The British soap star risked everything to leave a promising career in the UK and make it big in America. He tells Maxim Boon about becoming the star of a burgeoning TV super hit.
In 2010, British actor Ricky Whittle made the decision to chase his ambitions all the way to LA. As a lead character on hit soap opera Hollyoaks, he was already a successful screen star and household celebrity in his native United Kingdom, but Whittle had never been one to rest on his laurels. "For me, satisfaction is the death of desire. I'm always going to aim for more. I'm always going to be striving to be the best person I can possibly be," he shares. "At that point, I was already kind of at the top of my game back home. I had great job offers. I had cars and houses. I had success and life was great - I loved my life in England. But I always knew that I wanted more than that."
Many acting talents have tried and failed to break into America's notoriously dog-eat-dog entertainment scene - an endeavour that requires a steely combination of tenacity, resilience and iron-clad faith. But while the odds may have been stacked against him as a relative unknown in a fiercely competitive and overcrowded industry, Whittle arrived in the US with one key advantage: his irrepressible work ethic.
As the son of an RAF serviceman, growing up on various Air Force bases around the world, the actor was raised with an ethos of military-grade dedication. It's these core values, instilled by his parents, that have helped him reach his career highs, Whittle believes. "My mother's my queen, my dad's my idol. They always pushed me to be the best possible version of myself and to never give up. They taught me to chase my dreams, no matter how hard they are, because you don't want to live your life with regrets," he explains. "If I had returned to England with my tail between my legs and it hadn't worked out, at least I could be proud that I gave it a shot - which is more than the majority of people can say. At least I could say that I gave myself a chance."
Whittle's grit has certainly been put to the test in recent years, but despite some bumps in the road, his American gamble has unquestionably paid off. In 2014, after some minor appearances on TV drama Mistresses and blockbuster movie Edge Of Tomorrow, he got his big US break as a recurring supporting role in sci-fi drama The 100 — fan favourite, "grounder" Lincoln. However, after his character's abrupt death, Whittle claimed he had been bullied out of the show by executive producer Jason Rothenberg. But whatever resentment may have lingered over that acrimonious blip has surely been vindicated by the actor's most recent success, starring in iconic director Bryan Fuller's much-anticipated TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman's epic metaphysical saga, American Gods.
Landing the role of Shadow Moon, a brawny and brooding ex-con who finds himself thrust into a mystical underworld of warring deities, was no mean feat, however. It took more than five months of rigorous auditions, vying against more than 1,200 other hopefuls. The drawn-out process was both "a blessing and a curse," Whittle says. "It was 16 different audition tapes. When you do that many, there comes a point when you start to doubt yourself and you're kind of like, 'Well, do they want me or not? How many different ways can I show my skills?' They needed happy scenes, and sad scenes, and angry scenes, and scenes with different characters. By the 14th or 15th tape, I didn't know if there was anything left to show them."
The intensity of his American Gods audition process reflects a change of focus in Whittle's professional life, with a greater emphasis on the calibre of his acting craft. Beginning his career as a model, Whittle's sculpted physique and smouldering good looks had previously played a major part in his success as a soap actor, most notably when he joined the elite ranks of the " Hollyoaks Hunks" - a job that would require him to pose topless for an annual calendar, in addition to his on-screen responsibilities. In the years between his arrival in LA and landing his first major US role in The 100, the British tabloid press kept a weather eye on Whittle's new life, ready to publish any freshly papped pictures of the actor's toned torso while out for a run along Santa Monica Pier or soaking in some sun on Venice Beach.
As far as his appearance is concerned, Whittle is as uncanny a match for Gaiman's troubled antihero as anyone could imagine. But looks alone would not be enough to persuade Bryan Fuller that Whittle was the man to helm his latest venture, despite the enthusiasm of fans barracking for the Brit in Starz's #CastingShadow social media hunt. The director, best known for his visually breathtaking TV series Hannibal, has perfected a style of storytelling that turns even the most gruesome of scenes - and for a show about cannibalism, Hannibal had plenty - into moments of stunningly poetic eloquence. Fuller's eye for finding the beauty within brutality is matched by his nose for great acting talent. So, with such an emotionally complex character in question, the search for the ideal Shadow was a necessarily exhaustive one.
Having his acting skills subjected to a level of scrutiny far greater than anything he had previously experienced, Whittle's journey to becoming Shadow Moon would be one of the most difficult challenges of his professional life to date. "They needed to find an actor who was capable of reaching the various colours that Shadow needs to go through in his emotional roller coaster. He really goes to hell and back and they needed someone who was prepared to go to those places," he shares. "It was a tough slog, but in those five months, I got to work with Bryan Fuller, the screenwriter Michael Green and David Slade, the director of the first couple of episodes, and really start to flesh out this role. In my early auditions, I was very heavily influenced by the Shadow of the book. But Bryan worked closely with me to lift him off the page. As a literary character he's quite quiet, blase, internalised, but for TV we needed to make him really pop. So we made him more vocal, added more grounded elements like fear, like anxiety. So that audition process wasn't time wasted - we put in a lot of work finding the right balance between our responsibility to the book and how to make that work on camera."
Playing Shadow Moon will likely be seen as Whittle's watershed moment; a career-defining role that will keep him in gainful employment for the foreseeable future as well as opening doors to Hollywood, much like fellow British actors and Game Of Thrones stars Sophie Turner, Kit Harington and Hollyoaks alum Nathalie Emmanuel. It's also a gig that offers Whittle an ample amount of reflected glory. American Gods boasts a cast more chock-full of A-list stars than virtually any other currently on the airways, including Ian McShane, Gillian Anderson, Crispin Glover, Kristin Chenoweth and Orlando Jones, to name just a handful of the series' luminaries. The magnitude of appearing in a franchise that has already been tipped to rival juggernauts like Game Of Thrones and West World is not lost on Whittle. "I do have to sit back and pinch myself when these incredible icons of the acting world are texting me and we're having fun and bantering and hanging out. It's really surreal," he laughs. "You know, I'm just a boy from Manchester! But I sometimes find myself sitting on the beach in LA, and I think to myself, 'I live in California. I'm in an incredible show with incredible people. Life is really, really good.' You know?"
First published 13 June 2017, for The Music