By Piya Sinha-Roy
March 17, 2019 at 11:32 PM EDT
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For the average viewer of American Gods, Shadow Moon might just come off as the muscle-bound beefcake who doesn’t quite comprehend the complexity of the world of the gods that he has been dragged into. But as the actor Ricky Whittle explains, don’t underestimate the quiet protagonist.

“We’re going to see a more proactive Shadow because he’s been this confused kid who has no idea what’s going on around him and he’s been awoken into this world of gods,” Whittle, who plays Shadow, told EW. “Now he’s aware that there’s a world full of magic and gods and leprechauns and dead wives, he can start to ask more questions and push the agenda more.”

After the season 2 premiere saw the New Gods brutally attack the Old Gods in a diner and abduct Shadow, in Sunday’s American Gods episode entitled “The Beguiling Man,” we see Shadow strung up in the dark and connected to a device that taps into his memories while the mysterious Mr. Town (Dean Winters) tortures him, asking him why he is so important to Mr. Wednesday. As Shadow resists, viewers get a glimpse through flashbacks into how a teenage Shadow was brought from France to New York by his single mother, and how she taught him to be well-read, versed, and mannered. But as he ventures out in his Bushwick neighborhood to try and meet new friends, he finds himself mercilessly taunted by other black teens who tell him “you talk funny, like a white boy,” and beaten up for being different.

The episode also sees Mad Sweeney, the leprechaun god, traveling with Shadow’s undead wife Laura as they go to rescue him. Salim and the Jinn search for Odin’s spear while Mr. Wednesday and Mr. Nancy embark on a road trip to prepare for the battle against the New Gods.

Talking to EW ahead of this week’s episode, Whittle explained how Shadow’s backstory surprisingly mirrors his own journey as an actor and reflects the black experience in America today.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We see how Shadow has had a worldly upbringing but then has to face the jarring experience of what it means to be black in America today — how did that resonate with you?
RICKY WHITTLE: It’s where Shadow and myself parallel a little bit. My father was in the [British] Royal Air Force so I feel very educated in different cultures, where I was traveling around the world as a kid without any kind of pretense. People are taught to be racist or to segregate or discriminate — that’s not something that’s born in you. So as a kid growing up with parents that were open to everything, all equality and cultures and races and countries, I didn’t know any different, so all I did was just learn all this beautiful information from the races and cultures.

For Shadow, he’s come to America with this extra culture and this way of being, we see his very young coming-to-America story where he was raised with so much light and hope and love, it’s interesting to see his take on America where even though he’s the same as people, he’s not the same. It’s another clever way that American Gods comes at these sensitive topics and scenes that we have littered throughout the show — there’s another episode later on where we had a black writer, Rodney Barnes, a female black director, Sally Richardson, a black lead in myself, and a black supporting cast with Orlando Jones [Mr. Nancy], Yetide Badaki [Bilquis], Demore Barnes [Mr. Ibis], and several others, but we weren’t taking sides, we weren’t talking about the hatred of white people against black, it was black-on-black crime and why do black people hate on themselves? Because that’s another kind of racism. It’s very clever that the show always tries to hit these themes from different angles and tries to enlighten and raise awareness of how we view ourselves and treat each other.

That flashback in America for Shadow is fascinating and it’s something that I definitely went through myself as a kid, always being the loner, and it speaks as to why Shadow is still a loner. As soon as he got to America, he never fit in. My tact was to try and make as many friends as quickly as possible so that you’re never alone, whereas Shadow, unfortunately — that’s where we start to divide — he embraced that [loneliness]. I feel like Shadow’s always searching for that light, not knowing his father and losing that one beautiful, pure thing in his life that is his mother. That’s why he latched onto Laura and put her on a pedestal, even though she obviously wasn’t the woman he thought she was. He’s searching for that light, he’s trying to find that pureness again.

That scene when Shadow and his mother see the Statue of Liberty, and he realizes that just because of the color of his skin, he’s at a disadvantage in this country — that’s a discussion we’ve seen American Gods having throughout for all of its characters.
The American dream is real — it’s just not for you. That’s the mentality, which is very interesting when it’s a country built up through immigration. It’s funny how the ones who talk about immigration and about the problems with borders are all these white supremacists who aren’t indigenous to the country themselves. So it’s a fascinating argument for me, which makes absolutely no sense because unless you’re First Nation, we’re all immigrants to this country and this is where we are right now and this is the reason the country is so beautiful and wonderful, it’s because it’s full of so many different flavors and races and faiths … we try to shine a light on everything, but especially that mentality where this is America, land of hopes and dreams — if you’re the right color and the right gender and have the right career and the right financial level.

I know there’s a larger spotlight on diversity and representation in Hollywood now, but it does seem that for the longest time, actors were seen by their color, and black actors were specifically playing black characters, defined by their race. Is that something you’ve encountered? Is it shifting?
If you think back to one of my very first jobs in the UK in [teen soap] Hollyoaks, myself and Nathalie Emmanuel [Game of Thrones] and our family, we were described as the black family in Hollyoaks. Not the Valentines, not the new family, or the family with the police officer — it was the black family because we were the only ethnic characters. But now I’m a black lead on a mainstream show, it’s not a BET show or a Tyler Perry movie, it’s definitely a directional shift and we’re starting to see an increase in diversity.

If anything, Neil Gaiman wrote this in 2001 and he had incredible foresight or just openness and willingness to show America for what it truly is, and you’ve got to see a lot of this country as full of flavor. There are so many different races and here we have probably one of the most diverse shows on TV right now with the best ensemble I’ve ever seen … when I walk down the street, I see people of every color and gender, there are so many beautiful people in this country and TV and film need to start reflecting that. If there’s one thing I feel isn’t represented enough, even though everything’s moving forward fantastically, it’s the handicapped — they’re not getting enough recognition; there needs to be more diversity for them, we constantly see able-bodied actors playing these disabled parts, and for me, there are not many parts for them as it is, so when we write those roles, those actors should have those opportunities.

At one point in this episode, Shadow tells Mr. Town: “I don’t need saving.” But of course, he does,  and it’s his undead wife Laura to the rescue. Why does Shadow resist help at times, and what are we going to see with his relationship with Laura this season?
When Shadow says he doesn’t need saving, it’s because he truly believes he has nothing to live for, he has lost everything of value in his life and the only reason he’s working for Mr. Wednesday is because he has nothing else left, and so he doesn’t necessarily have a death wish, he just doesn’t feel that he has anything to live for, so he doesn’t need saving because he doesn’t have anyone to go back to.

The one person he has is Laura, and that’s one light in his life that was taken when he realizes her infidelity, so when you put someone on a pedestal and realize that person isn’t what you thought they were, it really does give you a closure or a cloudy, murky feel of was the love ever real? All the memories and experiences, was that true? So Shadow’s really struggling. You can’t turn love off, for me it’s more of a faucet that you have to turn off slowly and even then you have drips, the pangs of pain when you pine for something but it’s more than you pine for that comfort, that feel, that familiarity that you used to have. For Shadow, he tells Laura in season 1 that he’s no longer her “puppy,” but he still loves her and still cares for her and she’s still going to be in his life. She’s chasing him around, she literally sees light shining from this man and that means something, and that’s something we’ll investigate more as the show goes on. But their dynamic has changed — Shadow was obsessed with this woman in life and now she’s obsessed with this man in death and it’s an interesting shift. But they will have that conversation and they will talk about it. Again, in true American Gods fashion, it’s done right — it’s not your typical he-said-she-said argument, it’s a grown-up conversation and very powerfully and beautifully shot.

I always keep thinking of what Wednesday says to Shadow when they first meet – he likes that Shadow is smarter than he looks. Is that something you think Shadow plays to his strengths?
Is that a slight on me? Is that why I was cast, because I don’t look as smart?! What’s that about? Sometimes I start to wonder, people say that a lot and I’m like, “Yes, Shadow’s intelligent, but Ricky still looks like Shadow, what are people saying about Ricky?!”

I’m guessing it’s probably not a bad thing? But when you have a character as physically striking as Shadow, sometimes people don’t expect the brains to go with the brawn?
It’s the fun thing that I get to play with the Shadow. Having read the book and knowing Neil Gaiman’s thoughts and his experiences of actually meeting characters like this in real life that he took for granted and pushed off to the side as the kind of big dumb jock or lumbering oaf, and then he was surprised by a wonderful intellect. For me, it’s the great thing about Shadow — yes, he seems confused and quiet and he’s very much a watcher in this season — even as the protagonist, he doesn’t really push the agenda or the story forward, but he does realize that he has two eyes, two ears, and one mouth. He is always watching and listening twice as much as he speaks, and so anytime he does speak, it’s with purpose and he does tend to surprise people like he did in the first episode, where you realize he has been listening the whole time and he’s taking everything in and he’s absorbing it.

… This season we’re going to see that he’s willing to stand up to the Gods now and he’s willing to push Mr. Wednesday on questions, and even though he knows Wednesday’s a god, he’s pushing him and saying, “I want answers and I’m not going to just sit around and take the bird feed from your hand, I’m an equal here, I want to know what my part is in this war and what the stakes are.” He’s going to go searching for those answers and it’s fun to play with that mystique and play with that quiet intellect that he has, because when he does speak and starts to figure things out, it’s a nice surprise.

We know Shadow is heading towards Cairo, Illinois, and Jacquel and Ibis’ funeral parlor. What is Shadow going to find once he’s there?
He’s looking for his wife because he needs to have that conversation and he’s looking for Wednesday because he needs to have a conversation. He’s in search of answers, he wants to know what’s going on in this world, what are the stakes, what are the sides, what is his part in this puzzle and why is he so important? So he’s on the hunt for more answers and, of course, he’s going to bump into more gods, and more characters from the book are going to turn up. A very interesting and intriguing feline is going to take an interest in Shadow, which fans of the book will love, and people who are just watching the show will be very confused about, as is Shadow, but it’s going to be an exciting time for Shadow to learn with Mr. Ibis and with Mr. Nancy as well, who are trying to push Shadow’s buttons. His philosophy is “angry gets sh— done” and he seems to be pushing Shadow’s buttons aggressively. These gods always have an agenda, so why are they pushing his buttons and what does he want from Shadow? That’s what this season will explore.

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