British actor Ricky Whittle boldly ventures into the weird world of warring deities in the highly anticipated television adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s best-selling novel, American Gods.

First published in 2001 and winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards (recognising the best in science fiction and fantasy literature), American Gods is the story of taciturn ex-con Shadow Moon, who takes a job as bodyguard to enigmatic con artist Mr. Wednesday and is subsequently dragged into a war between the old gods of mythology and the new gods who represent media, celebrity, finance and technology.

It’s perhaps the darkest and most confronting of celebrated British writer Neil Gaiman’s novels, sharing more in common tonally with the work of Clive Barker than the author’s more family-friendly fantasies like Stardust, Coraline and The Graveyard Book.

This bizarre journey into mystical Americana has now been adapted for television by Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Heroes), with Gaiman serving as an executive producer on the ambitious and outlandish series.

“They wanted to make it as perfect as possible because this book comes with quite a reputation – there was a lot of pressure,”says Ricky Whittle, who won the part of Shadow following a five-month audition process he describes as an insane experience – much like the world his character becomes immersed in.

Having landed the role, Whittle began reading the novel but was told to stop by the showrunners. “It was influencing the way I wanted to play the role,” he tells STACK. “In the book, Shadow is very stoic, very quiet, very internal with lots of inner monologue. That’s great in a novel but it doesn’t translate well to the screen. He was really blasé in the book about all the craziness going on around him, but I think you would freak out a bit more if your dead wife turns up! Shadow is going to ask a lot more questions in the show. He still has those silent moments where he’s very much an observer, but he needs to be more interactive in order for viewers to become invested in the character.

American Gods Ricky Whittle

“He’s one of the only protagonists of a TV show that I know who doesn’t push the storyline – the storyline pushes him. He’s basically a leaf in the stream and things just kind of happen to him and he gets carried away in the current.”

Gaiman has a devoted following, but Whittle admits to having been unfamiliar with the author’s work prior to becoming involved in American Gods. “It wasn’t until I started auditioning that I realised how huge the name Neil Gaiman was. This is a great opportunity for me to learn about the rest of his stuff – Sandman and all these things that fans are passionate and crazy about.”

The author was involved in the adaptation process from the very beginning, reveals Whittle, who hung out with Gaiman at San Diego Comic-Con last year. “He’s got an incredible mind and it was a real honour to spend time together. He has such a fantastic sense of humour and he was very inspiring to be around. He’s very much a piece of this puzzle.”

The actor also credits Fuller and Green with assembling one of the best ensemble casts he’s ever seen for a TV series, including Ian McShane, Crispin Glover, Peter Stomare, Gillian Anderson and Australia’s own Emily Browning.

“The show follows Shadow and Mr. Wednesday’s journey, so I have plenty of scenes with Ian McShane, who I grew up watching in Lovejoy. Others know him from Deadwood, where he was an evil piece of work. He’s been in the industry for fifty years and has an incredible body of work, so he brings great experience and talent to the table. I feel very blessed that I get to work and learn from one of my idols.”

Whittle promises the series will be a very faithful adaptation of Gaiman’s book that fans are going to love. “There are enough tweaks, twists and turns to keep things fresh for them as well, he adds. “It’s dark but it’s funny. It’s a love story, a show about journeys, about finding ourselves and raising awareness of various topics and controversial issues, from gun control to religion and faith …”

But will it feature the infamous sequence from the novel involving a goddess named Bilquis? “That scene is there,” he confirms, “and it’s a challenge to the viewer. If you can get past that scene, then you’re going to love this show. If it’s too much for you, you need to back away. Nothing’s too dark for this show.”

Shadow and Wednesday’s journey is set to continue, with American Gods renewed for a second season – a mere two weeks after its premiere – and Whittle is confident it has the legs to run for three or four.

“The book works as the perfect blueprint for a TV show. Neil Gaiman has many avenues he goes down but doesn’t necessarily follow them all the way through, and Bryan Fuller has said American Gods is basically ‘Avengers with gods.’ There’s so much potential.”

Check out our review of American Gods: Season 1 on DVD and Blu-ray.