American Gods: Pablo Schreiber on Mad Sweeney's true identity and [SPOILER]
Warning: The following contains spoilers from Sunday night’s episode of American Gods.
War is coming to American Gods and with it comes casualties, but Sunday’s episode saw the death of a beloved character that will change the dynamic of the series as the Old Gods and New Gods race towards the battlefield.
After accidentally giving his lucky gold coin to Shadow Moon in the very first episode of American Gods, Mad Sweeney — the tall, Irish, alcoholic gold-conjuring leprechaun — found his journey intertwined with the undead Laura Moon after Shadow dropped the lucky coin on her grave and unknowingly brought her back to a zombie-esque life. Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) embarked on a tenuous trip alongside Laura to find Shadow and help her find a way to resurrect her permanently and reclaim his coin, without which his luck has suffered greatly.
“He was definitely an intriguing character in the book, but in the TV series, he’s taken a life of his own that’s definitely become one of the central focuses of the show, which I don’t think they [the creators] saw coming from the beginning,” Schreiber told EW.
But as fate would have it, death came knocking for Sweeney. Episode 7, titled “Treasure of the Sun,” unveils Sweeney’s true backstory — he was an ancient Irish god of the sun and king — and as he descends into the madness hallucinating Banshees, the foreshadowers of death, he comes to terms with his end and does it attempting to take out Wednesday, only to be speared through the heart by Shadow.
Schreiber talked to EW about the impact of Sweeney and Laura’s newly-created storyline for the TV series, the warped mythology of leprechauns and what he’ll miss most about playing the cussing, swaggering, fan-favorite character.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What did you enjoy the most about Mad Sweeney’s arc in the TV series, particularly in the newly-created journey with Laura?
PABLO SCHREIBER: They never meet in the book, so that was all new and elaboration on the part of Bryan Fuller and Michael Green when they started to break it into a series. That was one of the things that Michael and Bryan did that was incredibly smart and actually made it a TV series, and it would be a hard series to crack without it. Elevating Sweeney and Laura really gave the audience more to latch on to and get invested in than just the Wednesday-Shadow road trip. The book is this really long road trip with those two meeting a series of crazy characters along the way, and as a conceit for a TV show, I don’t think that holds your interest because none of the characters that pop up along the way stay involved long enough for you to care about them. Elevating Sweeney and Laura to a B plot-line gave the audience something to latch onto and I think was a really important part of the TV series.
The series was pitched to me by Michael and Bryan as Bonnie and Clyde with a zombie and leprechaun, and just from that pitch I was like, “Yeah, let’s go and see what happens.” Who knows if it ever got to that, we never really got to see that through in terms of the Bonnie and Clyde aspect of it. They cast Emily [Browning, who plays Laura Moon] and I, and as we started to work together in the first season, there was some trepidation on both of our parts and we didn’t really get that close, but when the season aired, it was obvious there was natural chemistry between the actors but also the characters together were just gold. I think part of the appeal is just two really terrible people who are just awful to everyone around them, don’t care, and are tearing each other apart, and the entertainment value of two awful people just going at each other was really interesting. And they also both have something under the surface, you know that underneath their hard exteriors that they build up to protect themselves, they both obviously have a soft core that you want to shine through, they’re both very similar in that way. So you end up rooting for these two a–holes to get their s–t together and be nice to each other, and I think that’s the appeal in the whole dynamic between them.
Emily’s very short and I’m very tall and that’s fun to watch and we really enjoyed working together, especially in the second season which was difficult at times production-wise and direction-wise with what was happening. We had a lot of issues that were reported on in various ways in terms of losing showrunners so there wasn’t really a clear captain of the ship steering the way. It ended up being every man for themselves, and because Emily and I had a de-facto team, we took care of each other and really bonded over the course of shooting the second season because of how crazy everything was, and I was incredibly happy to have her as a partner and I think she felt the same way. It was a great pairing that ended up working and I don’t know that many people saw that coming.
You really go at each other, there are physical fights and verbal abuse — is there one favorite scene that you had with her?
All the visual gags are fun, and I find them amusing. Her flicking me across the room was obviously a great fun scene, and the ice cream truck scene, there was some great comedy. But I think my favorite scene was probably the one in [season 2] episode 5, after they’ve had this feverish voodoo sex dream, or she’s had this dream about Sweeney and it’s clear that there’s something behind it for her, and immediately after being exposed to this truth of hers, they just can’t deal with it and go back to their own s–t. Just to play a scene that I thought held a lot of weight, that was my favorite scene with her.
The generalized mythology and image of leprechauns are that they are tiny magical people who hunt gold at the end of rainbows. When you were first approached to play a leprechaun, what were your thoughts about that image and folklore?
Well, the beauty of it all now is that we’ve seen his mythology and backstory and we know the truth, that in fact, he was never a leprechaun at all. When I was approached to play what was being called a leprechaun, and he was only ever a self-described leprechaun, and now we know that him describing himself as a leprechaun was a bit of irony. The show is about cultural appropriation, about stories that are told that change things from what they were, and Mad Sweeney was never a leprechaun, he was a god of the sun in ancient Ireland, and it was only after the church came and changed that mythology into something resembling what people call leprechauns now, that people started calling him a leprechaun. When he came to America, the damage was done and as he says in season 1, General Mills [maker of the Lucky Charms cereal] did the rest. He was an incredibly powerful character who was reduced to this tiny little cartoon in everybody’s mind in this new country that he’s come to. So that played a huge part towards his bitterness and apathy towards our current culture, so it was fun to finally show where he came from and who he was initially, and dispel the ugly leprechaun rumors.
Sweeney gets so beaten up and battered through the show and also, he’s quite an imposing physical figure that we get to see properly in the flashback scenes of him in battle. Did you have to do any special training for the role?
The physical side of keeping the body in shape — I’m actually a pretty thin guy so to keep muscle on my body is a tough thing that takes a lot of work. The spear-work for that battle sequence, which I was unfamiliar with before, I had to learn. I think it’s fun when such a large guy takes such a beating, especially from Emily, so there was good humor in it. As for how it was physically, I’ve had much worse jobs that physically hurt more, most of what we do is pretty mild. Ricky [Whittle, who plays Shadow Moon] and I actually go at it pretty hard and those fights are pretty rough, but there’s usually just one big one per season and I can get through those.
This episode was a big one physically and the thing I’m proudest about it is how wide-ranging it is in terms of different feels, it goes through all the emotions and those deeply connected scenes that serve as a final goodbye to the character of Sweeney. There’s the descent into madness, which was really fun and interesting to play as an actor, and then there are the crazy big battle sequences that are fun action-wise to do. It was the one opportunity that I had on the show to really have more ability for sure, but also ownership of what I was doing.
How did you understand Sweeney’s journey in the bigger plot of Wednesday’s battle, and what did you think of the way that he does meet his end, at the hands of Shadow?
In the American Gods TV show, Shadow is our central character and much like the novel, he’s the eyes, so everything we have to do in American Gods is filtered through Shadow. As far as Sweeney goes, he has to be in some ways affecting or affected by Shadow, so I was really quite happy with the arc we came up with in taking Sweeney out. It was an incredibly selfless act and at the beginning of the episode, he’s identified that there’s a poison and it needs to be removed … and he’s the problem and he wants to be part of the solution. So the episode is him finding his history and remembering who he is again, his heroic side and really working up the courage to eliminate this stain. In season 1, we met Sweeney as he was warning Shadow that nothing good will come from his interactions with Wednesday, and he goes out with the same warning – “Get out of here now.” And we don’t know what Shadow’s going to do but we can hope that he hears what Sweeney’s saying and takes it to heart. For Sweeney, he goes out happy. He got what he finally deserved, he realized in his moment of death that the thing he was looking for was not some grand, epic battle death but that Wednesday all along was his battle … he goes out with dignity.
It’s disappointing that we don’t get to see his journey continue.
It was good timing in this iteration to take a breather, it’s such an interesting and unique universe, I think the show needs a moment to find its legs without Sweeney. The show really needs to focus in on Shadow. Lakeside is going to be a great plot point for the show and I think it gives the show an opportunity to re-find its legs without this character.
What are you going to miss the most about playing Mad Sweeney?
Just who he is. His personality, his charisma, there’s something about his charm. Even me playing him, he’s such a s–t, he’s so dark and wry and bitter but somehow there’s a part of him that shines through. There’s something about him that charming and makes him an amazing and lovable guy. I fell in love with him as well, I’m going to miss the dude.