'American Gods' Star Ian McShane Reveals His Wednesday Rituals

"You play him more normal than anybody else you've played," the 'Deadwood' veteran tells THR about playing a powerful god.
Courtesy of Starz

[Warning: This story contains minor spoilers from American Gods, the Neil Gaiman novel on which the upcoming Starz series is based.]

"It's about time I played a God, isn't it?"

Imagine Ian McShane's signature growl as he purrs these words, explaining exactly why he signed on to American Gods, the new Starz series premiering April 30. Based on a novel of the same name by author Neil Gaiman, McShane stars as Mr. Wednesday, a confident confidence man with secrets upon secrets — "reveal upon reveal," as McShane puts it. Wednesday is not just caught up in the show's brewing war between old gods of various ancient origins and new gods of modern technological worship; he's the being beating the drum, leading the march to war.

"He wants a f—ing fight," McShane tells THR about his thunderous character. "He loves it. He's gathering everyone together to say, 'Win or lose, this is going to be f—ing great. It'll be fighting for something we believe in, against people who don't believe in anything!'"

McShane speaks about Wednesday's cause with all the fiery passion of the God himself … and then his voice quiets, as he ponders the other side of the character: "Who knows. Wednesday's playing a long game, too."

Saying more about Wednesday's long game would be saying too much, but suffice to say, not all is as it seems with this Cheshire cat of a man — a fact that those who have read the American Gods book will happily verify. Indeed, count McShane as one of the many who consumed American Gods the novel before the show became a reality. When he was first approached for the series, McShane was immediately interested.

"I did one of Gaiman's works before, Coraline," says McShane. "That was great, directed by the great Henry Selick, the animator. I know Neil was very happy with that. So when I was offered this? Futuristic fiction is not my preferred genre, per se, but when I read the script, I thought, 'Oh, it's Gaiman!' And then I read the book, which was a perfect blueprint for long-form TV."

McShane knows a thing or two about what works and what doesn't on television, having starred in a wide array of projects: pouring and calling shots as Al Swearengen on Deadwood, for instance, or his brief role on Game of Thrones as a reformed warrior turned monk. (As for McShane's thoughts on the HBO fantasy series, they boil down to two evocative words. He has no such description for American Gods.) In fact, McShane previously worked with American Gods co-creator and showrunner Michael Green on NBC's Kings, which aired for one season in 2009.

"It was a classic situation of a network saying they wanted a cable show, and once they got one, they didn't know what to do with it," he remembers. "But it's not their fault. That's not what networks are about. And I mean, thank God, since the 2000s — the second golden age of television as they say — Starz and Fremantle were willing to go for it. Because this wasn't an easy route."

In that regard, McShane backs up Bryan Fuller's tale about American Gods running into some early trouble during production: "It was a great five months of filming, but a couple of months in, once they had a good three hours of material under their belt, they could finally look at it. It's tough to know as you're writing it, the scripts, and then actually seeing it on the screen. You're adjusting for tone, and how much it's pacing out, and how much it's revealing."

For his part, McShane's approach to Wednesday required very little adjustment. He immediately knew that he didn't want to bring a divine bravado to the American Gods co-lead, instead feeling like he should be imbued with a sense of normalcy.

"You play him more normal than anybody else you've played," he says about the key to playing the character. "Wednesday is Wednesday. That's what I love about him. If somebody asks how you know who he is, and if you know Norse mythology, you know who he is. But that's Wednesday's great gift. He's relentlessly and obsessively optimistic. It's his super power. He goes through everything as relentlessly charming — or irritating! But he wins you over because he's glib, in the best sense of the word. He has an answer for everything. He's a Mr. Know-It-All. But he's strangely compelling, especially to Shadow."

Shadow, of course, is the man at the heart of American Gods, played by The 100 veteran Ricky Whittle. Shadow acts as Wednesday's bodyguard, but not without some convincing. According to McShane, he and Whittle were able to establish their rapport with one another as soon as their first scene together — the first dialogue scene filmed for the series, in fact.

"Ricky and I are from the same part of the world," says McShane. "It's completely by accident. We're both from the north of England: Lancashire and Manchester. We support the same football team, Manchester United. My dad played for them, but it's still a weird sort of thing that bonds you instantly before you even know somebody. The first scene we ever did was the scene on the plane. This was the first big dialogue scene. It was a long and great day. At the end of it, we felt like we knew each other. And it's been the same ever since. We never went in with a long conversation about how to play the scenes. We just got on with it, rehearsed it, said the lines, and when we got on the plane, we did the scenes. And we kept doing it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but this works."

When Wednesday finally succeeds in recruiting Shadow, it's not without an outward acknowledgment of the cards on the table: By his own admission, Wednesday is a con-man and a swindler. "Which is exactly why I need a bodyguard," explains McShane with a laugh.

"He's a lovable rogue," the actor says about his character. "As it goes along, things get more serious. But he never loses that whimsical charming quality."

What are you hoping to see from McShane's Wednesday? Tell us in the comments, and keep checking for more news and interviews about American Gods.