Quick, think of the character you hate the most on American Gods. Did you answer Mad Sweeney? Well, the guy who plays him has a strong argument for changing your mind about the oversized wee man of the hills.
Pablo Schreiber’s hard work has made Mad Sweeney one of American Gods’ most entertaining characters. Sweeney’s vulgar brand of philosophizing and aggressive posturing puts him in conflict with most everyone he’s encountered on the TV series but viewers have also got a sense of turmoil underneath all the bluster, too. I spoke with Schreiber on the phone last week and listened to him hold forth on his character’s visual aesthetic and emotional baggage.
On American Gods, all the celestial beings have to deal with being cut off from the cultures that birthed them. Mad Sweeney, in particular, is a character who we get to see living in the past and bitterly dealing with a hardscrabble present. Sweeney’s a lot different on the show than in the book and actor Pablo Schreiber told me that, at first, he had to figure out the leprechaun’s look before going back to the source material:
Schreiber: One of the key elements of the pitch they gave me was that his journey was going to be sort of like “‘Bonnie and Clyde’ with a zombie and a leprechaun.” I thought that was hilarious and a great set-up for comedy. From what I could tell in the early discussions about the show, most of my function was going to be comedy. I started to read the scripts when I was on set and it became clear that that was definitely a needed element in the show. The tone of the show was quite dark and heavy. I took it upon myself to create that whenever I could with the character. It was really important for me that if I’m playing a six-foot leprechaun with bright, shiny red hair that we needed to come up with a look for the character that was going to work specifically for me. So, I went to Toronto and started to play around with some wig and beard options that hopefully would work.
And at first, it was really rough— the first wig we tried on just did not work. We tried on this wig that was based on a reference photo that we all liked [of] Tom Waits in the ‘70s, in a very kind of shaggy, super messy long-haired ‘do. But when we put that wig on me, it just looked awful. It didn’t look like it was really my hair. And so I suggested that we cut the sides out and create a sort of faux-hawk thing, a somewhat hipster vibe that I wanted to go for. And as soon as we cut the sides out of the wig, it came alive and started to look more believable on me. I felt comfortable that we would find a look that worked for all of us and finally started to engage with the source material. I didn’t have time to read the book, because they wanted me to shoot a week or two weeks after all that, but I got the book on tape and listened to it.
Schreiber wasn’t sure about doing an accent for Mad Sweeney at first:
Schreiber: There was discussion early on; they were open to either choice. I just started to play with the character and, so much of the writing that they were giving me, I didn’t really see any way of doing it without some kind of sound. There was just so much Irish-isms, particular words and phrases, colloquialisms that felt like if I said them with a straight, American accent, it didn’t feel right. And the more I played with it, the more I moved it in my mouth, the more the sound of the character started to come.
And I would say the sound became stronger after the first couple of scenes that I shot, and then it was the matter of just really touching in, making sure it was super-specific and that it wasn’t going too far. It needed to be an Americanized Irish accent. You can hear the difference between Sweeney when he’s in the old country and Sweeney in the crocodile bar. [In the flashback,] it needed to be a much more muted, Americanized sound. So I was listening to a lot of Irish American actors who have been here for a lot of years and when those sounds come out in interviews. Connor McGregor, who’s a UFC fighter, still has a strong accent, I was listening to him a bunch. So that’s kind of how the sound evolved. And it just made more sense to me that he’d have a whiff of the old country.
He needed to be more than just the red hair or the costume. He’s the guy who’s been here a couple hundred years and it was important to me that just refuses to blend in completely. He’s completely his own thing. He’s an iconoclast, he stands out like a sore thumb. But at the same time, it was so important that you could also picture running into him quite easily in some subset of American society just by looking at him. And, for me, it was the idea of Williamsburg/Silver Lake hipster vibe with suspenders and a kind of fetishizing of old, bad fashion. So that was where I placed him.
Sweeney has the most fascinating evolution over the first season. He starts out pretty much as a straight-up asshole and, early on, viewers could tell that there’s some kind of hidden, symbiotic relationship between him and Wednesday. Eventually, the super-aggressive jerk full of machismo emerges as probably the most honest character in this show. As seen in his spotlight episode, when Mad Sweeney gets something, he gives something. Here’s how Schrieber answered when I asked him how he played all of those pieces:
Schreiber: [Executive producers] Michael [Green] and Bryan [Fuller] wanted me to know quite early on that I was responsible for Laura’s death and that I was harboring a lot of guilt for it. So all the scenes that are in the season are colored by that. The initial scene where he’s picking a fight with Shadow, logistically he’s there to pick a fight and to test him on behalf of Mr. Wednesday. But, secondarily, the stuff that you don’t pick up on the first time is this deep need for Shadow to hurt him. It’s the kind of stuff that gives it depth and makes it more than just a big dude picking a fight with another big dude in a bar.
I was playing that the whole season, carrying around this immense level of guilt for choices he made that he regrets at this point. One being killing Laura, the other is fleeing the battle. His initial choice to flee the battle when he was presented with the opportunity to stand up and fight. And so harboring those bad decisions that he’s made that colors the character in a certain way. Now, I’m very tall and appear to be very tough, but my job over the whole season was to basically get my ass kicked by everybody and everything. He loses his luck early on and is just getting pummeled by everyone the whole rest of the show. That’s a great set-up, with Emily [Browning, who plays Laura Moon], especially. It’s the tiniest woman in the world beating up the biggest guy. It makes people kind of feel sorry for him and just want to give him a hug. So he starts to grow in your affections in that way. He’s such an asshole and so on-the-surface grumpy and irate that when it’s this kind of rattling your saber at the heavens kind of thing, but it’s completely powerless. I think that’s sort of endearing, you know?
[Sweeney’s] journey in the TV show is so much different than the book. In the book, you get two scenes of him. You meet him in the bar, and you see him under the bridge when he’s about to die. So, all we’re doing is coloring in all the time in between. It’s not anything different from the book; it’s just added material. We have his date with destiny coming beneath the bridge at some point; then it’ll be a question of whether do they actually want to go through with getting rid of this guy. That’ll be a hard choice, but one that will affect people in certain ways if they make it.
After Mad Sweeney kills Laura, Shadow Moon inadvertantly gives her the leprechaun’s lucky coin, resurrecting her. I told Schrieber that I enjoyed the fact that Mad Sweeney and Laura Moon’s relationship wasn’t a romantic one but still operated on an axis of weird, symbiotic caretaking. He responded by saying that he thinks there is some love underneath all the aggression.
I would say there’s a lot of affection in there underneath it. Not yet from her side? But from his side, a lot of the hatred and the bluster and vitriol that he sends at her is covering a deep, deep, deep affection for her. I think Sweeney just doesn’t give a shit about how people feel and he says what he thinks. Laura has a bit of that as well.
Also, he had this long history with a woman who either looks identical to Laura or reminds him completely of Laura—depending on your take of the show. He has this deep affection for this woman who brought him to this country, guilt for having killed Laura and probably admiration for the fact that she wants to go after Mr. Wednesday. Sweeney also has a huge resentment towards Wednesday and hate for him, so I think he would not mind exploring that through Laura.
Next week, Conversations With God comes back with an interview with Chris Obi, the man who brings life to death god Anubis. For the previous installment in this series, click here.