While most of the lives in American Gods have intersected in one way or another over the show’s two seasons, Pablo Schreiber’s Mad Sweeney has perhaps covered the most ground. From the beginning, he’s been one of the players in Wednesday’s game with the keenest understanding of what the Norse god is getting at. We had the chance to speak with Schreiber about the dynamics of the licentious leprechaun.
In this week’s episode “Treasure of the Sun,” Sweeney takes center stage and American Gods looks into the Gaelic godking’s past to reveal more about the man he once was, a man Schreiber sees as carrying a kind of burden he can’t properly reflect on or work through with anyone else. When we spoke with Schreiber recently about the decisions Sweeney makes in this episode, the actor explained that the most important thing to understand about the leprechaun is that at the end of the day, all he really wants to do is make things right and pay the debts he owes.
io9: We’re a point in the series now where basically everything we’re learning about Mad Sweeney is a creation for the show.
Pablo Schreiber: Well, yeah. Sort of. The more complicated parts of Sweeney you’ve seen in American Gods both are and aren’t things we’ve created just for the show. Obviously, following him as much as we have and hooking him up with Dead Wife (Emily Browning) is all a plot-driven function of the show’s needs for the character, but a lot of his dialogue and the things that happen to him—especially in this episode—are taken directly from the book. The idea of Sweeney being a king, that’s not exactly something fully new, but it’s something we’ve expanded on and dug deeper into.
I think one of the really important things about Sweeney is that he’s a guy who feels fundamentally misunderstood. He feels unappreciated and let down by modern culture and society. He doesn’t like the way that things have progressed and the developments of the modern world, and his frustrated by it all.
io9: How much of that is how you see Sweeney as you’ve formed your idea of him as a character? How much of that is you bringing your own experiences to your performance?
Schreiber: For me, those are things that I’ve got to get in touch with for myself. What part of me feels those things and what’re the parts of society that I really kind of bristle at? But there’s also this deep shame in Sweeney from having made a grand mistake in his past and wanting to sacrifice yourself in an attempt to make that mistake right. Those are the things that animate and drive him, and I’ve had to find reciprocal emotions for myself in different contexts.
io9: The sacrifice Sweeney makes in this week’s episode really sneaks up on you because it doesn’t feel as if either his or Laura’s stories are properly finished. In that moment where Sweeney dies, you get the sense that he’s really accomplished something, but it isn’t clear just what. What, ultimately, has Sweeney always wanted?
Schreiber: He’s said it a few times over the course of the series, but it’s worth really mulling over. Sweeney wants to die in a battle, but what is that? What is it that he needs out of that kind of death? He wants to feel brave. The fact that he ran away from what could have been his greatest moment in defending his people in battle. But he ran away. He was a coward. He wants redemption. If you look at what he does just before he sacrifices himself, it’s a warning to Shadow. I think that’s really important.
io9: That warning definitely sticks out, but at the same time, you have to wonder how sincere it is, because the finality to Sweeney’s death seems kinda up in the air, though.
Schreiber: Is there a lack of finality to the death? Maybe. Who knows? This is a universe where a lot of things can happen. We don’t quite know what the final story is and how that will be written, but with this one, there’s definitely is a full circle-ness to this ending for him. It’s redemption on a grand scale.
io9: Season one had that interesting twist of casting Emily Browning as Essie MacGowan, making you think there might be more to Sweeney being bound to her than just her having his coin. Obviously, after this episode, it’s clear that he’s romantically interested in her, but from your perspective, what is it that draws him to her?
Schreiber: When the two of them go to New Orleans, and Baron Samedi tells them that he deals in truth and that Laura’s going to have to give him truth in order for him to bring her back to life—and it turns out that her truth is that fantasy of her and Sweeney being together. What happened in that smoky “other space” was all fantasy, and so we don’t know that anything was confirmed regarding his yearning for her, but there’s clearly a connection between them. There’s a draw.
io9: But what’re we supposed to make of the whole Essie thing, do you think?
Schreiber: I think the Essie MacGowan thing is a little more complicated because that’s memory, right? The fact that Essie MacGowan looked like Laura, we don’t know whether that’s a fact or if they’re actually related, or if that’s just how Sweeney is remembering Essie. Sweeney owed Essie a debt because she brought him to this country, and he has similar feelings about Laura, but the circumstances are different. You could spin the story in a number of different ways. But what was clear about the Essie MacGowan thing was that he has made Laura part of his reason for being. Whatever that means and wherever it’s going to go, we don’t know, but he feels the guilt and shame of being involved in Laura’s death, and he wants to see her through to the other side. If what she wants is to be resurrected, he’s going to make sure that happens before he goes.
She’s now got something from Samedi that’ll allow her that opportunity to reclaim her life, and so you can make the argument that he now feels like he can go and for that to be on his own terms.
io9: In your mind, what are, or I guess were, those terms?
Schreiber: Part of going on his own terms is righting the wrong that he did by contributing to Wednesday’s poison for as long as he did. By his last act being sending Wednesday’s spear into his horde.
We spent almost an entire season trying to find this spear for Wednesday, it’s meant to be this great weapon of destruction that begins his war. But in one fell swoop, Sweeney erases it, and it’s really his last act of aggression against Wednesday, a man he hates.
io9: This is one of the first times we’ve seen just how grounded a life the deities were still capable of living while they were at the height of their power, and Sweeney’s an interesting example. Like Bilquis, Sweeney isn’t exactly a divine being in his own right, but kind of king elevated to godlike status. The show and book play around with the concept of Sweeney being a leprechaun and all, but what is it that sustains him? The other gods have these very tight, discrete domains, but what is Sweeney’s?
Schreiber: The short and easy answer is luck, but obviously it’s more complicated than that. Because you’re right, Sweeney’s not really a god. He was a king, and in his current form, he’s a creation of legend and myth that’ve accumulated over the years and been passed down from generation to generation. Sweeney feeds on luck. When he was at the height of his powers, when others were aware of him, when they offered tribute to him, what they were asking him for was to improve their luck, and I think what we’ve done is put a more interesting spin on the concept of the fey folk being rather fickle about how they dole that luck out. Sweeney embodies all of that.
There’s a wonderful incongruity to this guy who’s splashed down into a place he doesn’t love or even recognise anymore. He’s got all the money in the world at his disposal, but he couldn’t care less, and in the midst of all the chaos, he’s lost the one thing he truly treasures.
io9: Let’s shift into a speculative space for a quick second. Season three is coming, and let’s say Mad Sweeney comes back from this death. How do you think the entire experience of becoming involved in Wednesday’s war, dying, and being resurrected might change his perspective?
Schreiber: I…don’t know that I want to get into a speculative headspace because I don’t know that any of that is going to happen. I’m not saying it won’t happen, it’s just that we don’t know. What I do know is that Sweeney is dead and for the time being, I think that’s entirely appropriate. We gave him a great sendoff, and we’ll let him rest in peace for now.
Schreiber just nabbed the coveted role of Master Chief for the upcoming Halo Showtime series so make of that what you will when you consider his future on American Gods.