On Starz’ new series American Gods, the two most eye-popping and powerful female leads are both otherworldly and intensely human.
Actress Yetide Badaki is cast as Bilquis, the ancient goddess of love who craves the meteoric highs of the worship she inspired in eras long ago.
Now she struggles and needs to fulfill her desire for worship, and to have relevance, in today’s noisy and distracting world of an abundance of gods and technology.
Emily Browning plays Laura Moon, the troubled wife of Shadow Moon.
Laura is a beautiful but hollowed out soul, a seemingly depressed and aimless woman who is sleepwalking through her life.
She also has a hard time connecting to Shadow emotionally. In the premiere, a catastrophic event changes the course of both their trajectories.
Both Emily Browning and Yetide Badaki come from outside the USA. Browning is an Australian actress and Badaki is a Nigerian-born theater-trained actress who grew up in England and the United States.
Both women play roles that have elements of being adrift on Earth.
We spoke to Yetide and Emily about their compelling female roles and how they fit into Neil Gaiman’s master plan in American Gods:
Monsters and Critics: I think American Gods is about following an emotional story: people who are lost and searching for their place in the world. That applies to man, and that applies to gods. Yetide, can you talk about Bilquis’s need to connect to humanity and her unusual modus operandi — getting men to worship her and then consuming them through sex?
Yetide Badaki: I love that you can see that need for her to connect. I think really the worship is about…yes, they do end up in the vagina nebula [laughs] which is not such a bad thing…it’s a good way to go if you are going to go.
Even coming in to audition for this role that was what resonated so much for me, and Bryan [Fuller] and Michael’s [Green] beautiful writing — you could see that basic human need to see and to be seen. To really have that connection with another being.
It is something that I think a lot of people can relate to. It is also something that at least, that I as Yetide could understand and get into these big feelings that this goddess was expressing.
Even in the audition and by the end of it, I remember with the actors and the redirect with Bryan, it ended in tears because it was truly…it reminded me of the African goddess Oshun. Usually, she possesses an individual.
What struck me about her was when she [Bilquis] would possess someone…there was first this moment of complete elation, then there was a seductive time and then it would invariably end in tears because she knew that she couldn’t show them all the joy and glory that she recognized and wanted to show them.
That really resonated with me in regards to Bilquis. She has come from such a wealth of beauty and is currently just struggling to survive in the present day.
M&C: Conversely, Emily, your character Laura Moon is so lacking of joy…even sleeping with Shadow [Ricky Whittle].
Emily Browning: Oh yes. I know. That was the biggest challenge for me [laughs] — imagining and trying to be depressed when I had Ricky in my bed. It’s kind of impossible! [laughing]
Yes, I think that Laura is…I mean, I think it was very important for the character and the audience to understand the character that we sort of went back and did a deeper dive into her history [episode four] and what she was like, not just before she died but even before she met Shadow.
I think she is really finding it difficult to exist in the world that doesn’t really make much sense to her.
I [also] think Laura has some social issues. She doesn’t really know how to connect with people and doesn’t have much awareness of other people’s feelings. I think she’s absolutely in a place that’s joyless. I don’t think she is necessarily sad, I think she just can’t feel as much.
She doesn’t have any idea what she wants but she doesn’t want the life that she has. Then ironically after she dies, she realizes…I don’t want to call it her purpose because I am always cautious to not talk about Laura as though her purpose becomes to love her husband, because I have a few issues with that.
But I think she realizes that she had someone giving her this unconditional love and she completely didn’t appreciate that.
There’s a conversation she had with Shadow where she explains to him that she doesn’t believe in anything.
Then when she dies and she meets Anubis and he says ‘since you believed in nothing you will go to nothing’, and then she sort of magically manages to escape her fate, she realizes that there is something more.
It’s love, which is really odd considering she is not a particularly loving or lovable person but she realizes that it was important — to have this love that she completely ignored. Which doesn’t necessarily make her a better person in any way.
I think as the season goes along if anything she becomes even more difficult to deal with, but she has a purpose now. And it makes it become more herself.
Yetide: I want to say as the Goddess of Love I approve of that message [laughs].
Emily: It’s true [laughs]. We realized the other night that actually essentially that Bilquis would be the god that Laura worships, so we are thinking about how that can play into an interesting scene for us! [laughs]
M&C: Emily, the fourth episode, Git Gone, is all about Laura Moon’s backstory. But when do we learn about you as [Emily’s second role in the series] Essie Tregowan?
Emily: That is episode seven, and I think Essie is just in the one episode as a stand-alone, it cuts back and forth between…the way that we spoke about it was that episodes four and seven were my episodes essentially.
Episode seven is mostly Essie but then it cuts back to moments with Laura and then also moments with [Mad] Sweeney, because Sweeney is connected to Essie as well.
That was really interesting and very exciting, and I haven’t seen any of that yet so…I am excited to see it. But Neil [Gaiman] told me yesterday that it was his favorite episode, which was a huge relief. Very exciting.
M&C: Yetide, How does Bilquis tie in with Mr. Wednesday’s Old God brigade?
Yetide: Well, how much…it’s time to put on the dancing shoes [laughs].
I think what’s going to be fun is that you get to see a lot more of where Bilquis came from, so in that way you learn a lot more about the old gods, and you also see how she was possibly on the nexus between the old and the new and you see how these gods are trying to survive by almost any means possible.
And you see how they have been around so long. Yes, they are survivors. That’s safe enough to say…they are survivors. Don’t count us out yet! [laughs].
M&C: Was Laura punished for not having any gods?
Emily: I think it’s really what I like about the whole premise of this world and how it operates — that each individual human being has a lot of choice in their own beliefs and worth.
It’s essentially saying all belief is meaningful, and I think it’s more of…kind of an egalitarian system like what you choose to believe in, that is what is going to be true to you. I think that is completely reasonable.
Laura didn’t believe in anything, so her afterlife is going to be nothing. That makes sense to me.
I think it’s unfortunate that she didn’t really realize that that was the case beforehand, and maybe she would have chosen to believe in something better.
I think that kind of makes sense to me, I like that idea and I don’t think she was particularly being punished for it, I think the thing that makes Laura extraordinary, I mean, she is not a god, the thing that makes her an interesting character is that she managed to escape her afterlife.
I think that is why she is allowed to be part of this world, there’s something special about her.
I think over the course of the season and hopefully the next season, we start to figure out what that is and what that means and why she is special.
I don’t know, I kind of like that idea, that whatever we believe is essentially what our fate is going to be. It’s kind of…
Yetide: You are what you worship.
American Gods airs Sundays at 9/8c on Starz.More: American Gods