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American Gods: Emily Browning on playing a revolutionary dead wife

“Please don’t tell me that she’s the heart and soul of the show. Because I’ve heard that so many f—ing times.”

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On paper, the elements of Laura Moon should have horrified Emily Browning: A wife, motivated by the pursuit of love, under the umbrella of a supernatural epic fantasy. They’re all things that the 28-year-old actress says would be major red flags were they on any other show — but then, Starz’s American Gods isn’t any other show, and Laura Moon is far from the clichéd spousal role Browning says she so often encounters.

For one thing, Laura is dead — or was, as her tragicomic reanimation reveals in the backstory-heavy fourth episode of the Starz series. “Git Gone” takes a narrative turn from Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel by dissecting the relationship between Laura and protagonist Shadow (Ricky Whittle): How they met, why he landed in jail, and exactly how she came back to life. Expanding the character was one of the first breakthrough entry points for showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green when they were first plotting their adaptation of the novel; Gaiman himself even called the Laura-centric episode his “pinch-me” moment in watching the series come alive.

Browning was on set in Toronto last August when EW caught up with her (on Bilquis’ couch, no less). In our interview below, come for Browning’s insight into Laura Moon — whom she calls “the middle finger of the show” — but stay for the actress’ remarkable and necessary deconstruction of the importance of an anti-heroine role like Laura.

EW: What did you immediately latch onto with Laura? And what were you maybe hesitant about?
EMILY BROWNING: Well, the first thing I noticed was that in the little character casting breakdown, it said something like, “She’s the wife of Shadow.” Which automatically for me is a red flag. I don’t want to play a wife. It said, “we don’t want to give too much away, but she becomes a cool character,” although it was far more eloquent than that. But I’ve heard that too many times before. I’ve been burnt by that breakdown before. Sure, she does. What does that mean? She has one pathetic fight scene and ends up being saved by him? So then I sort of did a skim reading of the book. She’s one of the coolest characters I’ve ever read. I think she’s definitely the coolest character I’ve ever played.

That’s exceptionally high praise.
I feel like guys often get the chance to play the anti-hero. If you think about Walter White from Breaking Bad, by the end of that show he’s a despicable human being, but you’re rooting for him and you hate him and love him at the same time. I feel like there are so many more opportunities for men to play those kinds of roles. Characters who don’t fit into a box and are kind of good and bad and ethically murky. I feel like it’s happening more and more for women, but so often you still read roles that fall into “someone’s wife” or “virgin whore.” I love that Laura is a jerk. She’s a real a–hole. Not only that, but she feels no shame about it. Obviously you want to empathize with the character that you’re playing, and so I’ve thought a lot about where her attitude and views come from, but I love the fact that there will be times when the audience won’t empathize with her at all. I think that’s exciting and interesting. Again, you watch The Sopranos and you’re not always like, “Oh, I understand why Tony’s doing all these things he’s doing!” It’s like, no. Sometimes it’s just sh–ty! Sometimes you just do a shitty thing. And that’s how people work.

How do you think people will react to seeing Laura’s backstory?
It’s going to be very specific to the audience member in question. When I first met Michael and Bryan, they were about to describe Laura to me, and I said, “Before you do, please don’t tell me that she’s the heart and soul of the show.” Because I’ve heard that so many f—ing times. It’s justification for a not very well-written character. Obviously, I already knew she was well-written, but so many times, you’ll go in to meet to play “the wife” of someone. They’ll say, “She’s only in a few scenes and she’s only his wife, but really she’s the heart and the soul of the show.” But f— that. I don’t want that. And I remember I was sold on Laura the moment that I said that, and one of them said, “Oh, no. If anything, she’s like the spleen of the show.”

How would you describe Laura’s life before she met Shadow?
She’s essentially just kind of treading water. I definitely wouldn’t call her depressed. She’s not fragile in any way. She’s just numb. Like, she stopped feeling. She doesn’t care. One of the first times you see her, she’s in her hot tub and sprays super-toxic bug spray and she’s essentially huffing. A few people even on the crew said to me, “Is she getting high or is she trying to kill herself?” and I’m like, “You know what? I think it’s kind of either or. She doesn’t really care.”

What is it like to play someone who doesn’t care?
It’s really fun for me because almost every character I’ve played has been kind of internal and self-aware and empathetic. It’s a real challenge to play a character who couldn’t care less about anyone else’s feelings and has very few feelings of her own. She almost verges on sociopathic sometimes.

Michael Green said that this is a woman for whom being dead is not the worst thing to happen to her.
No. If anything, it’s possibly one of the best things, or at least in the sense that it’s frustrating to her but it’s forcing her to kind of be a better person. She didn’t fall in love with Shadow until she died. She thought she loved him, but she didn’t really know what love was. She had sort of just been given the outline that we’re all given: You grow up, you find someone to love, and you marry them. She was attracted to him physically, and she took him home, which I’m sure she’s doing with a lot of people. But then he kind of just stayed.

Yet her motivation in the afterlife is primarily to reach him again.
After she dies, we see the world from Laura’s POV, and she sees everything in infrared, which sucks the warmth out of all the images. Everything’s in shades of gray and white and blue. And when she sees Shadow for the first time, he’s gold and glowing and shining. That’s when she realizes like, oh, this is what love is. I need this. And that’s kind of what I love about it, is the irony. She’s not a warm person. She’s not romantic by any stretch of the imagination. And yet this show is all about what you choose to worship, and after Laura dies, the thing that she worships is love. That’s what she’s searching for. That is her god. That’s her north star, which is very funny to me because she’s following love and searching for love and she sees it on the horizon, and yet the whole time she’s doing it with a snarl and swearing like a sailor and beating the shit out of people.

I also admire how she’s not necessarily doing it in any sort of pining way.
It never comes across as pining. It’s never, “Oh, my lost love! I must get him back!” I think it’s cool because I’ve always noticed that if you read a script where the girl character’s main motivation in the story is to get back her lost love, it’s almost always a really boring character. It’s kind of sad and like she’s incomplete without the man, whereas if you think about so many different films where the protagonist is a guy and his mission is to get back the girl, he’s almost always a full character with a range of emotions. How come it’s not lame for a guy to take a part whose aim is to get their love back, but for a girl, it’s like no stay away from that? I like the fact that for Laura, that is essentially her goal but she’s absolutely not a damsel in distress. If anything, Shadow’s the damsel.