It didn’t take much convincing for Gillian Anderson to take on one of the niftiest roles in Starz’s American Gods. Just a phone call from Bryan Fuller, really.
“His pitch to me was probably a description of the opportunity of getting to embody some pretty extraordinary characters, and whether I was up for that challenge,” Anderson tells EW of reuniting with the Hannibal creator. “And that’s probably all I really needed to know. Even though I hadn’t read the book, I’m a fan of Neil Gaiman’s work, so ultimately it was those two things… no matter what it looked like on the page, it was going to be something that I wanted to be involved in.”
In Fuller and co-showrunner Michael Green’s eye-popping TV adaptation of Gaiman’s 2001 novel, premiering April 30 on Starz, the Emmy-winning actress plays the goddess Media. For the uninitiated, she’s one of American Gods’ main villains, but she’s only considered as such because the attention that feeds her comes at the cost of our purported heroes—the older, ancient gods whose worshippers in America have mostly died out, leaving them desperate for the valuable currency that is human attention.
Media is a goddess born specifically in America, manifested into existence over the decades in which the country discovered and fell hard for the airwave allure of television. As the country grew more obsessed with celebrity culture and entertainment, Media’s power and influence grew as well. But what does Media actually look like? In American Gods, she takes the shape of anything you’d see on a screen, whether it’s a local TV newscaster or her more preferred look: glamorous Hollywood icons of yesterday (exactly the kind you might worship). On Starz, audiences can expect to see Anderson transform into Lucille Ball, David Bowie, Judy Garland, and more multimedia manifestations.
If Ball and Bowie are easier for an actress to imitate, it was Media’s take on Garland—pictured above, from a late-in-the-season episode when the character crashes a disastrous garden party with her fellow new god, the Internet-powered Technical Boy (Bruce Langley)—that proved the most difficult for Anderson to wrap her head around (even if her costume, from Garland’s 1948 film Easter Parade, was fairly easy to wrap herself in).
“It was a curious process into Judy because there’s something very specific about her and an aspect of her personality that is kind of uncopy-able,” says Anderson. “And for a long time that I was working on her, I was struggling with that, working in my own space, trying to figure out what it was that was quintessentially her. I came to the conclusion that, actually, I might be barking up the wrong tree. [Laughs] Whereas with other characters, there were things I could hook onto that felt like [I] was tapping into an essence of some kind, I found Judy actually the most elusive or the most challenging to bring an element of her to the picture. So I had to ultimately make different decisions about how to represent her.”
Eventually, Anderson did decide on an approach—and you’ll have to wait until the end of the first season of American Gods to see it—but she was keenly aware of another acting challenge she would be expected to conquer, this one a byproduct of her TV reunion with Fuller.
“I found out at one point that Bryan, in Hannibal, would deliberately write paragraphs for me that were run-on, undulating, impossible sentences, all because he got a kick out of watching me figure out how to make sense of them,” Anderson recalls with a laugh. “And oh my God, the stress over some of those. Like, what is she saying? Why is she saying it like this? This is meant to come out of my mouth!? Oh my God. [Laughs] But we’ve become great friends, and I’m always fascinated by his thought process on anything. He has such an extraordinary mind and brings so many elements of life and reality into the fantasy. You still have a connection to it, and there’s still relevance…even though you’re seemingly on another plane of existence.”
American Gods invites you onto that plane on April 30 on Starz.