Growing Up, American Gods’ Ricky Whittle Didn’t Want to Be Black Because He Was Bullied


There were lots of vocal advocates for the star of Starz’s American Gods series to be a person of color, including author Neil Gaiman. But did you know the actor they chose, Ricky Whittle, had a tough time growing up in Northern Ireland because he was black?

Writing a piece for the BBC back in 2009 the actor, currently starring on The CW’sThe 100, described his difficult childhood.

I was very young. I guess with most kids, if you’re different – obviously myself being black that was the bit that stood out – but with kids you could be tall, short, fat, thin, blond, red-head. It’s just something that’s different to the – I suppose – norm.

They’d say little innocent things from: ‘Has God painted you?’ and ‘Are you a chocolate boy?’ to cruel taunts, vicious words like the ‘n’ word… things that are quite hurtful and malicious.

Whittle’s father was in the Royal Air Force which meant moving around a lot, and he went on to say the cause of this unfortunate behavior was there actually being so little diversity in the area at the time. “It felt like I was possibly one of the first black kids that they’d even seen,” he said. “There were a couple of Asian families, and there were about four Asian kids in the school but the majority were Northern Irish kids. So I was the only black boy in the whole school.” While Great Britain may be more diverse these days, the climate took its toll on him:

Growing up, at that time, I didn’t want to be black because I was bullied and I’d tell my mum that I wanted to be white like everyone else at school. She just said: ‘Listen, when you’re older you’re going to really appreciate this. You don’t want to be the same as everyone else, you want to be different and you want to be unique.’ It has happened that way and I’m enjoying my culture and my background.

The actor is just becoming more familiar to U.S. audiences thanks to The 100 but he’s had a career in the UK which included starring roles in Hollyoaks and Single Ladies, just to name a few. In a world where Egyptian Gods and humans, the King of Pop, and manga characters are cast as white people, fans of Gaiman’s American Gods were concerned character Shadow Moon would follow the same path. In the book, Shadow’s race is never explicitly stated but it’s clear he’s not white. Yes, Hollywood is known to lean heavily toward white actors with adaptations but thankfully those involved in this project weren’t standing for that this time around.

Starz’s adaptation of Gaiman’s novel American Gods has been in development since at least 2011. Back then Tom Hanks’ production company was involved and it was set to air on HBO. It started making news again in early 2014 and later that year Starz picked it up with Hannibal’s Bryan Fuller set as showrunner.

Fuller told Den of Geek that year, “I think if we cast a white man to play Shadow we would be the biggest assholes on television.” In a later interview he said:

One of the things I’m most excited about for American Gods is the diversity in the cast because there’s such a wide range of ethnic Gods in the world. Right now, we’re imagining two white roles and everybody else is non-white, so my goal, Michael [Green’s] goal, certainly Neil’s goal has been to have a very ethnically diverse cast. That’s important to all of us.

And in case anyone wanted to question it, Gaiman has gone on record to say Shadow is mixed race and that anyone wanting to adapt American Gods or Anansi Boys would have to adhere to his wishes. “Diversity in all things,” he wisely said. Speaking to Collider in 2011 he also explained:

One of the things I’m concerned about is that I really want to make sure the races of all the characters are kept. I don’t like it when black characters become white in movies, or things like that. That was something I found deeply problematic with the attempt by some people who had a lot of money and a lot of clout, and who wanted the rights to Anansi Boys, at one point. Somewhere in there, they made the fatal mistake of saying to me, ‘And, of course, the characters won’t be black in the movie because black people don’t like fantasy.’ They were suddenly very surprised that we were no longer interested in selling them the book. So, I want to keep the racial mix in American Gods the same.

Needless to say, it seems Whittle’s casting has been good news for everyone involved. He took to Twitter to express his own excitement:

And a brief look at his feed shows his mother’s advice all those years ago had a big impact on him: