2:51pm PT by Bryn Elise Sandberg
'American Gods:' 11 Key Takeaways From the Starz Drama's TCA Panel
Starz doesn't yet have a pilot for its highly anticipated drama American Gods, but that didn't stop the premium cable network from sitting the creators down in front of reporters Monday at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour.
Showrunners Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Green Lantern) took the Beverly Hilton stage and fielded a handful of questions about the upcoming show, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's popular 2001 fantasy novel of the same name.
If one thing was clear, the duo — who met a decade ago on NBC's Heroes — work together seamlessly. "My favorite part of this project is working with Michael. I look at his writing and I am as inspired by it, as I am by Neil's," said Fuller. "For me, that's just a big safety net because I know I don't have to rewrite anything Michael does."
From how closely the television version will follow the original book to why they are "consciously aware of color in the cast" to how they chose Dane Cook to play a key character, the pair teased quite a bit about the drama, which is set for a 2017 debut.
No Colorblind Casting Here
The 100 alum Ricky Whittle plays the protagonist in the series, Shadow Moon — which raised a question among reporters in the room about whether or not the creators intentionally set out to find a non-white actor for the part. (The character in the book, though racially ambiguous, is described at one point as having "cream-and-coffee" skin.) "It was never really a question of doing otherwise for us," said Fuller. "It just felt like in order to be true to the book, you had to cast the character that is written, which is someone who is not white."
Added Green: "When you do a show like this that has so much about people's cultures coming in, you need to be culturally literate in all respects. We're dealing with ancient mythologies and gods and those come from places and look a certain way, and that just set the tenor for the whole thing." Fuller went to clarify that they're not "colorblind casting" but rather are intentionally assembling a diverse cast. "We're actually very consciously aware of color in the cast and ethnic specificity because the book is so culturally specific. There have been times where a character has been described as having very dark skin, and we make a suggestion to Neil, like, 'Oh, that actor is black — the character needs to be Indian even though it's written that they have very dark skin, the character is absolutely Indian and needs to be an Indian actor,'" he said. "That's been kind of a great relief because it's a map that we just stick to."
"Don't F— It Up"
When one reporter pointed out that the novel seems "particularly hard to adapt," Green couldn't disagree. "This project — in addition to being a dream project — has been the one that I've heard, 'Don't f— it up,' more than any other time because it's so beloved," he said, noting that it's a constant process of having to rise to the challenge. "It's something that is so passionately loved by so many people, but we are two of those people, so that made it a challenge worth taking." The series will remain true to its source material. "If you loved it in the book, it will show up in the series," Green assured the room.
...True to the Book For the Most Part, That Is
Green acknowledged that he and Fuller have had many conversations with Gaiman about the challenges of adapting his story. "Neil very deliberately wrote this book as a book in a time when I think he was polarizing against a lot of the screenwriting that was coming his way — and he knew it resisted adaptation in some ways," he said. But Green went on to add that Gaiman told him something interesting early on that has stuck with him through the process — that the punctuation in the novel could be a guideline and that things can happen between. Green explained that it left room for some additions to the series that can't be found in the book: "Literally every time we'd come to [Neil] and say, 'What if this happens in between this and this?' he starts with, 'Thank you, I love it' — and then will just start pitching on it as the wonderful writer he is."
Bulking Up the Female Characters
When Fuller and Green first sat down to discuss adapting the book for television, one of the first elements they agreed on was showing the gods coming to America. "We wanted to feature those in every episode so we get a taste of how the gods came to America — setting that up as a thematic umbrella under which we tell the story of that episode," Fuller explained. He added that the pair also honed in on specific characters they wanted to flesh more out in the show because "in the novel, it's very much a sausage party," he said. "We have such fantastic female characters in the piece that we wanted to expand those and let the narrative accordion out to accommodate them." He pointed specifically to Yetide Badaki as Bilquis as one of those characters who is more fully developed in the series. "And Laura [played by Emily Browning] is, I think, one of our absolute favorites," Fuller added.
On Casting Big Stars vs. Relative Unknowns
The cast includes veteran actors including Gillian Anderson, Cloris Leachman and Ian McShane, but also several lesser-known names as well. So how exactly did the creators balance casting big stars and relative unknowns? "Sometimes the process makes a determination for us because we'll try for a bigger name and then realize that there are so many great actors, like Yetide Badaki and Bruce Langley, who we got out of the audition process," said Fuller, adding that star Whittle came out of that process as well — and had to audition a whopping 16 times. "He kept count," Green laughed. Fuller summed up their approach to casting this way: "It really is about the flavor of the piece and having as many 'stars' recognizable in their roles to the point that they are additive and not distracting."
"North American Gods"
"American" may be in the show's title, but it's Canada that serves as the filming location for the series. When asked why production opted for Toronto over another location (say, Los Angeles), Fuller responded that it's all about the tax breaks. "Until California gets competitive — which I really, sincerely hope it does [because] we have the lottery now where you can roll the dice and hope your show gets to film in Los Angeles … that's not going to change. We're going to be hemorrhaging production to places that offer better tax incentives," he said, adding that such decisions are "just the unfortunate facts of life." One advantage to being in Toronto, however, is that Fuller was able to keep most of the crew he worked with on Hannibal.
Open-Door Policy for Gillian Anderson
The X-Files actress, who previously worked with Fuller on Hannibal, is reuniting with the creator by playing Media in American Gods. Evidently, the part wasn't a hard sell. "I [called her up and] was like, 'What do you think about American Gods?' And she was in," said Fuller, who revealed that Anderson was already a "massive" Neil Gaiman fan and even developed a friendship with him through the process of working on the show. Fuller added that he's always eager to work with the actress: "I think Gillian knows that if there's anything I'm doing and she's even remotely interested, the door is wide open because I think she's a fantastic actor. She continually surprises us."
Don't Expect to See Jesus Pop Up
The focus of the show, the creators made very clear, will be on lesser-known religion. "Neil, by his own ambition, went into this thinking that the 'big three' religions were serviced enough and this was about the gods that weren't doing nearly as well," said Green. And though Gaiman allegedly wrote a scene where Jesus appeared that didn't make it into the original book, it doesn't sound likely that he'll make it into the series. "Largely, it's about forgotten myths, forgotten cultures, forgotten imps and jinns and promises and things prayed to quietly," he added.
A Positive Religion
The show made its first stop at San Diego Comic-Con this year, where it dropped the first trailer. Fuller and Green said that the panel also ignited a conversation that they'd hoped the series would. Fuller noted that those discussions revolve around "where we are in America and how we need to step up to the plate and need to take responsibility for the state of the nation and start calling things out." Green, for his part, added that it also allowed religion to be a non-divisive topic for once. "When people just say 'religion,' everyone assumes the next step is to be divisive — and one of the things that makes American Gods such a loved and lasting piece of literature is that it manages to discuss religious in an inclusive way that invites all, whether you're coming at it faithfully, whether you're coming at it agnostically, whether you have an academic background mythology — it really awards varied attentions," he said. The creators each grew up with religion — Fuller was raised Catholic, Michael Jewish — and both have an "affection and respect for" it, they said. "It's hard not to recognize the power that religion gives to people as an inspiration in their daily lives," explained Fuller. "So when we're talking about issues of religion, we want to continue to reinforce the positive aspects of it."
The Quest for a "Really Entertaining Dick"
The room full of press had another burning question for Fuller and Green: How exactly was Cook cast in the series? "He was a fun one," Green chuckled. "How do you get someone who can be a really entertaining dick? And he said yes — it was pretty simple that way." The two revealed that they did go into a casting process for the character of Robbie but ultimately had trouble seeing anyone else playing him after Cook's name came up. Added Fuller, who said it was "wonderful" to work with Cook: "[He's] really very savvy as an artist and understands the perception of his brand and how to subvert it with this role in the show."
"This Show Requires 200 [Percent]"
As co-showrunners, many might think Fuller and Green are each taking on 50 percent. But the pair insist that they're doing much more than that. "In our case, it's more like we're both doing 100 percent because this show requires 200," said Green. As far as how they split the workload, Fuller said they do a little bit of everything. There are times when Fuller is in Los Angeles and Green is in Toronto or vice versa. "It's great to have two entities. We worked great together on the first season of Heroes — that's how we met and we instantly clicked and had similar sensibilities," said Fuller, adding, "We've been talking for the last 10 years about how we could get back in business with each other." They added that they also have a similar instinct when it comes to how to respond to ideas pitched in the writers' room, which they call a "yes and …" approach. If one person is excited about something, they focus on how to make the idea bigger rather than just turning it down. "It's the only way to get through the eventual six seasons of this," said Green, not-so-subtlety alluding to the fact that he and Fuller would like to see the drama run for several years.