Two networks. A writers’ strike. COVID-19. Now, ‘Supernatural’ faces one last twist
“Supernatural” has enjoyed 15 years of masked and made-up characters roaming the set, but in the final weeks of production, a different type of mask was on the minds of cast and crew.
“It was weird not seeing the faces that you’ve been looking at for 15 years, because they’re covered with a mask,” says Jensen Ackles, who plays Dean Winchester — a nomadic hunter of demons and other supernatural beings — on the show.
“It was unique, but I feel like ‘Supernatural’ has been through a lot. Writers’ strikes and network changes and characters dying and characters coming back and families and births and deaths,” says Jared Padalecki, who plays Dean’s younger brother and fellow hunter, Sam. “‘Supernatural’ is used to change, so let’s embrace it.”
One last change looms: “Supernatural‘s” final seven-episode run begins Thursday on the CW. When the show began, the CW was still the WB Network, and after the series airs its finale the completed 327 episodes will make “Supernatural” the longest-running sci-fi/genre show in the history of American prime-time broadcast television. (There’s still a certain doctor to contend with in the U.K.)
We caught up with Padalecki and Ackles via video conference as the duo prepares to say farewell to their career-defining roles. The interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.
How are you both doing during the pandemic?
Padalecki: It was a pretty big change. Going from the show where you’re around a hundred-something people every day and you’re seeing thousands of people on the weekends with conventions and things — I’d just done a marathon — and then it’s like, “Hey. It’s you and your wife and your kids and you’re at your house. And you can’t leave. And you’re not filming. And you’re not waking up and getting your hair cut and stuff like that.”
Ackles: It was weird, the fact that the show got put on pause. I came home. Spent the most time I’d ever spent uninterrupted with my wife and kids. And then they call us back to work and I immediately have to go quarantine for two weeks and then have to go film for four weeks — so six weeks go by, which is the longest time I’ve ever spent away from them. Living our quarantine Zoom life.
What were your emotions going into filming this last season, given the times we’re in?
Padalecki: A lot of the unknown. I felt like, we have been going in to shoot a TV show for 15 years in “normal times,” and now it’s like “Hey, we have some regulations.” There are lanyards that have different colors and only certain people can be around certain people so we can contact trace if, God forbid, somebody contracts COVID[-19]. There’s a taped-off entrance and a taped-off exit so we can keep it one-way. All of the food is individually wrapped and there’s no browsing at craft services.
Between action and cut, it was business as usual. You’re with your director and your cameramen and women and your cinematographer and with your fellow actors and actresses. And you’re like “Got it. This is comfortable. This is like a warm blanket.”
Ackles: The good news for our industry is that you’re capable to be still working and utilizing these protocols to stay inside and stay healthy. I know that Jared and I, we take our cues from the reactions that we get from our crew members, which is essentially our audience. Our audience is the two-dozen people that are onstage with us. The guy holding the mike, the guy behind the camera, the one pulling the focus. We know that if we can make them laugh or make them cry or get some kind of emotion out of them, we’re doing something. And that got taken away. So that was interesting. We just have to rely on our instincts and on each other to tell each other, “You hit it, you nailed it, you got it.”
I miss shaking hands. I know that sounds weird. I just miss giving someone a bro hug. I know that sounds trivial, but that contact is an important part of what we do on a daily basis in terms of the tone that we set on our set.
The show’s research on mythologies is impressive. Was there anything you learned over the years that you’ll take with you?
Padalecki: Cold spots, flickering light bulbs, and if that happens, salt circles. I think Jensen and I are like, if a spirit or unwanted visitor decides to come visit, we can just wake up and go, “Bitch, I’m Sam Winchester.”
Ackles: You picked the wrong house!
Padalecki: It’s like breaking into a Navy SEAL’s house or something. We’re the Navy SEALs of ghost hunting.
Ackles: I would hate to see what would happen if he and I had worked on a medical procedural. We’d be like, “You got a heart problem? Don’t worry. Lay down. I got this!”
Was either of you particularly religious going into the show, and how has that been affected by the show?
Padalecki: I was not a religious person as far as organized religion goes. I’m a very spiritual person. I believe a lot of what religion teaches — you know, be kind to others, honor your elders, work hard, be grateful, sacrifice, remain disciplined and dedicated. I tell this story. I remember meeting an actor one time who was giving me lessons when I was in high school. He said, “Hey, if you’re eating an apple in a scene, you’re not saying Jared loves apples. You’re telling this person’s story.” On “Supernatural,” even though we’re one of the only shows in history to have God and Lucifer and angels and demons as a regular part of the show, it never really seemed like a religious show. We weren’t trying to proselytize and say “Hey, go to church” or “Hey, don’t go to church.” It was just, here’s a fictional story about these two guys trying to make the world a better place.
Ackles: My grandmother, who’s not with us anymore, she was the religious head of our family for the longest time and thought she had a white courtesy phone next to her that went straight up to the man upstairs. When she would watch the show, she would call me and give me her take on it and I often had to remind her that this was a fictional story. We’re not trying to tell the story from the Good Book, we’re telling a story that is loosely based on a variety of items. Loosely based in witchcraft and loosely based in folklore and loosely based on the Bible. Let’s take it all and put it in a big stew pot.
Why do Sam and Dean keep so many secrets from each other? Have you learned any standout secrets about each other as people over the years?
Padalecki: In general, I think when people keep secrets, they think they’re doing the other person a favor. I think it’s almost altruistic to keep secrets here and there. I think Sam and Dean, for the most part, kept secrets to protect each other, not to hurt each other.
Ackles: If Dean is struggling with something, he doesn’t want to tell Sam because he doesn’t want Sam to have to struggle with it either. He’d rather struggle with it by himself and not burden his brother with whatever it is he’s burdened with, and I think there was a lot of that that played throughout the show. I believe this plays out in society as well. I mean, I don’t want to burden other people with my s—. As far as things he and I personally know about each other: There’s a ton I know about him that people don’t know. But there’s a reason why we’re good friends and it’s because I’m able to keep those secrets.
Padalecki: It’s altruism. I don’t need to tell people that Jensen cried at “Finding Nemo.” I just don’t need to tell them that.
Was there a show that you liked growing up that informed what you do now, or that you went back to during “Supernatural’s” run for inspiration?
Padalecki: My dad and I liked “Twilight Zone.” And the original “Star Trek.” William Shatner [as] Captain Kirk, Leonard Nimoy [as] Spock. And I watched a lot of animated shows growing up like “The Simpsons” and they were kids’ shows because they were animated but they also had a lot of adult humor. Like “Animaniacs.” I think “Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek” are the main ones that have informed what I’ve been doing for the last 15 ½ years in terms of treating the fantastical as reality, which is what both those shows did.
Ackles: I didn’t watch a whole lot of TV growing up. I would say that a lot of what you’ve seen me do on “Supernatural” was more inspired from film characters that I’ve watched, like Indiana Jones. In my opinion, as long as you keep Dean Dean, you can put him in any world you want. I can stay true to this character no matter what canvas you paint him on. I love characters like that. You can see Dean sitting at the end of the bar with Norm in “Cheers.” But you can also see Dean in “Star Trek.”
You guys beat out Harry Potter as the top fandom in pop culture back in 2016. How has your understanding of fandom changed by being on a show as popular as “Supernatural?”
Padalecki: No way! I had absolutely no idea. To be mentioned in the same sentence is really a testament to just how talented our writers and crew are, and just how wonderfully and passionately supportive our fandom is. Behind the scenes, we refer to “our fandom” as “The #SPNFamily,” as they have become a family of their own. They’ve spent countless hours spreading the word about the show and showering us with the love and support that we certainly needed and felt during rough times. Being on the opposite side of that, I’ve realized just how much good people can accomplish together. A lot of them have made best friends, visited various cities, and raised an incredible amount of money and goodwill for assorted charities. It’s been an honor to be a part of it.
Ackles: We beat out Harry Potter? That’s crazy! I think that the Harry Potter fans were probably just looking for a more mature show and that was us. I will say that the fandom that this show found, or that found this show, really have become an integral part of the success of this show. They are part of the fabric of what has kept this show alive and running as hard and as fast for 15 years that it has. They are also well-connected, which is really rare for a show that started 15 years ago. It’s probably more customary now for fans to get online and have chat rooms. “Supernatural” started before the iPhone was around. We were still shooting on 35mm film.
It seemed that, during many previous seasons, the show could’ve ended. Now that it has, was your walk into the sunset what you imagined?
Padalecki: Let’s just say, our last scene — we don’t know if they’re alive or dead, but the last scene that I filmed as Sam Winchester, both as Sam and as Jared, I could not be more happy.
For the first several seasons, and that’s the nature of TV, it’s written to where it could end or it could stay around because you don’t really know for a couple of months whether you’re going back to work or not. I would say that probably when Mark Pedowitz came into the network and said he believed in the show, that’s when I was like, “OK. Let’s make the show that we only can do with the support of the head of our network.”
Ackles: I feel like this was the version that needed to happen — that needed to exist. There could’ve been other ways of maybe getting to there, but I think the finality of this is right. I also think that this could’ve been done a long time ago. To be fair, Eric Kripke, who started the show and created the world, said he had five years and he stuck to it. That could’ve very easily been the whole run of the show. The fact that he left that door open and we were able to go through it and find another 10 years of story was just a testament to what a great world he built and what great characters he created.
What kept you around for 15 years?
Ackles: There’s an old adage in Hollywood, ‘You want to see an actor complain, give him a job.’ Well, that wasn’t going to happen with me. The last thing I wanted to do was sabotage a good gig just to go back and find another one. I was super stoked right off of the bat with the story and this character. It’s the kind of character I always loved seeing in movies. The character was modeled after Han Solo and another one of Harrison’s [Ford] characters, Indiana Jones. He had some of that flavor in there. Kind of a John McClane. ...
When it comes down to it, why did I stick around all these years? Because I truly loved it.
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