Behind the scenes of 'American Gods': 'Sorry about all the blood!'

Actor Ian McShane and the cast of the new drama reveal what it was like to adapt Neil Gaiman's novel of sects and violence.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle have a deity with destiny in "American Gods".

Jan Thijs/Starz Entertainment

"Sorry about all the blood..."

That's how Neil Gaiman introduced the first episode of "American Gods", and he's got a point.

"American Gods" is a new drama from Starz and Amazon , adapted from Gaiman's 2001 novel by "Hannibal" mastermind Bryan Fuller and "Logan" co-writer Michael Green. It's about what's inside us. Faith. Violence. Sacrifice. Lust. And many, many pints of blood.

Watch this: New fantasy thriller 'American Gods' trailer released

The show stars Ricky Whittle as recently bereaved ex-con Shadow, who wanders into a strange underworld when he meets the tricky Mr Wednesday, played by Ian McShane. Emily Browning is Laura Moon, Shadow's wife (or should we say ex-wife?). They're joined by a heavyweight cast including Gillian Anderson, Peter Stormare, Crispin Glover, Kristin Chenoweth, Pablo Schreiber, Sean Harris, Yetide Badaki and newcomer Bruce Langley.

Members of the cast discussed the show at a screening for journalists in London on Thursday, while Neil Gaiman apologised in a video message for the exsanguinary excesses.

Whittle, a former star of British soap opera "Hollyoaks", admits he'd never heard of the book before the role came up -- he only learned about the show when fans petitioned Starz on social media. There followed an arduous five-month audition process in which he made 16 audition tapes. "I felt like I was on 'American Idol'", he laughed.

Once on the show, Whittle bonded with McShane as both support Manchester United. Asked what he would do if he was a god for a day, McShane replied he would "banish Manchester City!" Whittle noted that when he flew his mum out to Canada to visit the set where he played the lead role, she was more interested in meeting McShane.

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Showrunners Fuller and Green are at pains to expand on the book without losing any of the good stuff. "Everything you love from the book is in there", said Whittle, "and so much more". Fans will be kept guessing as to where the story ends up because the season finale -- which McShane describes as a "humdinger" -- isn't in the book.

One of the big divergences is the character of Laura Moon. The show fleshes out the story of Shadow's late wife with an unusual twist in episode 4. Actor Browning also hadn't read the book, but liked the showrunners' vision of the character.

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Emily Browning, Ricky Whittle and Yetide Badaki at the European premiere of "American Gods".

Amazon Prime Video

Laura is "difficult, crass, abrasive and not immediately likeable", Browning said, which immediately drew her in. "I've been to so many meetings to play the 'wife' character," she said, "and I told them if they tell me the wife is the heart and soul of the show I'm out of here. They replied, if anything she's more like the spleen."

One scene that is transferred from page to screen in memorable fashion is our introduction to the goddess Bilquis, who demands worship in a jaw-dropping fashion. Badaki, who plays Bilquis, is an avowed fantasy nerd and Gaiman fan, and remembers reading that shocking chapter in the book.

"I felt a strong reaction to the scene," she said. "It made me go 'Yeah...' And as soon as I was cast I had all these women reaching out to me going 'Yeah!'"

The show introduces us to gods old and new. Leading the new wave of deities is Technical Boy, played by Langley, a newcomer who was entertaining at childrens' parties when he got the nod to appear in the show. Technical Boy reflects our accelerating relationship with technology. Asking the audience who had a smartphone, Langley added "Thank you for your worship".

"American Gods" begins on Starz on Sunday, 30 April. Believers in the rest of the world can worship on Amazon Video from 1 May.

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