Ricky Whittle is the lead of potentially the biggest new franchise on television, "American Gods," which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on Starz. But the road to landing the coveted starring role on the series wasn't easy.
"I was the first cast. I went through five months of a crazy process," Whittle told Business Insider of the audition process for Shadow Moon on the series when we recently met with him and costar, Ian McShane, in New York City.
"They put you through it," McShane, who plays the character of Mr. Wednesday, added of the 16 auditions Whittle endured to capture his role.
Executive producers Bryan Fuller and Michael Green received about 2,000 audition tapes submitted by actors for Shadow Moon. They narrowed the tapes to about 1200 and were only able to actually meet half of those actors.
"He was the last man standing," Fuller told Business Insider when we asked him and Green why Whittle was cast in the role later that same day in New York City.
"Meaning he literally had to slaughter them," Green interjected.
"Yeah. It's 'Hunger Games,'" continued Fuller. "Every time he came in, he grew into the role and showed us new colors of who Shadow could be and his storyline and jumped through 16 hoops. And some of those hoops were on fire. And some of them were over shark pits. But he just continued with the discipline of an athlete to work on this character and earn this role. So how did Ricky get it? He earned it."
The stakes were high. "American Gods," which is already renewed for a second season, is adapted from Neil Gaiman's popular 2001 novel of the same name. The novel tells the story of an impending war between the multicultural gods of history who were brought to America by immigrants and the gods created out of our modern worship of technology, media, drugs, and celebrity, among others.
Having built a dedicated worldwide following since the novel was published, the pressure of casting the right person for Shadow Moon was intense.
Described as having skin the color of "coffee and cream" in the novel, Shadow Moon had to be played by a person of color. Fans wondered if a TV adaptation would instead cast a Caucasian actor, which fueled worries that Starz would whitewash the character, a route many other Hollywood productions have taken in the past. The casting of Whittle, a British actor whose mother is white and whose father is Jamaican, fit the bill.
But Whittle's racial makeup was just the beginning. Aside from an early modeling career and starring among the ensemble cast for CW science-fiction drama, "The 100," he was a virtual unknown. For TV, Shadow Moon would have to show a more expansive range of emotions than the brooding ex-convict in the book. And Whittle had to prove he could deliver that.
"The show basically strayed away from the book Shadow, who's very internal, stoic, and blasé quiet," Whittle said. "But that's not something people want to watch. We had to adapt this to TV, so we added layers, charisma, made it more real."
On "American Gods," Shadow Moon is released from prison after hearing the news that his wife, Laura (Emily Browning), had been killed in a car accident. He then soon meets Mr. Wednesday, who hires him as his bodyguard. Shadow accompanies McShane's mysterious character on a cross-country journey to recruit old gods for a war with the new ones – details Shadow has to piece together for himself amid strange and seemingly supernatural experiences along the road trip.
"We gave him anxiety and fear that these things are happening," Whittle said. "He kind of goes along with the kind of magic. And in real life, we wanted to make that more real. So you need to fear a little bit more, maybe you're going crazy and it's not the world that's crazy. And that's his struggle on the first season."
Watch the "American Gods" trailer below:
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