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Starz's American Gods will expand female roles and treat religion seriously

Starz’s American Gods might be one of the most anticipated TV shows since Game of Thrones, thanks to a similarly intense fanbase surrounding the Neil Gaiman novel it’s based on and an incredibly deep cast — which includes (but isn’t limited to) Ian McShane, Gillian Anderson, Kristin Chenoweth, Ricky Whittle, Emily Browning, Dane Cook, and Cloris Leachman.

(Like, come on: If you walked into a room and saw all those people together, tell me you wouldn’t be confused and thrilled and everything in between…!)

So even though none of the cast members were present for the show’s August 1 panel during the Television Critics Association summer press tour, the event offered plenty to pique reporters’ interest, with showrunners Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Heroes, Kings) offering a behind the scenes look at the process of adapting Gaiman’s novel into a TV series.

Here are some brief highlights.

American Gods isn’t "colorblind," specifically casting nonwhite actors to honor the source material

Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon.
Starz

Since the book deals with a variety of religions and mythologies as Whittle’s character Shadow Moon meets all kinds of gods living amongst us, American Gods naturally includes nonwhite narratives — a fact the showrunners are well aware of.

"We’re not colorblind casting," Fuller said bluntly. In casting Shadow Moon, he said, they "had to cast the character that was written, which is somebody who is not white." (For what it’s worth: Neither showrunner could remember how many times Whittle auditioned to land this landmark part, eventually landing on a tentative, "16?")

Green agreed, saying that it would make no sense to ignore the specificity of race in the book when the story is "about different cultures" and "ancient mythologies and gods."

Essentially, Fuller said, the American Gods book "is a map that we just stick to."

But that doesn’t mean everything about the novel will be the same. Case in point:

American Gods the TV show will devote more time to the story’s female characters than the book did

Emily Browning as Shadow’s wife, Laura.
Starz

"In the novel," said Fuller, Shadow Moon and Wednesday’s road trip makes the story "very much a sausage party."

Refreshingly, this encouraged him and Green to expand on their female characters rather than stick to that particularly male-heavy emphasis. "We have such fantastic female characters," Fuller enthused, going on to say that they very much wanted to "accordion out" those roles to enrich the story.

Religion is the cornerstone of this show

American Gods discusses many different traditions, cultures, mythologies, and organized religions, and the show will do the same.

"People assume when you say religion, the next step will be divisive," Fuller said. But he and Green maintained that the novel managed to discuss religion in an inclusive way, so that — in Green’s words — you can find something that appeals to you "whether you’re coming at it faithfully or agnostically."

Fuller emphasized that they wanted to show the positive impact that faith and religion can have on both individuals and society at large, since "it’s hard not to recognize the power religion gives to people in their daily lives."

The creative team hopes casting high-profile actors will be "additive and not distracting"

Starz

Whittle and McShane bond as Shadow and Wednesday. (Starz)

As could probably have been expected, many of the questions Fuller and Green got were about their cast.

I couldn’t resist asking about the choice to cast Cook — who has more of a reputation for his brash bro comedy than his acting — as Robbie, Shadow’s best friend and owner of the "Muscle Farm" gym.

Both Fuller and Green laughed. Basically, Green said, they had to find a someone who could play "a really entertaining dick." He continued: "We did go through casting process, saw other people … but when his name came up, it was very hard to see it in a different way."

"[Cook’s] really very savvy as an artist," Fuller added, "and understands the perception of his brand, and how to subvert in the show."

When Fuller was asked about casting Anderson as Media — whom he’d previously tapped for a prominent role on Hannibal — he grinned. "She’s a massive Neil Gaiman fan," he said of why she was so excited to join the show. "They’ve become friends out of this process."

And yes, Fuller loves working with Anderson, too. "If she’s even remotely interested" in a project of his, he said, "the door is wide open."

American Gods will premiere on Starz in 2017.

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