened to everything in this world. His struggle in the first season was always "Is he going crazy, or is the world actually crazy, and there's magic in the world?" So now that he's slowly coming to terms with the fact that maybe there is another layer to this universe, I'm looking forward to kind of growing in confidence, earning that personality, because he was so broken after losing everything. I wanted to start him off as this kind of empty vessel, and as the show progresses we're going to see him grow and it's going to be a great journey that I kinda get to play as an actor.

C: Do you feel there's any pressure for your performance when it comes to fans of the show, and meeting expectations that book readers might have? Do those expectations factor into your performance?

R: For sure, yeah, without doubt. For me, this isn't just any role. This is a iconic character in an iconic book, you know? Neil Gaiman is a rockstar of the book world, and this is possibly his most famous
book, along with various others, but this is the lead character. This is a character that has been imagined for sixteen years, to the point where the fans have made this a biography. They know exactly how he should be and how he's supposed to look. So when I booked the role there was a huge pressure to kind of deliver this Shadow that they've imagined for sixteen years. The initial press was fantastic, all the fans were tweeting online and Instagramming me and saying, "You look perfect, you're exactly as I imagined, but don't fuck it up." [laughs] There was a huge amount of pressure, like, "Oh that's wonderful, great, I'm exactly as you imagined," and then they kinda hit you with that, it's like "Oh, yeah, there's a lot of pressure."

But yeah, the response has been fantastic. It's those fans of the book that realise those nuances I'm kinda making to Shadow as a character. New fans to the show, and to Neil Gaiman's work on Shadow Moon, will learn to appreciate the journey that I'm gonna try and get Shadow through. But yeah, it's those fans of the book that kinda see that I've kept that responsibility to the book, and it's always going to be their Shadow, because I felt that that's what they deserved. But the adaptation to screen had to be a little bit more. So they've really seen what I've done with it, and the compliments have been fantastic. I'm very proud of what we've achieved.

C: Speaking as a fan of the book, I'm quite keen on what you've done with the character so far, in how it's both in line with and very unique from the book version. So personally, I think you're doing a fantastic job.

R: I appreciate that, thank you!

C: Do you find that your fanbase is having a different reception to Shadow than they have to characters you've played on shows like Hollyoaks and The 100?

R: I've been very fortunate to have an incredible fanbase, and to be quite honest, I wouldn't be standing where I am today if it wasn't for the fans. They literally introduced this project to me. I didn't know about American Gods and I'd never heard of Neil Gaiman. I then learned that I did know of his work in Coraline, Sandman and Stardust, and I didn't realise it was him. But when Starz put out the search for casting Shadow, they asked the fans who they wanted to play their lead character in Shadow, and my name came forward a lot, and that's when it kind of popped up on my radar. So I owe this all to the fans, and I really appreciate the opportunities that they've given me, and the fact that they're enjoying my take on it is kind of a nice little pat on the back for me. There was great pressure, but things seemed to go well so far.

C: When you were here in Australia last year, it was for The 100, after you'd been cast as Shadow. You've said in a previous interview that fans came to you with American Gods paraphernalia and were getting you to sign things, having a pretty positive reaction before they'd even seen you in the show. Do you think the reaction of your fans in Australia this time around is going to be different to how it was last year?

R: I have a great connection with my fans, I owe my whole career to their support and love. I'm always very grateful to all my fans. Fortunately, a lot of them, especially in the sci-fi fandom, they're so fiercely passionate and loyal, that they've actually followed me from The 100 onto American Gods, so I'm probably planning on seeing a lot of fans of The 100 and American Gods. But what this opens me up to is a new group of fans in the book world, so I'm imagining a lot of fans coming along with books and wanting me to sign those, whereas in The 100 it was all posters. So yeah, I'm looking forward to seeing the difference in the people that attend the show, and hopefully I get to say thank you for all their support and love throughout this year.

C: Well watch out on Saturday, because I may be one of those fans lining up with a book for you to sign.

R: Oh really? That'd be great, buddy! It'd be good to see you - definitely pop by and say hi!

C: I will! Have there been any particularly funny or interesting stories from filming on the set?

R: Various, various stories. I think the most known one is my pranks of welcoming Pablo Schreiber and Kristin Chenoweth to the set by plastering their whole trailer with my headshots and pictures of myself. Literally in their microwaves, in their wardrobes, in their shower, under the toilet seat, so when they lift it up my face is there. I've literally covered their walls with my face. And they kept them up for the rest of the season, I felt very grateful. So that was a lot of fun. I put rotten eggs into Pablo's actor's chair. Ian McShane's a bit of a prankster too, always tells jokes and cracks me up, and then keeps a straight face so I get in trouble while I'm giggling like a schoolgirl.

And then there was the time where we thought the gods were against us; there were so many things that went wrong whilst we were filming, it was insane. We had a fire on set, we had two absolute freak thunderstorms that flooded our whole location, and we had to stop filming and come back another day. We had various cranes that would break, and it really did feel like the gods were against us, like maybe we upset them and they weren't happy with us making a show them and they were punishing us. So fortunately we got it finished, and hopefully Season 2 won't be that eventful.

C: I guess there's a funny little irony about the gods not liking a show about the gods.

R: [laughs] Right.

C: It's been said previously about the show that the first season finale, which airs next week, is kind of outside the scope of the book, and it's doing something that's gonna be surprising to both newer fans of the show and old-hand fans of the book. Can you give us a hint about where Shadow might be at the end of Season 1, and where he might start off in Season 2?

R: Everything that's in the book is going to be in the show, no need to worry about that. I think that's why it's been so well-received, is that they're getting everything that they loved in the book and then so much more. That's why I think the reception has been so fun and so great, with the fleshing out of sporadic characters like Mad Sweeney, Bilquis and Laura, with the scenarios they're given. It's been great. The finale's the same; what they've done is build a finale that's going to drag you headlong into Season 2. It's going to leave the audience both in awe and frustrated that they won't know what's happening next. Even if you have read the book, you don't know everything.

Bryan [Fuller] and Michael [Green] are very clever in weaving together both the new storyline and the old storyline, so we kinda find Shadow at the end of the season on the edge. He's kind of not believing. He's spent this whole season going to the logical answer of, "Maybe he was high, maybe he was imagining all these fantastical elements and things happening around him." He's always kind of trying to explain it, but Mr. Wednesday even said to him, "Are you crazy, or is the world crazy?" Finally Shadow has to make that decision in the season finale, as Mr. Wednesday reveals to him a very large secret. We're also going to see the culmination of Mad Sweeney and Laura's road trip, as they finally catch up to Shadow, and as we kind of see in the penultimate episode, there's more to that relationship than meets the eye. So it's all going to kick off, and it's all going to climax at the end of the season.

Unfortunately, you're probably going to have to wait a good year before Season 2. We're in the writers room at the moment, and we've not jumped onto set yet. So, fingers crossed you stay with us! [laughs]

C: I think it's safe to say that if people weren't excited before - which they were - then they definitely are now, and I think you won't have a problem with them waiting for when Season 2 drops. The quality is just been so outstanding; you've got a whole lot of fans who are going to stay with you right to the end.

R: Thank you, I appreciate it. It's almost frightening, you know. This is Season 1. It's already in my opinion the best ensemble cast I've ever seen, so I'm looking forward to seeing who joins that cast in Season 2. And I've never done a Season 1 that's had so much press, so much hype. Normally Season 2 is when shows start to blow up as people kind of get around to it, or Season 3 when people catch up on their various systems - which is gonna be Amazon Prime video in Australia - so it's gonna be exciting for Season 2, because I'm sure we're gonna blow up as people are gonna catch up and binge watch. I'm really looking forward to seeing where we go, and hopefully we can blow your minds again.

C: As you said before, American Gods is such an important book, and I think you and the ensemble, writers and production team are definitely doing it justice. I read the book several years ago and always wanted to see it on screen, and it's just exactly as I imagined. So I think it's definitely a credit to you and to Michael Green and Bryan Fuller, and it's just an amazing show. Just speaking quietly as a fan!

R: Oh wow. Oh that means a lot to me, thank you so much. I appreciate that. Thank you so much. It was definitely an intense shoot.

American Gods is available to stream in Australia on Amazon Prime now.

Supanova Sydney is on at Olympic Park this weekend, June 17-18. Tickets can be bought here.


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