“I’m so sorry!!” Emily Browning announces as she sprints around the corner in skinny gray jeans and Nike Cortes, with a Labrador/Pit puppy in tow. “She’s very friendly,” Browning explains as she recounts the story of how she found the dog just 3 days earlier. The 2-month old pup (whose name is unknown at press time) was discovered alongside the highway en route to a photo shoot. Emily, with the help of her publicist, was able to coax the stray over and calm her down. After no chip was discovered at the vet, it was official—Emily became a dog mom.
We settle in at a small table outside a Highland Park cafe. Perhaps it was juxtaposition of our black coffees and the misty, overcast morning, but I’m instantly warmed by her thoughtful candor and sardonic wit. She delivers her words deliberately, processing as she speaks, without any utterance of “um”s as her anecdotes unfold. What began as standard Angeleno route talk inevitably transitioned into to a political discussion (FBI Director James Comey had just been fired by President Trump). Our near-dystopian tangent pivoted to the eerie significance of her latest project, Starz’ American Gods. Based on Neil Gaiman’s award-winning novel, the part Sci-Fi, part modern fantasy adaptation explores the conflict between Old World deities, such as Norse Gods and Old Testament Prophets, and New World fascinations like technology, media, and celebrity. Browning plays Laura Moon, a complex— and frankly, unlikable—woman whose tragic death sparks an epic journey for her widowed husband, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle).
But Laura isn’t Browning’s first foray to complicated storytelling. At just 27, Emily’s stacked up an impressive CV of credits, affording her the luxury of being able to make deliberate choices about projects she takes on. The Sydney native started her career on television before landing roles in Australian indies like The Man Who Sued God (2001), Ghost Ship (2002), and Ned Kelly alongside Heath Ledger and Naomi Watts in 2003. But it was her role as Violet Baudelaire in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events that garnered her Hollywood attention in 2004. Soon after, however, she decided to pack her bags and return to Australia to finish high school in her home town.
But she wasn’t gone for long. After graduation, Emily relocated to LA’s eastside and began working on Zack Snyder’s dark, surreal action-adventure film Sucker Punch (2011) followed by the bizarre art indie Sleeping Beauty later that year. In 2015, she scored a leading role alongside Tom Hardy in Brian Helgeland’s Legend. The biopic documented the lives of Ronnie and Reggie Kray, twin brothers who ran a gangland empire in 1960’s London. The film’s narrative is told by Browning, who plays Reggie’s first wife Frances Shea. Browning’s portrayal of a defiant Shea was achieved through careful research, which included reading through the young bride’s original letters to her infamous husband. The notes ranged from saccharine teenaged prose to belligerent demands for an annulment. Browning could have interpreted the protagonist as a tragic woman, but instead chose to also consider the surprising agency revealed by Frances’ acidic tongue. The intricate role satiated Browning’s appetite for unconventional, wholly-human female narratives—a measured career choice that’s earned her some provocative headlines along the way.
“Hollywood movies are made for white men,” a large, bolded serif font sits atop of a Guardian article. I ask Emily about the interview where she discusses her aversion to the ‘hot babe’ archetype. “I remember when I said that. The next day that was the one quote. It’s not that I was misquoted; it’s just that everything you say gets taken out of context and sometimes dumbed down.” She considers her words as the pup begins to playfully chew her hand, “What I was saying was, a lot of the stories that have been told up until now have been predominately about white, cis-gendered, straight men, and there is this feeling, that… we’re so used to it, that it’s almost become innate. [We see] a white man is a person—and everyone else is another thing. It’s as though [you become] ‘other’ if you’re anything else. It’s just a really tricky conversation to have. You know, of course there are white men out there that have had a really fucking rough time, but it’s never because they’re white men that they’ve had a really rough time.”
There are, of course, notable exceptions to the archaic trope. Emily’s favorite? “One character that I keep thinking about is Janice from The Soprano’s. The fact that she’s… I mean, there’s very little about her that’s redeemable. Every time tragedy happens in the show she’s like, ‘Poor me!’ You kinda wanna smack her in the face—but you also love her.”
Laura Moon is another exception to the one-dimensional prototype. Emily’s collaboration with American Gods producers Bryan Fuller and Michael Green was refreshing, and allowed her the freedom to explore the character’s unapologetic depravity, “I said to them really early on that I want Laura to be gross. Like, I want her to be kinda disgusting and they were open to that and they didn’t dilute it at all because, you know, I’ve spoken to creators before, and so often the initial idea is so cool and interesting, you know, ‘this characters gonna be like really out there!’ and then slowly, as the pre-production progresses, the character gets watered down until she becomes an archetype. And [Brian Fuller and Michael Green] didn’t do that at all— in fact, if anything, the first note that I got after the first week of shooting was to ‘go further’ with being an asshole—be more disgusting.”
Browning welcomed the filmmakers unorthodox feedback, “I feel like so often it’s made really clear to you that the audience really has to love the character. I think what a lot of people don’t understand, even incredible established experienced filmmakers don’t understand, that if the character is well-written, and I do a good job portraying her, then people will love her even if they don’t necessarily wanna be friends with her. Brian and Michael totally got that, and they never once said to me make her more ‘likeable.’”
A female protagonist that directly challenges the antiquated measure of a woman’s value is just one of the progressive themes woven into the show’s message. Laura’s hypnotic malaise serves as a dramatic foil to Gods foreboding, graphic parables. Leveraging picturesque Americana optics, Shadow Moon and his Slytherin-esque sidekick, Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) adventure through a disjointed frontier in a big, American car. Their journey is propelled by scenes of war and peppered with supernatural premonitions. American Gods use of cultural metaphors to examine topics of immigration, religion, and celebrity are jarringly relevant—yet largely coincidental. Shooting wrapped right before November 8th, 2016.
“It was strange because the election happened and we were like wow, our story is so much more relevant now— but I wish it wasn’t. When we were at the premiere the other night, Neil [Gaiman] gave a speech beforehand where he said that he would have traded all the good reviews for a different political situation—which is true, but I mean, this is what we’ve got. If this is situation we have to deal with, we might as well think about it, and talk about it, and try to unpack it a bit.”
The eight-episode series does just that. By showcasing the tensions between the preservation of cultural tradition and assimilation, American Godsilluminates the heart of the immigration debate. But despite its ambitious subject matter, Gods doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to call the fate of humankind. In fact, the show’s eccentric character studies and clever use of mythology deliver a more satisfying meditation on our cultural climate than a prescribed answer ever could. Emily Browning provides a welcome respite to the show’s calamitous gore with her nuanced portrayal of Laura Moon. Delivered with gorgeously measured dialogue, Moon adds an essential dimension to American Gods’ emotional range as an unlikely anti-hero. Yet another Bechdel-approved project that Browning can be proud of.