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"You need to own your history." Ricky Whittle on identity, capitalism and the rebirth of American Gods

Ricky Whittle moved to America and landed the biggest role of his career. Life was good but the love affair soured. He opens up about politics, publicity – and why American Gods isn't finished yet

Ricky Whittle is exhausted. He doesn’t look exhausted – thank you, genetics – but he hasn’t slept properly in three days, watching movies on his phone late into the night, rising with the Californian sunlight that pierces the blinds of his mansion in Woodland Hills, an upscale neighbourhood (obviously: it has mansions) in San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles.

He wakes up and works out in his gym. He reads some scripts. Maybe he hears the music from a neighbouring party drifting across the hills. Maybe he goes onto the balcony and gazes over the green trees and the blue, blue sky – bluer even than the water of his swimming pool – and considers what a very long way he has travelled from Oldham. He does some lengths.

This has been Whittle’s daily existence for more than a year. He’s barely left the house. (It’s LA: everything is delivered. He gets his Yorkshire puddings off Amazon.) As houses go, his is not a bad one for a prolonged period of solitary confinement – I mentioned the pool, right? – but there’s a whole world out there.

Yes, there’s Covid, of course, but surely there’s a happy medium between throwing bacchanalian orgies in your broom closet and going Howard Hughes with a six-pack. Ricky, the other day you danced around your house in a Deadpool costume. Again.

There are three factors behind Whittle’s perpetual quarantine. The first is obviously Covid. He’s 39 and never gets ill, but he doesn’t want to risk being a carrier. He knows not everyone owns an LA mansion, and people need to look after themselves – ‘you do you’ is basically the Whittle motto – but let’s not lose sight of our social responsibilities.

“Just because you’re bored doesn’t mean it’s gone,” he says of Covid. “You’re responsible for someone else’s death because you want to get your haircut? You want to go to a barbecue? That’s a selfish way of living, man.”

The second factor is Whittle’s increasingly ambivalent view of the country that he has called home for the past decade. We’ll come to that.

There’s food that I can deal with, but it's not gonna be the same as a shitty kebab after a night out in Croydon. It’s not even close

The third factor is Whittle’s childhood. His dad served in the air force and forces’ kids are used to their own company. It’s hard to forge lasting friendships when you’re constantly relocating to the next base. “We’re built differently,” says Whittle. “Forces’ kids find it very simple to turn a switch off where they don’t need to see people. Where they can break up with people.”

His girlfriend comes to stay. A friend – another forces’ kid, army – occasionally pops by. Thus the limit of Whittle’s human interaction. Fine by him.

Ricky Whittle was my first interview for this publication. My boss was meant to take it but unexpected offspring drama (one of them broke a nail or something) required him to pass the responsibility to the editorial assistant – who promptly dropped the 15 mugs of tea he was brewing and raced back to his computer to prep. “OK, it’s happening! Don’t panic! Don’t panic!”

No panic needed: Whittle was an absolute dream, joking his way through the photoshoot and then retiring to a nearby pub to discuss Hollyoaks, The 100 and the upcoming American Gods – the much-anticipated Starz adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy epic. He’d moved to LA in the hope of landing a role like Shadow Moon. It had taken five years and then 16 auditions, but he was the protagonist of one of the year’s biggest shows. He’d taken his shot and scored a bullseye. Everything was coming up Ricky.

And look: life is still good. American Gods received critical acclaim and multiple award nominations. It also went through four showrunners over three seasons and, literally three days after our interview, Starz announced there wouldn’t be a season four. Whittle, Gaiman et al pledged their commitment to finishing the story on another platform. Thus the state of play at the time of writing this profile.

But not at the time of our speaking – which is why my first question has nothing to do with the show’s cancellation but is instead, “have you managed to find a decent kebab in LA?”

“Bro,” Whittle says with real emotion. “You’re basically just choosing the best of a bad bunch. There’s stuff that I can deal with, but it’s not gonna be the same as a shitty kebab after a night out in Croydon. It’s not even close to the same.”

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Going to America

Back in December2016, the lack of a good kebab was one of the few marks against LA. Whittle loved the place. He loved the people. He loved the restaurants. He loved the beaches, the sunlight, the sea. Most of all, he loved the positivity. Everyone was happy here. Everyone believed in themselves.

He still loves the people – many of them, anyway. He still thinks America is a beautiful country. But man, he has a problem with its soul. “As an Englishman, it’s hard not to be out here and go, ‘everyone’s stupid!’” says Whittle, eight minutes into our interview. In this specific instance, he’s talking about the anti-vaxxers, but there is no shortage of alternate examples.

There’s the Biblical cherry-picking to justify political agendas – so gay marriage is a sin but bombing other countries is A-OK. The archaic adherence to a Constitution ratified in 1788 – “which is like you and me living our lives by rules we wrote when we were six years old”. The voting restrictions, with the Republican-controlled legislature of Georgia recently passing an election law almost breathtakingly blatant in its ambition to restrict poor-and-minority turnout.

There’s the ongoing attacks on abortion rights – “a room of 15 dudes deciding whether or not a woman should have a choice over her own body.” The mendacity of the TV networks – “you’re literally allowed to lie, which blows my mind.” Other countries have a regulated media. “In America, the host is like, ‘well, he says he likes red, but we all know he likes the blue…’”

America looked in the mirror last year and got a glimpse of what it actually looked like... They’re a third-world country

His verdict is stark. “America looked in the mirror last year and got a glimpse of what it actually looked like. They’re slowly starting to realise they’re a third-world country. They have no healthcare, the people are really suffering out here. It’s capitalism. Unless you’ve got money, none of these systems work for you!”

(And no, I didn’t expect to have Ricky Whittle railing against late-stage capitalism literally ten minutes into our Zoom call, but sometimes you must discard the prior talking points and see where the conversation takes you.)

This is a country that has never reckoned with itself. That has been seduced by the myth of its own exceptionalism. “They talk about ‘it’s not America.’ The rest of the world are holding their hands up, saying, ‘yeah it is.’ It’s exactly what you guys are. It’s only you saying you’re the best country in the world… You need to own your history. You’re corrupt from day one. It’s a country that was built on genocide and capitalism.

“The English? We were horrible. We raped and pillaged, we were disgusting people. But you own that history and you try and learn from it. You try and make the country better for everyone. We’re not there yet… but America won’t even own up to that history. In life, if you can’t own up to your issues and your problems, you’re never gonna be able to move forward.”

Ricky Whittle

Those in power are governed by self-interest. “People want change, as long as it doesn’t affect their own pockets. That’s sad. It’s sad because there’s a beautiful country here, there’s beautiful people from all walks of life. And you’re like, ‘eh – Bali’s looking good.’”

American Gods is a book about forgetting history – the deities of different cultures becoming superseded by the New Gods of technology, media and globalisation. The homogenisation of modern America, personal and national; the loss of our past and ourselves.

Whittle nods. “It’s really current right now. It’s bizarre.” He cites a line from the first episode, taken from Gaiman’s 2001 book: ‘This the only country in the world that worries about what it is.’ This insecurity bleeds into the culture: think Michael Bay’s bombastic Pearl Harbor, or The Patriot depicting the War of Independence as a struggle between heroic Yankees (personified by Mel Gibson) and the super-duper evil redcoats.

“I think I had it on VHS,” says Whittle of the latter.

How do you bring in healthcare? How do you deal with the racism that’s deep within every arm of every department?

That’s technology, isn’t it? Pioneering one week, obsolete the next. (Anyone wanna buy my DVDs?) On Venice Beach, says Whittle, people hand out ‘mixtapes’, which are actually CDs, not that it makes any difference because nobody owns a CD player these days. It’s all about vinyl, now. All the cool kids have a gramophone.

One of the crew members on American Gods gave Whittle a CD of their music – but he had no way of playing it other than on his PlayStation. “Alexa! Play this CD!” He makes this joke, only to then realise that his Alexa has awakened and is attempting to converse with him: “I was like, who’s in the house?”

It’s a nice house and Whittle would’ve sold it had Donald Trump been reelected. He watched the riots at the Capital with horror; the aftermath with disgust. No repercussions for the senators who incited it. A second impeachment acquittal for Trump.

“There’s no consequences in this country. If you’ve got some money, everyone’s too chickenshit to do anything about it.”

He can’t offer any solutions. Positive rhetoric is all well and good – “but how do you bring in healthcare? How do you deal with the racism that’s deep within every arm of every department of everything out here?” Legislation can only achieve so much. “You’re just treating symptoms. You’re not treating the disease at its core.”

Ricky Whittle

Image and identity

Before American Gods, before he quit the booze and moved to LA and hired an acting coach and dared to risk failure for the chance of success, there was Hollyoaks and there was Calvin Valentine. Whittle could become James Bond; he could negotiate global disarmament and cure cancer; and still a generation of British millennials will know him as the hunky police constable turned nightclub manager turned murder victim turned ghost.

“It was a fantastic show that gave me a great education,” says Whittle. He’s endearingly proud of the achievements of the Hollyoaks alumni: Nathalie Emmanuel and Roxanne McKee in Game of Thrones, Rachel Shenton an Oscar-winning filmmaker. Of all the soap operas and their casts, “Hollyoaks is winning. Not that it’s a competition.”

Hollyoaks made him friends for life. It also made him a staple of the British tabloids: ‘Ricky Whittle Spotted With Mysterious Blonde’ and so on. “I’ve been in magazines and newspapers with people I’ve never ever met!”

Like? “Kelly Brook – I was dating Kelly Brook for a while! I don’t think I’ve ever met her. No, I met her once at a Strictly Come Dancing thing. But that was after that story.”

A woman can go to the store without her makeup and not get abuse from people saying she’s let herself go

Now there’s social media – itself a kind of fiction, albeit less blatant, more insidious. “We put out this highlight reel on a platform. We give the best versions of ourselves. We put pictures up with filters and we edit the crap out of them.”

During the interview in London, his then-girlfriend Kristina… “That’s a good memory, man,” says Whittle, impressed at the recollection of her name. Confession: I Googled it before our call. Anyway, Kristina instructed me to drink apple cider vinegar to achieve better facial definition. I bought a bottle. It was disgusting.

“She’s not wrong,” observes Whittle once he has stopped laughing. Vinegar is the real deal. Does he drink it? No: he doesn’t like the taste. Because he has tastebuds. And because, however intense the scrutiny on the appearance of men in the public eye, multiply that by a thousand for the women.

“A woman can go to the store without her makeup, without her fancy Oscar dress on, and not get abuse from people saying she’s let herself go. No! Maybe she’s going to the store and she has shit to do.”

Ricky Whittle

He grew his hair for the third season of American Gods: Shadow is hiding out in a small Wisconsin town and needs a new identity. Like his character, Whittle also wanted to shed the past.

“If you look through my roles, I’ve been a shaven-headed inmate, a shaven-headed demigod, a shaven-headed FBI agent, a shaven-headed artist.”

More hair meant more opportunities. “It’s crazy how much Hollywood will put you in the box as the bald black guy. That’s who you become. They won’t think twice about putting Hugh Jackman or Chris Hemsworth in a wig.”

His hair is a character choice. The opportunity for a career reinvention. And it’s also a statement of identity. Whittle is biracial. “My mother’s a blue-eyed, blonde, Caucasian woman; my dad, brown-eyed black guy. I’m 50% of both. That confuses everybody.”

I’ve never been white enough for white people; I’ve never been black enough for the black people

Throughout his life, “I’ve never been white enough for white people; I’ve never been black enough for the black people. When I turn up with this hair, that’s not tight curls and a flattop, black people lose their mind because they’re scared I’m shunning my black roots and my identity. No. That’s just how my hair grows.

“When a white person sees me, they still see a person of colour. When I get stopped by the police, they’re not stopping me going, ‘ah, we’ll let him go. He’s probably a British person of colour…’ No. They see a person of colour.”

As a child, Whittle only identified with two actors: Denzel Washington and Will Smith. There were no other options.

“Now? People of all different races and backgrounds and looks. Kids of today can look up to people and go, ‘wow! He did it. She did it. Maybe I can.’”

Ricky Whittle

Cancellation and rebirth 

Three days afterour first interview, Starz cancel the fourth season of American Gods. Three weeks after the cancellation, Ricky Whittle and I catch up for another interview. He’s on the treadmill, perpetually pacing out of my computer screen like an unusually handsome horror movie villain, or a prototype of the Terminator that Skynet accidentally made cheerful.

Why wouldn’t he be cheerful? There’s a new TV series in the pipeline – as protagonist and producer – plus a rom-com that will offer the opportunity for silliness, not stoicism. The work’s still there, the play is returning: this month he flies to Monte Carlo for the 60th anniversary of its film festival. (He’s a former president).

And American Gods will be finished. The only question is how. The options are simple. Find a new platform that will fund another season, maybe more. Find a new platform that will fund a one-off TV film to tie the story up, a la Deadwood. Make that one-off TV film with Starz.

No, Starz isn’t fully out of the picture: if American Gods isn’t picked up elsewhere, the network has indicated its willingness to finish off the series, albeit in a truncated form. A film wouldn’t come cheap, but it would come infinitely cheaper than another season – and likely prove a shrewd investment. “Financially it makes sense,” says Whittle. “You want a finished product because then you sell it as the whole package.”

As always in this game, it comes down to money. American Gods cost vast amounts to make and ratings declined every season. Whittle says Starz never knew what to do with a show unlike anything else on its roster. “American Gods has always been number one worldwide on Amazon, so we know the product was never a problem.”

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He’d travel around the world for promotion. Amazon advertised it everywhere. “I’m looking at huge posters of myself in major capital cities across the world. But in America, on Starz, you literally only see billboards in New York or California. And when I say California, LA. And when I say LA, I mean the end of my street.”

It’s a common marketing trick, says Whittle: place the relevant billboards on certain people’s route to work – the studio executive, the showrunner, the lead. When Whittle drives down Ventura Boulevard, “the first billboard to my left is a poster of myself. Just me! I know for a fact that they know exactly my address, they know exactly where that billboard is, and they know that I’m going to see it!”

He’s more amused than annoyed. He even tweeted a photo – ‘I know what you’re doing, Starz.’ He holds no grudges – “Starz put out three seasons, fair play to them” – even understands the decision on a financial level. But he’s desperate for closure. The finale of season three has Shadow sacrificed on the sacred tree Yggdrasil to resurrect his father Odin. Ending there is troubling – artistically, of course, but also politically.

“It’s another magical Negro moment,” Whittle observes. “Where the promising black pretender to the throne is sacrificed to make this old white man all-powerful. That was done with the idea that Shadow undergoes a rebirth… I was so excited for that finale. I think it’s epic! On the proviso that we finish that story.”

He has faith. “The story is going to get finished. Fans will have that climax and that closure. Shadow Moon will not be stuck on that tree!”

And Ricky Whittle will leave his mansion. He and his Shadow are far from finished yet. 

American Gods Season 3 is currently on Amazon Prime

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