One of the best things about the first season of American Gods was how its thematic ambitions came to life inside the cast’s stellar performances. Things often got weird and elliptical on the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel, but you couldn’t stop watching because of the excellent acting on display. Here’s how some of the show’s players brought their characters to life.
Last week, after the season finale ended with a shocking act of cosmic power, I talked to several actors who’ve been playing legendary beings on American Gods. We’ll be rolling these interviews out over the next couple of days, starting today with Orlando Jones talking about where Mr. Nancy’s voice came from, why Shadow Moon should listen to Mr. Nancy, and how Sleepy Hollow changed his thinking about fans.
Orlando Jones’ first scene on American Gods served as a lightning-bolt moment, a sign that this fantasy show about gods living amongst people wouldn’t be shying away from ugly moments of human history. Jones said that his approach to the character comes from both folklore and real-world happenings.
Jones: I think I started the process really with just who Anansi really is. All the stories about Anansi, all over the globe, have always centered on this idea that he was the keeper of stories, that we was the spinner of tales, and that he was never beyond using trickery. Or conning you into getting what he wanted. He was very much Machiavellian in that his ends justify his means. And when I thought about bringing that character to life, I really felt like he has to suck all the energy out of the room and arrests what’s happening. The hope is that he captivates you, right?
But, most importantly to me, it’s always felt as if there was a bit of an apology, in the way things were presented, throughout the history of stories that have contained aspects of race as a conversation. They always try to be magnanimous, and I really didn’t want Anansi to be that. I wanted him to be unapologetic about what it is and unapologetic about the means that he was going to use. For me, he has to believe at all times every word that he is saying. And he does not care, nor does he require your endorsement in any way, shape or form. He cannot be secondary, he cannot be a side individual in the conversation. It is this and that’s what it is, and if he decides to change his mind, good on him.
Jones says that Anansi’s scenes with Shadow Moon in the season finale were about trying to warn the ex-con about the old deity he’s been working for.
Jones: In dealing with Wednesday, who is a God of War, I’m not daunted by [that title]. Whatever with that. [Mr. Nancy is] very much looking at Shadow like, “Why do you trust this dude? You don’t even know what’s going on here. This dude got you caught in his matrix. Like, idiot, you should be paying attention.” A lot of those scenes—the last one, in particular—he’s saying to Shadow, “wake up.” Pay attention. Look at what’s going on around you. Don’t be fooled. We have a history of being fooled. We have a history of resting on our laurels rather than attacking what we should. So, all of those things came into play. I didn’t really want to do the Scatman Crothers version of it. That felt like part of a different era to me. He’s as much politician as he is a Black Panther. And I think he’s humanitarian in the sense that he truly does believe that the disenfranchised got the wrong end of the stick. But he doesn’t believe that the disenfranchised now, you know, need to “We Shall Overcome” in order to get themselves back to where they belong. If he has to kill a bunch of y’all, that’s okay with Nancy.
For me, the big thing to me is that if life—and this relates to a lot of the things that we’re experiencing today—if life is truly about bowing down and taking the high road at the expense of yourself and your children and your children’s children, that’s not life. Sacrifice, right now, because second-class citizenship? That’s not what you want. That’s what you’re standing up for if you go along with the status quo. Don’t sign up for that. To me, that’s a big part of Nancy. And for me, that’s his fun and his gift and his curse.
When it came time to bringing Nancy to life via performance, Jones reached back to a underworld figure he encountered as a child.
Jones: There was a guy that was friends with my father, a very well-known and powerful hustler on the Eastern seaboard. He was a very interesting guy who would literally rent a passenger van and would take the poor kids from the ghettos and black neighborhoods down to the sporting goods store and just spend money. Buy them whatever they want. Like, Christmas on a Tuesday out of nowhere.
A guy who was out of that tradition very much, right? But he was the very definition of the Wrong Dude to Fuck With. And as much as he was benevolent, he was equally as dangerous if not more so. And one of the things that always struck me about him was the he had a very high-pitched voice. And I found his voice to be very funny. Like, I used to laugh when he’d say things. Just because of the register. And one of things obviously as an actor that I’m very aware of is that the notes, the tones are like music, right? Base tones often mean power. And higher tones often mean comedy. So, to me, as a performer, I know to say “fuck you” means one thing, and “fuuck yooou!” means something else just by virtue of the tone and intonation. So, I really wanted Nancy to have the ability to make you smile and then in a moment’s notice go completely the other way.
“[It’s] very much wanting you pay attention in the shift. So he’s very intent on making sure his message is clear. And also the low register—with Anubis, it’s perfect—but, with Nancy, you’re not going to listen to something for the period of time that Nancy talks if it remains in that register. That sort of sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher after awhile.
They kept handing me these massive monologues, which is awesome, you know? So his register, to me, needed to have that lilt to it in order for you to pay attention. And he’s shifting a lot to the Middle Passage, the various places black people wound up off the slave ships out of Africa and various dialects we have. I wanted Nancy to lean toward his Guyanese history as much as a part of Barbados, and I wanted you to hear a bit of Jamaica...I wanted you to hear all of the islands in him. And the American that he is at this point, I guess, but never having divorced himself from his African roots. To me, that was really key because African-American culture is so incredibly diverse. I’m tired of cookie-cutter monolithic representation of black folks. I need people to see him to go, “Yes, I see me. I don’t just see this latest incarnation of what blackness is this year, or last year. I’ve seen the years gone past and I see the present.” So, a lot of the choices and just the way he moves and the way he talks and the way he shift are about the embodiment of the culture that is ours.
If you’ve been following American Gods on social media, you’ve surely noticed the enthusiastic participation of the show’s stars and creators. Jones has been one of the most engaged folks and credits his experience on Sleepy Hollow as a turning point as to how he interacted with the fandoms around his projects:
Jones: You gotta remember back in the days of Evolution and Time Machine and projects like that, there was no social media to engage this way. When I think back to MadTV back in the days, the same thing. I remember going to Comic-Con, no studio, no network, because I wanted to see Sergio Aragones and hang out at like, Artist’s Alley, and just see, you know, cool artists and shoot the bull. And nobody helped me! Nobody cared! There was no groundswell. You could park across the street and it was really not that hectic.
And so I guess Sleepy Hollow was like, “Whoa, I’m now doing another genre project—obviously a fan of this.” Been to Tarrytown as a kid, and I’ve read Washington Irving and Sleepy Hollow was really eye-opening to me. Sleepy Hollow was such an important show for me, because I’d never seen that level of representation on a show before and never seen tropes exploded that way. I mean, it had more black women than a Shonda Rhimes show. It had a black dude and an Asian dude and a Latin dude — even when you went back into time, we were represented in the past. Suddenly, the history of this country was being retold, redefined with all of these people as participants. And I thought that was tremendously exciting. And it made me engage in the show and engage in the fan base in a particular way. Sleepy Hollow was a huge learning curve for me and I really sort of just jumped both feet into fandom, and I felt really at home and was lucky to be welcomed.
Jones is trying to perpetuate that same feeling as a partner in a new digital venture called Cosmunity, aimed at letting fans share their passions directly with each other.
Jones: I remember well when the local news used to talk about the freaks that were dressing up down at the local convention center. And, as I found myself back in that game heavily around 2014, 2015 and 2016, it just struck me as strange that I was downloading all these different apps for each con I was going to, and then 72 hours later, the app disappeared. Yet, I was looking for ways to stay connected with the people that I met there. None of these shows or properties exist without fans. Most importantly, once the story has been told, once you broadcast it, once you put it out there — it’s not yours anymore. It belongs to everybody now. And it’s always been the most exciting part of fandom to see that play itself out. But fans are thought of as eyeballs and not as people. I understand it’s also been uncomfortable for studios and networks who don’t quite know what to do with a living, breathing community. A fandom might be excited by things that aren’t exciting to the creators. And so, I just wanted a way to sort of join that community, and power that community and hopefully being that community together. Like, if you’re a seller of fan art and costumes and games, we don’t charge any listing fees. You keep 100% of your sales.
People—adults, particularly—have told me that they’re nervous about sharing their cosplay and the nerd/fan aspects of their lives on Instagram and Facebook, because those are places where you’re going to get bullied or shamed. When you go to a con, you don’t get that. You’re in a like-minded group of people. So, another huge aspect of Cosmunity was building it so you can go to a fandom, or create a fandom, and then ostensibly amass people who understand very much the same things that you do, and celebrate the same things that you do.
Conversations with God continues on Thursday, with Pablo Scheiber talking about playing giant jerk leprechaun Mad Sweeney