The role of Mr. Nancy as written in American Gods Season 1 doesn’t have a great deal of screen time. In fact, Mr. Nancy, as brilliantly played by Orlando Jones, only appears in human form roughly twice during the entire season. Yet, to borrow from the old adage, there are no such thing as small roles. In fact, Orlando Jones’s Mr. Nancy and the stories he tells through the series speak to the very heart of American Gods Season 1.
Mr. Nancy emerges as one of the most thematically important characters in the vast ensemble considering his ability to rally those to his cause.
“In the aspect of the impeding war that will happen between the old and new gods, the narrative is always a very tricky thing. Whomever controls it very often controls the will of the people. I think Nancy is a trickster god,” Orlando Jones explained, “but he is also a trickster god who has a particular bent with regards to people who are disenfranchised. He’s very much about rallying that base in order to have them participate in whatever capacity is necessary, whatever sacrifices they need to make.”
Judging from American Gods Season 1 and that enormously powerful Episode 2 slave ship sequence, Mr. Nancy is one to have in your corner. Now, if Jones could only rally the Television Academy base to grant an extremely deserved nomination for the Primetime Emmy® Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series. That would be the real power.
Orlando Jones’ most infamous American Gods scene takes place at the start of Episode 2. There, Mr. Nancy (a.k.a. Anansi) appears before a worshipper in the hull of a slave ship. Nancy communes with this soon-to-be slave and relates a horrible future to the captives in the ship. Eventually, Nancy convinces his worshippers to set fire to the ship and massacre those in command.
It doesn’t end well for anyone on the ship, save Mr. Nancy.
“In Mr. Nancy’s mind, you don’t know if he’s saying that to tell them they’re really better off dead or if, from his point of view, he requires their worship and, in order to have their worship, that’s really want he want them to do,” Jones explained. “[Showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green as well as Jones] talked about that role of faith and worship and how it plays itself out.”
Jones’ fascination with that question of faith and worship drew him to the material. Viewers can draw parallels between the scene on the slave ship and the phenomenon of modern day cults. As Jones discussed with Fuller and Green, cult members never think they’re doing evil. They always think they’re trying to make the world a better place. Their vision becomes blurred as to the line between good and evil.
“Once you drink the Kool-Aid, if you’ll pardon the pun, it tends to urge you to take off your critical thinking,” Jones said. “You are what you believe is an interesting concept.”
That scene emerges as one of the most powerful in the series. And Jones plays it perfectly.
The conversation between Nancy and the slave worshipping him, memorably played by Conphidance, emerges as a fascinating dialogue between someone looking for hope in a dire circumstance and someone looking for worship/sacrifice. His prayer ultimately and devastatingly ends in trauma entirely suggested by Nancy.
Achieving that moment required a tremendous performance from Jones as an actor. It had to be powerful. It had to be believable. And Jones completely delivers on that front.
“For me, delving into the emotional context of that is really what [Nancy’s] doing, and in order to do that, it requires a fairly dynamic speech,” Jones shared. “Otherwise, I don’t know why those men would listen to him. I don’t know why they would care what he had to say unless he gave them reason to listen. In that scene, it required a bit of a performance in order to bring them into his world and to also have them understand the stakes of what is going on. From a performer’s point of view, that’s how I saw it.”
Mr. Nancy/Ansani often appeared in various spider forms in original mythology. Naturally, American Gods takes full advantage of that in rendering various forms of Nancy in the series.
Those with arachnophobia need not apply.
Fortunately, the American Gods set wasn’t filled with runaway 8-legged extras.
“Those spiders are CGI my friend,” Jones laughed. “They’re based on real spiders, though. I kept looking for spiders that you didn’t know whether to kill it or just stare at it because if I’m seeing a tarantula, I’m just killing it. I’m not trying to get to know a spider.”
Neither is Orlando Jones’ mother, who is deathly afraid of them.
“If she sees a spider, you can hear her scream like three miles away. When I turned into a spider, my phone rang, and my mother said, ‘You a spider! I don’t know if I can watch this. I love you baby, but I don’t know if I can go there.’ If you have arachnophobia, good luck with Mr. Nancy.”
Here’s hoping the Television Academy has a stronger constitution.
American Gods airs on Starz. Episodes are available via Starz.