When your character gets killed off in the first episode, it’s usually not a great sign for an actor’s career. But Emily Browning, who plays the recently deceased Laura Moon in TV’s latest must-see series American Gods, couldn’t be more content.
Why? Well, for a start American Gods isn’t the kind of show to let a little thing like a fatal car crash get in the way of a good character arc, but it’s more personal than that. “I mean, obviously there’s the fact that I used to plan my own death when I was five,” the Australian actress tells me within 10 minutes of us meeting. “Sometimes my mind goes to a really unnecessary place.”
Most telly connoisseurs would disagree with the unnecessary part at least. Early reviews for Amazon’s darkly delightful new series suggest it’s the kind of ambitious escapism we need now. Based on the multi-award-winning Americana fantasy novel by Sandman author Neil Gaiman, American Gods tells the story of a brewing war between Old World deities and New World obsessions such as technology, celebrity and media.
Trying to make sense of it all is Shadow Moon, an ex-con played by Ricky Whittle, of Hollyoaks fame — but don’t let that put you off, he’s great. Ian McShane is perfectly cast as a shady conman, Mr Wednesday — scholars of Old Norse mythology may notice some significance in that name — who hires Shadow Moon as his bodyguard.
Browning plays Shadow’s doomed and unfaithful wife. “Laura’s kind of awful. I mean, she’s not a nice person but who the f*** wants to be a nice person? ‘Nice’ is the worst possible word. Like, be a kind person.” She lets out a short laugh. “Laura’s not even a kind person.” We learn more about Laura’s character in flashbacks later in the series but the most salient fact is clear early on: “She dies, and that’s where it gets interesting.”
Someone else who finds death interesting is Bryan Fuller, the American Gods showrunner and co-creator whose previous TV credits include Dead Like Me (about an 18-year-old grim reaper) and Pushing Daisies (about a pie-maker who can reanimate the dead).
Browning soon recognised a kindred spirit: “I don’t think it made me interested in the sense that I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I can work through some of my fears and issues’,” she clarifies. “It was probably more a sort of sick, perverse thing. I’m very drawn to doing things that aren’t necessarily good for me. I’m not a big drinker but I have this strange addiction to unhealthy thought processes. I think about dark things.”
Browning’s Wednesday Addams tendencies won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed her career. She played the unfortunate orphan in question opposite Jim Carrey in the 2004 film version of A Series of Unfortunate Events, an asylum inmate called Baby Doll in the 2011 film Sucker Punch and, in the same year, a young woman who takes on an unusual form of sex work in disturbing art film Sleeping Beauty.
She may be most familiar, though, from the 2015 film Legend. Tom Hardy garnered the attention for his double performance as both Kray twins but it was Browning’s soulful turn as Reggie Kray’s tragic first wife Frances that made the most lasting impression.
The role of Bella Swan in the Twilight films might have seemed like a natural addition to this CV but Browning dropped out of the casting process early on. “I read the book and it seemed like a really abusive relationship. I’m not worried about the characters I play being role models — I mean, in this show Laura isn’t — but if you’re doing a movie for teenagers you want to give them something healthy to look up to.”
Still, the offers of dark, damaged and doll-like roles kept coming in. With her delicate, porcelain face and bird-like physicality, 28-year-old Browning looks the part, and she knows it. “I’ve been slightly typecast in the sense that I’m naturally drawn to outsiders and people who are a bit f*****up,” she says, cheerfully. “But that’s because I think everyone’s f***** up, to be honest. It’s hard to play a character that isn’t.”
Browning’s approach to the maintenance of good mental health is typically down-to-earth and refreshing. “I sometimes tell people that I’ve seen a therapist once a week for the past five years, and they look at me like, ‘Aw, are you OK?’ and I’m like, ‘I’m fine!’ I think everybody should see a therapist!”
Not everybody is like Browning, however. She got her start as a child star in her native Australia and her years in the industry are evident in her effortless professionalism. When it’s time for her photograph to be taken, she moves seamlessly through a flow of graceful poses while keeping up friendly chit-chat with the crew — on Melbourne slang (sweets are all “lollies”, apparently) and her boyfriend’s efforts to calm her on a recent flight (“I’m not ‘a bit of a hypochondriac’; I’m terrible”).
When it’s time for our interview proper to begin, she ushers her publicist out of the room, snuggles into the huge hotel sofa and launches into a stream of unexpected opinions, candid anecdotes and witty insights, all delivered with the same upbeat, unpretentious Aussie humour. It’s obvious that not only has Browning given plenty of interviews but that, unusually, she quite enjoys them.
Does she feel like a typical Aussie? “My sense of humour is very Australian but I’m not a patriotic person. I love Melbourne and where I grew up but my country is still really backwards in a lot of ways. I don’t feel any need to be like, ‘This is our land!’ It’s like, well, actually it’s not. We kind of stole it.” She thinks some more: “This is the w******* answer to this question and you must include this caveat — I think I may have been drunk, when I said this to my boyfriend — but I’m ‘a citizen of the world’.”
Like many a slightly sheepish “world citizen”, she spent a few years living in London, in Notting Hill. For now though, she has settled for now into an east LA lifestyle of hiking, reading, watching films with her boyfriend and cooking.
Her speciality dish, she says, is a slow-cooked bolognese that contains a truly powerful amount of garlic: “I don’t wear deodorant normally — because I’m a disgusting hippy, I guess — but I have a stick of super-strong hardcore sports deodorant that I keep only for the day after bolognese.”
Even after a warning like that, you’d be a fool to reject an invite to Browning’s next dinner party. Gloomy taste in screen roles notwithstanding, she’s a hoot. It’s easy to see why her presence on set is so wanted. Dead or alive.
American Gods begins on Amazon Prime Video from May 1