How American Gods Lead Ricky Whittle Built Shadow Moon’s Intimidating Physique

‘American Gods’ Star Ricky Whittle Is TV’s Best New Leading Man

How American Gods Lead Ricky Whittle Built Shadow Moon’s Intimidating Physique
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A good man is hard to find. Just try finding one on TV.

One of the weird side effects of the rise of Golden Age TV is that it’s harder and harder to discover new heroes on the small screen. The problem is two-fold. Creatively, most of the protagonists being crafted for Peak TV tend to lean into their sins. They are anti-heroes, not heroes. Casting wise, though, it’s even tougher.

Now that television is where all the creative hype is, showrunners are stealing their leads from the big screen. So it’s with great delight that I can say American Gods star Ricky Whittle is the best new leading man on television.

As Shadow Moon, a grieving ex-con pulled into a plot involving gods and leprechauns, Whittle manages to be both a grounding force and an electric shock of charm.

British actor Ricky Whittle started off as a model and then became a primetime soap star in his native England. He recently gained buzz stateside for his charming turn in The 100.

The gritty sci-fi series was Battlestar Galactica meets Lord of the Flies and Whittle’s character, the brooding “Grounder” Lincoln, was half of one of the show’s more dreamy romances.

The 100 was an ensemble series, though; American Gods is Whittle’s first real major leading role. And you know what? He’s doing a really freaking good job.

Photo: Starz

You wouldn’t think so, but it’s really hard for actors to nail good old fashioned heroism. You’ve got to be grounded without being boring, likable without being cloying, and sexy without being skeevy. Whittle juggles all of these attributes and more. He remains a grounding force in the middle of the creative maelstrom that is American Gods.

Sure, the show is at its best when exploring the weird underbelly of mythology, but Whittle’s beleaguered Shadow Moon is the human heart that’s got to lead us through the insanity of it all. And he does! Shadow Moon is a tough part to nail. He’s got to deal with the sorrow of losing a wife and the anger that comes with her betrayal.

He needs to be both bewildered by and skeptical of the magic unfolding around him. He’s got to be in equal parts tender and intimidating. Oh, and he has to hold his own against the s of Ian McShane, Gillian Anderson, and Peter Stormare.  My colleague Sean T.

Collins suggested that Whittle wasn’t up to the task of keeping up with acting legend Ian McShane in his recap of the series premiere, but having seen the first four episodes, I have to respectfully disagree. By the time the third and fourth episodes roll around, Whittle has completely settled into the role of Shadow Moon and he’s great. (Oh, and the show itself really amps up in turn.

Episodes three and four are really good, y’all.) Whittle’s Shadow Moon can shift from sarcasm to sorrow on a dime. He can sass a scary god and seduce a woman with a well-timed glance. Most of all, he is able to project goodness free from naiveté.

Photo: Starz

Okay, and we have to talk about Ricky Whittle’s looks. Ricky Whittle is an intensely attractive man. I could prove this by taking out protractors and measuring the angles of his face.

I could also compare shirtless photos of his six pack on Instagram to our anthropological surveys of modern standards of male beauty.

I could do that! I could be scientific about it! But I could also tell you, as a hot-blooded straight woman, that this guy totally turns me on. HE. IS. GORGEOUS. It’s less classy, but nonetheless true.

Why is this important? Well, it or not, looks do matter when it comes to leading men. As dumb-dumb humans we’re programmed to respond positively to beauty. We want it for ourselves or we want to be next to it. So, yes, Whittle’s good looks help further his cause as a leading man.

Circling back to American Gods, though. Whittle’s big moment has only arrived because writer Neil Gaiman created a compelling character for his original novel, and showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green successfully shepherded Shadow Moon to the small screen. This is a character that comes with the baggage of fan expectations.

Millions of American Gods readers already have a clear idea of who Shadow Moon is in their minds. It would be impossible for Whittle to please all the fans, but he’s come pretty darn close. The key is that he’s managed to carry over the character’s intrinsic spirit to the show — it’s a spirit of heroism.

If nothing else, that’s why Ricky Whittle should be on your radar.

Stream American Gods on Starz

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Ricky Whittle Talks About American Gods – Ricky Whittle Interview

How American Gods Lead Ricky Whittle Built Shadow Moon’s Intimidating Physique

Ricky Whittle garnered a cult following for his role as the now-deceased Lincoln on The 100, but it's nothing the stardom he's poised to encounter with his new gig on American Gods.

For the TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman's 2001 bestseller, Whittle's been tasked with bringing protagonist Shadow Moon—fresh jail, newly widowed, and unwittingly recruited to partake in a battle between the “Old Gods” and the New (read more about that here)—to life.

“I got so many fantastic messages saying, 'You're perfect. You're exactly how I'd imagined Shadow in the book. Don't fuck it up,'” Whittle says of the pressure from fans.

Of course, they have nothing to worry about; the 35-year-old actor brings much more than a pretty face to Shadow, from a gratifying rapport with Ian McShane's Mr. Wednesday to a complicated combination of bewilderment and grief at the ex-con's current situation.

“He's broken,” says Whittle. “He's got to earn that right to live again.” Below, Whittle talks the first season of American Gods (including the finale), the cast's group text and the terrifying relevance of the series in Trump's America.

The American Gods fandom is the reason he got cast in the first place.

“I'm the perfect advertisement for this show because I never knew about American Gods. I didn't know of Neil Gaiman’s work.

Starz put out a search online—#CastingShadow—and they asked the fans, 'Who do you want to play Shadow?' My name kept popping up, #RickyWhittle, on my feed, and I'm , “What is this American Gods everyone's talking about?' I started doing my research, I put it to my reps and they're , “Oh yeah, it's incredible.

” So they put me forward and then this five-month [filming] process took off and we worked out who Shadow Moon was. I will always owe it to the fans for raising my awareness of this project and basically getting me the job.

I would not have even been considered if it wasn't for their passion and the fact that they all wanted me to be a part of this. I owe it to them, and I'm so grateful that I get to give this gift back. According to all the reviews, everyone is kind of happy with it. If Neil Gaiman is happy with his baby, I know the fans will be.”

The Shadow onscreen is a bit different from the one in the book.

“The five month process, although grueling, was actually a gift, because it allowed us to work Shadow Moon. He's an internal monologue in the book. He's quiet, he's blasé, he's very chilled about fantasy and magic happening in front of him. He just goes along with it.

In real life that wouldn't happen. When your wife turns up from the dead, you'd freak out. In the written word it's beautiful. Neil writes this beautiful moment, where he says, 'I can never be afraid of my wife, dead or alive. I will always love her.' Beautiful.

In real life, your wife turns up from the dead, you freak out. This is the grounding realism that [showrunners] Bryan [Fuller] and Michael [Green] wanted to bring to Shadow Moon. They want to add layers.

They want him to be more vocal, to bring anxiety and fear and real reactions, to make him more proactive.

So he talks a lot more than he does in the book, although he understands that you have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth, so you should be listening and watching twice as much as you speak. He's still going to be very observant. He is still Shadow from the book, but he has a little more to him.

Everything you love in the book is going to be in the show, but so much more. We've been blessed with the opportunity to flesh out characters that are sporadic in the book, Mad Sweeney, Laura, Bilquis.

We're able to expand upon those roles, so iconic moments and iconic characters that you love—you're going to get more of them.”

Neil Gaiman offered Whittle some insight into the character.

“It was fascinating, picking the mind of the source material, picking Neil Gaiman's mind about where Shadow came from and how he came up with the name.

For me, I'm , 'He's a shadow of his former self, he's a shadow of the man we want him to become.' Neil was , “No, it was a security guard,' that he met.

Then he met another person called Shadow who was a policeman or something, and he's , 'Two guys who protect people called Shadow.'

“He's broken… He's got to earn that right to live again.”

“Then he tells me about this guy he met at a campsite who was a big lug, who looked a typical dumb jock. A big guy, who, when asked to collect firewood, brought back a tree, basically, and just plopped it down. Neil was , 'this guy is an idiot.

' And then he sat down and actually had a conversation with him, and found him to be one of the most intellectual guys he's ever met. This big, dumb-looking guy was actually so fascinating and intelligent, and he really enjoyed his company. He was such a good guy, and he was , 'I wasn't expecting that.

' That's where Shadow came from, and it was fascinating to know that.”

There was a little bit of pressure, but Whittle took it in stride.

“I'm a very confident person, and I'm a very positive person. The glass is always half full. The only negative thing I could even possibly think of was the pressure I felt in the beginning to deliver to fans who've been anticipating the show for 16 years—an iconic character in Shadow Moon, who the book readers have loved and cherished.

I got so many fantastic messages saying, 'You're perfect. You're exactly how I'd imagined Shadow in the book. Don't fuck it up.' I was , 'Oh, wow, this is real.' Their passion about this character they've loved for 16 years—the pressure was insane! Then I started to work on set and I was , 'Oh, that was a good scene.

That was fun, I d that.' Then you see the trailer we released at Comic-Con, and fans lost their minds. I'm , 'If you that, we just threw that together—half of that isn't even in the show!' Then you start to watch the episodes. That pressure dissipates and disappears. It's replaced with excitement.

Now I'm , 'I have no fears that you're not going to enjoy this.'”

He can't help but read online reactions.

“Every actor checks up on feedback or a critic. Maybe not all the time, but they will have a peek. It's just what we do. It's a curiosity. We want to know that we did good.”

The gods will subvert your expectations.

“We're talking about gods, but they're not gods crushing cities, throwing thunderbolts. They're extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances.

We don't see that dynamic ever; it's always ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and when we see gods they're flying and doing all this amazing stuff.

[In American Gods] you're seeing these once-huge gods struggling through life, and that's what makes it real.

The cast members are just as close as they look on social media.

“We love being together. We were in London just recently, and the day after, I was texting , 'I miss you already. When are we back? When can we catch up?' We were in a group chat and Ian [McShane] was , 'We are going to be in New York in three days.' It's , 'Let's all get dinner in LA' and they were , 'Three days. See you in New York.'

“Because it's such an intense shoot, I'm the only one who has met everyone, as well. We watch the show through Shadow's eyes.

Shadow goes on this journey and meets everyone, so I'll take everyone out for dinner and stuff and be , 'Oh, have you not met?' And people will be , 'No, we're not part of that story, we're in a different section.

” Once everyone met and got to hang out, it's actually, we created a family. I don't even see them as cast anymore, or crew. It's a family, and that comes from the top. That comes from Brian Fuller and Michael Green creating this family. Neil Gaiman, he's a rockstar but he's hilarious.

He is such a nice, genuine guy, which is insane because you're the rockstar of the book world. You can't walk the floor at Comic-Con, and here you are just chill, just telling stories about life. He's just a great guy.”

You can watch the show even if you haven't read the book.

“People who don't know Neil Gaiman's work, myself, who don't know American Gods, myself, will have their minds blown by an incredible story. Although it's fantasy, it's still very grounding. It's a beautiful love story between Shadow and Laura. It's a funny, buddy-buddy story between Shadow and Mr.

Wednesday. Then you have the fans who are hardcore American Gods fans—who are really looking forward to watching it—but even they don't know what's going on. Brian and Michael really played with the timeline of throwing it all around so it's fresh for everyone's eyes. The season finale is not even in the book.

He's already ready for the finale.

“It is the most incredible finale, to the point where the cast was saying, 'Can you just give us Episode 1 of Season 2, because this is insane.' We all want to go back and shoot now, because we want to know what's going on.”

“I will always owe it to the fans for… basically getting me the job.”

And yes, he's been thinking about Season 2.

“I hope for more of the same. I hope to be settling down roots in this show for six, seven, however many years. Neil Gaiman is already rewriting the sequel, we have spin-offs in Anansi Boys, The Monarch in the Glen—we only covered the first 100 pages, not even a fifth of the book in the first season. It's got legs to go for a long time.

I worked backwards with Shadow to find the rock bottom, empty, emotionless Shadow that we first meet. He's not interesting. He's the straight character. I had to really resist giving him too much personality in the beginning. I didn't want him to be funny.

I had to resist from going too funny, because you have to earn that personality. He's broken. He's got to earn that right to live again. I want to see him grow in Season 2. I want to see this beautiful, epic love story develop between Laura and Shadow.

I want to see the interactions with all the other gods.

I want to see us raising themes that are important to the world at the moment. We have this great responsibility, because it's such a great platform that reaches so many people around the world.

Why not use it to talk about really interesting and important topics? I want to see who they're bringing in for Season 2, because the best ensemble cast I've ever seen in season one.

How do you better that? Orly [Sitowitz] and Margery [Simkin] are our incredible casting directors and I'm sure they'll find more.”

The show is unintentionally politically relevant, but Whittle is proud to be a part of that message.

We're talking about very beautiful, sensitive, controversial topics that have made us the most politically relevant and current show out there—by accident. The book was written in 2001 and we wrapped in November, before Trump was inaugurated.

It just so happens that he has pissed off a lot of the people that we talk about in our show. We're very blessed that we are given this beautiful platform to tell these wonderful stories. We entertain, at the end of the day it's just a TV show, but we're in a position where we are able to educate.

I feel we have a responsibility to raise awareness and have these discussions about immigration, religion, race, sexism, women's rights, homophobia, gun control. This is all really important, and we should be discussing it.

It's something we definitely need to keep in the headlines, because it's an important bunch of topics that we need to be discussing.

It's become, 'Oh, that's just what Trump does.” No, that's not just what Trump does. [That's ], 'That's just what a wife beater does.' No! It doesn't matter from the first slap to the 100th slap. You need to stop.

It's wrong. You can't treat people badly. The more we talk about it, then the more it's going to stay relevant. I think we're good because the generations are changing.

I always believe that diseases are strongest when they're about to be extinct. You have the last hoorah of racist, sexist, homophobic people out there, who are just trying to get their last little breath before they get wiped out.

Hopefully the younger generation is more open and full of love and intelligence. And believe in climate change [laughs].

For more on American Gods, read our explainer.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.