Warning: Huge spoilers ahead for American Gods Episode 4.
After a few episodes of mysteriously floating into view and calling Ricky Whittle's character by his adorable pet name "puppy," Episode 4 of Starz series American Gods finally gave us what we've been yearning for — an insight into the damaged heroine that is Shadow's untrue, deceased wife Laura Moon. And when I say "damaged," I mean that quite literally.
After messing with Egyptian lord of the death Anubis's heart-weighing test after shamefully dying with her lover's penis in her mouth, she suddenly slams back down to Earth as the undead. And it is here that her #AmericanGods story really kicks in, allowing Emily Browning to definitively break from all of her previous roles in one fell swoop and give TV audiences the opportunity to understand a character that appears far more elusive in Neil Gaiman's original narrative.
Indeed, Laura well and truly morphs into her re-animated corpse self in "Git Gone," dragging her decomposing, fly-ridden, arm-less body through the suburbs she once called home. But, what did it take to transform the perfect, idealized Laura of the previous episodes into the festering, greying zombie with pressing needs to unleash litres of embalming fluid from her rotting bowels? Thankfully, the creative team behind the show — and Emily Browning herself — are more than happy to share what it's really like to portray the undead and make it look so damn realistic in the process.
'How Do You Respond When You Don't Have To Breathe Anymore?'
Speaking to the LA Times about the actual physicality of portraying someone dead — a role that she never really envisioned herself playing back when she was an amateur actress starting out in Melbourne, Australia — Emily revealed that she first deliberated over the process with the show's creators at great length:
"Michael Green and I were discussing, 'How does Laura operate considering the fact that she is dead?' We were trying to keep her as human as possible. How do you respond when you don't have to breathe anymore? We decided that Laura physically acts in exactly the same way that she would have when she was alive, but she doesn't have the necessities that she did before. She breathes in an emotional way. She will sigh and she will gasp but there's no need for her to be out of breath ever."
And naturally, another thing that the actress had to reckon with was Laura's flailing concept of time — because of course, when you're dead, that ain't no thing. Taking this on-board, Browning admitted that it was her decision to remain perfectly still while waiting for Shadow in his hostel room. On playing a patient zombie, she said:
"When she's waiting for Shadow in the hotel room, there's an effect that we did where the sun comes up and goes down again and we're supposed to believe that she's been waiting in the room for almost an entire 24 hours. I liked the idea of her just sitting completely still on the bed for that whole time because when mortality is not hanging over you time is meaningless. That was a fun thing to play around with too."
Arm Performers, Visual Effects & Prosthetics
As for the creative team, while it was great fun bringing a decaying corpse to life visually, creating an armless character was also no easy walk in the park. Until Laura gets her arm sewn back on in the Episode 4, she carries it around with her — and although VFX supervisor Jeremy Ball had to get Browning's own limb digitally removed to achieve this, the actress also played her part. He said:
"Emily was really great and she was very conscientious of her arm. She had a thing where she liked to tie it behind her back in a way, to sort of ball it up in a fist and fold it behind her back, because for her that just helped her feel a little bit different and feel a little bit crippled."
In addition to his, Emily wore a blue screen sleeve that allowed the behind-the-scenes crew to isolate her arm, remove it and then freely rebuild parts of it — like her stump, for example. In the meantime, the detached arm was a mere prosthetic made to look believable.
Ball also shared what it was like to film the segment showing Laura stitching up her own arm as if it was a mere rip in a trouser crotch area (we've all been there!) — he said:
"We had an additional arm performer, who we could use to just shoot the arm that [sat] on the table. Then there are composites done in the computer where we're combining a real hand with a prosthetic."
'You Opened The Door With An Arm That Doesn't Exist'
Still though, even with the weight of the entire design team behind her, Emily couldn't quite get over how creepy the entire process was. In an interview with the LA Times, she recalled how bizarre it felt to be lugging around an exact replica of her own arm, one that weighed the same and had all the joints at the wrist and the elbow. She said:
"It bent in really funny ways. When they first gave it to me, it was very creepy. I wanted to take it home. I wasn't allowed to."
Browning then went on to relay the following anecdote from shooting the scenes featuring Laura and Audrey, who screams like a banshee as her armless, dead best friend hobbles into her house. She said:
"In the bathroom scene with Laura and Audrey, when we did the first wide shot, we both felt really good about it. We talked to the director and he said, 'Yeah, that was really good except you opened the door with the arm that doesn't exist anymore so we're going to have to do it again.'"
Yup, it ain't easy playing dead.
Check out the promo for American Gods Episode 5 in the clip below:
What did you think about Episode 4?