Ricky Whittle talks American Gods, Hollyoaks and Dream Team

Once known as a Hollyoaks heartthrob, Ricky Whittle is taking the lead role in the biggest TV show of the year. The American Gods star tells his story

Ricky Whittle is an inspirational man.

I didn’t expect to open the article with this sentence but the afternoon spent in his company – first in the Square Mile studio, then a nearby pub – left me feeling indisputably inspired. It’s no small journey from Dream Team and Hollyoaks – those noughties titans of trash TV – to taking the lead in American Gods, probably the most anticipated show of 2017.

Let’s recap. Whittle made his acting debut in 2002, playing Ryan Naysmith of fictional football club Harchester United in Dream Team. Then followed a four-year stint as heartthrob Calvin Valentine in glam soap opera Hollyoaks. At this juncture, Whittle looked destined to play the role of eye-candy in fun, dumb TV shows. A successful stint on Strictly Come Dancing duly followed.

Yet Whittle harboured bigger ambitions. After reaching the final of Strictly in 2009, his profile in the UK never higher, Whittle boarded a plane to Los Angeles. He wanted to crack the States, and it seemed a case of now or never.

“It just felt like time. I was getting to an age where I thought if I don’t try it now it’s going be too late. And I don’t want to live with regrets. So I’d rather go over there, risk everything, sacrifice everything, and fail – but at least I tried and gave it a go… I wasn’t scared of failing. I was scared of not trying.”

So he tried. He worked with his acting coach. He worked out in the gym. Quit alcohol (it’s water at the pub). Watched films every day to learn from other actors. Browsed YouTube, because “YouTube is an incredible tool to research accents, research acting techniques.” Shunned the many temptations of LA, and worked harder than he ever had before.

“I think that’s the difference between making it and not making it. Of course you need that little bit of luck as well. But once it’s there you’ve got to be ready.”

There is an inner steel to Whittle, well hidden beneath a warm and engaging personality. Throughout the photoshoot he cracks jokes, gleefully shares anecdotes of shows past. At the end of the shoot he hugs everyone in the room, including one of the design team who had literally just walked in.

We adjourn to the pub, which is populated by people in fancy dress – think comedy sombreros, and a woman riding a fake donkey. For one alarming moment it looks like I’ve marched Calvin Valentine into a hen party. Thankfully it seems to be an office bash.

He’s easy company, although whenever the bell above the door signals a new arrival he glances up for a second, almost like a fugitive. It’s a common tic among those used to being recognised: a heightened sensitivity to the presence of others. Nobody notices him today – the cap probably helps, as does the lengthy absence from British screens – but I don’t give him long in the shadows.

Anyway, America. Success came with his casting in The 100, a dystopian sci-fi drama set after a nuclear apocalypse. Whittle played Lincoln, and he graduated to the main cast in the second and third seasons. But despite the breakthrough, all was not well.

“For some reason Jason Rothenberg [the show’s producer] chose to single me out, and professionally bully me out of wanting to be there. He made my job untenable.”

Whittle doesn’t know why Rothenberg began cutting Lincoln’s storyline – “a personal vendetta is what it seemed” – but his role became increasingly diminished. “You don’t mind being part of an ensemble, but for the right reasons… As an actor you obviously want to work, and three seconds in an episode is not really what I wanted to do.”

He began seeking alternative employment just as Starz opened casting on a fantasy adaptation called American Gods.

If you’ve never heard of American Gods you soon will. Written by Neil Gaiman, a deity of the fantasy genre, the epic novel imagines a war between the old gods of American mythology and the new gods such as media, technology, and the stock market. For 16 years its millions of passionate fans breathlessly awaited what seemed an inevitable transition to the screen. But the scale and complexity of the story proved a barrier – until now.

When creating a project of this magnitude, you want to keep the fans onside. Starz invited suggestions via Twitter for casting the key role of protagonist Shadow Moon. Whittle was one of the most popular names for #CastingShadow – yet he knew nothing of the book. A journalist at Comic Con praised his suitability – and “I was like, I have no idea what American Gods is. Who is this Neil Gaiman?”

So he did some Googling, spoke to his representatives, let it be known his time on The 100 would soon be over. Starz invited him to audition. And then audition again. And again. “Literally we went through every emotion possible. It was like X-Factor: happy scenes, sad scenes, angry scenes. Scenes with several of the show’s different characters.”

The search for Shadow was worldwide. It took 16 auditions for Whittle to win the role.

Shadow Moon is a convict, granted early release after his wife dies in a car accident. (It’s a mixed day.) On a plane he meets a loquacious stranger named Mr Wednesday, who recruits Shadow as a bodyguard, and the pair embark on a roadtrip across America. Let’s just say things quickly get weird.

Whittle cites the first meeting between Shadow and Wednesday as among his favourite scenes. “We literally bought a full, life-sized plane into the studio. They cut the tail off but the plane was there. Ridiculous!

“[The scene] has a cinematic feel: you feel like you’re watching a movie, you don’t feel like you’re watching a TV show.”

Ian McShane plays Mr Wednesday, a piece of casting first envisaged by Whittle’s mother.

“Two weeks before he was announced, my mum said, ‘you know who’d be good for Mr Wednesday? Ian McShane.’ Literally two weeks later they announced he was cast, so she wants to take credit for that.”

It sounds like Ma Whittle has good instincts: her son could not be more effusive about his co-star. “He is incredible. You heard it here first: he’ll win an award for this. Without doubt. He’s incredible. It’s an absolute pleasure to watch him work.”

To prepare for Shadow [described as “big enough and don’t-fuck-with-me enough” to survive prison], Whittle piled on the calories and worked out for four hours a day. He saw both his acting coach and a magic coach – Shadow is a skilled coin manipulator, and Whittle wanted this shown on-screen. “I’m great at kids parties now,” he deadpans.

It’s a mark of Whittle’s confidence in the finished product that the huge expectations placed on the show do not perturb him.

“The book came out in 2001 so we have 15 years of backing. It was translated into 30 different languages all over the world. We already have an audience, which is fantastic.

“With that [fan] backing comes an incredible pressure to portray the show as close to the book as possible. You don’t want to upset the fans – to ruin their love.

“So yeah, there’s a lot of pressure, but I really am proud of what we’ve done. I don’t think the fans will be disappointed.”

A year after American Gods was first published, Whittle signed for Harchester...

The mere mention of Dream Team triggers a yelp of laughter. “It was the perfect dream job for any young lad starting out.”

A cult classic, Dream Team documented life at fictional football club Harchester United. I say ‘life’ – playing for Harchester was marginally less dangerous than a career in bomb disposal. Forty two characters were killed off over an eight-year run.

“I always wanted to be a footballer as a kid,” says Whittle. “My character Ryan Naysmith ended up playing for England and winning the FA Cup and the Premiership… I won more as a fake footballer than I ever would’ve as a real footballer.”

I’d love to play James Bond. It’s the most iconic character in the world

Success blurred the lines between reality and fiction: with the cast invited to the PFA Awards, and Harchester even included on a version of computer game Football Manager.

It wasn’t just fun and games. Terence Maynard, who played Ryan’s father, offered his ‘son’ advice that he remembers to this day.

“Basically to not act, to feel. If you feel happy then you’re going to look happy, if you feel sad then you’re going to look sad. Don’t try and act sad and act happy because it’s going to look fake, like you’re acting.”

The fruits of this advice are shown in Whittle’s inadvertent use of the term ‘soccer’, much to his dismay. “I can’t believe I just said soccer; I’m so disgusted with myself. I’m so American! I’m traumatised right now.”

Thus the perils of cracking the States. Although whatever the success of American Gods, it’s hard to imagine a better job than Dream Team in terms of pure enjoyment.

“It really was like a lad’s holiday,” smiles Whittle. “It was incredible. We had so much fun on that show. I believe we’re banned from many hotels… There’s a lot of stories that I’ll have to take to my grave.”

Would he be open to a reunion?

“I would love if Dream Team did a one-off film, show, special. Without a doubt I’d come back. I think I’m probably one of the only characters who actually survived.”

Alas, Calvin Valentine of Hollyoaks proved less fortunate: the police officer turned nightclub manager (keep up) was shot at his own wedding by spurned lover (and his wife’s cousin) Theresa McQueen. Whittle describes his four years on the soap as “my education.”

Valentine’s eventful life offered Whittle the chance to play “every emotion possible.” The requirements of shooting five episodes a week, and as many as 15 scenes a day (American Gods shot maybe two a day), taught Whittle to trust his instincts in front of the camera.

“As an actor I’ve learned that your first impression [of playing a scene] is usually the right one. So you kind of tend to go with that.”

Once scorned as TV junk food, Hollyoaks is proving fertile ground for British acting talent. Nathalie Emmanuel stars in Game of Thrones, Emma Rigby appeared in The Counsellor, and Warren Brown was a regular in Luther.

Hollyoaks is definitely a younger cast so maybe that’s got something to do with it,” says Whittle of his fellow alumni. “They have no ties. You’re not married, you don’t have any children; you have the option to just up roots, and go and try America.”

Whittle will be the biggest Hollyoaks success story to date. Is he ready for the higher profile American Gods will bring?

“I don’t have a choice. This show is going to be huge, whether I’m ready or not. So if I’m not ready, I need to be ready.”

He had a taster during Strictly. He knows the rules. Don’t venture out in public at weekends or in the evening. Avoid crowds. Wear plain clothes (and a cap). Be precise in your movements, plan ahead when possible. “You become very militant with your time, because it’s very rare you get time to yourself.”

Film is the next step on the road that has taken him from Harchester to Hollywood. He’d like to do comedy, work with the likes of Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy and Ryan Reynolds. Demonstrate his versatility – and enjoy himself. After all, it’s still a job.

“You just want to have fun doing what you do. To work in comedy with great comedic actors would be a lot of fun for me.”

I mention Bond, and the response is immediate: “I’d love to play that character. It’s the most iconic character in the world.”

If not Bond, a Bond villain would do. “I’ve not had chance to play the bad guy yet.”

A permanent resident of LA, Whittle has no plans to return to England. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t miss home – he misses home a lot. He misses the sarcasm – “Americans have a great sense of humour but they lack crude, dry sarcasm. I’m a lot funnier in the UK, I’m way more hilarious” – and a good Sunday roast.

But California has Hollywood, sun and beaches. California suits him, and he suits California. “I really love the positive attitude everyone has out there,” says Ricky Whittle, one of the most positive people I’ve ever met.

Walking from the pub, he waxes lyrical about the joy of a good kebab – another British delicacy largely absent Stateside.

He won’t be home for long. Soon the cast will be touring the world as the American Gods publicity machine reaches full throttle. On the road again, this time for real.

Ricky Whittle has come a long way. I suspect he has much further to go.

American Gods starts 1 May on Amazon Prime Video.