For how the mighty have fallen, look to Czernobog. The old Slavic god stomped his way on screen, accompanied by the three mysterious fortune-telling Zorya sisters, in the second episode of Starz’s American Gods.
Peter Stormare plays the hulking character, the first old god to be visited by Shadow and Wednesday on their journey to recruit an army of ancient figures. It makes fine sense to start with Czernobog—he’s all about strength and power, brandishing a mighty hammer which he now uses in America in a menial job as a slaughterhouse knocker. Undercurrents of duality run through the character, too, as he’s commonly considered the “evil” half of a pair of Slavic siblings who represent light and dark, although such lines of morality exist in a gray area in his representation on American Gods. Then again, he manages to place a fairly destructive vow of death on Shadow’s head by episode’s end, so there’s at least a little evil in there somewhere.
As a character who could be a wholly unlikable pain in the ass (not the least of which because he now plans to kill our main protagonist), acting veteran Stormare is instead a hoot, and speaks about the fantastical role with the same vigor you might expect of a guy who swings hammers for a living. (Meanwhile, click here to read our interview with Gillian Anderson about her debut as Media, or the executive producers’ answers to our burning questions from episode 2.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, are you actually any good at checkers?
PETER STORMARE: Not really. My iPad always beats me. If I play on level one, I can win. Level two, no. Checkers is a hard game! I want to do it fast, and I’m very impatient. But you have to think, like chess. Impulsive, you can win, but sometimes you have to just stare your contender down.
What brought you to American Gods?
Well, I knew about the book, and I briefly met Bryan Fuller, who wanted to try me out for this Slavic Thor. [Editor’s note: The executive producers have an alternate reading of Czernobog’s link to Thor.] I was excited because Bryan has one of the best reputations in the business, so everybody wants to work with him. But also, he’s the one who got the rights to turn this book into a TV series, and I know Neil had been offered so much over the years, but he trusted Bryan fully. And I liked the book because it’s a really great idea. But I was also thinking, how the hell do you turn this into a TV series? The book goes between centuries, so oddly and smoothly sometimes. It’s like The Lord of the Rings into medieval times into the future into the 19th century into the 17th century. It’s such a big experiment. Nothing like this has ever been done before. And I was just amazed with the workforce and the enthusiasm and glad I came onboard.
Had you ever played a character like Czernobog before, or was this idea of a washed-up old god a genuinely new acting experience for you?
I really liked this sort of Slavic Thor, because Thor exists all over the planet, I guess, in different shapes and forms. The only problem is, like most people in Slavic countries or old Eastern Europe, this character smokes all the time, and Jesus, God almighty, I’m not a smoker, and it’s really killing me. If I’m going to smoke in the second season, I need life insurance from Starz. I was so sick, man. I smoke in every scene.
Herbals, though, right?
Yeah, but the thing is, the paper is the worst. And it gets into your nostrils. No matter how smart you think you are, it gets into you. And then you eat lunch and you throw up. All for the art! But David Slade is such a great director. “He’s gotta smoke! He’s gotta smoke in every scene! I want a close-up on the cigarette when you inhale it. Yeah! And now through your nostrils! Yeah, yeah! Closer!” [Laughs.] He’s like a Stanley Kubrick. He likes his close-ups and details, and being an actor, to be part of this, is just once in a lifetime. It was crazy. It was like being at Six Flags.
What do you admire about Czernobog that viewers might not pick up on, but you’ve come to really understand and appreciate about this character?
He can represent evil, but he can also represent good things. And he’s slowly fading into the shadows because no one is paying attention to him, but now when they come to him, it’s an injection to come alive, and that’s nice for me to do as an actor. I’m not just evil. And the cool thing with him is that he has this brother where, when one is creating darkness, the other one is creating light, and I think that’s the universe in all of us. We have 12 hours of darkness and then it’s 12 hours of light, and maybe that’s how we human beings are. We’re built of both darkness and light, and hopefully the light will survive and conquer the darkness. So I consider Czernobog a torch-bearer. A guy who holds up the torch for the light and hopes that people will ask for it—not for destruction. But I think he has a hard time separating the two.
How did you fill in some of the blanks in the margins of the character?
I was born in a Nordic country, so I’m familiar with the Nordic mythology, and I know about Thor, and Hollywood’s done tons of movies about Thor, but I was surprised that he exists in so many different territories in the world. The same kind of person with the hammer, and creating if not thunder, then hurricanes and devastation. But this Slavic guy also has a brother who is more evil than him, so it’s like yin and yang. When one is destructive, the other one is trying to build up. So it’s very interesting. And he has roots that go way back into China, too, and Mongolia. It’s interesting, finding out about all our mythology linked together. People walked around this earth 10,000 years ago, wandering around the Northern Hemisphere without transportation, and from there sprang mythology and new human beings, all linked together. From my own experience, I spent a lot of time in northern Japan and northern Sweden, where there’s the same kind of food culture, the same kind of folk melodies, the same kind of mythology. It’s amazing, learning about anthropology and different tribes and people on this earth.
To switch gears for a moment: What was it like working with Ian McShane?
He’s English, and some of them are born with a comic streak in their brain. There’s a twinkle in his eye that makes you laugh all the time. He’s extraordinary, because like me, I try to put some humor even into my bad guys, and he, whatever he does, even if he’s a mass murderer, would be likable. He has kind of a charm and a humor that he puts into his characters. It’s hard to act with him because you look into his eyes, and there’s a twinkle saying, “Hello Peter.” [Laughs.] So you have to look elsewhere. But he’s super fun to work with. A real old-school pro.
And Cloris Leachman? You play her…
Nephew? I think? Or grandkid? We don’t really know. [Laughs.] The Slavic people are all a big family. But yes, extraordinary, extraordinary. God, she’s over 90. I hope I can do the same thing. She invited me to her trailer after a couple of days. I had done a couple of scenes where she had improvised a couple of lines off camera to me. “Man, you stink.” “You’re handsome, but you’re so ugly.” “I don’t want to sit next to you because it’s reeking. Get some deodorant.” Stuff like that that made me crack up, and then the camera came on me, and I was laughing. And so after a few days, she invited me to her trailer and she said, “I’m sorry, Peter, I like to have fun on set. I don’t think you stink or you’re ugly but I say that just to cheer you up and cheer myself up. Is that okay?” And I said, “Yes! I’m the same way.” She was a real prankster. The first time she did it, though, I really thought, “Jesus, maybe I do stink?”
Your whole costume was exceptionally dirty.
I did most of my touch-ups in a big pool of water and mud outside in a parking lot before I went on stage. [Laughs] You’re not the better actor because you go the full monty, but it does help sometimes. It makes me smile or it makes other people smile on set. So I do all my touch-ups in a mud pool.
Has being part of this show changed the way you think about faith?
Absolutely. I’m a firm believer, since I was born, but I believe even more now that we’re here for a purpose on Earth, and we’re doing everything we can to, excuse my French, but to f— it up. How brittle life is yet it’s been going on for thousands and thousands of years. Maybe we should sit down and pay tribute to life instead of just destruction.
For more American Gods, dive into the recap, or watch EW’s postmortem show featuring Orlando Jones and this week’s guests, Ricky Whittle and Cloris Leachman.