Orlando Jones in American Gods.
Spoilers ahead for tonight’s episode of American Gods.
Every once in a while, a monologue comes along that seems destined to be recited by theater students and auditioning actors until the sun burns out. Tonight, Starz’s Neil Gaiman adaptation American Gods granted the world such a monologue and put it in the mouth of Orlando Jones. As Mr. Nancy, the well-dressed, anthropomorphization of African trickster spider-god Anansi, he delivers a blistering soliloquy to a ship full of slaves on their way to colonial America and it seems writ by fire, torching the lies we tell ourselves about the ways black people are treated in the U.S.
Although the text is potent, the scene gains much of its velocity from Jones’s performance, which verbally dances between accents and tones and in just a few short minutes, presents a character unlike any other on the show. At a recent Manhattan press event, Vulture caught up with Jones to talk about building that monologue and the character of Mr. Nancy, in general. Below is an edited version of what he said.
Let me give you a little backstory. So about a year and a half ago, there was a conversation online about who should play Mr. Nancy. Neil [Gaiman] was out talking about the book. And in that conversation, my name came up and then that got sent to Neil. And so then Neil and I became Twitter friends off of fans telling him that I should be Mr. Nancy. That started almost a year and a half, two years ago. So online there has been a conversation about me being Mr. Nancy this entire time. Margery Simkin, who’s the casting director for this show, she was the one saying to the creators, “Orlando Jones. That’s the person you should go to.” So I’m glad that they were both thinking the same thing.
It’s weird that it’s so fortuitous that I would’ve been talking to Neil Gaiman about being Mr. Nancy and then suddenly they make [the show] and he’s like, “Come do Mr. Nancy!” And I’m like, “Oh, you wasn’t joking!” So it’s a nerd thing come true for me. I don’t have clear eyes on it because I’m geeked out, heavily. As a huge fan of American Gods and as an insane Gaimanite — or whatever it’s called if you love Neil Gaiman — I had a real sense of who the character was. How it was written. I knew that many people had envisioned him as older. But that didn’t really make sense to me because Gods are Gods. Don’t they just appear in the form they appear in? So, for me, it was like, “Eh, that’s less important.” Let’s not make a meal out of it or anything.
[The script for the monologue was] essentially: You’re on a slave ship, and you’re in the Middle Passage, and there are these people here, and here’s what’s happening, and Anansi appears. Script-wise, obviously the dialogue is there, but that’s pretty much it in terms of your location is the slave ship and here they are. [Showrunners] Michael [Green] and Bryan [Fuller], they were like, “It’d be great if it was funny in such a way.” What Mr. Nancy ultimately has to say is not light; to deliver that or to try and create that conversation around a voice that was yelling just seemed the absolutely wrong way to go, because that invites no one to the conversation. I wanted him to be entertaining, but more than anything I wanted anybody to be able to come to the conversation and not feel like they had been yelled at, and that meant to sort of make him agnostic in the sense that he’s a trickster, he might be saying this to help you out, he might be saying this to get something he wants.
He knows the entire time he’s going to tell you to burn the thing down. Despite the fantastical nature of his speech, at the end of the day, it’s, “Ay, y’all should kill y’allselves.” And that’s in a confined space. So, for me, that performance is really about: How do you enrapture people in this particular space at this particular junction in their lives? Like, all hope is gone. You have no idea what you’re going into. You are in the scariest moments of your life, with more fear in front of you because you don’t know what’s on the other side. You have no clue. You’re just chained somewhere. So how does that conversation begin? In a way that’s authentic. Because if it’s not real, none of these people are listening to you. They are marching to their death. Your bullshit is the last thing they have time for. You’re trying to pull them out of that space into the hope of what this promise can be, to the reality of what it ultimately is.
And then to the decision that is in front of them, it felt like, in a slave ship space, it needed to be delivered in a certain way. It’s a confined space. I’ve got about three steps that way, two steps this way, the camera’s there. I don’t have a lot of options. I don’t want it to be too big because that’s not what it is. I’m not trying to put on a party. I think you’ll find Nancy changing a lot by virtue of the space that he’s in. Because he’s a spider and that’s how they build webs: They tend to take an element in the corner and present out accordingly. So, for me, I just wanted to think about the character in terms of the way that he moves.
I like fashion for a lot of different reasons, particularly for what it says, and with someone like Anansi, because he is such an iconic African character and because he came out of this Ghanaian history and because he, in his story, survives the Middle Passage and such, I really wanted him to be a king. And purple is a very royal color. It’s one of the colors that we associate with nobility. And that was really my only request, but our costume designer is extraordinary. My only contribution was African prints, something that speaks to the true heritage of it. This is not Armani. This is not European. And my hope was that it would not be that way because it felt disingenuous to the character, it felt like we would’ve been homogenizing him. And that was important. I had no battle, everybody was like, “Yes! That’s what we think! Let’s do that!”
My original thought was, Oh, we’ll do different languages. We’ll do Xhosa, we’ll do Zulu, we’ll trick around. Then I thought, Well, mostly he’s going to be speaking English, so just let’s just toss out a word every now and then. I’m like, “This is Swahili for you, hey!” So I tried to really incorporate it into the way he normally speaks — his tone of voice and the sounds in his voice that you hear, sometimes will sound a bit Caribbean and sometimes will sound a bit African depending on what he’s saying to you. He doesn’t say fire, he goes fai-yah. I think that speaks to that heritage in that way, so I really tried to put it in his English and if, in fact, we get an opportunity to do more dialect than I did during Madiba this year, I’ll take it, but I think I’m done with my dialects this year.
Listen, I hope that [the scene] is laugh-out-loud hysterical to you. I really do. And then I hope afterwards, you think about that. It doesn’t simply apply to African-Americans. It applies to women. It applies to people who are disabled. It applies to cis and trans and there’s a thousand other categories that we haven’t even gone through. When I think about what that scene’s talking about, it’s really talking about the experience of having your human rights stripped from you and having people act like, “Oh, it’s cool! We gon’ get em to you. Hol’ on! Just wait till next year. It’s gon’ be cool.” So, that’s always a tough conversation and hopefully it was done in a way … I think Michael and Bryan, they are gorgeous writers. Beautiful artists, and truly people who believe that human rights is an important conversation for us to be in right now. It’s exciting to be attached to this type of work that’s speaking to these type of issues at this particular time. To be silent right now feels a little bit like being a coward in the fight of our lives.