The first episode of American Gods is now available (on Starz in the US, on Amazon Prime if you’re in the UK), and we think you’ll agree that, out of the many, many fascinating and beguiling characters in that first hour, Yetide Badaki’s Bilquis is something else.
Bilquis is the goddess of love, a character who only appears very briefly in the novel but who has a much bigger role to play in the show. That first episode features her big show-stopping moment from the book and, if we had any questions about how they were going to bring that life, the creators have answered them.
The actress’ performance is note-perfect and we can’t wait to see how she fits into Shadow and Wednesday’s journey and the greater war of the gods, so we were very excited to speak to her about how she approached the role, her Neil Gaiman fandom, and just how timely the show is.
Were you a fan of the book before you heard about the show?
Oh yes. I’m not sure if you know this but I’m a big geek, so I will read anything that has a hint of sci-fi or fantasy and I’ve been a Neil Gaiman for a long time, so I read the book when it came out. So it was pretty darned exciting when I got the news that I got to be a part of that world.
Does that excitement also come with nerves, when it’s something that you know and love?
Yes! I mean, first you have that moment of excitement, it’s the dream! And it was definitely a character that resonated from my initial reading of the book. Then once that excitement passes there’s that moment of “Oh my goodness, how am I going to do this?” And then that’s when the nerves start to kick in!
But then you have to approach it like any other written work. You have to delve in and I think doing the work, the breakdown of the character and the script, helps to remove the nerves because you’re just in it at that point. And yeah, it was really interesting because the deeper I delved into it, that took all the focus off of myself and the nerves and all that stuff. It was just so fascinating by the end of it that I couldn’t really focus on anything else but how interesting this character was.
Did you know that they were going to expand the character of Bilquis from the couple of scenes she has in the book?
I actually didn’t know that while I was auditioning! I didn’t have a clue about that, I just thought it would be really fun to play this character. I thought she was so cool. So I go in, I do the whole audition, and it wasn’t until my agent called me to talk about the contract and all of that, and she went this many episodes, and I had to say “Wait, go back, what is happening!?” And then I started to see more of the articles that Bryan had been a part of where he’d been talking about expanding roles and it was just incredible news all at once that day. Not only did I get to be part of this world but it’s a much larger part than I’d initially thought.
Can you tell us anything about the larger role she plays?
[laughs] There’s a lot of secret stuff! You learn a lot about the life of an old god! I think that’s safe to say!
So, Bryan told us that your audition was Bilquis’ big scene from the novel. Was that a fairly daunting thing to prepare for?
Again, there’s the whole moment of “Can you bring all this?” when you have the nerves, however it was also incredibly empowering and I think that’s also something that resonates with a lot of people when they read the scene, when they even think about the scene, there’s a lot of power in it.
And so yes, I know some people were nervous about auditioning with that but there were so many interesting layers to play with. It’s a sequence, it’s a couple of pages, but in that sequence you get a whole arc of this character. So yes, it was exciting, it was nerve-wracking, but it was also immensely empowering. And I think that ultimately showed through in the audition.
Bryan Fuller and Michael Green obviously have a track record of creating shows with these daring, provocative but artistic and beautiful moments. It must be reassuring to know that you’re going into this world with creators like that!
That was again another pull for doing the project. Yes, I’m a huge Neil Gaiman fan so that was already a big draw, and then you have Bryan Fuller and he’s done Hannibal and Pushing Daisies and all of these things that were all so visually rich as well as intelligent and layered, and then you have Michael Green, who was part of the new Logan and all of that, and once you meet this man and you get to get inside his brain a little bit, I as a sci-fi fan feel really lucky to get to play in that sandbox. And then you’ve got [director] David Slade. He is just extraordinary, his vision, the way he brings it to life, and I was already a fan of all of their work.
It was interesting to see all these minds together and they all have their own slightly different flavour and so the combination of all of it is kind of mind-blowing, I can’t wait for people to see it. I keep on saying there’s nothing quite like it. I think it will establish a way of its own, a language of its own, because it’s in a whole new territory.
As a fan of the book, did you feel like you had to put it to one side and focus on the scripts as their own thing?
I think actually it’s a perfect marriage. Neil Gaiman is an executive producer on the show and they are sending ideas to him and he sends stuff to them. So it’s interesting that you can read the book and be a huge fan of it and watch the show because it’s like the perfect companion. It just focuses and expands on so many of the stories that are already within the book.
I don’t think you have to put the book aside, I definitely didn’t as an actor preparing, I felt like it all informed and served to make everything richer where I thought “Oh, ok, this is what I’m reading in the script, this is even more in depth,” and then there’s something I remembered from the book that I would go back and refer to and use. I definitely wouldn’t say that anyone needs to put the book aside in approaching this at all.
Did you get the chance to sit down and talk with Neil Gaiman about the character?
We just briefly got to talk at Comic Con and, I have to admit, part of the issue was that I was freaking out because it was Neil Gaiman! So I was having a little difficulty finding my voice! We’d briefly chat in the rides on the way to all the interviews about the book but we didn’t really get to go in depth and that’s because I couldn’t get over the fact that I was talking to Neil Gaiman!
American Gods was obviously made last year but it feels so relevant coming out right now. How does it feel having this show you made be released in this context?
It’s really been fascinating over this past year, every day I realise how timely everything we shot last year is. Every morning I’ve woken up and something on the news relates to something that we discuss in the show, so it’s incredible. It’s almost shocking how timely it is. And as you know most of the episodes start off with an immigration story, it opens with a coming to America story, and especially now I think it’s going to resonate with a lot of viewers.
I think it will get to the heart of a lot of things and emotions that people are feeling right now, and I believe it will add and spark a lot of debate and create a lot of conversations that need to be had. We ask a lot of questions, we’re not saying we have the answers, but we are asking questions.
Finally, is there one god in particular that you are excited for people to see?
They’re all pretty fascinating. I am super excited to see Mr Nancy as played by Orlando Jones. I cannot wait for people to see this incredible depiction, and for me on a personal note, being from Nigeria, I grew up with stories of Anansi and I have never seen a live action depiction of this character. For me, this is the first time seeing that and it’s incredibly powerful, and Orlando Jones just does such an incredible job of it. I cannot wait for people to see that.
It’s been pretty much the dream cast. A lot of incredible people, people that you want to spend all the time that you can with, and then you see them transform right in front of you into these epic characters. They’re not only incredibly talented people, they’re actually wonderful individuals on top of it, and everyone is so dedicated and passionate, I really can’t wait for people to see the work that has been put into this because these are characters that people are going to talk about for a long time.
American Gods airs on Starz in the US on 30 April and on Amazon Prime Video in the UK on 1 May. Read our interview with Bryan Fuller here and Neil Gaiman here, and the review of the first episode here.