Ian McShane relishes playing an ancient god as a charismatic scamp who has faith in humanity

Ian McShane says of his “American Gods” character Mr. Wednesday: “He’s just as capricious and as willful as any of the new gods that he’s raving against. It’s just you’ll have a better time with him.”
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

In the Starz series “American Gods,” Ian McShane plays an ancient deity who walks the Earth in human form. But don’t expect an ethereal, larger than life figure in a crisp three-piece suit.

Mr. Wednesday is a charming but slick con man with questionable scruples and fashion sense. He traverses America in an old black Cadillac, pulling small scams from city to city for cash. Clearly, the gods aren’t as powerful as they once were.

His peers — ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and African gods — have also fallen on lean times. Like Wednesday, they were once worshiped by the immigrant cultures that brought them to America. Today? Mortals would rather watch TV or stare at their smart phones.

Based on Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, McShane’s Mr. Wednesday is at the heart of the series adaptation as he convinces his fellow gods to unite against such modern-day threats as technology and media.

McShane costars with Ricky Whittle, who plays ex-convict Shadow Moon, an unwitting mortal that Mr. Wednesday has hired as a bodyguard. The odd couple embark on a road trip that potentially changes the course of humankind.

McShane dropped by The Envelope’s video studio to chat about the series from executive producers Bryan Fuller and Michael Green.

Ian McShane talks about the themes and conflicts of his new series, 'American Gods,' on Starz.

The great thing about “American Gods” is that you don’t have to be a fan of the books to understand the series.

I don’t think so. The book is all an interior monologue in Shadow’s head, so Green and Fuller have created this rather fantastic visual world as well. It was written 16 years ago and it’s more apt now than it probably was then. It’s a story of immigrants coming to America and they bring their gods with them. The demons, they didn’t. They were too scared to cross the ocean. But Gaiman believes the gods came with them as protection; it goes back to Roman times. This is not to say this is an irreligious show or it’s an anti-faith show. It’s very much a faith show. It’s just saying, have we forgotten now where we were anytime in the past, you know, 500 years? If you don’t remember what the past is then you’ll be forced to repeat it.

I love that the old gods are really fallible. They have these sort of conflicts between them, like your character is making money on the side as a con man —

Oh, he’s just as capricious and as willful as any of the new gods that he’s raving against. It’s just you’ll have a better time with him. You’ll also get steeped in the history of humanity rather than in the world of nothingness, like what [new god] Mr. World represents or the media. But he’s looking forward to the battle. He wants a fight.

What you bring to that character in the series, he’s kind of part used-car salesman but then he’s also really charismatic. Did you see that in Mr. Wednesday when you read the novel?

The great thing I loved about Wednesday when I read him and then as I got to know him as we worked on the show is he’s up for anything. And he enjoys everything — be it food, drink, women, conversation, laughter. And he’s also a bit of a know-it-all.

Ian McShane, left, and Ricky Whittle in "American Gods."
Ian McShane, left, and Ricky Whittle in "American Gods." (Jan Thijs / Starz)

You have also been known for playing characters that are not the typical bad guys. There’s something —

Complicated people.

There you go. Complicated people.

That started back in the end of the ’90s, beginning of the 2000s with HBO, with the shows about — well, when I was involved with “Deadwood” but also I remember “Oz,” which since has been forgotten a little, but shouldn’t. It’s a great show, a phenomenal show.

“Oz,” “The Wire,” “The Sopranos” — Tony Soprano was your classic complicated character. I mean, he’s a family guy. It’s just a family business. It’s just something that most of us, you know, would never be involved with, but that’s the dynamic and brilliantly done. I can compare that to Al Swearengen in “Deadwood,” he became a rounded person. But I think Wednesday is imbued with that from the beginning because he’s an old god, so he comes fully formed. You meet more gods as we go on. They get filled out. You get more stand-alone stories.

Here’s a question from our Facebook audience. “How do you create your understanding of how to play a character when that character is an ancient Norse god?”

You think like an old Norse god. Haven’t you ever done that? You know, I called myself Olaf for a week, wore a beard, dressed in rags and ate live birds and chanted to the old gods of Norse, went to an island and drank water from a well. Isn’t that what everybody does when you prepare for a part? Very easy to do.

Support our journalism

Already a subscriber? Thank you for your support. If you are not, please consider subscribing today. Get full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.