Orlando Jones opens up about American Gods firing: 'It was a blindside'
"I try to maintain perspective in these moments," he says. "My first job in Hollywood, I was a writer on A Different World and one of the great lessons of being in that writer's room with [executive producer] Susan Fales was watching her turn to someone and say, 'All of us know what the problem is, but what we need you to do is pitch solutions. Don't keep pitching us the problem.' … It's been one of the great lessons of my career: Just keep your attitude north and we can get through this."
It's a perspective Jones has tried to maintain for more than 20 years working in entertainment, and it's why many of his industry friends were "shocked," he says, to see his response to the situation with American Gods and even more so when they heard what he had to say.
Jones wasn't initially planning on releasing that video, in which he says, "There will be no more Mr. Nancy. Don't let these motherf–ers tell you they love Mr. Nancy. They don't." He spoke out for the fans. "If it wasn't for the fans, I wouldn't be having this conversation now," he says. "I just didn't want to be in a situation where people felt like they paid their hard-earned money and bought subscriptions to see me and to see my other cast members just to find out that we had duped them."
According to Jones, Mr. Nancy, Omid Abtahi's Salim, and Mousa Kraish's The Jinn were dropped from the season 3 story arc after all three characters were featured in the past two seasons. On Saturday, a spokesperson for American Gods released the following statement: "The storylines of American Gods have continually shifted and evolved to reflect the complex mythology of the source material. Mr. Jones' option was not picked up because Mr. Nancy, among other characters, is not featured in the portion of the book we are focusing on within season 3. Several new characters, many of which have already been announced, will be introduced into Shadow Moon's world that will further contribute to the show's legacy as one of the most diverse series on television."
Jones had a similar situation on the show Sleepy Hollow. In 2015, he said the producers "asked me to leave" after "they changed the show" and "didn't really see a place for [the character] Frank Irving in that world, and I get that." With American Gods, though, he calls their assertion "ridiculous on its face." Jones says, "I didn't have a writing option, so I don't know what they're talking about. There was no writing option in season 1 of American Gods. I was not a writer on the show and I was in Africa shooting Madiba with Laurence Fishburne at the time and I managed to do two things on the show in season 1. I wasn't even a series regular in season 1. I was a series regular in season 2."
As the actor explains it, he got a phone call around 7 p.m. local time on Sep. 10, 2019 from Starz. "It was a blindside because, technically, I don't work for Starz, I work for [production company] Fremantle. It was quite strange to be getting a call from Starz to tell me that when all of my previous communications and my manager's previous communications had been with Fremantle. It was just bizarre." The call was brief and contained much of the same verbiage that went into the public statement on the matter. "I laughed because I was the person in the room, along with very few other people, who laid out the direction for season 3 at the end of season 2," he says. "So, I thought that was funny and ridiculous on its face. I said, 'Thanks,' and that was it."
"We stand by our original statement around the ever evolving storylines and characters that weave in and out of American Gods," a spokesperson for the series told EW in a separate statement. "While we greatly appreciate Mr. Jones' contributions to seasons 1 and 2, we are disappointed he feels the need to make inaccurate accusations regarding the non-renewal of his contract. Our efforts are focused on season 3 and working with our amazing cast, crew, and creators."
In the video, Jones specifically references Eglee without outright naming him. "The new season 3 showrunner is Connecticut born and Yale-educated, so he's very smart and he thinks that Mr. Nancy's angry, get sh– done is the wrong message for black America," he said. "That's right. This white man sits in that decision-making chair and I'm sure he has many black bffs who are his advisors and made it clear to him that if he did not get rid of that angry god Mr. Nancy he'd start a Denmark Vesey uprising in this country. I mean, what else could it be?"
A rep for Eglee told EW previously, "Mr. Jones is wrong on multiple counts, the least of which is Mr. Eglee was not born in Connecticut."
Jones says he never had interactions with Eglee but heard from "everyone" — including "people who were on the show who I'd obviously worked within season 1 and season 2, people who were not on the show who were mutual friends of ours that he didn't know I knew" — that Eglee went around saying "Mr. Nancy was the wrong type of anger."
"His exact words are, as I recall because no one repeats the same thing that way that many times, 'Angry gets sh— done is the wrong message for black America.' And then it was, 'he writes from a black male perspective,'" Jones adds. "I've never experienced sexism, I'm a guy. You've never experienced racism, you're a white guy. How could you possibly write from my perspective or any black person's perspective? I just don't get what it means. It just seems crazy to me that somebody would say that." A rep for Eglee declined to comment further.
Jones mentions that Fremantle didn't deny that part of his claims in their statement. "He said that and everyone knows he said that and he can't say he didn't say it because people will come forward and go, 'Hey, sorry, you did say that.'" Jones also finds it wrong to be, effectively, blamed for coming up with "angry gets sh— done," a phrase Mr. Nancy utters when he's first introduced in season 1 aboard a slave ship bound for America. That portrayal of Anansi came from original showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green's scripts, which Jones assumes must've been signed off by the studio to make it into the show. "The people who hired [Eglee] signed off on that and they handed me a script and I did my job."
In a statement shared on Twitter Sunday night, series star Ricky Whittle said he has "nothing but love" for Jones, though he's "unable to speak on his situation as I have no knowledge of what is or has transpired."
"Speaking only from my personal experience, Chic personally has really had my back since day one, wanting to explore Shadow in more depth," he wrote in part. "I am extremely proud of the stories we are telling in season 3 and have really enjoyed shooting the season thus far in which we continue Shadow's story deeper and his journey to Lakeside, the next part of Neil Gaiman's wonderful book."
Jones goes on to say Eglee "wouldn't even have a job had we not worked our tails off to make season 2 ultimately come to fruition so [Fremantle/Starz] could hire you." "So, what are you talking about?" he says. "You weren't even there when we were doing the work and now you're pretending that you've crafted something differently. No, you didn't."
Following the departure of Fuller and Green, who Jones confirmed left after disputes with Fremantle over production costs, Jones made significant contributions through writing and producing on season 2. "When I came in to season 2," Jone recalls, "I had the full expectation that they would have written for my character because they hired me to be there." Instead, he found himself in a position where he had to "salvage" the show. "No one had ever written character bibles for the 11 main characters on this show and no one had ever had ever arced out what happened in season 1 to season 2."
In 2018, The Hollywood Reporter published an article about reported tensions on set over the direction of season 2. Jones says the fighting arose out of the creative team, led by new showrunner at the time, Jesse Alexander, trying "to fundamentally change the characters, but never had a conversation with the cast about any of that."
"We created these characters along with Michael and Bryan in season 1 and now they were trying to pretend that none of those things were real," he continues. "Like, they were giving Shadow Moon [Whittle's character] powers. 'You can control snow.' They thought they were writing a Marvel show. I'm not even joking, dude. He could control weather. That's what they were doing. So, that was the fight. The fight was going, 'That's not Shadow Moon. What are you talking about?'" Fueling the anxiety were the "19 months" between the first two seasons when Fremantle "sitting on" his television rights. "I was sitting, waiting to learn when I was going to go back to work because they fired Michael and Brian."
Well into production on season 2, Alexander was eventually "sent home" but he was still in charge of the writer's room as writer/producer Heather Bellson was promoted to "interim showrunner," as Jones puts it. "She was refusing to rewrite anything and Jesse was refusing to do anything. So, I'm sitting on the ground, we need to shoot, the studio and the network don't want what was shot already."
Jones became involved in a writing capacity alongside scribe Rodney Barnes after multiple individuals, including Gaiman, an American Gods executive producer, who was busy showrunning Good Omens at Amazon at the time, encouraged him to write a character bible for Mr. Nancy. "Suddenly," he says, "I was in the writing room and I was writing for Laura [Emily Browning's character], Bilquis [Yetide Badaki], Mr. Ibis [Demore Barnes], Salim, the Jinn, myself, and Shadow Moon."
All of this is important to better understand Jones' position heading into season 3 and why he considers Starz's response to his termination "ridiculous."
"It's not like I was writing one or two characters on the show," he says. "Suddenly, I became responsible for any disenfranchised character on that show. So, to suggest that there was a writing option in place is ludicrous because there wasn't one. That was something that they got sanctioned for by the Writers Guild because I was doing so much work. They wanted me to do it for free. They had to give me a producer's credit because I was writing so many characters and 11 cast members. I was writing eight of them, including your lead."
As he mentioned, part of his contributions to season 2 was mapping its connection to season 3. The plan was "always very clear" about bringing Shadow to Lakeside, a prominent locale from Gaiman's novel. "What was most bizarre about it is you made a three-season deal with me because you were acutely aware that that's what we would require," Jones says. "So, to pretend that, 'Oh, we went in a different creative direction,' no, you didn't. The creative direction of Lakeside was the creative direction that we discussed, and I was a part of laying that out for season 2. I mean, Rodney Barnes and I wrote the bulk of the season  finale of American Gods."
The reason Jones did this level of work in season 2 as a writer, consulting producer, and actor was because there "was an understanding" that he would be writing for Mr. Nancy in season 3 and have an official title, "that wasn't [him] fixing all the mess that the other producers didn't do."
"The studio had been clear about that," he says. "The network had been clear about that and they were in discussions with my manager in April, May, June, July, and August is when the final follow-up came in and then they went radio silent. About a week passed and we followed up again and another week passed, we followed up again. The crew up in Toronto that we're working with, these are obviously people who I spent a lot of time with and knew. So, I had a clear sense that we were ramping up. Finally, I chimed in and said, 'Hey guys, no one's responding to my manager from the studio. What's going on? We're about to start up again and we've been in conversations, but what is it going to be? When are we going back? What is the ultimate plan? Chic has had more than enough time to figure out whatever he needed to figure out.' And then I got a call on Sep. 10. I never heard from Fremantle again. They never followed up and it kind of ended literally right there."
Making matters worse, Jones saw Starz announced a panel at Salt Lake City's FanX convention with him and Whittle. He was able to duck a lot of American Gods questions from fans and press while appearing months earlier at San Diego Comic-Con, but he felt ill-equipped to handle a formal panel for season 3. Jones says he called Gaiman, who didn't know the situation either and referred Jones to Fremantle. "I spoke to publicity over a Fremantle and they said they didn't know really what it was either and just to wing it," he says. Jones ultimately didn't do the panel because his family had to evacuate when a hurricane hit North Carolina.
Jones didn't want to take the lead on season 3 during this American Gods panel, the same way he didn't want to take the lead on telling fans Mr. Nancy wasn't going to return for the new episodes. "That's really their job in their role," he says. But he was flooded with messages from fans excited to see the character again. "I cried several times just because of the messages that I was receiving," he says, "but what got me really scared was, 'When are you guys going to tell somebody that I'm not going to be there?'"
"This was beyond being strung along," he adds. "I mean, this was literally them telling me that this was going to happen and then not speaking to me."
Over the weekend, Kraish confirmed through Twitter that the Jinn won't return for season 3. "The door isn't closed for me," he wrote. "If I'm ever asked to come back & portray the Jinn I will do it happily & proudly to be able to stand in front of my friend [Omid Obtahi] & shine with the two characters who go beyond the page." He also thanked Starz, Gaiman, Fuller, and Green in his acknowledgments.
Jones doesn't understand why the team at American Gods would choose not to bring their characters back after viewers, especially those unfamiliar with Gaiman's novel, have gotten to know Salim, the Jinn, and Mr. Nancy. "You say you care about the LGBTQ community, but why did you then get rid of Mousa, so there's no more Salim and the Jinn?" he questions. "I was already following Salim and the Jinn. Bringing on someone else who fits your quota doesn't change the fact that it's not like you service Salim and the Jinn last season because I was there to clean up that mess. "There's no, Mad Sweeney, we killed him off in [episode] 7. He's not back. So what is the plan for Laura Moon now that she is no longer tethered to Mad Sweeney? That was a big part of the discussion with regard to him coming back or not coming back, and what we were going to do and how we were going to service that character."
Jones believes Fremantle would've been well within their rights if they released him from his commitments earlier. But, as he mentions they did during seasons 1 and 2, they sat on his TV rights. "What you shouldn't have done is held my television rights, stayed in contact with my manager, stringing us along, telling us, 'Hey, we're going to come back to you,' 'give us a moment,' 'we're going to come back to you,' for months and months and months, just to pop in and go, 'Hey, we're not picking up your option,'" he continues. "That's not even in the wheelhouse of reasonable. I would have been doing other work."
Since releasing the video, Jones has spoken with Gabrielle Union, who's going through her own dilemma with Fremantle; her husband, Dwyane Wade, said she was fired from America's Got Talent after voicing concerns regarding problematic behavior on set. Jones describes their respective situations as "consider the singer when you're writing the song."
"The best song in the world, in the hands of somebody who cannot sing, is something no one wants to listen to," he says, again finding himself laughing at the thought. "But crap, in the hands of a great singer, is passable. What would it be like if you helped a good singer?"
This article has been updated with additional statements from Ricky Whittle and a spokesperson for American Gods.