How Playing Bilquis In 'American Gods' Helped Yetide Badaki Cope With Her Own Immigrant Guilt
Yetide Badaki knows how you feel about American Gods. Self-described as "the biggest geek you'll ever meet," the actor read the novel when it was published in 2001, and was struck especially by the "Coming To America" chapters, the stylized immigration interludes that show the arrival of foreign gods on American soil. Now, as she plays the powerful love goddess Bilquis in the Starz series American Gods, the long-awaited TV adaptation of one of her favorite books, she's responding to the epic in an even deeper way. Badaki was born in Nigeria — where the militant Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram is on a violent mission to overthrow the government — and became a United States citizen just a few years ago. And as she tells me over the phone, American Gods has helped her process the guilt associated with making a new home in a new country.
"When you wake up and get to hang on this beautiful set and then you hear that news story of something horrific happening back in your roots," Badaki says, her voice solemn. "There’s a little bit of guilt there, and I think that came through in the scene where [Bilquis] sees her temple destroyed." The actor adds that she felt Bilquis’ sorrow and shame on “a molecular level."
The people around the character in that flashback are ignorant of her plight. Neither they, nor the men and women she meets on Tinder in the modern-day sequences, know that the sexually-forward woman they're rendezvousing with is actually the Biblical Queen of Sheba — at least not until Bilquis' most powerful body part swallows them and their worship whole. She bears the loneliness of a god living among mortals, but that's compounded by the stranger-in-a-strange land loneliness of living far from her home.
"It resonated deeply," Badaki tells me, about meeting this character when she first read the novel. "Deeply. And for me, this is why representation is so important. Because I remember even at that time, trying to find my place. Where did I fit in this whole new world?”
Over 15 years after she initially discovered these stories, the Starz series has become an integral part of the actor’s immigrant experience. At the show’s first San Diego Comic Con panel in 2016, for instance, Badaki was celebrating the anniversary of securing her US citizenship. It would certainly be understandable if her feelings on the nation had soured a bit on the subject over the past several months, but the actor assures me that, if anything, the xenophobic attitudes some Americans have been proud to show off lately have only made her feel “even more protective of this wonderful country.”
“I was one of the people that, as soon as the [travel] ban was announced, I got in the car and went to the airport,” she says. “And what was beautiful — now I’m getting all emotional — it was beautiful to see all these people there that, at least on the surface, look like they wouldn’t be affected. And to see them reaching out to people saying, ‘We love you, we want you. This is who we are.’ That made me proud to be an American. To now be a citizen.”
Though the actor is finding new strength and pride as she encounters negativity, Bilquis goes down a different path. The low point of her character on American Gods' arrives in that gutting finale flashback, and leads to her accepting Technical Boy’s proffered phone, thereby becoming enmeshed with the “new gods" and falling on the opposite side of the line Mr. Wednesday has drawn. Her guilt and sadness weaken her; she becomes eager to try impersonal methods that make it easier to find lovers on the fly and regain her power. (When I ask Badaki if she thinks that scene is an indictment of hook-up culture and dating apps, she says, “I’m going to answer that with a question: have you been online dating lately? It is rough.” I have, and yes, it is.)
Though Bilquis’ arc may not seem to pause on an empowering note in the Season 1 finale, Badaki was able to address some of her own regretful feelings about observing violence in Nigeria from her place of comfort through playing her. “Sometimes the most powerful thing is when someone says, ‘me too,’” she says. “Sometimes just knowing that somebody else understands what you’re going through is everything. It’s what you didn’t even know you needed. And that’s why, to me, again it comes back to the importance of representation in all the different levels, in all the different ways.”
By presenting a range of cultures and experiences, American Gods is showing other series how representation is done. And the specificity and sensitivity of its stories is speaking directly to immigrants — just ask Yetide Badaki.