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The Bespoke Trickster: How Orlando Jones Landed 'American Gods'

Orlando Jones, who’s been cracking up folks since his days on sketch comedy series ‘Mad TV,’ has morphed into a thespian of elevated dramatic flair.
\"American Gods\" Junket + Mixer
Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images for Starz

Orlando Jones is having a career resurgence — of sorts — with his scene-stealing role as Mr. Nancy in Starz network's buzz worthy new series ‘American Gods,’ which wraps its first season on June 18.

The comedic actor, who’s been cracking up folks since his days as an original cast member of the irreverent sketch comedy series ‘Mad TV,’ has morphed into a thespian of elevated dramatic flair by playing the infamous trickster god based on Anansi — the African folklore character.

And social media had a hand in helping him seize the role of a lifetime in the critically acclaimed series based on Neil Gaiman’s bestselling novel, which centers on the convergence of theological, mythical and psychological deities waging a war in modern times.

Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy in "American Gods"Jan Thijs / (C) 2015 Fremantle Media North Am

“Somebody on social media said, ‘Orlando Jones would be a great Anansi’ when they were announcing that they were going to start developing this project. So, I sent a message to [Gaiman] like, ‘Yes, I would. That's a great idea.’ So, he liked the tweet and re-tweeted it. So, fans, including myself, we all went crazy,” Jones recently told NBCBLK.

Unbeknownst to the 49-year-old Mobile, Alabama native, casting directors for the series were already eyeing him for the part with no knowledge of the social media hullaballoo. “It was a combination of good will from the fans and definitely I think Neil was a proponent of me doing it. The rest of it was our casting directors, who sort of really pushed it forward,” he added.

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For the record: Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy is lightening in a bottle as far as spot-on casting choices are concerned. He fully embodies the role of the elegantly bespoke suit-clad provocateurthat magically transforms into a spider - always willing to help people get out of dodgy situations with his chaotic gifts.

“I had heard of Anansi because of my grandparents and hearing their stories,” Jones revealed. “Then a friend of mine told me there was a book called ‘Anansi Boys’ and sent me the book… I never expected that I would be playing some character that my grandma used to tell me about. So, it was exciting. Just as a fan, I couldn't believe that that opportunity was about to come my way,” Jones said.

One particular “Coming To America” scene — shown in the second episode of ‘American Gods’ — is a ferociously fierce work of written art. Taking place on a Dutch slave ship transporting Africans to America for sale, one captive desperately prays to Anansi who suddenly appears before him and starts to school him of what his unknown and very unfortunate future will hold in America.

Without giving too much of the plot away, Anansi’s encouragement offers a different take on the atypical Middle Passage storyline — one never told before. The dialogue — scripted by two white men: showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green — is the kind of fat some of the most prolific actors would love to chew on.

"African Americans are tired of seeing slave scenes, by and large, slaves' experience, because they're portrayed in such a way that we're never in charge."

Of the scene, the former 7-Up pitchman said, “Those were the words as they were written. It was beautifully written … I'm fortunate to have, frankly, two of the best writers in Hollywood — if not the best — writing and scribing words for me.”

“A big part of what my performance was about was just being mindful that the people I'm talking to are on frightening journey to a land they don't know where they are chained up in the bottom of a ship,” he continued.

Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy, or Anansi as he's otherwise known, the African trickster spider god of knowledge and speech.(C) 2017 Starz Entertainment, LLC

“They're about to have all these different applications applied to their lives, like the idea that they're now black when they thought they were just human. So, laying those things out becomes ... really the fun of that scene, but at the same time, he needs their worship as a god, so whatever he could do to raise their spirits to get them to where he wants them to be is what Anansi does. He's a trickster god, so that's the way he plays the game.”

It’s the kind of lyrical ballistics one could imagine would be said if late civil rights activists Huey P. Newton or Malcolm X (pre-Mecca pilgrimage) and comedic legends Dick Gregory or Paul Mooney were having a pow-wow.

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“I really feel like my father's reaction is the one that really kind of stuck with me through the most, because I feel like African Americans are tired of seeing slave scenes, by and large, slaves' experience, because they're portrayed in such a way that we're never in charge. We never have any agency. So, my dad is like, ‘Finally there's a scene on a slave ship that I can get behind 'cause there's no white savior.”

With season two about to begin filming, Jones is looking forward to being “heavily” featured in the next installment of ‘American Gods’’ — and plans for its follow-up.

“[They] are all excited about doing an ‘Anansi Boys’ spin-off, it seems, so it looks like that's actually gonna happen, which I'm very excited about…. It's a crazy busy schedule, but [I’m] blessed and really excited about pulling this character together and excited about how people are receiving not just my character, but also the entire show," said Jones.

"I really love the show. I love the themes of the show. I love what it's saying, what it's about, and how it really challenges you to have a conversation about the things that you believe.”

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