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Neil Gaiman on writing American Gods' gay love story

The groundbreaking sequence between two gay Arab men is one of the strongest moments yet on the Starz fantasy series

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Starz
Starz

It’s the bold American Gods scene — well, one of them — that has everybody talking, and for good reason.

On the third episode of the Starz fantasy series, a depressed salesman named Salim (Omid Abtahi) is struggling to make a dime in New York when he finds himself in a cab driven by a jinn, an ancient Arab god (whom most Americans might colloquially call a genie). Played by Mousa Kraish, the centuries-old jinn finds kinship with Salim, and what begins as an intimate taxicab conversation about faith transforms into a daring and important sex sequence — and, at its core, a love story — between both men.

EW recently moderated a Paley Center panel on behalf of Starz and GLAAD, screening the May 14 episode and exploring its content with the actors, executive producers Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, and the author of American Gods, Neil Gaiman, who described the experience watching the finished onscreen result as “absolute amazement and absolute joy.”

He recalled writing the scene 18 years ago, inspired by a New York cab driver who did, in fact, fall asleep at the wheel and admit to having been driving for 30 straight hours. “Afterwards, I just thought, that’s awful. The idea that some guy, in order to make a buck, was that pushed. And I think part of it may have come from reading the whole of One Thousand and One Nights, particularly the [J.C.] Mardrus and [Muhsin] Mahdi translations. I think it was the first thing that I’d ever read where I went, you know, there’s an awful lot of this sort of homoeroticism in the Arabian Nights. It was this really interesting part of Arab culture that I had never thought about, that I was learning about. And that had sort of stuck. And at that point, I wanted a genie in American Gods…and, I think it’s going to be a gay relationship… and after that it just kind of wrote itself. It probably wouldn’t have written itself quite so sexily, had I not read lots of Edmund White and Armistead Maupin and gone, ‘Okay, well, I can do that!’”

In translating the scene to television, Fuller says his and Green’s goal was simply to “make sure that it was undeniably beautiful for even those who were uncomfortable with same-sex romance.” (Fuller goes in-depth in EW’s postmortem show here.) Green, elaborating, explained how Fuller’s perspective as a gay man fused with his own as a straight man to create a definitive approach as “a beautiful romantic story between two people who find each other,” he said. “The more Bryan and I talked about it and the more he brought his perspective into it, I saw it as a story of a god giving a man permission to be himself and to enjoy sex and to be made love to.”

The scene (directed by Guillermo Navarro) marked Kraish’s first-ever onscreen kiss and sex scene; coincidentally, it marked Abtahi’s second, as the actor played another gay character named Salim on Showtime’s 2005 series Sleeper Cell. Both actors have been friends for a decade, which they say aided their experience during shooting, and fans of Gaiman’s novel. But more importantly, they laud the filmmakers and Gaiman not just for the beauty of the eroticism, but for the representation onscreen.

“This was my first time seeing it complete, and it was beautiful and everything that I expected it to be… but sex scene aside, just seeing two Middle Eastern men represented in that way, with humor and love and joy…it’s taken me eleven years to get to that,” said a visibly emotional Kraish. “And I want to see more of that.” (Narratively, viewers will, as this is just the beginning of Salim and the Jinn’s story in the series; in the book, this scene is their only appearance.)

RELATED: American Gods: Inside the Episode “A Head Full of Snow”

Abtahi confessed to nerves ahead of watching the scene with his wife. “I just felt, ‘God, I hope it’s not raunchy.’ And when I did see it and saw how it was shot and the music and the slow motion and the attention to detail and [Mousa’s] eyes, it was just so f—ing beautiful. I’m so proud to be a part of it.”

Of course, a slice of the scene’s artistic achievement sits on its very surface; atop its deeper implications, the Salim and Jinn sequence is still uniquely cinematic as it transports its characters from a nondescript hotel room to a cosmic desert at the moment of the Jinn’s climax. Gaiman said, “I remember when they sent me the script, and at the point where they’re describing moving in and out of the desert and somebody being filled by an ejaculation of flame, I’m going, ‘This is very beautiful written in the script. Obviously, they won’t actually do this. Only a madman would have written this.” Fuller, sitting beside Green, was quick to offer a correction: “Or two!”