Ricky Whittle: “Everyone wanted to fight me – all the time!”
THE RED BULLETIN: You play Shadow in the show, and the chemistry between you and Ian (McShane, who plays Mr Wednesday) is really impressive.
RICKY WHITTLE: The chemistry feels real, because it is real in real life.
You knew him before?
I knew of him. He’s one of the greatest actors of our generation and I grew up watching him on Lovejoy. He’s known for Deadwood, John Wick. His CV is huge. He has probably forgotten more jobs than I’m ever going to get in my whole career. When we first met, we hit it off straightaway because we’re both from Manchester and we both support Manchester United. We’re great friends. His dad played for Man United, which I was amazed by. I met this incredible idol of mine and then we hit it off. Throughout the season we talked about football, transfers, and watched Euro 2016 in his trailer. That chemistry off screen translates on screen.
How would you describe your character?
Shadow is incredibly named. He’s actually a shadow of his former self.
When he receives news that Laura has died – that’s his whole world. She was his world and that’s now gone. So we first meet Shadow and he’s an empty vessel. He’s broken and lost. He has nothing to live for, and that is why Wednesday is able to manipulate him so easily, because he’s vulnerable. He has nothing. He has no emotions. He doesn’t even cry when he finds out about Laura because he is that empty. He really is neutral.
He’s a shadow of his former self?
Yes, but he’s also a shadow of the men that we hopefully want him to become. He’s also a cynic. He doesn’t believe in any of this, which is a perfect vessel as we enter the story because he doesn’t know what’s going on and neither will the audience at the beginning. The first couple of episodes the audience won’t understand what’s happening. But that’s okay, because Shadow doesn’t understand what’s happening. As we continue this journey and as Shadow learns more, the audience is going to learn with him. They kind of grow together.
Let’s talk about cold coins.
Cold coins? [Laughs.] You know your stuff! I spent two month working on rolling a coin across my knuckle. I had to learn that because it’s something that Shadow learned in prison. For three years he’d roll a coin because it allowed him to escape the fact that he’s in prison. He just wanted to do his time to go back to his wife, and when he was released from prison it was kind of like an escape. When things get crazy, he uses it to calm down, relax and focus, so I wanted Shadow to be able to do that. For two months I watched YouTube videos trying to learn how to do that, so any coin tricks that you see Shadow do, I did them for real. I practised for two months – at home, when I was driving, when I was eating, when I was watching TV. Then, when I got to the set Pablo and Ian both had to do this as well – but they hadn’t practised, so all they did was move their fingers and they used special effects to put a coin on their fingers and I thought, ‘Why did I waste all that time when you could use special effects?’
Well, you could always start a second career now …
Now I am everyone’s favourite uncle. I can do all these magic tricks that make kids lose their mind. And I owe that to American Gods. So if the show doesn’t work out I am going to be available for children’s parties.
You could have been a professional football player as well. What happened?
It’s just the way life is. I was a very gifted footballer. I was fast. I could run the 100 in 10.7 seconds. No one was going to keep up with me. But I had weak ankles, I had knee problems and shin splints, so eventually Arsenal dropped me off the books because I was too injury-prone. My dad told me to go to university to get a degree.
That was the time when you became a model, right?
At university I was modelling to pay for books. My modelling agent put me forward for a TV show called The Dream Team about footballers. I just went along, it went very well, they signed me up for two years and I left university and I never looked back. Football was a huge part of my life growing up – it kept me athletic, it stopped a lot of bullying when I was a kid as well.
Really, you were bullied?
Yes! I was a black kid in a white school. I was a footballer in a rugby school. I was an English kid in an Irish school, a Catholic in a Protestant school. Everyone wanted to fight – all the time. As soon as I joined the football team, all of a sudden I had ten brothers around me, who used to look after me. Football for me is a huge part of my life and I’ll always be grateful for that. But I had to hang up my boots, so now I can only watch with Ian. I’m no longer allowed to play in case I get injured.
Immigration is an important topic in the series as well.
America is this incredible melting pot. Unless you’re a native, no one belongs in America. We’re all immigrants. The president is an immigrant and so are members of his family. The beautiful thing about America is that so many people came from around the world brought all their cultures, their religions, their beliefs and all their flavours and ideas. This craziness that’s happening at the moment in America with the heated political climate and Trump and immigration bans – it makes no sense. It’s very contrived and vindictive of certain people.
In the show those immigrants brought their gods to the new country.
The show is called American Gods. But what are the American Gods? Most of these gods came from other countries. These people came with their gods and some flourished and others faded away. And it is that fading away that the old gods are trying to fight against. They don’t want to be forgotten. And that is their war with the new gods because now we worship technology, media, celebrity fame and they’re getting stronger. That’s where the war comes and Shadow is stuck in the middle – but immigration is a huge part of this story and we’re saying that it is a beautiful thing, because you have to respect everyone’s culture, everyone’s religion, and everyone’s beliefs. We’re all on the same journey.
What do you believe in?
I believe that positivity breeds positivity. I love life. I know I’m very blessed. I feel very proud that I’ve never stepped on anyone to get anywhere or treated people badly. I like to spread happiness. I believe that when you walk past someone and you smile, it makes a difference to someone. I just believe that if you surround yourself with positivity, you attract positivity. If you think negatively for too long, all of a sudden you get a headache, so if you turn that upside down and think positively, all of a sudden maybe you’re pushing positive vibes out into the world and you’re kind of encouraging yourself to be a bit more open.
Is that a spiritual thing?
No, I just want to be happy. I understand it’s hard, but I find happiness is a choice. You wake up in the morning and we’ve all got struggles. But I choose to be happy. Everyone thinks my life is perfect. But no, I’m not perfect. I’ve lots of problems and struggles. But I choose to be happy, and I choose to be positive and focus on all this positivity. And yes, there’s negativity there. But if it’s stuff I need to deal with, I’ll deal with it. Otherwise I ignore it. I don’t let that control my world. I focus on the good people in my life. The negative people in my life I don’t focus on. I don’t need those people. So just focus on the people that bring you smiles, bring you happiness and you try and do the same for everyone else.
Who’s the coolest God in American Gods?
There are so many in different ways. I think the coolest God could be Media because Media is very important in the real world. I think it’s such a huge platform to say whatever you want. You can educate, you can mislead. It’s so manipulative. We use TV and social media to promote lies, to promote truth, to make people believe what we want. And then when we see Media played by Gillian Anderson – every time we see her she’s a different character. She’s Marilyn Monroe. She’s David Bowie. I’ve seen all of them and she’s incredible. David Bowie is possibly my favourite. She plays a guy. For Gillian, that must have been a lot of fun.
Name some things on your bucket list.
BASE jumping, travel to Japan and being part of a superhero franchise. I’d love to play some kind of superhero.
Do you have someone in mind?
The Green Lantern – he could be played.
What’s so cool about Green Lantern?
He could be cooler. [Laughs.] Or James Bond. You want to do something iconic. For me, Shadow is an iconic character in the book world. So I’m very blessed that I’m about to be part of this incredible franchise and I want something on the same lines in the film world. Something that people look to and go: “I love this.”
American Gods is out on Starz on April 30 in the US and on Amazon Prime on May 1 in Europe.