Exclusive: American Gods' Bryan Fuller and cast talk about their groundbreaking Jinn episode

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With only three episodes under its belt, Starz' adaption of Neil Gaiman's American Gods has righteously proved it's not shying away from graphic storytelling. Whether it's the depiction of violence in the pilot's opening sequence or Shadow Moon's almost lynching, or Bilquis' "unique" vaginal powers in the bedroom, showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green are using their premium cable setting to their storytelling advantage.

With "Head Full of Snow," the series depicts a rare romantic pairing for any medium, that of two gay Muslim men being intimate on screen. The sequence frames the introduction of the old god Jinn (Mousa Kraish) in America as he meets down-on-his-luck salesman Salim (Omid Abtahi) as a passenger in his cab. The two immediately feel a spark and leads to a passionate interlude that has a profound impact on both of them.

An episode of immense pride for Gaiman, Fuller and Green, "Head Full of Snow" was recently screened by GLAAD at the Paley Center in Los Angeles. Before the event, we were able to have an exclusive talk with Fuller, Abtahi and Kraish about their choices in the episode and what it will mean for the characters throughout Season 1 and into the just-announced Season 2.

Bryan Fuller, executive producer

You introduce two gods in this episode, Anubis and the Jinn. Was there a lot of conversation between you and Michael about the right number of god introductions per episode?

We encourage our own best/worst instincts in that regard. But originally, the opening with Anubis was the opening of the entire series. The Vikings [intro in the pilot] was the opening of episode two. But the network saw the Vikings and said, "This is a better topic sentence for the series, for us, if you don't mind switching them?" We thought about it a lot, because we very purposefully wanted to tell Mrs. Fadil's story because it's a woman's story, and it's a Muslim woman's story. What a great way to begin this journey of the show. We also loved the idea that Death would be the first god that anybody met on the show. And Chris Obi (Anubus/Mr. Jacquel) was such a fantastic presence. But we switched them ultimately.

Since a fair amount of the god introductions are standalone sequences, did you end up moving a lot of them around?

Yes, the slave ship opening of episode two was going to be the opening of episode four, so that moved. There we were like, "Oh, we go from a slave ship to a lynched black man so we are now telling the story much more cohesively." With Mrs. Fadil, there are now a couple of things going on there with us introducing the idea of a Muslim household, and then we see two other Muslim characters. Also, the bookmark of opening with a woman's struggle with death and closing it with a woman [Laura Moon] somehow triumphing over death felt like an interesting bookmark as well. We thought about all of that as we were moving the pieces around [in editorial].

Thematically, what's at the heart of the Jinn and Salim's experience?

Really, it's Salim's story about finding true religion in a strange way. He's a devout Muslim who prays five times a day, and then all of a sudden seeing something walk out of the world of religion for him and into the reality that he occupies is transformative. There were a lot of things we felt responsible for in telling the story, not the least of which is telling a gay love story that is undeniably beautiful aesthetically so that even for people who are uncomfortable with same sex romance, they would at least have to admit it's pretty. (Laughs)

Was it ever a concern to show it as explicitly as you do?

No. We wanted to tell a very graphic story with the sex and sexuality. And also tell a tale where a man comes from a country where homosexuality is punishable by death. For him most sexual experiences [would be] back-alley blowjobs, so the Jinn is making love to him probably for the first time in his life so he can experience sexual love. It's an amazing, beautiful experience for a human being to have particularly when you consider how many men, women and genders in-between, don't, or can't, because of where they come from.

How will these two characters factor into your ongoing TV series narrative?

Well, one of the things most exciting for Michael and I in telling their stories is seeing both of these people's coming to America. How Salim came to America and what it was like for him before coming to America. For the Jinn, it's seeing much, much earlier what his coming to America story is. We love the chemistry between Mousa and Omid. We love the characters. They are tentpole characters for us.

Omid Abtahi, Salim

Had you worked with either Bryan or Michael before being cast in American Gods?

No, it was a straight audition, but I realized I have worked with Bryan and Michael indirectly on Heroes, as I was cast in the original pilot for which I was replaced. But it was good to meet them. I was excited.

Had you read Gaiman's book to know how Salim fit into the story?

I hadn't read the book but I saw what the storyline was involving this character and I thought, "Wow. This sounds like such a challenge." I'm an actor who is always up for challenges.

Your introduction with the Jinn is very separated from Shadow and Wednesday's main narrative in this episode. Did that make it more special?

It felt like a short film with just an elaborate, high-cost production. (Laughs). And yes, it's maybe ten minutes but it's uninterrupted and we just tell the story. You can watch the segment not knowing what the rest of the show is and still get whatever you want out of it.

What was key to you in portraying this relationship?

The most important thing was that connection. These old gods are very much down on themselves and the people who believed in them. And here comes Salim who doesn't have belief in himself. I hope in future seasons we get into that he doesn't feel ok with who he is. He does have his faith and believes strongly but it's not necessarily ok to be gay so there's a lack of self-worth, self-love and self-appreciation. He's a guy beaten down by life. Then these two guys meet and they have that connection and energy. They refuel each other. It's a win-win for each of them.

Television doesn't portray homosexual relationships explicitly very often at all. What do you hope the impact may be from this episode?

I think love in any form, man/man, woman/man, woman/woman, whatever, is a beautiful thing. I would love to live in a world where people are not thrown off by that. So the way you do it is by exposing them to it, and normalizing it. Yes, it might be a little graphic for some people but it's natural. There's no hate. We're not trying to offend anybody. It's love.

What can you tease about when we might see Salim again in the season?

You will see Salim more in the second half of the season. What takes place in this episode impacts him so much so that he seeks out further enlightenment. He's opened up and he wants to learn more so he goes searching on a road trip.

Mousa Kraish, The Jinn

How did you get cast in the role?

I came in originally for the role of Salim and I kept coming back and back. (Laughs) I thought that was it and then one day they asked me to read for this guy [the Jinn]. I had no idea who he was, so I did it honestly off the cuff and it worked. I tell people there's no rhyme or reason for this. Just be good, be prepared and have fun.

Once cast, did Bryan or Michael have any specific notes on how to play this old god?

What was great was they let me run with the way that I saw it. I didn't get any notes on how to play the character, or what the character was about. We sat down for a minute where I thanked them, and told them how ecstatic I was to play him. I told them my ideas and they were like, "Go." I just took my own stories of what my parents taught me about Jinns, and being a child of immigrants, and the loneliness of being a cab driver.

Was way key to you in portraying the Jinn's attraction to Salim?

The way that I saw it was this is a guy who connected to another person. It just happens to be somebody who could possibly be his soul mate. I'm excited to see where it goes.

There's a sadness to both of these men at the start, but after their night together, both seem changed?

I think they are both changed for the better. For Salim, to be able to realize this is who you are. And for the Jinn, he connects with being reminded this is who you are. People still remember you, and your kind. That's what these gods want; they want to be worshipped and that gives you power. It's like meeting someone for a one-night stand and it's electric, and you leave the next day feeling changed.

What was important to you to have come across to audiences?

That it's refreshing and honest. To Bryan's credit, he wanted honesty. I think knowing that me and Omid have had a connection as friends prior to this brought a safety and protection to it for me for my friend. Hopefully, it all comes through.

What are you most excited to explore with your character?

I'm excited for Season 2. You're going to see a lot of this storyline play out especially with Salim. In future Season 1 episodes, you'll see where he goes with this and it takes place in Bryan and Michael's world outside of the book. If you read the book, they know this chapter comes out of nowhere and they both disappear. There's a small mention down the line, but it's not even by Salim's character. It's just about a taxi driver. What Bryan and Michael are going to do is what I'm excited about. I'm ecstatic for these two characters.

American Gods airs Sunday nights on STARZ at 9 p.m. EST.

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