[Warning: This story contains spoilers through the season one finale of Starz’s American Gods, “Come to Jesus.”]
“Get yourself a queen.”
That’s the moral of the story, according to Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones), shortly after he relates the tale of Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), an ancient god who thrives on sexual worship and devotion. Of course, everyone who watched American Gods this season already knows Bilquis rather well, given her incredibly memorable introduction, in which she swallows an entire human being while having sex in a New Orleans motel room.
How did Bilquis get to that motel room? The answer is implied over the course of the Starz series’ first season finale, which features what’s essentially a short film all about Bilquis and how she first came to America. It begins thousands of years ago, when Bilquis was at the height of her power, towering over an orgy of worshippers and eventually eradicating them all at the height of the climax. The action speeds forward several years into the future, as Bilquis thrives in the disco era of 1979 Tehran — the exact same time that the Iranian Revolution took place. From there, Bilquis accompanies one of her worshippers to America, and viewers see just how quickly she fell from all-powerful goddess to the depths of depression and oppression. Bilquis receives a new lease on life when she’s approached by the new god Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), who offers her a new altar: a smart phone and an app called “Sheba,” effectively a Tinder analogue.
“Worship is a volume business,” he tells her. “Whoever has the most followers wins the game.”
Hence Bilquis’ current circumstances, where she feasts on worshippers she meets online. But as Yetide Badaki describes it, those trysts are nothing more than “empty calories,” not the kind of worship on which Bilquis can truly subsist. And while it appears she’s already reached rock bottom in the past, Bilquis might be headed even further as she travels toward the House on the Rock, the place where Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) will be gathering the old gods in an attempt to fight a war against the new gods — a war that might end sooner than Wednesday anticipates, if Technical Boy’s use of Bilquis as a gun has anything to say about it.
Here’s what Badaki told The Hollywood Reporter about Bilquis’ breakout episode, step-by-step through the god’s journey to America, reflecting on the use of the character’s sexuality throughout the season, and more.
Throughout the season, we have seen stories about Gods and powerful beings of belief, and how they came to America. The finale focuses on Bilquis’ journey. What was your reaction when you read what’s essentially a short film about your character in the finale script?
It was emotional. A lot of the experiences that I have had seemed reflected in there. It pointed out how representation is so important, because it’s something that makes you feel a lot less lonely, when you see yourself reflected back in someone’s experience — especially an individual who is trying to find her place in this brave new world. Emotional is the word. I felt for her. I felt I understood a little bit more about her.
Did it line up with what you expected her journey to be?
The interesting thing is… I was such a fan of Neil Gaiman’s before [joining American Gods], and having read the book already, I definitely have a different expectation once Technical Boy shows up in his limo. Anyone who has read the book knows that does not end very well for her once she sees him show up in a limo. (Laughs.) That was very different, in that respect. As far as her emotional journey, I’m continually surprised. I find that exciting. Just when I think I knew her motivations, something else comes up that goes a lot deeper and may not have quite aligned with the initial conception. That makes her that much more of a layered and fascinating creature. I think Ian McShane said it best: “Nothing is as it seems,” with any of these characters. There’s always something more the deeper you go into the journey.
We see Bilquis across the ages, beginning at her temple in 864 BC. We have already seen Bilquis’ powers at work, very memorably. What was it like to inhabit her at the height of her godly stature?
In that moment, it was absolutely empowering. It was the embodiment of a goddess. It’s not something we all get to experience every day. It felt like quite a bit of a gift. On top of that — and a lot of people don’t know this — the dancers all through the episode, the ones who show up with Media and the ones at the disco, are also a lot of the same people in that temple as well. It was great, because we now got to spend all of this time together. A lot of what I’ve been talking about with this character — connection, human connection, and deep caring for one another — there was this bond in that temple scene that felt very relevant to what Bilquis was all about. These performers were incredible. They were so loving and so giving. It was also very interesting to walk through that space. You started to see people take on the theme, or the idea of this love and this connection. Everyone came in at first feeling a little nervous and a little more reserved. Within a matter of minutes, because of the situation we find ourselves, nobody is having surface conversations. (Laughs.) We immediately got very deep.
How do you break the tension during a scene like this, where everyone is having sex and worshipping Bilquis in such a visceral way?
We had rehearsals, and we also had rehearsed the disco dance as well, so we got to meet everyone prior to actually being in that space. For me, one of the easiest icebreakers is when I would say to people: “Hi, I’m playing Bilquis, and I’ll be consuming you this evening.” (Laughs.) Then you have a good laugh, and you get right to it. These are all incredible artists. They are wonderful people. It felt actually very open and freeing, because you are literally vulnerable. It forces everyone to be completely present and to very much be there for each other. We’re all in this together. And that comes from the wonderful work environment [showrunners] Bryan Fuller and Michael Green created from the get go. It comes from the top down. There’s a level of trust that allows artists to fully express themselves. I know it’s something that’s said all the time, but it’s something we really felt, and it’s something we were incredibly grateful for.
When you’re playing a god who is in control of everyone in that room, do you feel a responsibility of leadership over the situation? Did you feel like you’re someone that everyone is looking toward while shooting the scene?
I think what I felt even more was this communal sense of responsibility. People may see me as a focal point in the scene. However, everybody in that space helped to create the strength and environment where everyone could just focus on the art. They know with me, and I think the editors have even mentioned afterwards, that when I’m in the work space, I’m pretty much just in the work space. Directors know by now that I’ll keep going until they say cut. (Laughs.) I know that there are so many elements and cogs to this wheel. I want to make sure I give it my all, so there’s never a moment where anyone’s cutting each other, or where everything was great, except… and then you have Floria Sigismondi, who directed the episode, who was just so lovely and giving. We all felt the need to step up and make sure that it was seen as not just a salacious thing. We were all aspiring for something more.
The action moves to Tehran in 1979, and it produces a split-brained reaction: on one hand, it’s very fun to see American Gods get into disco mode, but on the other hand, this is the fall of the Shah and the height of the Iranian Revolution. How important was it to balance a sense of joy in the disco scene, while also channeling the heaviness of the war that comes storming in?
Exactly, and once again, this is where I say it takes a village. It was a discussion that started as far back as costume fittings. I remember talking about how the outfit she was wearing should represent absolute freedom, because this is the moment before we see that freedom stripped away. You see that through the beautiful music, which is Debbie Harry. Can we take a moment to geek out over that goddess? (Laughs.) Then you have the choreography that’s been put together. We all understood that we were talking about this moment where women were stripped of their agency. This was the turning point. Yes, we get to play with the disco and enjoy it. And it was very important that we enjoy that, because we needed to see…
You need to see what it’s like to have that joy stripped away.
Yes, exactly, that juxtaposition. When the extras playing the militants came in, it was terrifying. It was actually, absolutely terrifying. Even though we knew these were all stunt people and actors, you definitely felt the shift in that moment. We fully explored each part so we could see that absolute juxtaposition.
It’s a pretty quick hop from 1979 to 2013, when we see Bilquis at rock bottom. Did you think much about what those intervening decades were like, before we saw her at such a low?
Well, there’s the scene in the ’80s, when we see her with her worshipper in the hospital, and you see that the worshipper has HIV. That was a little jump into the ’80s, and what may have then led Bilquis to that drop that you’re speaking of — the drop to bottom. In that beautiful narration from Orlando Jones, who just did that so brilliantly and wonderfully in relating her story, in that moment he talks about the many ways that certain men who are threatened by female agency and power may seek to subvert that. We see that in that moment when she’s in the hospital room. In her power being subverted and made to feel shame for what was a gift that she had through the ages has given, she then essentially became oppressed and essentially was turned away from a large part of her being.
For me, when I was reading that, it pointed out this whole idea that repression leads to transgression. You see her become something completely different. You see her voice literally silenced. You see her shrinking from what she fully embodies. That’s the next moment we see her in, when we see her on the streets. She has denied part of her greatness, because she’s been made to feel shame for what was a thing of great beauty, at least in her past. I think that’s the clue, in that hospital room, that a shift has happened for her. That’s where she starts to shy away from her greatness, and starts to feel guilt about it.
In 2013, Bilquis encounters Technical Boy, and we know this might be leading her to a very dark path. He offers her a smart phone, and says something that speaks to one of the key messages American Gods has been taking on: “Worship is a volume business, and whoever has the most followers wins the game.” Did you find that to be particularly resonant?
Incredibly so. Now she’s down on her luck, and she knows she’s an example — a perfect example — of that statement. Having lost her followers, she has hit rock bottom. He convinces her in that moment that volume is what’s important. However, even as far back as the first two episodes, she’s finding that there’s a bit of a caveat to that. If you remember in episode two, she’s pulling in “worshippers,” but it’s still feeling empty and not feeling fully herself. She’s still feeling disenfranchised.
It’s a momentary high, in those scenes.
Yeah. Empty calories. Enough to subsist, but not enough to flourish.
Later, Bilquis and Technical Boy meet again. At first, Bilquis is as poised and in charge of herself as we’ve ever seen. But there’s a shift, once Technical Boy is calling in his favor. She goes from strong and resilient to visibly shaken and afraid. What do you think has her so rattled in this moment?
It was where she had at that point convinced herself that she was at least living a semblance of her former life and still had her agency. In that moment, she recognizes that she may have put in essence a leash on herself. She has now tied herself to something that she absolutely did not believe in. She’s now seeing how her gift can be subverted.
He refers to her as a gun, essentially classifying her as a weapon.
Exactly. For someone that wants to give this gift — and that’s where she operates from — this is the exact opposite of what she stands for and what she believes. For me, working through all of that, those different thoughts and ideas came up with the repression leading to transgression and oppression being the greatest transgression. That’s the moment she realizes how much of her power she has lost.
You’re in the final scene of the season. Bilquis is on a bus to the House on the Rock. Fans of the book, yourself included, know the significance of this location. How excited are you to know that Bilquis will factor into everything that happens at the House on the Rock?
Every once in a while, I just have to geek out. (Laughs.) This has literally been a dream come true, being able to inhabit this world created by Neil Gaiman, to bring to life these words that Bryan and Michael put down on the page, and to get to work with all of these incredible performers… that’s already incredible enough. The icing on the cake is the House on the Rock, and finding out that Bilquis is going to not only be a part of it, but also be a part of it in a fun way. It’s icing on the cake.
As if that scene needs to get cooked up any further.
Exactly! (Laughs.) Exactly. It’s funny, because you’re getting on the bus to do the scene, and you’re saying to yourself, “OK, Yetide. Calm down. Do the scene. You can’t think about how excited you are that you’re going to House on the Rock. Now you have to be Bilquis and live this through her situation.” But my honest response was just incredible excitement. Incredible excitement and joy.
Reflecting on the season, what kind of reaction have you received from people watching the show? After an introduction like the one Bilquis makes, I have to imagine you have made an impression on people.
(Laughs.) It’s been more than I could have hoped for. My hope is that people saw something resonated in a deep, human experience, reflected back. I hoped that a couple of people would see that and want to enter into a discussion about that, and that would be great. I did not realize for one how many women were going to reach out with gratitude. Someone reached out and said, just as a dark-skinned black woman, seeing that represented on screen was life-changing for her. That being a sensual being had never been something that she had never seen ascribed to someone like her before. I never expected that wonderful of a response. And it goes through the whole gamut, from that, to every once in a while a guy reaching out to go, “Whoa. I am scared of you. That was awesome, but I am scared of you.” (Laughs.) And I’ll say, “Yes, that is a good reaction.” It’s been the whole gamut. What’s fascinating is the overwhelming positive response. I could not have predicted that. What I also really enjoyed is that it starts a conversation, even with some people who say, “This is very different for me, and it’s not something I typically think about, but let’s talk about it. It was so shocking to me.” The most exciting part of it all has been the conversation that gets to be had. I could not have asked for more.
What did you think about Yetide Badaki’s role in the finale, and her work over the course of the season? Sound off in the comments below.